Africa

African viewpoint: Can Nigeria's police force be trusted?

  • 8 August 2012
  • From the section Africa
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A Nigerian policeman holds a teargas launcher in Lagos on 1 June 2012

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Sola Odunfa in Lagos writes that he has little faith in Nigeria's police officers.

The Nigeria Police Force prides itself as one of Africa's best, backed by the flamboyant commendations heaped on it by international organisations after every external "peacekeeping operation" to which its officers are deployed.

And yet most Nigerians say that if what they experience of their police ranks them among the best on the continent then standards of policing in other African countries must be low indeed.

On average, I watch at least two Nigerian films a day and their portrayal of the Nigerian policeman will not draw cheers in any police barracks.

I am not talking here of constables and officers shown openly extorting money from motorists or ignoring distress calls from the public.

According to Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry is called, the standard police procedure of investigating crimes is to arrest anybody fingered by a complainant and then subject them to torture in detention cell until they "confess".

Innocent persons are shown to have been convicted on the basis of the confessions.

I used to boil with anger at such films and rail at the producers for their ignorance and unfair portrayal of the police. Not any more. I'll cite one or two eye-openers.

Seventeen years ago in 1995, a well-known businessman and political party financier, Chief Alfred Rewane, was killed in his bed in Lagos.

The crime elicited nationwide uproar and a challenge was thrown at the police. Public anger did not abate until the police announced the arrest of seven suspects.

'Charade'

The men were brought to court the following year. They were all employees of the deceased.

Even before much evidence was produced few people believed that the accused were indeed the killers.

The trial dragged on for several years without substantial progress.

In the next 10 years, five of the seven had died in prison and the remaining two were more like human skeletons.

Image caption President Goodluck Jonathan wants police to solve the murder of a top official

Last year, 16 years after their arrest, the two survivors were discharged by a court because of a lack of evidence against them.

A similar charade was played out after the murder of Nigeria's Justice Minister Bola Ige in 2001, although it took a much shorter time - shorter because the political backlash was threatening national stability and one of the accused persons arraigned was a top-notch politician.

In fact, the politician, Iyiola Omisore, contested and won elections for the Nigerian Senate while in custody. The case was, of course, thrown out because of a lack of evidence.

Prisons in Nigeria have been seriously overcrowded in the past few years. The reason is not that the inmates are convicts, but more than 60% of them are suspects still awaiting trial.

Image caption The police badge was once a source of honour

In many cases, the police files are lost and the poor suspects remain behind bars until the prison authorities mercifully call attention to their plight.

Now, another high-profile killing has taken place. Edo state governor Adams Oshiomhole's principal aide, Olaitan Oyerinde, was killed in his home three months ago.

President Goodluck Jonathan ordered the police to find the killers. The police announced last month that they had made arrests and solved the case.

Four suspects in their custody had confessed to the killing and pointed to a fifth. "Thank goodness," many people sighed.

Not so fast, said the State Security Service. They produced on national television six other persons who they said had confessed to the same crime.

The two services cannot both be right.

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