Lawlessness in Nigeria: Which way forward?

With last year’s EndSARS riots and face-off with the police have come avalanche of attacks on the police and police facilities in parts of the country. This seemed to have exposed the weakness of the force, causing criminals, cultists and civilians alike to dare and sometimes take on the force. We take a look at these, including the recent attacks on the force in the Southeast and Southsouth as well as the danger it portends for society.

Nigerian police force

He got a glimpse of what society without police would look like’. That was the title of a feature by this writer in this medium on the aftermath of the unhindered looting that followed the EndSARS demonstrations in parts of the country last October.

It was coined from the words of Adenike Oni, proprietor of Felgron Furniture, one of the owners of the multi-million naira businesses vandalised and looted clean by hoodlums shortly after the protest was hijacked by hoodlums and rioters, who looted with wanton and literally destroyed everything in sight.

According to Oni and several other victims interviewed in that feature, the magnitude of looting and horror they experienced were clear indication that there would practically be no society if there were no police.

It is on the backdrop of this that the current annihilation of the police since the confrontation of the EndSARS riots, portends no good for Nigeria.

Overwhelmed Police

It was as if it was planned. Or maybe the hoodlums simply saw an opportunity in the prolonged sit-outs and highway blockades, and simply cashed in. Some say it was a reflection of the number of hungry and jobless people in society, while others say it was a reflection of the number of criminals and hoodlums in the society.

From Lekki to Surulere, to Fagba, Ikotun, Igando, Agege, Ajegunle, major suburbs in Lagos, and as far as Ibadan, Oyo State, it was vandalisation and looting spree. Shops, malls, shopping complexes, supermarkets, even conventional markets were not spared, as they were devoured, much like the way of the locusts. However, while one may want to ask about the police at this critical time; the plain truth was that they were nowhere to be found; as even they had been overwhelmed and pushed to retreat and in disarray. To make matters worse, the looters literally took the battle to them by attacking several police stations, burning and looting arms and ammunition; even killing some of the officers and setting prisoners free. Literally, the police were sacked, even if it was for a while.

It began in Edo, where as many as three police stations were attacked and inmates set free. It sounded unbelievable, until online images started streaming out.

Next was Lagos, where Orile Police Station in Lagos, highly regarded for its fine structures, went on fire early morning of Tuesday October 20, 2020. Like it happened in Edo, men of the force at that station were promptly overwhelmed and arms and ammunition looted.

The story was the same in Ikotun, Agege and several other suburbs of the city. In Ajegunle, the Ajeromi Police Station was sacked and burnt down; same for the multi-million naira Ajeromi Ifelodun Local Government headquarters right opposite it, alongside scores of vehicles.

In all, 17 police formations across Lagos State were totally or partially razed by fire. The implication of this, according to Police Spokesman, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, in an interview granted the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) is that, “It will make our work harder now because we will have to enhance our patrols in order to cover more grassroots areas that are normally covered by the burnt stations before.”

He also said the money that had been set aside to do other projects and develop certain areas of the force’s operations would have to be channelled into repairing the damaged stations.

What he, however, did not say or deliberately left unsaid, was the fact that such injury on the police could possibly embolden society dissidents and criminals to go for its jugular.

Soon the affront began reverberating. In Oyo as a whole, at least seven police stations were reportedly burnt – six in Ibadan and one in Iseyin. These include the community-built police station at Ogungbade in Egbeda Local Government Area of the state, which the residents, suspecting an onslaught, had gathered to keep vigil and protect. But it seemed they left a bit too early, as the hoodlum came in the middle of the night and set the facility ablaze. Lamenting the unfortunate incident, one of the residents narrated how the community had pulled resources together; N5m, he said, to build the station in the interest of the people.

The hoodlums also set scores of vehicles, mostly in the stations and environs on fire and carted away valuables, including ammunition.

Between October 20 and 23, what seemed like a coordinated attack swept through the state. Ojoo and Iseyin police stations were burnt by rioters, while Egbeda, Ogungbade, Adelubi and Alabebe police stations were razed following a clash with the police that left a motorcyclist dead around the popular Iwo Road.

The attack on Egbeda Divisional Police Headquarters at New Gbagi, which turned out to be the worst hit, was allegedly fallout of the death of the motorcyclist around Iwo Road. All the buildings and vehicles in it were completely razed.

At Alabebe police station, thirteen vehicles were burnt, along with the buildings in the premises.

