DAKAR, 20 August 2010 (IRIN) - Successive governments have sought to reform the police and set up anti-corruption commissions, but members of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) continue to extort and embezzle money from citizens, and commit arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings, says Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Police corruption could have implications for the January 2011 elections, said HRW researcher Eric Guttschuss, who expects the police – which he says have helped politicians rig past elections – to be bought off by senior political officials.
Outbreaks of violence in northern Nigeria are also caused by police corruption, according to the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), which earlier this year called on the Inspector-General of Police to investigate allegations of police partisanship and criminality linked to the violence in Jos, Plateau State.
In addition, police corruption weakens the rule of law, with crimes going unreported, detainees bribing their way out of jail, innocent people being detained, and complainants of crimes being turned into defendents, states HRW in Everyone’s in on the Game: Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigeria Police Force.
Citizens are usually too scared to complain about police behavior as many end up as double victims: complainants risk being framed for a crime if a perpetrator has more bribe money to pay off police, lawyers and police officials told HRW.
However, the NPF dismissed the allegations. "It is not true that [Nigeria] police are predators not protectors… Nigerian police take active part in peacekeeping missions all over the world and if they had been killers the UN wouldn't have involved them,” spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu told IRIN.
Impact of corruption
Police corruption is just one part of system-wide failure, says HRW. Theft of public funds, bribery, and kickbacks pervade all levels of government: between 1999 and 2003, Nigeria ranked last or second-to-last on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index.
While the federal government’s revenue was US$45.4 billion in 2008, 64 percent of Nigerians live on less than $1.25 a day according to the UN.
As such, corruption in the police cannot be tackled in isolation from wider political corruption, said Guttschuss and NOPRIN’s coordinator, Okechukwu Nwanguma, at the report’s launch.
A 2008 Presidential Committee on Police Reform report outlined recommendations to improve oversight of policing, set up complaints procedures and develop codes of conduct, but the implementation of these measures has been weak due to a mixture of lack of capacity, funding and political will, says HRW.
Civilian oversight of the police falls under several government ministries, including the Interior and Police Affairs, which can lead to confusion. Financial oversight is particularly weak, says Guttschuss, and few know how the annual budget of $1.4 billion is spent.
The X-Squad was set up in 1966 to investigate officers involved in bribery and corruption, based on complaints from the public, but police officers and civil society leaders say it simply engages in the same corrupt practices it was designed to investigate, extorting money from junior police officers who are accused of abuses.
Said Ojukwu: "We admit we have some problems with our personnel in the areas of extortion, corruption, arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings, but appropriate sanctions are meted out to any police personnel found to have committed such offences. Last year, 764 police officers were sanctioned while over 8,000 rank and file personnel were punished.”
More to do
Two anti-corruption commissions have made a start at tackling impunity: the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) has charged 20 police officers since 2006; and in 2005 the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission charged the former inspector-general of police, Tafa Balogun, with embezzling $98 million.
Now the capacity of each of these bodies needs to be strengthened, said Guttschuss: with just four investigators, the ICPC “can’t make a dent in the system-wide problem”. The government should also focus more on prosecutions and improve financial oversight of the NPF’s murky budget, as well as demand all officers file periodic public declarations of the total value of their personal assets.
For its part, the NPF should streamline and prioritize internal controls by establishing a Public Complaints Unit at all police stations and restructuring the X-Squad.
The NPF, however, says enough is being done. “We are the most policed organization in Nigeria because we have so many government agencies that supervise our operations,” Ojukwu told IRIN. "We believe the new [round of] police reform recently initiated by the government will undoubtedly sanitize and reinvigorate the Nigeria police."