We all know that the police is not necessarily your friend. At least not in all cases. However, the Nigerian police still deserve some commendation in the many accomplishments that it has recorded over the years. Those achievements are partially contributory to the economic successes that we have also recorded. Perhaps apart from the sale of weapons of war, not many businesses survive when there are anarchy and lawlessness. Peace and orderliness are necessary conditions for entrepreneurship and prosperity. The police are at the very heart of the achievement of these conditions. There is also more comfort and a higher feeling of safety when police officers around an area are easily accessible in cases of the threats to law and order.

Nevertheless, the various and elevated levels of failure in achieving these expectations as well as the many cases of the abuse of office by the police that have created the mistrust that many Nigerians have for them. It is needless to rehash that the Nigerian people do not perceive the police in terrific lights and often do not accord them the kind of respect that police officers around the world earn. For instance, there are several widely publicised cases of police refusal to respond to emergent criminal attacks even when they are close to the crime scene. The police are also known to have performed cowardly in managing several cases involving Fulani herdsmen and farmers in many parts of eastern Nigeria and the middle belt. Similarly, the word “Nigerian police” appears to be synonymous with bribery and corruption as many people believe that with the police it is possible to outrightly purchase justice irrespective of being on the wrong side of the law.

The perceptions of the majority of Nigerians about the police is nothing but good. While it is true that so many police officers are great role models, a more significant number of those in the Nigerian police have over the years wrecked the image that the decent ones labour to create. There are four significant perceptions that Nigerians have concerning the police. The first is that nothing works with the Nigerian police except with bribe. In effect, therefore, bribes are the energisers that the Nigerian policemen consume in other to function correctly. The accuracy of this perception is not debatable. Everybody knows it. Virtually everybody has either experienced it or at least seen it in action. The Nigerian policemen have converted our roads to tolling points where they extort money from commuters. Any traffic offence or even criminality can be pardoned or overlooked with the trading of some naira notes. It is the same situation in reporting incidents of infractions at the police station. To the police, the enormity of reported cases determines the amount of bribe that is chargeable. That notwithstanding, even the reporter of the case may in some instances pay some bribe to the police to make them get interested in taking up and investigating the incident reported. In general, therefore, it may not be wrong to conclude that with bribes, most events taken up and investigated by the police receive the best attention.

Another popular public opinion about the Nigeria police is that they walk hand-in-hand with criminals and therefore should not be trusted. The trust element also resonates with the bribe-taking characteristic which implies that regardless of who is right or wrong in a case, a reasonable amount of monetary bribe can always sway justice in favour of the bribe giver. Stretching the argument further, and also based on the experiences of some people, the police shield the criminal from prosecution with the payment of the right monetary price. But apart from the detestable love of money by the police is the fact of their possession of weapons which have severally facilitated the direct involvement of some of the officers in crimes. Accordingly, the policeman who is not to be trusted uses the arms in his hands, robs and sits on his chair as an investigator and ensures that no further enquiries concerning the robbery take place. There are several pieces of evidence and widely reported cases of police officers who are directly involved and in other instances, strongly abetted armed theft and many other forms of criminalities. It is also a popularly held opinion that the police knows all criminals in their beats as well as have pre-information regarding their operations. Most of those who stick to this opinion make references to the delay or unwillingness of the police to respond to emergency calls and alerts to ward off criminals. In many instances police officers collecting tolls from motorists close to where some criminal operations are taking place decline to respond to invitations to deter the criminals.

The Nigerian police have also earned the badge of notoriety for its irresponsible acts and abuse of office. Otherwise, how else will you interpret the many cases of the police gunning down the civilians that they should protect? There are several sad stories of policemen killing motorists who failed to give them N20 bribe or were unable to comply with their extortionists’ plans. How else will you explain the behaviour of the police when they fail to comply with bail orders except when they receive the right kind of inducement to proceed. In 2005, I reported a case of one of my salesmen who diverted the proceeds from the sale of my goods to the police. The police promptly detained the accused salesman. A day after that, the DPO summoned me. When I arrived, the police DPO told me that my goods never had NAFDAC number and therefore that the case was that of “crime in a crime”. He now asked me to drop the case and go undetained on the grounds of self-recognition. I involved my lawyer who petitioned the police leadership who promptly reversed that intended perversion of justice.

It is a well-known fact that the Nigerian police have many highly educated officers. Nonetheless, the dominant image of the police is one filled up with dirty, illiterate, and poorly trained gun-wielding enforcers of the law. Many times police officers dress shabbily in dirty uniforms and sandals that are unbecoming of such a profession. The senior and properly educated officers are no doubt aware of this letdown of the police but they allow it. One barely recognises the name and number inscribed in the uniforms of many police officers because of the terrible handling of their uniforms. Apart from the kitting is the mannerisms of many of the officers. Many operate under the influence of alcohol and drugs and can act in ways that are very unbefitting and unprofessional. Some exhibit outright ignorance even of the laws and statutes that they supposedly enforce. Some adorn themselves with the garb of the overlords and would want those they encounter to bow down and worship them.

In colonial times, the police were undoubtedly the overlord and were feared by all. Their role was to extract obedience from the population in deference to the colonial masters. At that time the latter was the law. Similarly, at various times when the military held sway, the head of state represented the law and could change it without recourse to anybody. The duty of the police under the military was similar to what obtained during colonial times. But the world has moved on. The law which defines the basis for peace, justice and equity no longer reside with either the colonial masters or the military heads of state. It is vested in the structures of democratic governance. Unfortunately, Nigeria has had several decades of experience as a colony of Britain as well as under the rulership of the military. But the problem with the Nigerian police is that the culture and ethics of policing that obtained during the colonial times and the many years of the military rule appear to be so ingrained that it is particularly challenging to remove. The police officers of today are not very different from the officers during colonial times.

What is clear, therefore is that the primary reform expectation from the Nigerian police has to do with the shedding of the culture of policing under the military and colonial era. Police officers need to understand that the first loyalty is to the constitution and the state and not to anyone else. Achieving this will require massive re-orientation and education of the police. It will also require the implementation of well thought out radical culture change tactics. The police officer must appreciate his assignment and role in the society as one that is highly respected and which should not be mocked by shameful acts of bribery taking and the perversion of justice. As a significant stakeholder in justice dispensation, he must live above board and must understand the law and the constitution and give himself abreast with latest changes in rules, policies and legislations deployed for the governance of people. The changes in culture and orientation should also reflect in the way and manner that they carry themselves. A police officer should appreciate his responsibility and must dress appropriately in the police uniform as well as to conduct himself in a dignified manner as one.

Finally, we need the police. And very badly too. Unfortunately, in spite of the inadequacies of the Nigerian police, they are rarely enough. Every single politician wants at least one of them as a personal bodyguard to showcase their level of importance in society. Virtually all the high-profile businessmen equally appropriate some of them to themselves — many of these businessmen control as many as ten police officers in their train. The implication is that the rest of society are bereft of adequate police protection. Be that as it may what is most urgent today is to have a generation of police officers who are disciplined, correctly orientated to defer to the constitution and the people rather than political deities and their pockets.