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The policing conundrum

Last week, the Senate took on the familiar and contentious matter related the nation’s capacity to effectively police itself. It was a week when the evidence of the near-total collapse of the Nigeria Police as an institution was tragically visible. To be exact, the Senate was following through a pattern it had established recently, one that involves critical forays into the nation’s security infrastructure, made more noticeable by a series of unseemly skirmishes with the head of the police. In one week alone, policemen rioted over unpaid allowances in Maiduguri; a policeman shot dead a young lady passing out from National Service the following day and  gunmen killed seven policeman on security duty  in the nation’s capital; thousands of police personnel were being mobilized for election duties in Ekiti State; thousands more routinely trudged behind elected officials, rich people and prominent citizens to give them a sense of personal security; scores of Nigerians were murdered in many parts of the nation because police was not available to stop it.

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The federal legislature says it plans to propose a constitutional amendment to establish sub-federal, or State police. A constitutional amendment will require endorsement of two-thirds of state legislatures, and the assent of the president. The idea is as old as the clamor for review of the nature of the federal system. Actually, it is, along with more ambiguous issues such as fiscal federalism and devolution of responsibilities, the soul for the cases being made for restructuring the Nigerian state. The national assembly is following a thoroughly beaten track. The ill-fated constitutional conference organized by the previous administration was badly damaged by quarrels over state police, setting the arguments for and against pretty much in immutable terms. Until, that is, the emergence of disturbing evidence that the Nigeria (read: federal) police had lost the battle for its own turf on the security terrain. The federal legislature now hopes it can convince powerful interests and positions to shift grounds on an issue that should have benefitted from a lot less emotion.

Now the hope is that the shocking scale of the current exposure of Nigerians to violence with varied roots and dimensions will create some form of consensus around the establishment of state police. The case for it is that the federal police lacks the numbers and the professionalism to perform the most basic function of policing the nation. State police, suggested as an optional necessity, will supplement the federal police, strengthen the capacities of state governors to provide security to citizens, free the federal police to perform specialized or more challenging responsibilities, improve accountability of elected officials and police outfits, and give the federal structure real substance. Concerns over abuse or setting and maintaining standards can be met by arrangements that create powerful regulatory bodies outside the powers of states. The  case is made that Nigeria is the only federal system with a single, federal police. The icing for the argument for this side is that virtually all states currently  run outfits that ape the police with a worrying variety of failures that make the citizen more abused and less secure.

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Those who argue against state police say the policing problem can and should be resolved by making the federal police more effective. Against the argument that there were fairly effective regional police during the first republic, they argue that the old regions were infinitely better-managed than their puny and sorry successors, states. They worry that state police will be abused by state governors whose records of mismanaging resources and preventing public institutions from functioning with any autonomy or political neutrality is a registered failure of the current state of the nation’s federal structure. They are terrified by the prospects of thirty seven police outfits in a federation unable to guarantee that a citizen’s ethnic group, religion or political affiliation will not be a crime outside his narrow comfort zone. Although they do not say this explicitly, opponents of state police also see it as a vital element of the restructuring argument, or the version of the argument they must resist at all cost.

What is likely to determine the fate of the federal legislature’s initiative is not the quality or strength of the cases for it, but the passions and sentiments that will be generated in the context of a highly politicised environment. The national assembly is still lamenting the failure of its key amendment on devolution of powers to survive the assault by governors and state legislatures, their virtual appendages. President Buhari has already hinted that he does not support the idea of state police. In these days when everything he does will be about the 2019 elections, he will offend sections  of the country whether he agrees with, or opposes, the initiative of the national assembly. The battle lines drawn at the 2014 constitutional conference will be reactivated by politicians angling for votes. The nation will line up behind both sides of the divide, and fresh arguments informed by current realities will struggle to be heard as partisan interests exploit ethno-political barricades.

It is very unlikely that a potentially-useful initiative will succeed in a nation desperate for radical steps towards addressing its basic problems. The state police conundrum reminds the nation of the poverty in the quality of its leadership, and the price it is paying for the absence of elite consensus on basic issues regarding its form, security and even survival as a nation. In all likelihood, the nation will limp with its burden of unresolved issues well beyond the next elections. The stresses around the contests for elective offices themselves will weaken state institutions like the police. Virtually every presidential candidate and party will support some version of restructuring the nation if they win the elections.

It is quite possible that in the time it took you to read this material, some Nigerians would have lost their lives because the police has been unable to protect them. The nation needs bold, imaginative steps to improve security, fight corruption and fix the economy at this moment. It is unlikely to get them.


 Jamila Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja

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