Police Brutality in Nigeria: A Holistic Approach Towards Lasting Solutions
In recent days, Nigerian citizens, especially the youth have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality in Nigeria. Although the beam light of the protest is on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force, the bigger and ultimate goal of the protest is a complete overhaul and reform of the police system in Nigeria.
In response to the protest, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) dissolved the SARS unit and set up a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to replace the SARS. The dissolution of SARS was also accompanied by pronouncements by the Nigerian President and Police hierarchy on extensive reforms within the Nigerian Police system.
Despite the dissolution of SARS and promises of reforms, the protesters have continued to occupy the streets of Nigeria and the demonstrations have continued to gather momentum across different states in Nigeria and at the High Commissions and Consulates of Nigeria in different countries.
This article engages with the current issue of police brutality in Nigeria, and the possible route that the country should follow in the reform of the Nigerian police system in order to reduce incidents of police brutality and ensure a harmonious relationship between police and citizens in Nigeria.
Police brutality in Nigeria within the context of agitations for reforms:
Police brutality is a general term that encapsulates different types of human rights violations by police in the course of their duty. The manifestation of police brutality occurs in different forms such as unlawful killing, torture, discrimination, and unlawful use of force.
In a rather bizarre twist of circumstances, the current demonstrations against police brutality in Nigeria have been met with brazen police brutality by the police. Since the demonstrations began, no fewer than 10 protesters have been killed with numerous reports of arrests, assault and torture by the Police.
The general human rights implication of police brutality in Nigeria includes the violation of the right to life contrary to section 33 of the Nigerian Constitution and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); violation of the right to dignity of persons contrary to section 34 of the Constitution; violation of the right to liberty and security of persons contrary to section 35 of the Constitution and Article 9 of the ICCPR.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly provided for under section 40 of the Constitution and Article 21 of the ICCPR is at the forefront of police attack within the current protests. The purported general ban on protests that was declared by the Governor of Rivers State is an indication that this right is erroneously considered as a privilege for Nigerian citizens.
Beyond the direct violation of some of the above-stated rights arising from police brutality, the profiling of young people as criminals because of their appearance and personal preferences are also a form of discrimination. This is contrary to the provision of section 42 of the Nigerian constitution and article 26 of the ICCPR that guarantees the right to freedom from any form of discrimination.
Additionally, in a country where an average youth is worried about police brutality and has to tread carefully, there is (un)conscious fear of movement and to this extent, the right to freedom of movement guaranteed under section 41 of the Nigerian Constitution is meaningless for such individuals. This is in addition to unlawful arrests and incarceration that are perpetrated by the police.
The need for comprehensive reforms
The dissolution of SARS followed by an immediate replacement of the disbanded unit with SWAT is at the very least a poor response by the police hierarchy to the demands for an end to police brutality.
This action only shows that the police hierarchy does not understand the underlying issues that currently form the bedrock of the demands for police reforms. In a way, the creation of SWAT demonstrates the continued intent of the Nigerian Police to continue to militarise the average Nigerian citizens.
The replacement of a disbanded militarised unit with another seemingly more militarised unit is a misplaced priority by the Nigerian police, to say the least—this should be the least of the worries of the police hierarchy at the moment. The immediate concerns of the police should be the realisation of short-term and quick-fix solutions to the current brouhaha, followed by a long term reform of the Nigerian Police System.
Some of the immediate steps that the Federal government and the police hierarchy should adopt include a direct order from the President and the IGP that the police should stop assaulting the protesters, thereby allowing them to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly as guaranteed under section 40 of the Nigerian constitution, the investigation and prosecution of law enforcement officers that are involved in the numerous incidents of police brutality during the ongoing protests and compensation of victims of police brutality.
It is ironic that even after the dissolution of SARS, police brutality in the form of harassing, assaulting and killing protesters have continued to dominate the streets of Nigeria. This clearly sends a signal that nothing has changed and the government is not taking the citizens seriously.
Beyond the immediate measures listed above, the government must demonstrate the political will to implement the following reforms:
- Institutional Reforms
- Proper screening & Psychological evaluation of law enforcement officials
Law enforcement officials should be selected by adequate screening procedures, with necessary psychological evaluation for the effective exercise of their functions and duties, and should also receive a continuous and periodic evaluation to ensure their fitness for work. This is in line with principle 18 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
- Periodic Training for Law Enforcement Officials
Law enforcement officials should be exposed to human rights training during their recruitment process and thorough professional training throughout their career. In compliance with Principle 19 on the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, law enforcement officials who are authorised to carry firearms should be authorised to do so only upon completion of special training in their use. They should also be specially trained on alternatives to the use of force and firearms such as the peaceful settlement of the conflict, understanding of crowd behaviour and other methods of persuasion, negotiation and mediation.
