Last Updated: Friday, 09 October 2015, 14:14 GMT

Nigeria: Policing Africa's most populous city

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 22 January 2009
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Nigeria: Policing Africa's most populous city, 22 January 2009, available at: [accessed 10 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

LAGOS, 22 January 2009 (IRIN) - Dozens of men, some half-naked and barefoot, many with bruised faces, shuffled into the sprawling car park at the police headquarters in Lagos on a recent December evening. Hoards of reporters were standing by to fire questions at them.

Each week the police brandish new criminals they have arrested to demonstrate how effectively they are fighting crime in Lagos, Nigeria's most violent and populous city, with 18 million residents.

Lagos police chief, Marvel Apkoyibo, told IRIN of the enormity of managing security in Lagos. "It is very, very challenging. Violent crimes, carjacking and gang violence are just a few of the security challenges we face here."

The tally that evening listed: 14 armed robbers arrested, five criminal suspects killed by police, nine guns seized ? a customary daily record of police activity in Lagos. Over 1,000 criminal suspects had been hauled into Lagos police stations by the end of the week.

Among those speaking to journalists that night was suspect Moshood Adeleke, 25, who cowered before the cameras as he explained how he stalked central Lagos, robbing people. "I used a jackknife to rob people and collected their cell phones and money."

Another suspect wearing military fatigues, who claimed to be a dismissed army corporal, told journalists he extorted money from motorists in the chaotic Lagos traffic.

After 30 minutes the suspects, many of them limping, were shepherded back to their cells.

Police overwhelmed

Lacking logistics, training, weapons - with no electronic finger-printing data of suspects and few surveillance cameras - the police force is unable to fight the rising tide of crime that continues to plague Lagos residents, an unnamed top security official told IRIN.

"Crime here is like a category-five storm sweeping across the city," said resident Paul Nlekwa.

Arms, ammunition and teargas canisters are all in short supply, the security official said. "We have been fighting well-armed robbers with our bare hands. We have limited vehicles, limited armoured personnel carriers and we lack every imaginable weapon."

Police official and former police chief Muhammad Abubakar told IRIN: "Only in Nigeria do policemen guard banks without wearing any body armour."

The police budget for 2009 is a "woefully inadequate" US$1.3 billion, according to national police chief Mike Okiro.

"Nigeria's entire annual budget would be insufficient if we plan to fully equip police to combat crime in the country," he told legislators at a budget hearing in early January.

Extortion and violence

As a result, working conditions for Lagos police "are among the worst even by West African standards," according to Innocent Chukwuma, head of the non-profit CLEEN Foundation, which promotes public safety and justice in Nigeria.

"Less than 10 percent of police officers have official accommodation in barracks or privately rented apartments," she told IRIN. "Many others sleep in broken-down vehicles or vehicles they seize from people; others sleep in their offices."

Some resort to bribes to get by. "We fuel our patrol vehicles by raising our own money from the public," revealed a sergeant and member of the elite anti-riot mobile force, who requested anonymity. "We buy almost everything ourselves; torches, even our belts and boots."

Senior officers also expect junior officers to pay them a proportion of the bribe money they raise each day. "They must settle with us," he said.

To make up for equipment and training shortfalls, some police officers are inclined to employ brute force, and routinely commit acts of torture, according to Human Rights Watch.

CLEEN's Chukwuma said: "If you look at the range of weapons available to the police, what is supposed to be used as a last resort - the gun - is often used as first. In traffic situations or during riot control, you see them [police] brandishing AK-47s."

Not a numbers problem

According to Information Minister Dora Akunyili, the problem does not come down to numbers - with 370,000 officers the Nigerian police force is the largest on the continent, and equals one officer per 371 Nigerians, better than the 1:400 UN benchmark. A recruitment drive has attracted 40,000 new officers to posts every year since 2005.

But the officers are not effectively deployed, officials say. Lagos, despite its size, has just 27,000 police officials, according to police spokesman Frank Mba. Another officer said many of these are deployed to protect public officials or do administrative work, leaving just half the force to tackle street crime.

"We have enough policemen. We need to train, fund and equip the ones we already have, deploy them properly, and motivate them to do the work they are supposed to," Akunyili said.


The government says reform is underway: President Umaru Yar'Adua approved a five-year police reform programme at the government's first cabinet meeting of 2009, held on 14 January.

The programme would increase funding of police training academies and pass new laws requiring training institutions to produce higher-quality officers, Information Minister Akunyili told journalists at a press conference following the cabinet meeting. Officers will also be equipped with cost-effective communications equipment.

Under the reforms the cabinet will present a new funding proposal to the National Council of State, a government funding advisory body, to aggregate the now-disparate funding streams for police forces across the country.

According to police officials, the federal government currently has no idea how much each state spends on police forces.

Serving powerful: a colonial legacy

But any notion of reform needs to shift the notion that police are there to serve those in power, to serving the people, an unnamed UN security expert told IRIN at a UN conference on security sector reform in West Africa.

"The colonial legacy in West Africa is such that police units were often set up to keep indigenous people in check rather than to protect them," he told IRIN, illustrating his point: "In many languages policeman [translates as] - man with a stick'."

"Post-colonially these units were transformed to serve incompetent regimes and retain power at all costs, rather than serving the needs of communities."

The President appoints the Inspector General of Police and can fire police chiefs at will, without having to consult the National Assembly, according to CLEEN's Chukwuma.

While the past years has seen accountability improve - up to 5,000 police officers have been dismissed for misconduct since 2000 and the police public complaints bureau has been revived - reform needs to go deeper, she said.

Serving the people

In 2004, with help from the UK Department for International Development, the government set up community policing in 10 states. Through this approach community members get involved in fighting crime by identifying problems which could lead to crimes.

"Communities, being the end-users of police services, need to be proactively involved in the policing process," Chukwuma, whose organisation CLEEN, is a project partner, explained.

But such reforms, she pointed out, can be meaningful only if they also strike at the top. This involves reviewing the 1943 Police Act which pre-dates formation of the UN and does not reflect numerous human rights and rule of law agreements the Nigerian government has signed. 

And this will not necessarily be welcomed. "The political system is not interested in introducing any fundamental change - because it could challenge their hold on power - they use the police in every election round to get back to power, and this is what we need to eradicate."


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