The grim security situation facing the country was placed on the agenda of public discussion last week by the Acting Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu. He said lack of funds, insufficient and obsolete equipment, and shortage of trained personnel have undermined efforts by the police to reduce rising cases of insecurity in the country. He was speaking after he appeared before the Senate to discuss how the police were planning to address serious security challenges such as armed robbery, kidnapping, and terrorism.

When Nigeria’s chief law enforcement officer cries out for help to provide security, to prevent the breakdown of law and order, and to access valuable resources to help fight crime and insecurity, you know the country is disaster-prone. It is a dreadful situation. The security situation has degenerated to this level because past and present leaders left the problems unattended, to the point where it will now cost the nation a lot more to address the problems of growing insecurity and a police force ill-equipped to fight crime.

It was depressing to watch the Acting Inspector-General of Police plead with senators for support to enable members of the force to function productively.

The call by Mohammed Adamu is urgent and critical. It is a pointer to the way the nation has downgraded national security. When morale is low among police officers, when police receive peanuts as salaries, when policemen and women cannot access state-of-the-art weapons to detect and successfully fight crime, and when police cannot forestall plans by men and women of low character who violate national laws and foment trouble, you know that Nigeria is in real trouble.

It is somewhat ironic that the police are required by law to protect the life and property of citizens and yet the same police are denied vital resources, as well as adequate salaries that would enable them to be in the right frame of mind to fulfil their obligations to the nation.

When criminals strike at human populations, everyone yells at the police. When things go wrong, everyone claims the police have abdicated their responsibility to protect citizens. Many people say the police are corrupt. That is an impeccable point. However, in all of these, no one talks about the environment in which the police are trained and brought up, and an environment in which the police operate. Few people talk about the pitiable conditions of service of policemen and women, the fact that the police cannot fight crime with decrepit weapons, and the low esprit de corps of the men and women who serve in the force.

There are policemen and women who do not feel a sense of pride in their own institution. There are those who are unwilling to identify with an institution that is largely demonised by the society in which they operate. Many police officers feel they are in a Catch-22 situation. They have nowhere to run to in an environment in which national leaders do not recognise the service they provide. They feel helpless when almost everyone castigates them. Many officers feel the nation cares little about them. That is also sadly true.

The police are in a no-win situation. No society functions effectively when the citizens and the police view each other with suspicion. The police can only be as effective in crime-fighting as the information provided to them by citizens. The police cannot reduce crime when citizens shield criminals from being apprehended. The police cannot uphold their responsibility to our society when some dishonourable members of the force dine and wine with the same criminals they are required to apprehend.

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There is a history to the existing poor culture of police-community relations. The police are yet to develop that kind of community spirit that would encourage citizen groups to provide the police with timely information about criminal activities. At the moment, the Nigerian public has little regard and faith in the police. A friendly relationship between the police and civil society does not exist. It would take a long time, perhaps decades, for the police and communities to develop good working relationships. It would also take major reforms in the police, such as changes in the way the police approach their job, as well as modifications in how the police respond to public calls for protection from criminals.

The police have an image problem and they must recognise this as a major obstacle to effective policing. It is not an image that can be stitched up overnight. It will take time. It will take commitment by the police hierarchy to understand and build a force whose services are recognised by the public, a force that enjoys the confidence of the people, a force that is respected by society, and a force that is well equipped to combat crime and criminals. It will also require confidence-building measures by the police authorities to show a reformed police force in practice rather than a force that does not exercise what it preaches.

A police force starved of valuable public information is a crippled crime-fighting unit. The police need the public as much as the public needs the police. It is a reciprocal or shared relationship.

The police want to be friends with everyone but no one wants to be a friend of the police. It is all about lack of trust. It is this lack of trust that defines the limited relationship between the police and various communities. People do not see the police as their friends or partners in crime-fighting. Instead, the police are perceived as an impediment to crime prevention. Citizens who witness crime are not keen to report to the police. There are accounts of citizens who furnished the police with useful information about criminal activities but were later framed, arrested, and tortured as if they were law-breakers. The police in Western democratic countries are effective largely because of the quality of information they receive from the public.

If the police want to be a friend of the people, the police must walk the talk and demonstrate the new spirit and direction through their actions. An old axiom says that “seeing is believing”. People will believe the police have changed only when they see a change in the behaviour of policemen and women. The police must demonstrate in practical ways that they are true friends of the people.

The police cannot claim, in public service advertisements, that they are friends of citizens while they continue to snub at critical times public calls for protection from bandits, or when they bash innocent men and women in callous ways, or when they conspire with dishonourable people to rob some citizens of their hard-earned money.

There are two questions the Acting Inspector-General of Police must ponder in his efforts to reform the force. First, how many officers, men and women in the police are driven by a genuine desire to serve the nation and not to be served by the nation? Second, how many officers, men and women are in the police because they want to use the uniform to achieve what they could not accomplish as ordinary citizens?