It was a humid night in July 1985. I was returning home from work and had just run into a police checkpoint a few hundred metres from the University of Lagos (UNILAG).
Ahead of me, policemen were busy doing what they normally do at this time of the night … fleecing drivers. A young man was busy negotiating his bribe with an armed and seemingly intoxicated Sergeant.
Suddenly the policeman screamed, “What! Na who you dey bribe with dis kind money?”
The police officer was obviously upset that the poor chap had offered so little as his “contribution” for the evening.
“Oya corporal, hold dis money as Ex- hibit A. Dis one no get sense. I beg take am go station,” he bellowed at his fellow comrade in crime.
In the twinkling of an eye, the hapless young man dug his hands into the pock- ets of his trousers and quickly offered the Sergeant a more “befitting” reward for the privilege of mounting a checkpoint on the road.
“Next time no do dat kind thing o. Na who you think say you dey take play?”
The trigger happy Sergeant chided the young man as he proceeded to place the “donation” inside a nearby box.
It was now my turn. The Sergeant peered through the window of my red Honda Prelude. This is how the conver- sation went.
Sergeant: “Wind down my friend. Wetin dey inside your boot?”
Me: “Nothing. Just going home.” Sergeant: “Where your particulars?”
I handed over my drivers’ license and
insurance papers. Satisfied with the doc- uments, he continued with his harangue. Sergeant: “You no go give your boys
Before I provide details of what was
about to ensue, let me state that I have always been sympathetic to the plight of Nigerians who give in to the demands of corrupt policemen at checkpoints.
Their reasoning is that the paltry sums of mon- ey they offer, more than compensates for precious time they would otherwise have spent dealing with fabricated charges.
My position going back to my days in National Youth Service, has always been that both the giver and the receiver of bribes are complicit in the corruption that has perverted our nation and our police force. There simply cannot be one with- out the other.
However, my simplistic view has also always been met with laughter or a sym- pathetic look.
This dimly lit late night was to be my test.
Me: “OC, I don’t have anything to give. What you are doing is wrong. It is a dis- grace to your uniform.”
Before I could say “Jack Robinson” the Sergeant grabbed me by the collar, yanked me out of my car, and summoned his fellows in uniform.
Sergeant: “Make una come see dis Oyin- bo man. E tink say im sabi speak big grammar. Ehen, my friend wetin you just talk?”
Me: “I said what you are doing is wrong and a disgrace to your uniform.”
Suddenly, I saw bright lights and stars shooting up into the sky in brilliant pan- oramic colours. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. One moment I was stand- ing speaking “big grammar.”
The next moment, I was laid out flat on the ground. The indignant Sergeant had knocked me out for a few seconds with the butt of his rifle. I was in a complete daze. All I remember was the Sergeant and his colleagues getting into my car and driving off at high speed.
Someone came over and told me to
leave the area, failing which they could come back and kill me. And that if they did, nothing would ever come of it.
After dusting myself off, I made a few inquiries and eventually found the location of the police station in Yaba that they were attached to.
In a dimly lit corner, there was my Hon- da Prelude, waiting I presumed to be ten- dered as an Exhibit of some sort in a future court case.
I walked into the station and ap- proached the officer at the desk. I narrated what had happened and demanded justice.
Officer at the Desk: “So, na wetin you wan make I do now?”
Me: “I want my car back and I want these officers to be prosecuted.”
I knew my request was preposterous, but then again, such a request would be normal in any civilised country.
Officer at the Desk: “Oyinbo, if you no comot from my front now now, na inside guardroom you dey go straight.”
The tribal marks on his cheeks identified him as being from Ondo, the same city my father was from. I then switched tactics and engaged him in a conversation with the smatterings of the Ondo dialect I could muster.
Shocked by the switch in language, the Officer at the Desk said: “Why did you not tell me you are one of us?
I told him that in Nigeria, it really should not matter what part of the coun- try anybody was from. People should be treated decently and according to the law regardless.
It was almost 2.00 in the morning. At
this point, my only motivation was to retrieve my car and get home, especially as I had a flight to catch to Brussels in just a few hours. And secondly, because there was a good chance that my car could be gone by the time I returned from my trip.
Officer at the Desk: “Me, I no mind to release ya vehicle. But you must give man something to chop.”
I said u would not under any circum- stances. I also insisted that if I had to go all the way to the Inspector General of Po- lice, I would.
Officer at the Desk: “The problem way dey there be say if I release your vehicle, my boys go think say I don take money from you. Just give me something make you dey go.”
I was adamant. I would give nothing.
Finally, not based on any bravado on my part, but mainly the fact that I was from Ondo, the Officer at the Desk reluc- tantly handed over my keys and told me to disappear.
Thirty-five years later, the memories are embedded deep in my consciousness. I still have an aversion for police brutal- ity and I have zero tolerance for bribing policemen, no matter what.
The fact is, abolishing SARS may simply end up being a cosmetic procedure. We have been down this road before. Simply redeploying SARS officers to already corrupt police units does not solve any problem.
Rather, what Nigeria needs is a complete overhaul of its police force. Nothing more nothing less!
There are a number of things that can be done to bring sanity to the Nigeria Po- lice Force. Among other reforms, it should include the following:
1. Psychological evaluations. A number of years ago, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka
called for all Nigeria policemen to under- go psychiatric evaluations. This was not an insult but an obvious necessity. That call still remains valid today.
2. Set up an effective and independent anti-corruption unit to track down and investigate corrupt police officers from street level corporals to the highest lev- els of law enforcement.
3. Abolish hazing and the brutalisation of police cadets in training schools. Bru- talised cadets eventually brutalise civil- ians. It is learned behaviour.
4. Set up new training institutions and standard operating procedures. Fire or release psychopaths and other officers deemed to lack basic qualifications suit- able for the office they occupy.
5. Remunerate police officers proper- ly. By paying Nigerian police officers less than $100 a month, the federal govern- ment itself has sown the seeds of corrup- tion in the Force for decades.
6. Provide police stations with ade- quate budgets. Several officers acknowl- edge that they fund the fuelling of police vehicles, electricity generators at police stations, and the uniforms they wear with the proceeds of bribes received. Conse- quently, what Nigeria has is a vicious cy- cle of neglect and corruption.
7. Decisively, make a public example of low and high ranking corrupt police of- ficers on an ongoing basis, to serve as a deterrent to others.
We have been down this road before. We must go beyond window dressing. We cannot relent. We must cease the moment. The demands for change … real change, must continue. God Bless Nigeria and the host of young men and women who this past week have taken to the streets and allowed their voices to be heard.
–Oladokun is a communication and media consultant.