Almajirai with guns

Cartoon courtesy of Human Rights Watch

Almost on a daily basis, one reads at least one beautiful idea in the newspapers about what to do with with traditional Islamic school pupils known as almajirai. Many commentators, so much schooled in their biases and stereotypes, ignorantly blame the almajirai for a rash of crimes, including the murderous sectarian crises that have become the hallmark of life in the north. They argue that those ragged kids, who are usually armed with nothing but their begging bowls, are used by their teachers to kill and destroy.

Such ignorant postulations tend to ignore other professional beggers who have been visiting more pain and destruction than the almajirai – the gun-toting security men at the countless ‘check-points’ all over Nigeria. In the past, these fellows were stationed on the roads in order to fish out armed robbers, but with the worsening insecurity situation in the country, they were given the additional responsibility of finding potential bombers. Check-points on the approach to the nation’s capital have increased, so also the ferocity of the checks. And at night, in most cities, police men and sometimes soldiers are seen stopping drivers and asking them questions. “Wetin you carry” used to be the favourite joke of newspaper cartoonists; another was, “May I see your particulars.” These jokes portrayed our policemen not only as corrupt but also as foolish beggers for ‘something’ to eat.

Today’s check-point beggers are not armed with bowls but with AK-47s. They tell you, in a mellifluous voice that belies their capacity for savagery: “Oga, your boys are here o! Na your work wey we dey do.” You have a choice to ‘dash’ them something or not. I have observed that most drivers do hand over some cash to these armed professional beggers, even if reluctantly. Which also persuaded me to think that they scarcely have a real choice, considering the fact that there have been incidents of ‘stray bullets’ hitting unsuspecting commuters in many parts of the country. I also observed that givers of such alms show more alacrity when they are stopped at night.

The question is: why should our security men be asking for money from drivers at check points? Even though some policemen think receiving from a willing giver is not really corruption, I think it is. They erroneously figure that corruption is when you steal from the public till; my more bookish friends have a word for this: extortion. Whatever you call it, it contributes to the myriad of actions that gave our police force a bad image not only in Nigeria but also internationally.

In 2006, the Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN), a non-governmental organisation, published the result of a survey which described the Nigeria police force as one of the country’s most corrupt institutions in the country. That was a year after a former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun, was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to six months in prison. Only last year, the Human Rights Watch conclusively declared that widespread corruption in the Police Force was fueling abuses against ordinary citizens and severely undermining the rule of law in Nigeria. It wrote: “On a daily basis, countless ordinary Nigerians are accosted by armed police officers who demand bribes and commit human rights abuses against them as a means of extorting money. These abuses range from arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, including sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings. Police also routinely extort money from victims of crimes to initiate investigations and demand bribes from suspects to drop investigations.”

The international organisation’s damning 102-page report, titled “Everyone’s in on the Game’: Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigeria Police Force,” documents the myriad forms of police corruption in Nigeria. It also shows how institutionalised extortion, a profound lack of political will to reform the force, and impunity combine to make police corruption a deeply embedded problem.

It is correct to say that not all policemen or ‘check-point soldiers’ are corrupt or begging commuters for ‘something to buy a loaf of bread.’ I know many who are pained to know that some people regard them “just like the others.” However, a Hausa proverb says that it is a single bad bean which spoils the soup. I also know that several reform programmes have been introduced in order to rid the police force of bad eggs. But it looks like none has succeeded yet. A level of success can be measured when ordinary policemen stop asking for pocket allowance from commuters or even reject it if offered.

This would, indeed, require a highly disciplined and motivated police force. To get such a force, money voted for security should be made to reach those for whom it was budgeted. A cop who knows that his Oga has commandeered his allowance and given him crumbs would not be willing to honour any espirit d’corps. A cop who knows that his take-home pay cannot take him even to the bus stop would find asking a driver for ‘something for the boys’ irresistible. It is the duty of the police high command to cater for the needs of their rank and file, with justice and fair play, before discipline can be imposed from the police station to the police check-point.

Published in my column in Blueprint, on Monday. Cartoon courtesy of Human Rights Watch

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