In all, Oyo State Police Commissioner at the time, Joe Enwonwu, said six policemen were killed, while five divisional police headquarters, police vehicles, exhibits and ammunition were carted away by criminal elements.

Lest we forget, a video purportedly emanating from Ibadan, where some men were roasting and eating meat said to be of murdered police officers, also surfaced in the social media.

Okada riders chase police in Ikeja

Apparently emboldened by activities of the recent weeks, commercial motorcycle riders, popularly known as Okada riders, notorious for their recalcitrant behaviour, also took on a team of the Lagos State Task Force, which attempted to curtail their excesses along Ikeja area of the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway.

A video that went viral immediately after showed scores of okada riders chasing a team of policemen, who retreated into their vehicles and zoomed off.

While many applauded the ‘heroics’ of the riders in that video, discerning citizens saw it as a danger signal. Folusho Adekola, a high school teacher in nearby Oshodi, expressed fears that, “If care is not taken, we may not have a society anymore. How do you run a society in which the police have been overrun and unable to enforce simple laws?” He queried.

Reacting to that video, another citizen, who simply gave his name as Emmanuel, said, “Very soon, armed robbers will be taking battles to the police. Yes, once there is no fear factor in the citizens as regards the police anymore, then we shall all be at the mercy of criminals and cultists.”

As it turned out, Emmanuel probably spoke too early. In the last couple of months, the battle against the police has literally shifted to the Southsouth and Southeastern part of the country. Hardly has a week gone by in recent months without a reported attack on a police facility – whether station or check-points. Sometimes, they even get so daring as to attack zonal headquarters. Lives of officers have also been wantonly taken.

As early as February 23, 2021, some suspected cultists in Essien Udim Local Government Area attacked a police checkpoint at Ikpe Annang Junction, killing two policemen in the process. The cultists, whom eyewitnesses said may have been on a revenge mission, following police clampdown on cultists’ activities in the area, took the police officers by surprise, arriving on bikes and attacking them with guns; causing them to flee. It was reported that the two slain officers were burnt to death in their police van. Three rifles were also reportedly stolen.

That attack followed two earlier attacks on the police by the cult members, who had destroyed properties and inflicted machete wounds on an officer, leaving him unconscious.

On March 31, an attempt on the life of former Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria and governorship aspirant of Anambra State in Isuofia, his hometown, saw to the death of three police guards on his entourage. Of note is the fact that the gunmen were not deterred by the sight of the armed police escorts. What therefore is the fate of unprotected citizens? Soludo escaped alive, but the story could have been different.

Two weeks earlier, three policemen and four naval officers were also reportedly killed during separate attacks by gunmen. The attacks may not be unconnected with the forthcoming Anambra gubernatorial elections.

That attack on Soludo’s entourage was followed by another daring attack in the early hours of April 21, when ‘unknown gunmen’ as the media has come to dub the assailants,  attacked Adani Divisional Police Station in Uzo-Uwani LGA of Enugu State, killing two police officers and wounding several others. The police station was also set ablaze.

In Ebonyi on May 2nd, some armed hoodlums attacked Abaomege Police Division in Onicha Local Government Area, destroying properties and carting away valuables. Fortunately, no life was lost.

Ebonyi Commissioner for Internal Security, Stanley Okoro-Emegha described the attack as worrisome.

Four days later on May 7, the attacks shifted to Port Harcourt, where unidentified gunmen killed seven police officers in what Rivers State Police Command spokesperson, SP Nnamdi Omoni, described as ‘unprovoked attacks’.

Police and customs officers manning various security checkpoints at Ikwerre Local Government Area were killed during the attacks carried out in the late hours of that Friday at three different police posts.

The attacks were carried out at a special checkpoint at Choba Bridge, where two policemen were killed and a private car belonging to one of the policemen set ablaze; another took place at Rumuji in Emohua Local Government Area, where two other policemen were killed while their patrol vehicle was set on fire. The other three were killed during an attack on Elimgbo Police Station along Igwuruta Road.

According to Omoni, two of the assailants were killed during exchange of gunfire at Rumuji; while the gunmen, at Elimgbu, abandoned their bullet-ridden Hilux van and escaped with bullet wounds via a snatched Sienna bus. The Sienna was later abandoned at Refinery Junction.

Omoni said no police post was burnt, while admitting that the attackers made away with a total of five assault rifles.

That attack on the police was the second in two weeks in Rivers state; the first having occurred on April 25.

