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ANALYSIS: #EndSARS campaign - the trouble with quick-fix Nigeria police reforms

Nigerians on Twitter have been protesting the alleged extreme abuses and extra-judicial killings of the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police. Some also took to the streets.

Posts with the #EndSARS hashtag had reached over 4 million Twitter users with about 5.6 million impressions as at 14 December 2017, data from Keyhole, a real-time tracker for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, showed. Other popular hashtags on the topic include #EndSarsBrutality and #ENDSARSNOW.

They have shared videos, and pictures of their personal experiences at the hands of the controversial police unit, whose members are being accused of abuses such as extra-judicial killings, torture and extortion.

The campaign for a complete overhaul or the outright scrap of the police squad -  formed to tackle violent crimes like armed robbery and kidnapping - has attracted wide backing.

The United Nations has also weighed in, with a top official urging that the allegations be investigated immediately.

‘Sack all of country’s 350,000 police officers’

In response to the public outrage, Nigeria’s police chiefs disbanded the unit, promising to reconstitute it and investigate all allegations against it. But campaigners say this may not be enough.

Some have insisted that Nigeria sacks all its police officers, estimated at 350,000. This, they say would emulate the root-and-branch reforms carried out by the former Soviet republic of Georgia two decades ago.

The Georgian police purge

Following the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili was elected as Georgia president in 2004. He announced sweeping reforms of the country’s police following widespread public dissatisfaction.

The changes included scrapping the security ministry, which was styled in the image of Russia’s far-reaching KGB intelligence arm, its police unit and the sacking of thousands of police officers. The notorious traffic police unit was recreated from scratch.

Between 25,000 to 30,000 officers were dismissed, Saakashvili told the US-based National Public Radio in 2005. “You know, we urged them to be honest, you know, increased their pay. It didn't help. So, in the end, basically, 80 to 90% of all policemen were fired.”

But experts sound a note of caution to borrowing wholesale from Georgia’s often-lauded police reforms.

“One cautionary lesson has to do with the question of sustainability,” wrote Matthew Devlin, a former research specialist at Innovations for Successful Societies, a programme of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs.

“Issues such as training did not lend themselves to sweeping, immediate solutions. Checkered performance on such fronts has the potential, over the long run, to undermine the progress that has been made,” Devlin said in a review of Georgia's police reform between 2004 and 2006.

How bad is Nigeria’s police report card?

Brutality and bribery are among the litany of violations by Nigerian police documented in the 2017 World Internal Security and Police Index and a 2016 Amnesty International report.

Noting that “police and judicial system effectiveness is a serious issue in Nigeria”, the police index ranked the country’s police as the worst of 127 countries. (Note: This rating measures the ability of a country’s security agencies to respond to internal challenges.)

The police and the dreaded anti-robbery unit “[have] been systematically torturing detainees in its custody as a means of extracting confessions and lucrative bribes,” the Amnesty report said.

Nigeria's police officers were the highest bribe takers and the third most common government institution soliciting for bribes, only behind customs officers and immigration officials, a nationwide survey done by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2016 showed.

Urging independent investigations and fair trials for those implicated, Amnesty Nigeria director Osai Ojigho told Africa Check that the intensity of the public reaction showed Nigerians’ historical discontent with the police.

Can a ‘Georgia-style’ purge work for Nigeria?

Could mass sackings be the solution? Analysts Africa Check spoke to called for caution, saying a purge could potentially weaken the country’s fight against internal threats.

Nigeria has an estimated population of about 193 million people, making it Africa’s most populous country.

Internal challenges include the long-running Boko Haram insurgency, waves of kidnappings and cult-related violence, gruesome northern attacks by herdsmen, militancy in parts of the oil-rich southern region, and a secessionist movement in the south-east.

“I am not sure that sacking the entire police force would be feasible and realistic without further reducing [its] capability to respond to the many internal security challenges in the country,” said William Assanvo, the West Africa coordinator at the Institute for Security Studies in Abidjan.

The police were fingered in the 2009 extra-judicial killing of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf. Months later, the sect which would later be designated a terror organisation, began systematic attacks on the police in northeast Nigeria.

One fell swoop ‘would have grave consequences’

Assanvo added that while the fight against Boko Haram fight has been largely waged by the army, the police will have to be better trained and equipped if they are to effectively take over after the group is pacified.

Okechukwu Nwanguma is the national coordinator of the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, a grouping of 46 civil society organisations.

“I think it is important to begin to identify all officers within the Nigeria Police who are unfit to be in the police and gradually flush them out. I don’t think that one fell swoop disbandment will work,” he said. “It will have grave consequences on all of us.”

Political interference and the corruption plaguing police recruitment could also harm any reforms if they are not tackled, analysts said.

“We have to repeal Section 9 of the Police Act [which gives the president operational control of the police force]. We must guarantee the operational independence of the police,” Chris Ngwodo, a public speaker who also writes on security issues, told Africa Check.

“The political elite benefit from having a dysfunctional police force.”

‘Treating just the disease symptoms’

Lagos based security analyst Don Okereke said the police are a reflection of the Nigerian society, after all, with recruitment skewed in favour of well-connected candidates.

"A mass sack without fixing the remote and immediate causes of police extra-judicial killings, brutality and human right abuses, will be tantamount to treating the symptoms of a disease,” he said.

Whatever changes pledged off the back of this latest public protest against the police, they certainly won’t be the first. Successive governments have promised deep reforms, including the incumbent president.  

But there has been little change in the public’s perception of law enforcement. Regaining this trust will take sustained political will, constant training of police officers and better working conditions for them. This Ukoji Vitus, the assistant coordinator of Nigeria Watch - a crime research group within the French Institute of Research in Africa - told Africa Check.

“Apart from working on the orientation of officers, there should also be an improvement in community policing and integrating the force with communities they are in so that people can actually trust them and help in crime fighting.”


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