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A NEW NIGERIA POLICE FORCE?

The recent release of a film footage by the Dubai-based Aljazeera Television of alleged members of the Nigeria Police Force executing six ragtag members of the Boko Haram sect at Maiduguri during the mayhem the group provoked in some states of the country, some months ago, was very ironical and ill-timed. It ran against the tide of what should have been a season of laurels for a stream of commendable performances by the police force in recent times.

In reality, the Nigerian police force, like that in most other countries of the world, is a very maligned institution and understandably so, because every organization or individual that restrains people from exercising licentious existence is often maligned. Psychologists claim that every member of the society would rather prefer to be left alone to do as he or she pleases…and because the police is in the business of not 'letting us alone', our natural instinct is to regard it as an enemy. The type of the negative image accorded the police here is a universal phenomenon.

However, only a sadist would not admit that the Nigeria Police Force, under its current leadership, has taken dramatic steps to improve on its negative ways for the benefit of the public for which it was set up. Unfortunately, in spite of the giant and verifiable strides of Mr. Ogbonna Onovo's administration to walk the talk and to prove that the force can be made to work for the people, public commendation has not been tumbling-in in torrents. Rather it has been coming in only in trickles, like the recent commendation by the governors of the South East states that the Police ensured a very peaceful and crime-free environment for the last Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Notably, many people had believed that the South East would not be a killing field during the last Christmas and so, the season recorded the least home-coming of the citizens in a very long time as people stayed away for the fear of their lives. It, however, turned out that the fears were unwarranted as Onovo kept to his promise that the people would enjoy their holidays in peace and serenity. He had sent hundreds of his men to Anambra State to shore up the activities of those in the state that had become the kidnapping headquarter of the nation. It turned out that by last Christmas, violent crime and kidnapping in Anambra had reduced by over 80 percent, thus rendering the state the quietest one, crime-wise, in the country.

The beginning of this year Anambra remained in the news on account of the gubernatorial election that had been scheduled for February 6, bringing about a nationwide trepidation that mayhem would ensure on account of the desperation of the politicians involved in the quest. But again, the police rose up to the challenge. Those who were not conversant with the level of commitment of the police leadership to ensuring that the election went on without violence would have imagined that the serenity of the Anambra election just happened.

But the truth is that the February 6 polls became the freest and most violence-free in Nigeria's history because of the determination of the Inspector General of Police that the force under him would end the long orgiastic history of violence in Nigerian elections. He had given that notice when early in the year when he invited the key political actors and read the riot act to them, followed by tracking down and exposure of the different machinations of politicians who were training and equipping private militias that would have been unleashed on the hapless populace during the elections.

The rest is now history. On a personal level, I wish to report that I travelled the length and breadth of Anambra state on the election day in the company of the boss and staffers of a federal media organization and we were positively surprised to see members of the much-maligned police force on duty - very vigilant, efficient, firm but polite, and how they frustrated the several antics of politicians to the letter. Even when the antics of the incurable INEC that had produced voters registers that disenfranchised most of the voters by excluding their names, it was the police that quickly moved in to forestall what would have been the most logical excuse for violence.

I was in the same car with Chinwe Ononye, the general manger of the FRCN-owned Purity FM station in Awka when the police public relations officer got in touch and arranged for the DIG John Amadu who was in charge of police operations for the elections, to come on air to reassure voters that they could merely put their names down on notebooks that were made available, on presentation of their valid voters cards and would be allowed to vote. That single act was like pouring water on a roaring flame.

In that election, there was no single report of collusion of the police with any political interests. Instead, there were copious reports of arrests, detention and arraignment of electoral offenders, for the first time in the history of the current democratic dispensation. Just last week, the police paraded over 200 suspects who it was charging to court for their various electoral offences. If the judiciary, as usual, through their dubious sleight of hand, lets off the offenders, the police would have done its own bit, very creditably. Yet, nobody seems to be applauding them.

Equally creditable, but largely ignored by commentators, has been the noble role of the current police administration in furthering the frontiers of democracy and freedom, in contrast with the ways of the police of the past. Never before had the Nigeria Police permitted opposition elements to march in public protest against the government of the day. And yet, since the Onovo-led police has continued to permit every aggrieved section of the policy that wished to express its views peacefully in public, it has not merited even the scantiest public acclaim or mention.

Rather what is attracting the loudest interest of the civil society today is the Al-Jazeera footage which lacked the most fundamental demand of journalism ethic by not demanding any official explanation or expatiation from authorities which they claimed had allowed them free access that was denied domestic media. It is not my intention to defend the police or any other member of the armed forces that was involved in the disgusting act which was so graphically shown on the Arab station. In spite of the facile explanation of the police authorities, it is obvious that the extra judicial execution of unarmed people by anybody, was inexcusable.

However, while not justifying or excusing any human rights abuses in that instance, I wish to point out that even if it were true that police personnel acted indecently and illegally, the act cannot be blamed on the Police and the Armed Forces as institutions, as if the acts had been officially authorized.

As regrettable and despicable such acts are, it is almost impossible to stop such erratic and on-the-sport activities of rogue or over-enthusiastic members of forces on the frontline of battles. For, in spite of the many prescriptions of the Geneva Convention, forces in armed conflicts often feel incensed by casualties suffered by them and fallen comrades and frequently vent their anger on those they see as enemy elements - and in most cases, such anger is over-dose. But most importantly, while those acts are despised, they cannot be directly or vicariously blamed on the organizations that own the offending personnel. In law, there is no vicarious responsibility for criminal acts.

This is not just an African phenomenon as the Aljazeera do-gooders were laboring to portray because Arab soldiers as well as those of other nations do even worse. The incidents at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Bagdad, where US soldiers despoiled and humiliated Iraqi soldiers, as well as the countless cases of instant execution of civilians and war prisoners all over the world are clear cases in point. In the case of Boko Haram, the death and despoliation which the militants with their reported sophisticated weapons visited on civilians and members of the armed forces was reportedly tremendous. Hence, while not excusing what might have been a retaliatory act of the police and military forces on the suspected members of the sect, it could at least be understood and interpreted, not from the benefit of hindsight, but rather on the basis of the level of the depth of the national emotion at the time.

It should, however, be recalled that the current leadership of the police had come on board just a day before the outbreak of the Boko Haram mayhem and could not have immediately brought his human rights-oriented style to bear on the situation, that early in the day. However, now that the force under him has shown very positive signs of remediation, within so short a span, Mr. Ogbonna Onovo should immediately investigate and ensure that such a disgusting show of shame should no longer rear its ugly head anywhere in the force which he leads.

At the same time, those busybodies who are now scampering around pouring invectives on the police over such an event that is not limited to Nigeria should cease being ostriches and should rather join hands with the new leadership in the Nigeria Police Force to work positively and ensure that the positive and significant pluses which are becoming the feature of the police force are recognized and sustained.

And it is important to follow the steps of the governors of the South East to, for once, commend our police force and its leadership for turning a new, positive leaf.