Last week, together with the national leader of police reforms in Nigeria, we went on a human rights fact-finding mission. Apart from this big Oga, there was another human rights chap from another organization I will not name. The catalyst for that mission was that a common thread of brutality and extortion was being spun tightly around Edo residents by the police and law enforcement institutions.
Residents allege that their condition is no different from that of a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells of money (William Cohan Money and Power, 2011).
There are allegations that the anti-cultism unit of the police was the instrument with which certain persons in the police were extorting from Edo people. At first this was hard to accept. In Fredrick Forsyth’s The Odesa File, it is said that a people and institutions are not bad but the individuals who inhabit a people and institutions are the ones who make a people and institutions bad.
That said, it is important to establish that there are many fine police officers in the force, and because of the anti-corruption stance of this administration, it would be difficult to come to terms with a police force that uses the instruments of state to harass, extort and intimidate our people. Then a video gone viral of a suspect chained like an animal to a police van in Benin City surfaced. That video also coincided with the arrest of a prominent civil society activist on charges of treason.
To get to the bottom of all these, we needed to get the facts. First on our list of esteemed subjects for discussions were the Civil Society Community. Most are directly involved with fighting the causes of the victims and therefore regularly take flak from those perpetrating the rampant cases of extortion. And when people began to speak, they opened cans of worms and buckets of maggots. Of course, some saluted the integrity of the police, while others were not that benign.
We heard many, many cases but the one which stood out was the case of a restaurateur. The victim alleged that the police came at him in the dead of night in mufti, and armed to the teeth. Because they were unable to get him, they returned two months later in an unmarked vehicle. They were said to be from the anti-cultism unit of the police. As his traducers were bundling him away to his Golgotha, solidarity came from his neighbours.
The oldest man on the street, together with the neighbours of the victim all swore on their mother’s graves that this chap couldn’t be a cultist. But the police were adamant, and allegedly made a demand of N200,000 to set free the suspect. The oldest person became upset and left in disgust, yet others went into their closets and began to contribute until they managed to get N50,000 which they handed over to the police. But certain human rights activists intervened and compelled the O/C involved to return the cash.
We talked with another batch of unlikely victims – journalists. They chronicled several cases of extortion and an exercise of brute force on residents and on members of the Fourth Estate. But for us this was not to be enough. We needed to substantiate these very weighty allegations.
To ascertain or establish if there was any iota of certainty in these stories, we opted then to get the version of the police and the man in charge of the dispensation of the criminal justice system in Edo state. It is important to say that even at that very short notice, the chap agreed to see us. Why he became dour and sour eventually is what beats my imagination right now.
Not only did he have a mighty chip on his shoulders, he talked down and eventually kicked us out of his office. I was to remark to him after he kicked us out that the office he occupies even though sinecure is a public office and temporal.
We experience some trauma with the police as well, especially with the back and forth drama. The world over, if you are carrying out a study like ours, decorum and the need for balance requires that you get the side of the other party involved with the object of your investigation. What even made the need to speak with the police strong was that as soon as that video of police brutality broke, the police image maker in Benin berated the journalist who wrote the story without getting the side of the police.
So, to the police we went. The officer in charge of the image of the police was nice as well from the beginning. He listened patiently, and promptly ferreted us to see the Commissioner. It is possible that the commissioner was indeed too busy to see us. But we couldn’t understand why he couldn’t respect the rescheduled meeting that the image maker scheduled for the evening of that day.
Is it that a spokesman of an institution key to the enforcement of our rights and privileges does not have the authority to speak to us? If we had come from abroad, with a fancy name and portfolio, would he have spoken with us? What on earth could have made them let us go away with the can of worms and the bucket of maggots we brought with us, without as much as trying to debunk these many stories of extortion in Benin City?
I want to recommend to the individuals responsible for law enforcement in Nigeria. Be friendly with Nigerians in word and deed. The first step to getting the solidarity of Nigerians with the fight against corruption is to get off that high horse of theirs, and help to dismantle the toll-collection points which dot the metropolis. Let the extortion stop.