On Thursday, May 6, two days before the Port Harcourt attacks, another set of unknown gunmen attacked and burnt down Obosi Police Station in Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State. The gunmen, it was reported, stormed the Police Station in large number, burnt down the station, killed two policemen in the process and set free detainees in the cells. The slain officers, eyewitnesses said, lost their lives while trying to prevent the assailants from gaining entry into the station.

On May 10, unknown gunmen also reportedly killed two policemen and razed a police station at Mkpatak in Essien Udim Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State. The hoodlums also reportedly killed 12 cows in a coordinated attack in Akwa Ibom and attacked a police station in Abak Local Government Area.

The attacks came 24 hours after five policemen and a police officer’s wife were killed in an attack on Idoro Ikpe Police Station in Ini Local Government Area.

The list, unfortunately, is inexhaustible.

Fear, distrust among the people

A direct consequence of these attacks on the police is the fact that the people’s confidence in the force has been gradually diminishing, to the extent that some say they would rather defend themselves or find a way to settle whatever differences they have, than go to a police station.

Samson Adekunle, a young graduate job seeker in Itire, Lagos, say getting into any kind of trouble and being locked up in a police cell can be a death sentence on its own, as one does not know which station would be attacked next.

“The way unknown gunmen attack police stations these days is scary. Imagine being caught up in a police station under attack by unknown gunmen? What if stray bullet hits you or you get trapped as the station is being burnt?”

Adekunle recalled how his relatives in Bolounpelu area of Egbe, Ikotun were literally sacked from their homes by cultists, with the police unable to help them.

“Some months ago in Bolounpelu area of Ikotun, my aunty and her husband had to totally vacate their home to come and stay in our place in Itire because armed cultists were attacking their community for a whole week. They said the police refused to come into the community to disperse the cultists, preferring to stay only on the main road. In Ikorodu and all parts of Lagos, Western and Southeast and Southsouth Nigeria, the story is the same. If the police are unable to tackle and overrun ordinary machete-wielding cult boys, what happens when armed robbers and bandits come calling?” He asked rhetorically.

It’s breakdown of law and order – Lawyer, rights activist

However, Benjamin Ocholuje Odeh, a lawyer and rights activist said, “The implications of the recent attacks on police facilities across the nation and particularly in the Southeast is breakdown of law and order, which could lead to aggravated cases of armed banditry, kidnapping etc.”

He said, “This is because the EndSARS protest has exposed the decrepit nature of our police system, the moral decadence prevalent among police officers within the rank and file, and above all the abandonment of the welfare and operations of the Nigeria Police by the authorities. Over the years, the Nigeria Police have been used by politicians, technocrats and other influential Nigerians at the detriment of policing guidelines and international best practices. The resultant effect is that things have fallen apart and the centre cannot hold. The citizens are now left at the mercy of criminals because the moral of the police is almost at zero level.”

Asked how the strength of the force can be restored, Odeh said, “The strength of the police can be restored by drastically addressing their welfare deficiencies like accommodation, insurance and death benefits of officers who lose their lives on duty. You cannot equip the police with modern technologies without addressing other underlying issues. There should be a retraining or adjustments of police training guidelines in their training institutes.”

When reminded that the police may have invited the current situation upon itself, Odeh said, that may be so, but recommended a solution. “What can be done to rev up the police moral is to completely overhaul the police operational and professional guidelines in line with international best practices, improve the welfare of officers and men of the police, ensure accountability among the rank and file and improve the relationship between police and the citizens.”

He also advised that “the people should begin to see the police as partners in security business. The police should be re orientated to stop their aggressive approach to investigating crimes. By so doing, they would earn the trust and confidence of the citizenry.”

Bamidele Johnson, a journalist and PR professional, said the recurrent attacks on the police are symptomatic of the public’s perception of the he police are viewed by the public.

While admitting that public perception of the police is sub-zero, Johnson is of the opinion that “the society cannot yield space to anarchy represented by gleeful assault on the police. If that happens, we are all cooked. As wretched as the police are, they still provide deterrence and a semblance of order. The unappealing alternative to this is a free trade zone of disorder and violent chaos.

On possible way out of what appears to be a quagmire, Johnson said the country has never had a decent police force, stressing that it is not entirely the fault of the personnel.

He therefore suggested that the solution is more in building a virile police than restoring. “Building a virile force needs right recruitment, with prospective recruits gauged for skills as well as integrity; adequate funding for equipment, training and constant retraining, including how to relate with the public. I suspect that the training they have today is totally bereft of ethics, as evidenced by the profusion of misdemeanours and crimes.