By Chido Onumah*
The media buzz last week was President Jonathan’s “unscheduled” visit to the Police College Ikeja (PCI), Lagos. As a public relations stunt, it was a huge success. But beyond the razzmatazz, TV cameras and punditry lies the need for a deep national reflection on not just the collapse of infrastructure and institutions across the country, but also the absence of a reformative national ethos.
Unfortunately, this collapse and lack of a reformative national ethos finds expression even outside Nigeria. While the debate on President Jonathan’s visit to the PCI was still on, I spoke with a friend at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, U.S.A, who is organizing a colloquium on war crimes and genocide. He told me he went to the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC, to inform embassy officials about his event and was dispirited at the sight of the tattered Nigerian flag at the embassy flying at half-mast. To think we have an ambassador who goes into the embassy every morning and leaves at the close of work. To any curious foreigner, there couldn’t be a better glimpse of how dysfunctional the motherland is.
How much does a flag cost? How much pride and faith do we have in our nation and its institutions that would enable us protect and defend them even if means replacing something as “minor” as a flag? In response to the question on the cost of a flag, Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections, offered this profound contribution: “The cost of that flag is the determination to serve. Can someone tell me the Naira/Dollar equivalent of the determination to serve? If this cost can be quantified, perhaps our people will come together, contribute through “esusu” and buy this determination for our so called leaders”.
The truth is that you really can’t quantify the cost of the determination to service. And that is why nothing works in Nigeria because our so-called leaders only think in naira and dollar – more in dollar, pound and euro, really. The decay of the PCI is emblematic of the rot in the Nigeria Police which itself is a result of the insidious corruption and abuse of office that is not only pervasive in the country but has become a national pastime. Nigeria is a country in decay and it is evident everywhere you turn to: ministries, departments, agencies, airports, hospitals, primary and secondary schools, universities, etc. There are schools around the country where pupils learn while sitting on the floor under trees. There are universities where our future leaders live like “poultry fowls” to borrow the president’s expression.
This pathetic state of infrastructure exists because our rulers have options and we the people “do not give a damn”. There are the British and American International Schools in Nigeria or their counterparts in London, Paris, and Dubai, so why would the president or governors be interested in fixing dilapidated schools in the country? The president, governors, and top government functionaries have not been barred from seeking medical services in India, Germany and London so it would be inane to expect them to be concerned about the state of our hospitals.
As long as we are not piqued by the way we live, nothing will change. I remember as an undergraduate at the University of Calabar in the late 80s, we had to embark on numerous demonstrations because the authorities refused to cut the bushes around our hostels which were breeding ground for snakes even though the school had a budget for keeping the hostels clean and safe.
Unfortunately, it has become the norm for us to live like hogs as long as our bank accounts keep swelling every other day. Rather than express concern and seek to hold our rulers to account, we would rather “work hard” to buy a Lexus or Hummer jeep that would shield us from the impact of the bad road in our neigbhourhood. It is this lack of national outrage at the way we live that explains why the commandant of the PCI, Commissioner of Police Irimiya Yerima, unashamedly told President Jonathan that his school was far better than the one in Kaduna.
I can attest to Commissioner Yerima’s forthrightness. I am familiar with the PCI. About three years ago, I had the misfortune of visiting the Police College, Kaduna, as part a research on corruption in Nigeria. What passed as a library at the college was a block with a couple of rooms with graying files in disheveled file holders and old, dusty pictures of former commandants of the college. The situation in these two institutions which rank tops in the training of policemen provide a window into why the Nigeria Police is an ineffective, unprofessional, trigger-happy force.
Policemen in Nigeria are not conditioned to serve even if they are inclined to. From the recruitment which is sold in the open market, to the training and conditions of service, what we see is a process that mistreats and dehumanizes the policeman to make him a ready tool in the hands of the powerful and a danger to himself and society at large. It is no surprise that a senior police officer once told me matter-of-factly, “The police can’t be your friend”.
This neglect explains why we have a force we all love to hate. Every Nigerian has his or her “police story”. I have mine too. I once went a police station in the capital city, Abuja, to report a minor incident bordering on extortion. After a few minutes of prayer for protection for me and my family, the desk officer asked me to see another officer who took my statement and demanded N1,000 ($6) to enable him file my complaint properly. When I asked why he wanted N1,000 ($6) for a paper file that would cost N100 (¢60) by the roadside, he told me that was the standard price. I told him it was unfair “charging” me the equivalent of 10 percent of the minimum wage for a file. He reminded me that the minimum wage had been increased.
But this shouldn’t be the story of the Nigeria Police. Its duty is to serve not to service itself. This story, of course, is by no means peculiar to the Nigeria Police. It is the same with the military, customs, immigration, prison, university lecturers, civil servants, legislators and judges. The list is endless. It appears the police is a greater menace because we come in contact with police officers everyday and everywhere we turn.
Clearly, the depressing condition of the PCI is not likely to improve anytime soon considering the official position on the issue. The president was quoted as saying the documentary by Channels TV which exposed the living condition at the PCI was a calculated attempt to damage the image of his government. In a remarkable show of indifference, the president reminded us that “The Police College, Ikeja, is not the only training institution in Nigeria”. Then came the opportunistic response of Usman Kumo, Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Police Affairs, whose committee is supposed to provide oversight for the PCI, who described the president’s visit as “meaningless”, adding “Who does not know that all police colleges in Nigeria are in a dilapidated state and uninhabitable?”
Beyond the outrage, the president, if he is serious about transforming the Nigeria Police, needs to query the Inspector General of Police and the Minister of Police Affairs. From Tafa Balogun, a former Inspector General of Police, we learnt that much of the money meant for the welfare of the police ends up in private accounts or is laundered through phony companies. After that, the president should sit down and look at the reports of various groups, including the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) that have done great work exposing the inhuman living and service conditions of policemen and women. Considering his very busy schedule, this would save the president many more trips to police installations across the country.
This is important because whether we like it or not, the state of the Nigeria Police Force would have a direct impact on the election of 2015.