The Sorry State Of Our Police

By Nwachi Odommiri

If I were to reform the Nigeria Police Force, I would start from their uniform.

In secondary school, uniforms were the pride and pageantry. Most students could be defined by the shape their uniforms were in.

There were those who took great pride in washing, adding blue (especially for whites), starching, applying just the right creases (some students would rather be punished for using contraband pressing irons than being caught in unpressed uniforms) and generally building a reputation for being stainless. This class of students was usually marked for greater things – they were role models, prefects, top-of-the-class, and were loved and respected, even if grudgingly, by the school authorities and their peers.

Then we had those who would insist on making the uniforms in every way but the school’s defined and prescribed style. They added a cut here and a dart there; an extra button here and a fancy pocket there; an open slit or turn-ups way beyond the prescribed inches; and used colours that were a shade or two out of order. Wrong uniforms, all right, but stylish in the extreme and loving their ‘contraband’ selves to pieces. And we loved them too, even if we didn’t have the guts to fix an extra button or fix a sharp turn-up.

And finally, those who just did not care about the way their uniforms looked, fitted or were kept. This class of students was usually unkempt, had a reputation (even among their mates) for being careless and dirty, and for being capable of all sorts of unsavoury things.

The Nigeria Police Force, as a body, sits firmly in this last category.

There is something a uniform, and the state it is in, does to the psyche of the wearer. While it is true that there are countless men and women of the force who are impeccably dressed and are just as impeccably corrupt, the general state of the average police officer gives off a stench that puts everyone, including the wearer, off. The wearer detests self, is helpless to help self and stoops to such despicable behaviours that suit only one that is as miserably kitted as he or she is.

There isn’t a more unmotivating force in the world as not feeling good about yourself. But how can the average Nigerian police officer feel good? His uniform is unwashed and threadbare, his belt is frayed (like it’s made of jute), his beret has lost its colour and reeks from the weeks-old sweat that comes from the days of trudging in the sun collecting ₦20 from okada and bus drivers, and his shoes defy any form of description. Even his arms, or pretensions to arms, are in a ridiculous state. Sometimes, you get the impression that at the start of the day, they take stock of what is available and then decide who gets what – the scraped wooden baton for one, the handcuffs with no keys for another (God help you if they snap that on your wrist), that Berretta pistol with a jammed safety catch (with another holding the cartridges) and a canister of teargas. Finally, the privileged guy, the marksman (never seen a woman in this role) carries the only automatic rifle the station has.

They stand about loosely, indolently (lacking in any kind of bodily discipline/control that is the stamp and identity of men and women of the uniform), lurking like demons, vampires in the night, terrified of light and open spaces but swarming out in the dark, thriving in shady corners and in the comfort of their lairs, at their demonic best when they find a victim or smell fear. They will spit anywhere, piss anywhere and scratch any place, the dignity of their existence shot to a thousand pieces.

It remains an object of real curiousity that they give off the worst vibes of all their uniformed mates in the mega-corrupt Customs Service, the ubiquitous petty Immigrations (they are like mosquitoes, they feed off our gullible and desperate efforts at getting out of this country and no one, rich or poor, influential or nonentity, is exempt from their proboscis) or the forgotten and imprisoned Prisons Service. All the members of these three services, from OC to Comptroller, take huge pride in the way they look in their uniforms; the love and attention they pour on their uniforms and they way they look borders on narcissism. Even LASTMA officials are beginning to take care of the creases on their pants and the crispness of their shirts, with a style here and a turn-up there, a situation that is directly related to their ‘increased’ professionalism and their, debatably, growing sense of relevance and responsibility.

One gets the unshakeable feeling that the Nigeria Police Force operates a feudal system, an insidious process that ensures that the vast numbers of the Force at the bottom of the food chain stay at that miserable level. One illustration of this is the new uniform that has been introduced for almost two years now. No one has yet answered the question as to whether it is a ceremonial uniform, reserved only for outings and photo shoots. No ‘ordinary’ member of the police force can be found on the streets dressed in that blue shirt. We only see them in pictures in the press with such titles as IG, AC Police, CP, AIG, and oh, yes, the PPROs as they spin their yarns in front of the cameras.

Another is the state of their living quarters (they should be called something else instead of barracks), their workplaces and the vehicles they move about in. Of all their sister forces, they are the least taken care of and the least cared about. There appears to be a concerted effort to keep them living in squalor and rot. They are so ensnared in the daily struggle of fighting fleas, rats, odours, grime that they can’t look out of it and aspire for anything greater or decent. Everything around them just yells degeneration and decay. How can anything good come out from this bunch? Really, why should they care about the rest of us?

A huge reform is required ‑ urgently. And I would start with banishing those dead black/grey/whatever colour that they wear and issuing crisp white cotton shirts to every Force man and woman. I imagine it would be a bit more difficult to wake up in the morning, don a browned white shirt that has sweat stains (of three days) at the armpits and stand at a parade or at a checkpoint. Chances are that a few more people would care enough to wash the shirts (if not starch them) and worry about the fact that the white does not, cannot, conceal dirt and grime.

While there is no guarantee that it would scrub their stations and clean their homes, a semi-clean white shirt will make a man/woman feel cleaner about self, stand taller, walk straighter, adopt some proper manners and perhaps, turn a nostril or two up at the thought of a wrinkled, grimy ₦20 note staining the pockets of his ‘expensive-to-maintain’ uniform.

Plus, we would have the luxury of seeing Force men and women in one of the three categories mentioned above: the prim and proper, the stylish and the despicable instead of just hopeless grimy officers. That would be a refreshing change for us as a population, for whom every institution is fast spiralling into that cesspool.

Odommiri is a human resources consultant in Lagos.