5 June 2019
A presidential panel on the reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force has recommended the establishment of state and local government police to confront the growing insecurity crises in the country.
But would decentralisation solve the chronic problems of the police force that Nigerians have become ever so familiar with? For starters, Nigerian governments have generally ignored recommendations on police reform by several panels in the past. So the Nigerians tasking themselves on social media on the prospects of the police force coming under the control of state governments, are wasting precious time on something very unlikely to happen.
However the reality is that locally-run police forces in Nigeria only sound like a good idea on paper. If you hand over control of the police to the states or even cities without dealing with the fundamental issues about the force, you wouldn’t solve any problem, but recreate it at other levels. Localisation of power or services has advantages but they also create problems. For example, devolving some power to states and local government areas made sense in theory, but in practice it created expensive layers of bureaucracy and corrupt fiefdoms.
Community policing makes sense in theory, but major crime such as kidnapping, terrorism, and so on has always required a coordinated national approach even in advanced countries, especially as the criminals tend to operate beyond state/city/county boundaries. In the UK, the police operate at county level and this has caused problems when resources are needed from outside county lines to handle major incidents like the riots in London and other English cities in 2011.
County level forces also created problems of interoperability of radio communications between the forces, having to procure equipment in about 40+ different ways at increased cost, and so on. Such problems have led to efforts towards regionalisation, a national approach towards procurement, training, sharing best practice, information management, major crime, and other aspects of providing a crucial public service. In fact, despite having different forces at county level, the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) and the country’s largest force, still leads on counter-terrorism in the UK. Organised crime is handled by the National Crime Agency, a British version of the FBI.
In the days of analogue police radios in the UK, each force bought its own radio communications system. A squad car could be chasing a criminal in Kent and as soon as they drove beyond the county’s borders, the officer could lose radio signals and in some cases he wouldn’t be able to coordinate the chase with the neighbouring county’s police force. This was one of the reasons for procuring a national digital radio network for the police and have it managed nationally. So there are strong arguments for a national approach to fighting crime, even if community and neighbourhood policing have their merits.
For a strong argument to be made in favour of a state-run police force in Nigeria, there should be evidence that the states are running those areas that are already devolved better than the federal government. Is this really the case? Are state schools, hospitals, universities, and so on better run than the federal ones? Another point to ponder is that although the Nigeria Police Force is controlled at federal level, in reality, the state governor as the “chief security officer” in his state and with the largesse under his control aka the “security vote”, has a lot of power over the state’s police command. There is little evidence to suggest this power is being used to make a positive impact on public safety.
The Nigeria Police Force has serious fundamental problems that are rooted in the country’s colonial past. They have always been a tool for oppression rather than service to Nigerians. The ruling elite do not want a professional service because that would make the police more difficult to manipulate. The police force needs fundamental reform and just shifting responsibility to the states is window dressing that doesn’t begin to address those fundamental problems that cover areas such as corruption, poor funding, poor training, poor equipment, poor professionalism, the absence of a public service ethos, and political manipulation. Those issues won’t vanish even if state governors or local government chairmen ran the police force. In fact, decentralisation could worsen those problems.
The issue of genuine police reform was addressed in the article below a few years ago.