This is a very difficult moment for the over 400,000 members of the Nigerian Police. Twenty-two of them were killed and 205 police stations burned nationwide during the riots that rocked the nation between October 11 when the EndSAR riots escalated nationwide and October 27, 2020. A video of a policeman chased by mobsters, beaten and set alight keeps gnawing at my soul. With a loaded gun, he refused to fire at his chasers in self-defence; instead he shot repeatedly into the air to scare them as he ran. But the hoodlums showed no mercy, as they soon caught up with him and burned him alive. It’s been the most the galling video I have ever seen.
In Uyo, AkwaIbom State, the marauders were in various groups. While others were burning and looting business premises, a deranged set surged towards the state secretariat of APC along IkotEkpene Road early in the evening of Thursday, 22 October. They fired shots into the three-storey building, broke down the gates, and the iron barriers at the door; and ransacked and vandalized the whole place. They even tried to burn down the complex. The two policemen on duty ran upstairs and jumped from the second floor into the bush behind to escape. ‘’We had to run upstairs to retrieve our rifles’’, they told this writer, as I inspected the ruins with some party leaders.
All across the nation, our policemen were being hunted, assaulted and lynched, 248 businesses and 71 public warehouses destroyed and looted. It was a total anarchy and breakdown of law and order. I sympathize with the Inspector General of Police and indeed with other Nigerians who were directly affected for this senseless loss. The resort to violence, destruction and killings is condemnable. However, it is gratifying that even in the midst of the anarchy when nobody seemed in charge, the military did not step in to seize power as it happened in another West African country recently.
Surely, our democracy has matured. Nonetheless, it is no longer a surprise why the service chiefs have not been, and will not be changed. In August 1985 Buhari was just 20 months in office as our fifth military leader when his Chief of Army Staff (Major General Ibrahim Babangida) plotted a palace coup and removed him from office. Buhari was to spend the next 30 months in house arrest. Thirty years later, and seared with such a bitter experience, President Buhari has taken no chances in selecting and keeping his top military brass. He’s come to trust them, and changing them is not an option.
In the aftermath of the riots, morale has sagged considerably in the police force and I understand that many policemen are reluctant to report for work. I condemn in totality the attacks on the police stations and the killing of our policemen. Despite their shortcomings and weaknesses, the police defend us day and night against armed robbers, kidnappers and other criminals. They work under the most difficult conditions to secure our neighbourhoods and communities. They are our first responders in times of distress. I salute them for their sacrifice and service in spite of all their limitations. With all their systemic problems, chief among which are brutality which actually set off the nationwide protests in October, poor training, miserable remuneration and endemic corruption, the police is not irredeemable.
First, we must accept that our police reflect the very character of the Nigerian society. Fixing the police therefore requires a total overhaul and retraining of the system, especially the rank and file, as a long term measure. But in the short term, we must boost the morale of our policemen and women, and get them to return to their beats right away. The police authorities should avail the traumatized members of the force the services of counsellors, psychiatrists and medical professionals. To help elevate their fallen spirits, the IG can work with the media, celebrities and other influencers to motivate them back to work.
State governors can also help a great deal by visiting the police headquarters in their capitals and offering succour in words and in kind. Families of the fallen must be helped in various ways, including scholarships for their kids. Burned stations must be repaired or replaced with the help of assistance from the state governments. Life insurance covers, especially to the junior officers, should be part of the welfare package. I thank Govs Godwin Obaseki and Babajide Sanwo-Olu who have acted commendably in these regards.
A nation without an effective policing system and law enforcement cannot develop. Such a place would be the world’s capital of anarchy. There are good cops and bad cops in every nation, just as there are good and bad teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, politicians, etc. So, I ask Nigerians to forgive the police their shortcomings, and give them a second chance as the authorities engage in the hard work of designing and executing a comprehensive makeover of the service. The IG and his management team should keep in mind that it was a peaceful protest against rampant police brutality that set off one of the worst national crises in our history. If a new police could emerge from the ashes and debris of these protests, those 22 would not have died in vain.