Of Covid-19 lockdown and police extortion

As many Nigerians predicted, the mounted check points deployed by the Nigerian Police Force as a primary measure to ensure Nigerians in Lagos, Ogun, Abuja and other parts of the country adhere to the Covid-19 checkpoints have been converted to extortion centres. This is the reality of being Nigerian, having nothing but for fear and disdain for law enforcement agents who seek every opportunity to exploit the average citizen. Reports from across the country including Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Umuahia, Jalingo all suggest that police officers and army personnel are undermining the efforts to prevent movement of people across state borders by demanding bribes to determine who gets to move around and who doesn’t.

These accusations of extortion are especially heinous considering the lockdown has put many people out of a job and others unable to make income in these difficult times, to be extorted by policemen who are supposed to keep the peace and assist citizens feels like a double insult on the plight of the average Nigerian. Putting thousands of lives at risk in exchange for a N200 bribe seems like a poor compromise, but this is the reality of Nigeria. You would think the Federal government (under whom all security agencies are domiciled) would understand that now more than ever, law enforcement officers need to be compensated properly, first for risking their lives by manning check points and second they have all the incentives to overlook rule breaking in exchange for bribes. But Nigerian politicians are committed to holding on to an unrealistic view of the country, which results into worrying situations like this.

There is a lot of blame to go round, but there will be adequate time to address the structural problems that keep Nigeria corrupt even in the middle of a pandemic. Our primary challenge now should be ensuring that the law enforcement officials who are an integral part of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic begin to take their responsibilities seriously. Imaging, a police officer accosted a journalist and after identifying himself as a media practitioner, the erring police officer still has the buoyancy to delay him tactically but took the intervention of a superior police officer at Police force headquarter, Eleweeran, in Abeokuta to let him go. And if such police officer is dealt with by that journalist, they will be blaming the pen professionals being wicked and rude.

Indeed, we are facing an unprecedented medical crisis that is already applying pressure on all corners of the global economy and on individuals and families around the world. Mandatory stay-at-home orders have resulted in record high unemployment, jeopardized the sustainability of small and large businesses, and left many uneasy with their own mortality. Unfortunately, corruption, which, put simply, is the use of one’s official position for personal gain, thrives in times of tragedy, especially in areas with limited transparency, high levels of pre-crisis corruption, limited free press, poor education, and/or weak law enforcement and anti-corruption measures. Much like COVID-19, corruption doesn’t discriminate: It impacts everyone regardless of social class, economic status, color, creed, or religion.

Countless ordinary Nigerians attempting to make precarious ends meet as taxi drivers, market traders, and shopkeepers are accosted on a daily basis by armed police officers who demand bribes and commit human rights abuses against them as a means of extorting money. Those who fail to pay are frequently threatened with arrest and physical harm. Far too often these threats are carried out. Meanwhile, victims of crime are obliged to pay the police from the moment they enter a police station to file a complaint until the day their case is brought before a court. In the shadows, high-level police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds meant to cover basic police operations. Senior police officers also enforce a perverse system of “returns” in which rank-and-file officers are compelled to pay up the chain of command a share of the money they extort from the public. Those charged with police oversight, discipline, and reform have for years failed to take effective action, thereby reinforcing impunity for police officers of all ranks who regularly perpetrate crimes against the citizens they are mandated to protect.

The Nigeria Police Force, established in 1930, has a long history of engaging in unprofessional, corrupt, and criminal conduct. Over the years, this unwieldy force—Africa’s largest—has proved difficult to effectively manage and control and has become largely unaccountable to the citizens it is meant to serve. Many Nigerian police officers’ conduct themselves in an exemplary manner, working in difficult and often dangerous conditions—some 250 policemen and women were shot and killed in the line of duty in 2009—but for many Nigerians the police force has utterly failed to fulfill its mandate of providing public security. Indeed, 90 years after its birth, members of the force are viewed more as predators than protectors, and the Nigeria Police Force has become a symbol in Nigeria of unfettered corruption, mismanagement, and abuse.

Extortion, embezzlement, and other corrupt practices by Nigeria’s police undermine the fundamental human rights of Nigerians in two key ways. First, the most direct effect of police corruption on ordinary citizens stems from the myriad human rights abuses committed by police officers in the process of extorting money. These abuses range from arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, including physical and sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings.

The police frequently extort money from the public at taxi stands, in marketplaces, or while going about their daily lives. However, the most common venue for extortion occurs at police roadblocks, ostensibly put in place to combat crime. In practice, these checkpoints have become a lucrative criminal venture for the police who routinely demand bribes from drivers and passengers alike, in some places enforcing a de facto standardized toll. Motorists are frequently detained and endure harassment and threats until they or their family members negotiate payment for their release. Extortion-related confrontations between the police and motorists often escalate into more serious abuses. The police have on numerous occasions severely beaten, sexually assaulted, or shot to death ordinary citizens who failed to pay the bribes demanded.

