By imposing fines which any right-thinking person can tell the average car-owner cannot pay, the car-owner is forced to succumb to police extortion.

If you asked the man in the street what the Nigerian police do, he is not likely to tell you their job is to protect and serve the public.  In Nigeria, the police are known for one primary assignment: harassment of the public for the purposes of extorting money.  It does not make sense to ask a thief to catch a thief.  If he does catch the thief, you will soon realize that he has more in common with thief than with you; the property-owner.  In Nigeria, the police and thieves speak the same language. 

The Nigerian police cannot be categorized as defenders of the law.  They themselves have no respect for the law.  Indeed, they see themselves as above the law.  The police drive on the wrong side of the road.  They drive on roads clearly designated as one-way.  They don’t stop at traffic lights.  Therefore, it is not surprising that people who regularly flout the law are not regarded by the public as defenders of the law. 


Class conflict

I was driving down Queens Road in Lagos when I was flagged down by two gun-toting policemen.  “We need a lift,” demanded one of them.  “We are going up the road.”  Could I have refused?  What would have happened if I had refused?  It might have become a case of “resisting arrest.”  I asked them to get in.  One sat in front with me: the other at the back.  Immediately they got in, the man in front with me found it necessary to affirm his alienation from me.  He said to me: “Oga, you people are enjoying o.  You get AC in your car.  We, we have to stay all day in the sun.”

Several years ago, a friend of mine, Olayiwola Ogunbambi, was robbed.  I met him on his way to report the matter to the police and decided to go with him.  The policeman on duty gave him a pencil and a paper and asked him to write a full report.  He also asked him to include all the items that were stolen.  When Layi finished, the policeman took his time to go through his list.  Then he said to him: “Oga, you alone get all these things?”

How can we get a policeman to protect property he feels he cannot own?  Will there not be alienation between him and those he is called to protect?  The policeman in Layi’s case had a problem with the fact that Layi owned all the things he listed as stolen.  How then can such a man be committed to retrieving the stolen items?  In Nigeria, we don’t believe a man is rich because of his labour.  If he is rich, it must be because he cornered his wealth by manipulating the system.  Therefore, the policeman also feels justified in manipulating the system to his advantage.  Rather than try to recover your property, his first assignment is to defraud you further by making some money from you.

I have heard stories, although I don’t know how true they are, of people who were robbed and went to the police station to report the robbery.  On getting there, the robbed person recognized one of the police-officers as one of those who came to rob his house the night before.  When that happens, it is a waste of time reporting the case.  It might even be dangerous reporting it.  The man knows where you live.  If you don’t keep your mouth shut, the answer might be to return to your house to eliminate you.


Thieves catching thieves

Nevertheless, the Nigerian police are better than they seem.  The police know the thieves, perhaps because they are also thieves themselves.  Yes, Nigeria is a country where the Attorney-General is murdered and nobody knows who did it.  But this is probably because the police don’t know what they don’t want to know.  Or in some cases, they have been paid not to know what they know. 

If there is a robbery somewhere, I am convinced the police have a good idea who did it.  If a “hot” vehicle is stolen, they will retrieve it in no time at all.  On two different occasions, my cars were stolen by my drivers in Lagos.  On both occasions, they were recovered by the allegedly incompetent Nigerian police.  The first one was recovered in a village near Nsukka; the second one was recovered in Kano.

The first time my car was stolen, the police were not even interested in looking for it.  Their primary interest was in making money from me.  I then had to take the matter to a family friend at the police HQ in Lagos.  The man was Prince Rilwan Akiolu, now the Oba of Lagos.  At the time, he was a Commissioner of Police.  Prince Akiolu showed me a different side of the Nigerian police.  He gave me a firm assurance: “Your car will be recovered.”