- Improved welfare package for the Police
The working conditions and status of law enforcement officials must be in tandem with the vital role that they perform for society. The present welfare package of the average law enforcement official in Nigeria is not in any way close to the reality of the vital role that they perform in society. An average law enforcement official in Nigeria is akin to an angry and frustrated and individual with a gun, who is predicated to discharge their frustration on innocent and powerless citizens, especially when such a citizen is perceived to be living under better and more favourable conditions.
- Symbolic change in semantics
The use of the word ‘force’ in the title, ‘the Nigerian Police Force’ is arguably a signal of violence that unconsciously sends a message of oppression within the Nigerian Police system. The United Nations Basic Principle on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law enforcement officials recognised the work of law enforcement officials as a ‘social service.’ The Nigerian Police is supposed to serve and not oppress and force its wishes on the citizens. To this effect, it is apposite to rebrand the name of the Nigerian Police currently from the ‘Nigerian Police Force’ to the ‘Nigeria Police Service.’ This step will no doubt bring Nigeria one step closer with acceptable international standards of policing.
- Legislative Reforms
- Amendment of sections 14 & 15 of the Nigerian Evidence Act
There is a need to amend section 14 & 15 of the 2011 Evidence Act to specifically exclude the admissibility of evidence obtained through torture in criminal proceedings. The vague wordings reflect the common law position where the court is primarily concerned with the relevance of the evidence as opposed to the circumstances of obtaining the evidence. It can also be argued that the provisions of section 14 & 15 of the evidence act are unconstitutional because of the absolute prohibition and unqualified nature of the right to freedom from torture, inhuman or other degrading treatment.
- Public Awareness & Civic Citizenship Education
The 2020 Nigeria Police Force Act is a vast improvement on its predecessor. The new Act largely addressed the unfettered stop and search power of the police that usually forms the bedrock for most cases of police brutality in Nigeria. Section 50 of the new Act to a large extent clarified the vague and seemingly unrestrictive powers conferred on a police officer to carry out a search.
The section mandates a police officer to ask questions about the behaviour or circumstances of the person to be searched, leading to the need for a search. It further prohibits the conduct of a search where the person to be searched has provided a satisfactory explanation.
In the event that the police officer deemed a search to be necessary, he shall provide the person to be searched with his name and the name of the police station that he is attached to, the object of the search and the ground or authorisation for the search. For a police officer to exercise the power of stop and search, he shall wear a valid police identity card or be in police uniform.
The import of section 50 of the Act is that an aggrieved person who feels the police has unreasonably exercised the power of stop and search can easily institute proceedings against such police officers, with an improved accountability mechanism, the tendency of the police to exercise the power of stop and search in draconian fashion will largely reduce. In addition to the above section there are other sections of the new Act that can potentially reduce incidents of police brutality.
However, in order to achieve the desired objective of the Act, there is the need to enlighten the average citizens about the provisions of the new act, particularly with respect to Part VII of the Act on the powers and limitations to the powers of the police. There is also the need to enlighten the average citizens about their fundamental human rights as contained in chapter IV of the Nigerian Constitution, particularly on the rights that are directly connected to police brutality.
The Nigerian Police has constantly capitalised on the lack of understanding of human rights, and the powers of police officers in the exercise of their duties. The education of the general population about police brutality and civic rights should be conducted by both the government and civil society actors.
- Improved Judicial Culture towards police brutality
The Nigerian Judiciary should also show an improved attitude in cases and allegations of police brutality by citizens. There is the need for the Nigerian court to ensure that the overarching objectives of the 2009 Rules, which is a speedy dispensation of justice for victims of human rights violation, particularly police brutality are achieved in reality.
The Nigerian Courts have been reluctant in awarding punitive damages against Nigerian Police in cases of confirmed violation of human rights and have also been generally slow in the dispensation of justice. A speedy resolution of cases of police brutality in reality, and adequate compensation for victims of police brutality is required to substantially reduce incidents of police brutality in Nigeria.
Author: Foluso Adegalu
Centre for Human Rights
University of Pretoria