The police commonly round up random citizens in public places, including mass arrests at restaurants, markets, and bus stops. In some cases of blatant deception, plainclothes police officers simply masquerade as commuter minibus drivers, pick up unsuspecting passengers at bus stops, and take them at gunpoint to nearby police stations where they demand money in return for their release. The police often make little effort to veil their demand for bribes, brazenly doing so in open corridors and rarely bothering to question those in detention about any alleged crime. Those who fail to pay are often threatened and unlawfully detained, and at times sexually assaulted, tortured, or even killed in police custody. Many of these abuses are perpetrated as a means to further extort money from ordinary citizens or from fearful family members trying to secure the freedom of those detained.

Second, these criminal acts by the police, coupled with their failure to perform many of their most basic functions, severely undermine the rule of law in Nigeria. The police routinely extort money from victims to investigate a given criminal case, which leaves those who refuse or are unable to pay without access to justice. Meanwhile, criminal suspects with money can simply bribe the police to avoid arrest, detention, or prosecution, to influence the outcome of a criminal investigation, or to turn the investigation against the victim.

Ordinary Nigerians are further denied equal protection under the law due to a widespread practice whereby senior police officers sell for their own personal enrichment police protection to Nigeria’s wealthy elite. By the Inspector General of police’s own account, in 2009 at least 100,000 police officers were working as personal guards for the wealthy, at the expense of the majority. In addition, the abject failure of the police to provide for the security of ordinary citizens has led some communities to turn for protection to armed vigilante groups who often operate outside the law and commit further abuses.

Police corruption affects nearly every Nigerian, though it disproportionately impacts Nigeria’s poor. Those in precarious economic situations, scraping out a living day to day, are more susceptible to police extortion because of the profound effects that unlawful detention, or the mere threat of arbitrary arrest, have on their livelihoods. The sums regularly demanded by the police also represent a larger portion of the poor’s income. Moreover, many Nigerians are simply unable to pay the bribes required for basic police services.

Underlying many of these abuses is a cycle of corruption driven by senior police officers who siphon off police funds at the top and enforce a scheme of collecting illicit “returns” from the money extorted by junior officers.

High-level embezzlement of public funds destined for the police force indirectly impacts human rights, as senior officials have squandered and stolen vast sums of money that could have gone toward improving the capacity of the police to conduct patrols, respond to emergency calls, or investigate crimes. In the most notorious case, in 2005, the then-Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun resigned and was charged with embezzlement, bribe-taking, and laundering more than US$98 million. In a plea bargain agreement later that year, he pleaded guilty to failing to declare his assets. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and ordered his assets seized. The deficits from massive embezzlement and misappropriation of police funds lead the police to routinely demand bribes from complainants to fund criminal investigations and to use torture as their primary tool for collecting evidence from criminal suspects.

Money flows up the chain of command through the informal but widespread system of returns in which subordinates pay their superiors a portion of the money they make from bribes and extortion. Subordinates often pay their superiors to be assigned to positions where they have ample opportunities to extract money from the public. Superior officers frequently set monetary targets for subordinates assigned to these lucrative posts and remove those who fail to meet their targets. Money continues up the chain of command as officers who take returns from their subordinates pay their superiors in turn. This corrupt system of returns not only encourages low-level police officers to commit abuses as a means of extorting money, and effectively punishes those who do not, but it also creates a strong disincentive for senior officers who personally benefit from the system of returns to hold their subordinates accountable for extortion and other abuses.

The Nigerian government and the police leadership have on multiple occasions acknowledged many of the problems described in this report. In recent years, the government has launched several police reform initiatives, increased funding to the police force, and improved police wages. Yet the government has generally failed to hold accountable police officers who squander and steal police funds, much less the rank-and-file who commit abuses. Public complaint mechanisms, internal police controls, and civilian oversight remain weak, underfunded, and largely ineffective. The Nigerian government in general and the police leadership in particular have thus far lacked the political will to address these structural problems, follow through on reform initiatives, and implement effective police oversight and accountability.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Nigerian government to immediately and effectively address the dynamics that have given rise to and sustain endemic police corruption and its related abuses, and ensure that those who perpetrate these crimes are held accountable. The Nigeria Police Force should streamline and prioritize internal controls by establishing a Public Complaints Unit at all police stations and restructuring its largely discredited internal anti-corruption unit, the X-Squad. The Nigerian government should launch an independent inquiry into corruption within the police force, focusing on the embezzlement and misappropriation of police funds, the corrupt system of returns, and the sale of police services by high-level police officials. The Nigerian government, including the National Assembly, and the anti-corruption commissions should improve transparency and accountability in the police force by reforming and ensuring better coordination of oversight mechanisms; and authorities should investigate and prosecute without delay police officers implicated in extortion, embezzlement, and human rights abuses.

Orunbon, a journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from Federal Housing Estate, Olomore, Abeokuta, Ogun state via [email protected] or 08034493944 and 08029301122

Leave a Reply