Once it became known that a big gun in the police was interested in recovering my car, everything changed.  The case was transferred from Bar Beach to Force CID.  Crack detectives were put on the job.  My car was trailed all the way from Lagos to a village in the Nsukka environs.  The thief was arrested and the car brought back to me.  But then, having recovered my car, another chapter was opened in the saga.  The driver had to be prosecuted.


Jungle justice

At the first court hearing, I noticed something strange about the judge.  He had a strong dislike for a lady lawyer prosecuting one of the preceding cases.  He shouted her down at every intervention.  He accused her of incompetence: and rudely discountenanced all her objections.  When the court took a break, I had a chance meeting with the lady lawyer on the staircase.  I said to her: “Madam, what did you do to the judge?  He seems to have something against you.”  “Don’t mind him,” replied the lady.  “He is behaving that way because I haven’t paid him today.”  She said that so matter-of-factly and then walked off in disgust.

That should have told me the kind of jungle justice to expect in my case.  At the first hearing, my driver was granted bail.  At the next hearing, a police-officer came to report to the judge that my driver was dead.  While writing this down in his notebook, the judge asked casually: “Is that so?”  “Yes,” replied the officer.  “He died in a car accident just last week.”  At which point, the judge asked that the case be dismissed.  And that was it.  It was clear to me that the judge who apparently becomes irascible when not paid, had been handsomely paid.  The police officer who helped recover my car was unapologetic: “Oga,” he said, “at least you have recovered your car.”


Police is your enemy

The police aphorism says: “Police is your friend.”  Perhaps the Inspector General of Police needs to do a sample survey.  Do Nigerians regard the police as their friend?  I doubt it!  Many of us see the police as bribe-extortionists.  Many even believe they collect the bribes on behalf of the “oga at the top.”  The story goes that every day they have to deliver a certain amount of money to the powers-that-be in the force.  Now that the Christmas/end-of-year season is fast approaching, there will soon be a deluge of policemen on the roads to extort money from hapless citizens on spurious grounds.

When the check-points were dismantled ostensibly in order to attenuate this tendency, they were quickly replaced by “stop and search.”  This means the party goes on.  The policeman stops you, and then he says: “Happy weekend.”  For the next five minutes, he insists you must give him some money for doing his job.  While he seems to be plea-bargaining, he knows and you know that behind his request is the fact that he is a policeman man with a gun.  The whole strategy behind his request is to intimidate you into giving him some money

Alternatively, he simply decides to set you up.  There is a one-way traffic sign, but he has deliberately hidden it behind a tree.  Once you turn on the road, he comes out and places you under arrest.  Or he arrests you because you don’t have a fire-extinguisher in your car.  Or his claim might simply be that you were obstructing the free-flow of traffic by the way you are driving.  The allegation is varied, depending entirely on the imagination of the arresting-officer. 


Government collusion

But here is the rub.  When a man is arrested for a traffic offence in New York, the fine is only a fraction of the living wage.  Not in Lagos.  The minimum wage is 18,000 naira, but the fine for traffic offences starts ostensibly from 50,000 naira.  Then you might be asked to go for a psychoanalytic evaluation which might cost another 25,000 naira.

This puts the government in cahoots with the police.  By imposing fines which any right-thinking person can tell the average car-owner cannot pay, the car-owner is forced to succumb to police extortion.  The discussion becomes: “How much can you pay?  How much do you have?”  One thing is certain: whatever amount you have will not be going to government coffers.  It is going to end up in the pockets of the arresting police officer(s). 

I have a simple prescription for policing the police.  Create a crack unit in the police force specifically for doing the job.  Their job description is simple: to arrest erring police-officers.  They will operate in mufti, so the regular police will not know who they are.  Any policeman caught asking for bribes or taking bribes is arrested on the spot and prosecuted.  With one, two, many cases of policemen going to jail for extortion, the practice will be greatly attenuated in a matter of months.  In addition, no traffic offence should attract any fine is excess of 5,000 naira.  Even that amount is a lot at this stage of the Nigerian economy.

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