‘I slapped the sheriff but…’
When news broke that Seun Kuti, the Afrobeat artist, allegedly slapped a policeman and had been declared wanted, my instinctive response was: under no circumstances should anyone assault a law enforcement officer. Sadly, this is becoming a game for some Nigerians. They brag about hitting a police officer or kidnapping a policewoman who is heard shouting: “Help me, help me, help me… he dey carry me dey go where I no know.” They even post the videos on social media to celebrate their adventures. It is fun to them. Somehow, the dangers — and repercussions — do not seem to dawn on the perpetrators. We can as well dissolve the police if we think they are not worth some respect.
According to a version of the Seun story that I read online, the police officers were driving carelessly, hit his car and sped off. Seun, who said he feared his family was in danger, caught up with them and appeared to, in a fit of rage, slap one officer. It was captured on video. The policeman did not respond, which was quite unusual. Perhaps, he recognised Seun as a celebrity — son of the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who himself was not a friend of the police having suffered brutality in their hands all his adult life. Previous videos soon surfaced showing Seun appearing to brag that he had an established tradition of slapping police officers and that Nigerians should not fear them.
A lot has been said and written about the incident and why Seun was right or wrong to, literally, take the law into his own hand. I have two arguments to make herein. One, under no circumstance should any citizen lay a hand on a police officer, or any law enforcement agent for that matter. Two, while the case is in court and we hope that justice will be done, I want to draw some lessons from the Seun saga, most importantly the need to improve police-citizen relations to address the mutual disdain and distrust. The process will involve working on both the police and the populace. While police impunity has no place in a civilised society, so also is any form of attack on an agent of the state.
For starters, attacking a police officer is a no-no any day, anywhere, anytime. Nowhere in the world is that acceptable. It is not just an attack on an agent of the state, it is an affront on the state itself. You are actually undermining the state. The US has some of the most brutal and racist police forces in the world, but God help you if you attack a cop. We all know the story of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who was choked to death in 2014 by a New York City police officer. Garner’s dying words of “I can’t breathe” remain haunting and traumatic till today. People watched helplessly. Of course, police misconduct also undermines the state and that is why there is a process to discipline erring officers.
But, as in Seun’s case, what is the remedy available to citizens whose rights are being violated by law enforcement officers? If indeed the police hit his car, shouldn’t there be a process for redress? And I am not talking about the case of Seun the celebrity alone, but Seun the ordinary Nigerian who suffers from police excesses daily. Most incidents go unreported. While nothing on earth justifies the alleged violent conduct of the artist, we also have to design and implement a public complaints process to help treat police excesses and misdemeanours. If there is such a process, it must be reliable and citizens must be assured that it is safe to make use of it. Citizens shouldn’t feel helpless.
Some years ago, a commercial bus driver I had become acquainted with (he was a friend to my driver, so he too had become family) called me frantically on the phone. He was panting at the other end. What happened? He said he was at the Lagos state police task force yard at Alausa, Lagos, and if I did not come to his rescue immediately, he was going to be transferred to Kirikiri prisons. What happened? He said he was driving somewhere in Maryland and wanted to pick a passenger at an illegal stop. But when he saw the van of the task force behind him, he quickly took off, only for them to give him a chase and drive across him to force the bus to stop so that he could be arrested.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “it was so sudden I could not stop completely and I brushed their van.” I went into panic mode instantly. I knew what was going to happen next. He said they beat him so much he thought he was going to die. This was somebody’s husband and father. But his ego was not the issue. He said they stole all the money they found on him, then arrested him and his bus, and took both of them to their Alausa yard, asking him to repair the van. He said he saw many motorists at the yard in the same trauma. He became agitated when he saw an elderly woman begging for the release of her son who had been transferred to Kirikiri because he could not pay his way out.
I made arrangements to pay for the repair of the van. I also secured the release of his bus so that he could continue to earn his daily 2k and feed his family. The last I heard from him was that he was no longer driving a commercial bus because he was tired of “police trouble”. This is the lot of many Nigerians. If police are going to arrest any citizen for any infractions, physically assaulting the suspected offender should never be part of the formalities. There should be a process available to ordinary citizens to address these issues which are so commonplace. The notion that you can assault a police officer as a way of exacting a revenge is completely wrong and should never be an option.
In my opinion, the Seun incident offers a good prompt for the incoming president, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to pursue a comprehensive and wholesome reform of the police, chief of which must be rebuilding relations between the force and the public. It is a matter of urgent national importance. Although we have spent a lot of energy debating the necessity of state police and whatnot, my concern here is more about police conduct rather than who controls what. We need a holistic approach to police professionalism and operations. In a democracy, police are the most visible law enforcers. We do not need to exaggerate the importance of mutual trust and respect.
