Mohammed Dikko Abubakar, Nigeria's new Inspector General of Police, is candid in his assessment of the police force: "our Special Anti-Robbery Squads (SARS) have become killer teams engaging in deals for land speculators and debt collection." He has set challenging goals for himself, promising to "purge the system of corruption, which cripples and frustrates every honest effort at reforming the police". He will have his work cut out. Over the years the police force has witnessed a deterioration in professionalism and operational competency. The majority of Nigerians baulk at the motto, "The police is your friend". And the recent proliferation of the violent Islamic sect Boko Haram has only served to exacerbate its weaknesses.
The farcical escape from police custody of Kabiru Sokoto, the architect of the Christmas day church bombings, and January's devastating attacks in Kano State that claimed more than 200 lives, have forced inspector general of police (IGP) Hafiz Ringim into early retirement. Ringim was promptly replaced by an old hand, former head of the Lagos State Police Command, Mohammed Dikko Abubakar. But will this change in guard bring about the transformation required in an underpaid and under-trained police force? Or do the problems lie deeper; are those clamouring for the total overhaul of the police system justified by saying that no positive change can be achieved with the current structure still in place?
Reformer or Fanatic?
Amongst rank and file, Abubakar seems the most plausible choice for the position - he has hit the ground running and maintained the posture of a man eager for change. So far he has set about tackling excesses and unnecessary extravagances.
He has already ordered the dismantling of all highway check points, infamous for police extortion. Police escorts attached to â€˜VIP's' and corporate bodies have been told to return back to their stations or risk dismissal. And a directive limiting the detention of suspects to a maximum of 24 hours has also been handed down to police commissioners.
These moves represent a positive initial step. However, the scale of reforms will have to mirror the scale of institutional decay. Similar promises have been made in the past, but implementation has always been a problem.
To combat this, Abubakar has created a monitoring team to ensure his list of directives are implemented. However, some reforms have attracted controversy. By suspending all training programmes for police personnel in 2012, no new police trainees will work this year. The move has an undercurrent of logic, with Abubakar preferring instead to concentrate on sanitising existing problems without creating new ones. As he explained during the proposal: "Our training institutions are bad enough."
In attempting to project the image of a reformer, the start to his tenure has not been without its difficulties. The Justice Niki Tobi Commission of Inquiry examining the 2001 Jos crisis has indicted Abubakar, at the time a commissioner in Plateau State, for taking sides in the sectarian violence which led to the death hundreds. It was not until minister of police affairs, Navy Captain Caleb Olubolade cleared the air that Abubakar was finally allowed to assume his position. At a time of heightened ethnic tensions in the country, his ethno-religious affiliations have caused problems. Rumours have persisted over alleged links to Islamic radicals, even though there has been no evidence to corroborate the claims. And there are some who believe a Muslim should not be head of the police force during such a testing time for the country.
In his first address to state commissioners at the police headquarters in Abuja, he stated "it is an incontrovertible fact that discipline and professionalism, which is the bedrock of the force has been on steady decline for a while". However, historically there has never been a "gilded age" of policing. Postcolonial civilian governments have never had a chance to settle down long enough to engineer a successful transition from a colonial policing system into a civilian one. Successive military coups and Nigeria's stop-start democracy created a duality of roles and priorities between the army and police, and this led to the usurping of police powers. This was particularly visible during the regime of military head of state General Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993), where frequent clashes between the police and army occurred over what the police claimed were deliberate efforts to reduce their pay and contain their effectiveness. To date, the effects of this marginalisation are visible. The Nigerian Police Force is still amongst the worst paid police forces in the west African region. Numerous panels and committees have been created over the years to reorganise and rejuvenate the force yet none have been implemented. The blame may lie at the helm, with a lack of continuity in the Ministry of Police Affairs which has seen four Ministers appointed in the last two years. A desperate situation has been created due to poor funding, inadequate training and no clear developmental polices. In contrast, corruption and illegality have been allowed to thrive. Can this all be changed simply by appointing a new IGP?
A little less conversation
The N922bn ($5.8bn) allotted in the 2012 budget for security must be channelled effectively to tackle the security problems that have engulfed the country in recent times. The chain of command has proven to be a big problem. The IGP and state commissioners have to answer to the police service commission and the president, and this compromises their independence. This has allowed the police hierarchy to lose sight of their actual objectives - serving the people, rather than those in the seat of power. The duplicate functions of The Ministry of Police Affair and the Police Service Commission clearly hinders the effectiveness of the police force and the Inspector General in particular and any reforms should make clarity in the roles of each service a priority.
This finds representation in another topical issue â€“ the call for state police. Many have argued that the diverse needs of each state will be better catered for with a more localised crime fighting network. Those against it fear possible political hijacking by state governors, who might turn their state police into their own personal armies.
Nigerians must come to terms with the fact that terrorism has now found its way into everyday life and the police must be trusted if they are defeat threats of extremism, such as Boko Haram. If a clear cut policy and developmental programme is created and adhered to there is no reason why the Nigerian Police Force cannot be amongst the best in the continent. What is clear at this stage is that if Abubakar stands any chance of success, it will depend on his actions rather than rhetoric.