Dear Nigeria Police,
African Americans are only beginning to understand a truth Nigerians are very versed in: that the police is not your friend.
Many people I know would rather die than involve the police in a domestic dispute or a criminal case. We cross the street when we see a policeman coming the other way, turn away when they try to engage us, parents warn their children to avoid police stations with the same severity they would gang hide outs. And all of this fear and disdain is justified, all of it.
There has never been a time I felt comfortable in the presence of a Nigerian police officer, even though my uncle and two of my cousins are police officers with nearly 30 years of service between them. From the lowly traffic warden to the decorated plain clothed detective, all I can muster for the men of the force is disdain or apprehension. This is not to say that there are no good men on the force, but the ones I have had the misfortune of meeting have all reinforced my disdain.
One of the promises President Buhari made during his election campaign was that the Nigeria police force would be reformed. If anything, under President Buhari, the Nigerian police has gotten worse, more brazen in their attempts to abuse their power and extort ordinary citizens. Even the educated, technologically savvy police men, the beacons that are supposed to be vanguards for reform are just as bigoted and sexist as the man demanding twenty naira from commercial buses.
In the last year, the Nigeria police has found a new demographic to harass and extort – young men and women. Only a few months ago, police men on a Friday night took trucks through the Lagos metropolis forcefully abducting and sexually assaulting young women because they had the audacity to be out after midnight. Even though many of the women provided identification to show they were upstanding citizens, they were still forced to spend the night away from their cars and personal belongings in a dinghy cell in Ikeja.
They were forced to write statements and post ‘bail’ though they had committed no crimes. Only after an uproar on Twitter and Facebook did the Lagos state government address the situation and request that the police officers in the offending unit be transferred to another state.
As though transferring them to another state solves the problem of their willful disregard for the law they are literally supposed to uphold or is an adequate punishment for sexually assaulting women. The officials at the Nigeria Police didn’t even bother to investigate or provide a comprehensive statement addressing the matter. All Nigerians get by the way of justice is musical chairs of repeat offenders.
At CMS and under the bridge at Oshodi; around Lagos Island and in Jibowu and Sabo, Yaba, young men are stopped without provocation and harassed, their personal belongings searched and their privacy invaded by men who identify as ‘cybercrime’ detectives. Woe unto you that you have pornography on your phone or a business card that supposedly doesn’t have an incorporation number on it. Like they did with motorists and domestic disputes, any excuse is taken to slap, maim and extort. A doubly painful insult considering these same men prostrate with no ounce of dignity before convicted criminals provided their palms can be greased with a few naira notes.
Take for example Aliyu Giwa. Rising to fame thanks to his savvy use of social media, Aliyu Giwa became something of a mascot for the ‘new’ Nigerian police president Buhari was supposed to deliver us, along with economic reform, basic amenities and good governance. With a wide following that even led to his wedding being covered by Bella Naija, Nigeria’s biggest digital magazine, many believed he was the kind of change we were hoping for. That is, until the conversation on Twitter turned to feminism and gender roles.
Giwa derisively quipped about how women fighting for gender equality would ‘beg for a man to marry them’ when they were through with their ‘feminism’ and defended his stance when he was rightfully called out for his tactless and sexist comments. I wouldn’t think it a stretch if I was told Giwa justified policemen inserting their fingers into the vaginas of ordinary citizens because they were out after dark with their friends.
We want to feel safe in our own country, we want a police force that is upright, educated on social issues, and motivated enough to put our lives before their pockets.
Dreadlocks do not make a young man a fraudster, neither does owning a school bag or a laptop. Being out after ten does not make a young woman a prostitute, neither does the length of her skirt or the kind of makeup she is wearing, or the kind of people she is around. We are not walking ATMs or vehicles for you to destress, or flex your authority. Young people should not have to live in fear of the people that are recruited and paid to protect them.
Edwin Okolo is an author and journalist who has worked with YNaija, TheNativemag and the Naked Convos.