I know the police have their own internal disciplinary process and I testify that they punish errant officers, perhaps more than any other law enforcement agency in Nigeria. But I also know that there may be more cases of cover-up and undue esprit de corps than we know. The instinct of the police is to defend their own against outsiders, even if it means making up stories. The police reportedly said the officer allegedly slapped by Seun is now in coma. Since this has not been denied, I would say this is the kind of tales that rile Nigerians about the force. It is difficult to build trust when the police, as an institution, are perceived to be deceitful by the citizens. This erodes the vital confidence.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is supposed to address human rights abuses committed by the police but I am not sure Nigerians can feel the commission. I also know that the Police Service Commission (PSC) is empowered by law to dismiss and exercise disciplinary control over persons (except the inspector-general of police) in the force, but it seems they only deal with what the police officially present to them. In the UK, complaints against the police are handled by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which is not headed by a police officer, either serving or retired. IOPC handles public complaints. Maybe NHRC can be more active in this area.
Another message from the Seun incident is the importance of digitising police operations. One, they are overdue for body cameras, which can be useful in disciplinary hearings, among other purposes. But for the viral video, Nigerians would have found it hard to believe the slapping incident. Two, policing should be more sophisticated. Criminal investigations can be helped in no little way through a digitised system such as CCTVs and computerised internal communication. Three, why should police be asking for your driving and vehicle licences if they can search the database on a hand-held device? Four, police stations should be upgraded and modernised. They mostly look like pit latrines.
I further propose that the welfare, training and retraining of policemen and women should be a core objective of any reform that is intended to be revolutionary. They are frustrated and they inevitably become dangerous and vicious. Moreover, their operations need to be well funded because the neglect is part of their frustration. We created the conditions that make them vulnerable to corruption. When we give them patrol vehicles with no fuel, they will extort motorists to keep going. There is hardly any budget for investigations, or maybe the budget is mismanaged. A complainant is often asked to foot the bill. Pray, what the hell is that? Where in the world does that happen?
Finally, the society needs a reorientation as well. If we treat police officers as human beings worthy of respect, perhaps we will get respect from them in return. If we treat them as scumbags, they will reciprocate. No matter our frustrations, we should never attack a law enforcement officer. As bad as we think they are, I would never be comfortable without seeing them on the road. When they went on strike in 2002, the banks refused to open for fear of robbery. In the end, these are the guys roasting under the sun or getting drenched in the rain to keep us safe and maintain law and order. They are awake while we are sleeping. For whatever it is worth, they deserve some appreciation.
No matter their excesses, we can only keep campaigning to make the police get better. I think police reform should be a big item on the agenda of the new administration. While we are at it, we must get rid of this habit of glorifying attacks on security agents. Ice-T, the American rapper, had to recall his ‘Cop Killer’ album in 1992 after a negative public reaction to what he called a “protest record”. No, you cannot be glamorising killing a cop! People also need to remember that attacking a security agent has consequences. There is a price to pay. In his 1973 mega hit, ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, Bob Marley said he did it in “self-defence” — but wisely added a one-verse bridge: “If I am guilty I will pay.”
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara state has been very outspoken since he lost his re-election bid. He said “presidency” sent soldiers to ensure his loss because of his opposition to the naira recolouring policy. Last week, Matawalle fired more shots, saying the EFCC should not focus its investigations on governors alone but also on “presidency” officials. But as it turned out, the EFCC said Matawalle is being probed over allegations of money laundering. About N70 billion was mentioned. He too has accused Mr Abdulrasheed Bawa, the EFCC chair, of demanding a $2 million bribe from him, an allegation Bawa has denied. I am eager to see how this will pan out. Drama.
Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the PDP presidential candidate in the 2023 general election, was unhappy that Mr Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, called Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, president-elect, ahead of the May 29 inauguration. Atiku said he was in disbelief because it was a contradiction to the “publicly stated position” of the US. I don’t understand. The only “publicly stated position” of the US government was its congratulatory message to Tinubu after the election, which so infuriated Chimamanda Adichie, Peter Obi’s supporter, that she wrote an open letter to President Joe Biden. Obi too has weighed in, saying the US should have waited for the outcome of litigation. Really?
FLOOD OF BLOOD
The attack on the convoy of US consulate staff and police officers in Anambra state on Tuesday was absolutely disheartening. Their trip to Ogbaru LGA was in respect of a US-funded flood-control project in a state perennially at the mercy of erosion and flooding. Seven persons were killed, including four policemen, with their bodies burnt. The police have blamed the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its twin, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), for the attack. When you think things are getting calmer and better, then a sudden destruction. How long shall citizens live in fear? I hope this will be a turning point in the war against insecurity in the south-east. Disturbing.
Hilda Effiong Bassey “Baci” has cooked her way into the Guinness World Record for marathon cooking, pending ratification. She cooked non-stop for 100 hours. The record was held by Lata Tondon, the Indian chef who did 87 hours and 45 minutes in September 2019. Guinness records are not what they used to be — people now stage-manage feats — but I was delighted to be a Nigerian yet again with the national solidarity Hilda got. It feeds into my theory that when you take politicking out of the plate, Nigerians do not really hate one another. There is a Naija spirit that binds us together. If only the politicians would take patriotic advantage of this melting pot! Delicious.
•Written By Simon Kolawole