Millions of Nigerians, who had given up on any idea of reforming the Nigeria Police Force, were buoyed when the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, granted an approval for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to audit the detention cells in all police commands. The commission was also authorised to inspect the now ‘notorious’ Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) cells where many Nigerians have emerged to tell horrifying stories of torture, brutality and cruelty. The Head of Police Public Complaints Rapid Response Unit, Abayomi Shogunle, said the NHRC could go to all detention cells across the country to oversee the human rights situation as well as undertake a general appraisal of the state of police detention facilities.
We commend the Police for this bold and courageous attempt to win back the confidence of the Nigerian public. We say this more as an act of faith, knowing that several efforts in the past to mend the image of the Police had fallen short owing to lack of will – and force of habit – on the part of the Police. We hope that this time, the proposal is prosecuted with honesty and professionalism, which the Police have been claiming in their daily television commercials. Nigerians want to believe in the Police, for Nigeria depends on the Police for much of its security. When bad things happen in the Police, therefore, Nigerians have every cause to be upset and disappointed.
Transparency wins over deviousness and honesty remains the best policy in any endeavour, especially so because Police work is vital and difficult, but when it is also compounded by unfavourable public image, what obtains is mutual frustration. Even Hitler’s Germany discovered that a Police force without public support and without honest informants, is blind. Such a force having been deprived of vital information and co-operation can only operate at a fraction of its potentials. When detention centres are filled with presumably innocent citizens, petty thieves, wanderers, vagrants and the jobless, mostly because they have been unable to pay bribes to police officers, that is evidence of police failure. In any society, there is always a temptation to mistreat the weak and the innocent. A good police officer should be able to know when he is dealing with a layabout and a hardened con man. When torture, brutality and extrajudicial murders are committed by the Police, they take a Police division into a totally different territory. These crimes not only delegitimise the Police as an institution. In attempts to protect the culprit and cover up for their colleagues, police men begin a process of turning their units into a criminal gang, the exact opposite of what the Police ought to be.
The social media campaign against the SARS, which began last year, was the result of credible reports of the blood-curdling cruelties perpetrated inside the cells of SARS which then attracted national revulsion. Human rights organisations began to compare SARS cells to the most notorious military detention centres which have been condemned internationally by organisations like the Amnesty International, Transparency International and Human Rights Watch.
We urge the Police to grant unfettered access to their detention cells not only to the NHRC but to other reputable independent civil society organisations interested in monitoring the fundamental freedoms of Nigerians. That way, the Police would begin to develop trust as protectors of freedoms. Also, the recent order by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, that magistrates should inspect police cells monthly is also in line with the intentions of the Police. The Chief Justice cites Section 34 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) which states that “the Chief Magistrate or where there is no chief magistrate within the police division, any magistrate designated by the Chief Judge for that purpose, shall at least every month conduct an inspection of police stations or other places of detention within the territorial jurisdiction other than prison.” The Police should enthusiastically cooperate with the magistrates and the Chief Judge of each state to help cleanse the unfavourable blemishes which have demeaned the force for so long.