Half a lifetime ago, I grumbled to a friend of mine about a Lagos realtor who had simply vanished with my money. The property was ready for me to move into, but the landlord was still waiting to be paid, one month after I parted with my cash.
My friend was a police officer, and he offered his help with the investigation. And so it was that a few days later, I travelled to the real estate agency with three of his men.
I knew the area well. I had been there many times. As I parked my car, the policemen jumped out of their pickup truck. It felt like a good day to complete an investigation.
I led them to ground zero: a ground floor street-facing office where there were three people: a female secretary and two realtor assistants. At that point, all three knew me well: I was in the office everyday, and they told me the same thing: they had not seen their employer for weeks.
As we crowded into the small office, the policemen asked only one question of the staff: “Where is he?”
The staff responded to my show of force with the same answer they had given me for weeks: “We don’t know.”
The officers immediately switched tactics, moving into divide-and-rule mode. “Where is he?” they began to ask the staff individually.
The answer did not change: “I don’t know,” they each answered.
And then, without warning, the tone of our visit changed irretrievably as the “lead” officer snapped forward towards the secretary, and, to my horror, grabbed her. By grabbing her, I mean he reached into her waist and seized her by her skirt buckle.
It was not at all what I had expected. The first officer, completely oblivious of the young lady’s protestations and efforts to protect her dignity, was already lifting her up by her skirt, which was falling apart, buttons popping, a zipper ripping.
The office was soon empty, the staff taken away, their families unaware of their location.
“They will talk,” the policemen assured me.
I did not think so, if by “talk” they meant that they would disclose the location of their boss. I did not believe they knew.
It was curious that not once did I hear any of the policemen ask about the home address of the man they sought; whether he had any other businesses; who his friends or mistresses were, or any information that might actually have helped to locate him.
It took me two days of pleading for the realty staff to be let out of the cells into which they had been thrown in various shades of undress. There was still no information about their boss.
The morale of this story is that, while I was in a position to benefit from the intervention of the police in my case, there was no true police intervention. If anything was achieved, it was extensive damage to the image of the police for me, the staff of the realty, and everyone through the ages who heard the story from any of us.
Actually, this is a story every Nigerian knows: with our so-called security or defence agencies, the emphasis is on “force.” The police never seem to be trained to police for law and order, and the public, often fleeced for cash and favours, and brutalized at every provocation, has never had much reason to trust the force.
Is this imbalance of forces different when there is crisis? I do not think so.
Nigeria’s Joint Task Force (JTF), now fashionably cobbled together in Nigeria for any security challenge short of war, aggregates and elevates the menace of the police, the Mobile Police, the military, and whatever shady body the government can throw into the mix along with tons of money to provide the illusion of response.
In theory, in the present, it is difficult to disagree with the idea of the JTF, especially with Boko Haram exposing our so-called security apparatus as weak, incompetent and amateurish.
That has yielded a division of the country into two: one to be feared, the other to be tolerated.
The element of fear is critical in assessing the government and its JTF, and the dark of fear feeds the JTF without necessarily resolving any problem. When you think about it, the truth is that in order for the JTF to appear to be effective, an area often has to be reduced to dangerous and deserted, as in considerable swathes of Northern Nigeria at the moment.
But think about it: wherever JTF operates, it is often accused of brutality and human rights violations. Examples abound: In May 2009 in the Niger Delta, the JTF, claiming to be hunting for militants and oil thieves, laid siege on towns and villages in Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State. The locals, some of whom had merely gathered for for a cultural activity, accused the force of bombing and mowing down the area.
In July 2011, after Boko Haram set off a bomb in Maiduguri’s Budum market which led to three soldiers being injured, JTF went on a rampage, shooting and killing at random, and then they set fire to the market. Even the state governor admitted their recklessness.
In Jos last March, JTF soldiers killed 10 young protesters as they approached Mai Adiko village near Jos with the aim of “avenging” the death of five people killed earlier in a suicide car bomb attack on a church in the city.
Only this month in Maiduguri JTF claimed it killed 20 members of Boko Haram who had been holding a meeting, only to be immediately challenged by a Boko Haram spokesman who alleged that the Nigerian forces had only killed innocent people. “There is no way our sect members up to 20 will gather in such environment and hold a council sitting,” the group said, again raising the question of JTF’s credibility
Sometimes, JTF is so feared and so resented that communities risk life and limb to beg for them to be disbanded. In July 2010, Deltans accused JTF of extortion, blackmail, intimidation, and undermining legitimate businesses, and asked the federal government remove Major General Sarkin Yarkin Bello, its commanding officer.
In July 2011 in Borno State, a Committee of Elders and Leaders of Thought asked the government to withdraw JTF from the streets of Maiduguri and environs, accusing them of arson, murder, looting and raping of young girls.
In Kano State a group of religious, professional and civil society bodies also lamented the onslaught of the JTF on innocent civilians in Kano State.
Last week, a JTF spokesman, Lt. Colonel Sagir Musa bragged that in Maiduguri, members of Boko Haram are on the run and “will soon be defeated.”
The question is whether the government worries about the character and credibility of the JTF, which seems to work as if it is doing a favour rather than a job, and as if it makes up its own rules of engagement as it pleases.
Who is supervising the JTF, especially in areas of conflict that have become increasingly impossible for observers and journalists to visit?
Does JTF care when civilians are killed? If JTF is the best protection that desperate civilians can get in areas where they are looting, raping and brutalizing, what does that portend for the future? When members of JTF act outside the law, who evaluates them, the JTF? When they brutalize and kill the innocent, who sanctions them, the JTF?
When the JTF, smarting from criticism and monumental failures, announces it has arrested militants or discovered huge caches of arms or will soon end the war, is it strange that nobody seems to believe them?
I believe the time has come for such an important body as the JTF to be recognized for what it really is: a sharp weapon that, poorly-handled, can cut in any direction.
A true JTF is an alliance between well-trained forces and the people, each complimenting the other. A true JTF acts within, not beyond the law.
In the long run, an undisciplined force, joint or otherwise, turns the people into the enemy.