The recent misunderstanding between the Police Service Commission (PSC) and the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), with regard to the recruitment, as well as the recent moves by the National Assembly to transfer constitutional powers and the mandate of the PSC to the inspector general’s office, call for reflection, regarding the need for the existence of the oversight body. It appears as if the message being sent is that it makes better sense for the police to police itself. These current attempts by the National Assembly at stripping the PSC of its mandate are, to put it mildly, both baffling and specious.
That the Nigeria Police Force has a wide gap to fill towards professionalism is not debatable. We are confronted with this reality every day. The NPF, given the number of its personnel, which is only about 350,000, in a country of about 200 million, and its obvious dearth of equipment and relevant technology, is no doubt hampered in its efficiency, but still can be argued are doing well under the circumstances which it operates. Yet, policing is not about making do with apologies for a situation less than the ideal. Policing affects our civil lives and dignity of the person, which can be violated with ease. As such, getting policing right is very important and an almost non-negotiable factor. Which is why the daily tales of bribery, extortion, extrajudicial killings etc. matters, in terms of effective policing and oversight.
In light of this, it is crucial to understand what factors gave rise to the need for the external oversight of the police. Why the external and often civilian-populated oversight bodies? How did this arrangement come about?
There are many examples of police excesses in the absence of effective oversight, for instance: the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s; the miners’ strikes of 1984-85 in the United Kingdom; the brutal style of the police handling of students protests, which led to the killings at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1986; and more recently, the death in police custody of a black American, George Floyd, which has raised a global uproar. These instances are legion.
All of these incidents bred distrust in citizens and led to wider questions about whether the police as an institution should be trusted to keep its house in order and bring its erring members to justice. This eventually brought about the establishment of civilian boards to review and/or investigate citizens’ complaints against the police, beginning with the Civilian Complaints Review Board in New York, which was established in 1953.
This is the root of civilian oversight bodies, including the Police Service Commission.
In Nigeria, the PSC is the primary body specifically assigned this responsibility in the Constitution. Paragraph 30, Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, states as follows:
30. The Commission shall have power to –
(a) appoint persons to offices (other than office of the Inspector-General of Police) in the Nigeria Police Force; and
(b) dismiss and exercise disciplinary control over persons holding any office referred to in subparagraph (a) of this paragraph
Some have erroneously argued that the Nigeria Police Council (NPC), headed by the president, has the same powers as the PSC. The Constitution, however, states that:
28. The functions of the Nigeria Police Council shall include –
the organisation and administration of the Nigeria Police Force and all other matters relating thereto (not being matters relating to the use and operational control of the Force or the appointment, disciplinary control and dismissal of members of the Force);
The Constitution was, therefore, careful to preserve the primary functions of the PSC, in terms of appointment, promotion, and discipline of the police, which are the exclusive preserve of the oversight body. The powers of the PSC, by Nigeria’s laws, are therefore not only supreme, but totally independent.
If Nigeria has the Police Service Commission as oversight body over the police, why are we still being forced to endure a Police Force that is sub-par? The answer to the above question is complex, yet simple. The Police Service Commission is, probably owing to its late introduction in our policing process, yet to be accorded the space and enablement it needs to be fully activated.
I will treat some of these factors.
The PSC has no functional office across the country, except in Abuja. As such, a complaint from a Nigerian in either Zamfara, Osun, Calabar or Borno, must be taken to Abuja for this to get treated. How many Nigerians can really afford this? When discussing oversight and good governance, therefore, the first step is to take the PSC to the states and zones. We must operationalise the PSC at the state and zonal levels. This will enhance the role of the PSC by bringing it closer to the people. It is commendable that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the inspector general are making themselves available to fill this huge void. Yet their efforts have limitations, as only the PSC can discipline or dismiss police officers, as stipulated by Nigeria’s Constitution. The PSC has mercifully delegated this power to the IG, with regard to junior officers (the rank and file). Yet we must note that the IG sends his recommendations to the PSC for most disciplinary actions, which takes a toll on time and resources. The PSC is the one-stop station for treating complaints. One must commend the Musiliu Smith-led board for giving the need for zonal and state offices the visibility it deserves.
The seeming lack of a harmonious relationship between the PSC and the NPF cannot be overemphasised in the undermining of citizens-driven policing. The PSC is made up of representatives of different sectors of the civil space, viz the private sector, the media, human rights community, women, the judiciary and the Police. This is a representation of practically all arms of the citizenry to drive reforms within the Police. The lack of cooperation by the police leadership with this all-inclusive citizens representative body can undermine the effectiveness of oversight. Responsive police leadership will implement recommendations for reform. Although there have been efforts at periodic meetings between the leadership of the PSC and the NPF, these efforts tapered off and need to be resuscitated to help in building cooperation and partnership between the two in the discharge of the PSC’s duties.
The PSC should therefore be allowed to continue its constitutional powers of recruitment, promotion, discipline and treat complaints from Nigerians, including sanctions. It should further be empowered and made more efficient and effective for the implementation of its mandate towards good governance.
Limited resources for the PSC have resulted in a lack of the needed robust and effective oversight for good governance. It is important to note the aid of President Muhammadu Buhari in ensuring that the PSC could move to its permanent offices in a few months times. There is no gainsaying that well-resourced oversight agencies have a greater chance of meeting their objectives. The PSC, as of today, could certainly do with more resources.
If Nigeria truly desires the police force of our dreams, which functions optimally and professionally, we must start with the PSC, the oversight body. A nation’s Police and policing mirrors how effective the oversight body is. Weak oversight machinery gives birth to a dislocated and anti-citizen police. The truth is that policing in a civic space with guns and ammunition can easily lead to abuse of power against an innocent and vulnerable person with no guns to fight back.
The above, more than any other argument, makes the recent moves by the National Assembly to transfer the powers of the PSC to the office of the Inspector General imprudent. The police in a civic space should not and cannot be made to have oversight function over itself. This has not worked. It brings about the “we versus them” mentality between the police and citizens. The PSC, which comprises a variety of citizens groups, is best suited for this and it is against this thinking that the law made it so.
The Police are an interesting and very significant security apparatus. They carry arms, are meant to maintain law and order, protect the citizens, etc. in civic space and context. This is why policing in the world of today is moving towards citizens-centred policing. It goes against the grain of standard practice for the police to recruit themselves, promote themselves, train themselves, and discipline themselves.
The PSC should, therefore, be allowed to continue its constitutional powers of recruitment, promotion, discipline and treat complaints from Nigerians, including sanctions. It should further be empowered and made more efficient and effective for the implementation of its mandate towards good governance.
The legislators should rather rise to the task of channelling enough resourcing and allocation to the PSC in this regard.
Rommy Mom is the Commissioner for Human Rights, Police Service Commission, Nigeria. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Rommymom1