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25 Aug 2017

No, The Police Can't Just Be Your Friend

There is a popular saying in Nigeria that 'the police is your friend', however, Bolaji Tunji, in this piece, disputes that statement.
Nigerian police officers
How many times have you seen the slogan prominently displayed in most police stations across the country such as ‘bail is free…, ‘the police is your friend’. But I am sure most Nigerians are aware that these are mere slogans that are far from the reality on ground. It is not as if there are no nice people in the Nigeria Police, there are, but the preponderance of such good people are in the officers’ cadre. The influence of these officers from which the lower cadre should take a cue is negligible and of little or no impact. But, of course, I am not saying something new or what is unknown to most Nigerians. There is no Nigerian who does not have one nasty tale, experience or the other to narrate about the men in black. But one will not stop talking about them until something positive happens or their ways are amended.

The focus today on the police is due to an experience of a young girl whose plight was brought to my attention. This young girl had just been brought from the village to help an aunt of hers that runs a catering/restaurant in Lagos. Last Tuesday after the day’s job was done, the aunt had told her to buy mosquito coil across the road. Immediately she crossed the road for her errand, some police vehicles suddenly parked by the curb where she was. She was ordered into the vehicle. This happened around the ever busy Okota road. In spite of her fright, she still summoned courage to tell them about her errand. Of course, no one was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She started calling her aunt to inform her of the development, but she was not allowed to complete the call as the phone was collected from her and switched off. The worried aunt, started worrying her phone that night, wondering what could have happened. Who could have spirited the young girl away? You can be sure that the entire family was kept awake that night. No one could sleep in the household as different thoughts ran riots in their minds. ‘What could have happened? Hope she had not fallen into the hands of ritualists or been kidnapped?

The following day, it was the same thing. She never showed up and nobody could offer any information. They were in panic mode when someone walked into their house. She had been sent by the missing girl to inform her aunt about the fate that befell her. Upon her ‘arrest’, with some other girls, she had been taken to Area B or so in Mushin. That was how the aunt got the information. The extremely worried aunt quickly ran there. But she was stonewalled. She could not see her. Unlike others who had quickly secured their own ‘bail’. She could not as no one came for her. The aunt was informed that the young girl would be taken to the Lagos Task Force office in Oshodi, the following day and she should meet them there. She thought once she showed up at the task force office, it would be easy to quickly effect her release. But the ordeal had just started.

At the task force office, there was no way she could enter the premises until she paid an unreceipted N500 by the entrance. This was quickly done. Her enquiries about the fate of the girl was met with a brusque, ‘madam stand aside, stand aside’, in her words to me. The next she heard was that the girl was being taken to court. That was when my attention was drawn to the issue. ‘What charge’, I wanted to know. I was told she was going to be charged for prostitution.

As much as I am not averse to police performing their duties, I felt this was very unfair especially since the guardian of the young girl had shown up and had tried to explain the situation. One would have thought the decent thing to do would have been to release the young girl to her. That never happened. The young girl was locked up in a cell. A nasty experience and a rude awakening to the other, unreported sides of Lagos. I eventually traced the young girl and her aunt to the Magistrate court, off Agege road. I met the young lady with about 30 more girls all sitting forlornly and waiting for their ‘trial’ to begin. It was a pitiful sight to behold. Around were some young lawyers who were willing to stand for the ‘accused’ which is what they had become, for a fee. They came with different advices, ‘let her plead guilty, so it would be easy to get her out’, they said. Why would she plead guilty for an offence she did not commit to which they replied that the case would be delayed as there would be a trial and she would be returned to the police cell or even kirirkiri prisons, pending the outcome of the trial.

I was scandalized. So the girl would now have a criminal record for not committing any crime. I made some calls. One was to the chairman of the Lagos task force who said his men were not responsible based on the mode of operation of those who arrested the girl, he advised getting in touch with the area commander. At the end of the day, the matter was resolved and the young girl allowed to go home with her guardian.

It was also while waiting for the outcome of the ‘case, that I heard of the case of the young man who had gained admission into one of the universities in the North central states. He came to Lagos to source for funds from relatives, but he arrived by road very late, into the unwelcoming hands of policemen. He was whisked away. No one could trace what happened to him. He became an awaiting trial candidate in kirikiri. His course of study was supposed to be four years. He ended up spending five years in prison. His case got to a prison-visiting non-governmental organization that helped to secure his release. His family had long given him up as dead.

It goes on and on. And it tells a sorry tale of what our law enforcement officials have turned Nigerians into. People are constantly picked on the roads, randomly and locked up into cells until they are exploited. In the case of the maid, what stopped the police from making further inquiry and confirming the veracity of her story through her aunt and releasing her?

There are many people who have found themselves in such situation and ended up spending years in jail as awaiting trial inmates. When they are eventually released, they turn on the society that had turned them into what they had not bargained for. Is it not obvious to the discerning that the police, whether deliberately or otherwise, also abet the proliferation of criminal elements in the society?

The police would always be tarred with the bad agency image with such conducts, though some of us know that there are really very good officers, even among the ranks and files.

The police hierarchy has a lot to do in order to correct some of these anomalies. There should be training and retraining of members of the police force and I am not talking about arms training which most of them are not even competent to handle, going by the rate of accidental discharges that have sent so many people to the other side, but training about how the police should behave in a democratic setting, how they need to handle the citizens. There should be pep talks in the morning on the proper expected behavior of a policeman and appropriate punishments meted out to erring members.

Most importantly, Nigerians should also learn to take their case to court. Sue, sue and sue if your rights have been infringed upon. It is only then that we will have the model police force that we deserve.

***
Written by Bolaji Tunji

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