By Azu Ishiekwene
A small news item from a police statement tucked inside the print edition of PUNCH on Wednesday stirred more interest than usual. In the statement, the police had asked those who applied for the position of constables to resume at the state commands between February 1 and 20.
But that’s not the story. While the police needed only 10,000 constables, about 130,000 candidates applied; that is, for every single successful applicant, 12 will not be considered, all things being equal. It evoked sad memories of the 2014 tragedy, when six million applied for 4,000 vacancies at the Nigeria Immigration Service, and thousands were locked in a stampede at one interview venue, leaving dozens dead; only this time the potential for such a deadly outcome seemed remote.
But that’s not even the main story. In a country as ethnically charged as Nigeria, numbers are not just numbers, they also have tribal marks and ethnic roots. And the story took its headline from these roots. Even though it was inside in print, it got 1.3k comments and over 240 shares in four days on the PUNCH Facebook page.
According to the report taken from police records, out of the nearly 130,000 candidates who applied for the position of constables, 104,403 are northerners, while 23,088 are southerners; which means that one of every four applicants is a northerner. To drive the point home, for example, while Lagos (pop. 20m) has 562 applicants, Kano (pop. 21m) has 7,557 applicants.
That raised more than a few eyebrows. How can the lopsidedness be explained? Is it that in spite of the rampant insecurity in the country, applicants in some parts are not interested in or do not see the need to apply to the force? Is it the nature of the position advertised? Or are there systemic issues that limit applicants from sections of the country?
To start, recruitment into the police force itself has been – and remains – a subject of dispute for the past three or four years. The Police Service Commission (PSC) and the management of the force have been locked in a dispute over who has the authority to recruit. Two years ago, the court ruled in favour of the PSC but the hiring pipeline had already been congested as a result of a backlog.
To save the force from collapsing irretrievably under the weight of understaffing, among its many miseries, the PSC and the management decided to bury the hatchet, and suspended the implementation of the court ruling to allow management handle recruitment for 2020.
But the police management has extended the period of its own grace and in spite of the court ruling to the contrary, gone ahead to conduct the recruitment for 2021 without reference to the PSC, an action which may not have a direct bearing on the matter at hand, but is perhaps an indication of a deeper underlying problem with the force.
To understand the possible reasons for the lopsidedness in the applications for this year – which has in fact been the trend in the last two years, at least – we’ll need to go beyond the infighting between the police management and the PSC.
Why, despite the high level of insecurity in the southeast, are able and qualified young people in the region not interested in enrolling in the force to secure their communities? Why do the two regions with Nigeria’s highest rate of unemployment (south-south at 37 percent and southeast 29.1 percent, according to the NBS) have the lowest applicants for the police jobs?
Even though the aggregate number of applicants across the country this year far outstrips the available vacancies, why have applications dropped by 35 percent (from over 200,000 two years ago), with the police now having to make special appeals for applicants to come forward?
The answer, in shorthand, is that the police force is no longer fit for purpose. Yet the nature and impact of its obsolescence can hardly be captured in shorthand.
Once the military hijacked the decentralised and regionalised police force after the 1966 coup, it ensured that everything was brought under a central command, without regard to the needs of states and local communities. Whatever survived that deadly raid was finished off in the 1980s after the overthrow of President Shehu Shagari’s government. The army not only purged the force, it raided its armoury and squeezed the life out of any wiggle room left of police independence, even though the services had different and clearly separate constitutional roles.
The net effect of this power grab was that the police force lost its way. It changed from a regional service attuned, responsive and accountable to the needs of local communities to one where a central command in the Force Headquarters decides everything from the cost of stationery to suppliers and from the cost of fueling patrol vans to awards of contracts for uniforms, recruitment, promotion and discipline across the 774 local governments in Nigeria.
As the police-civilian ratio plummeted reaching 1:541, the force became overwhelmed. While officers turned a blind eye, the rank-and-file improvised methods for their own survival. These methods included but were not limited to extortions at roadblocks and hiring out of weapons in their care, the proceeds of which sometimes were demanded by and reached the very top.
Until the elite themselves became targets and victims of the upsurge in crimes as a result of the near total collapse of the police force, they didn’t bother. They were happy to pay for and be assigned policemen for their personal protection and for those of their family members, while the rest of the population was left to look out for themselves. Skyrocketing crimes, especially banditry and kidnappings, changed that. Today, the military has been forced, in many instances, to become the first line of defence even in the forte of the police: internal maintenance of law and order and crime prevention.
The system cannot cope any longer.
Why would the All Progressives Congress (APC), a party that promised change and reform and which currently controls the majority at the National Assembly, refuse to implement the recommendations of its own governors, up and down the country, about the need to restructure the system and emplace state and community police?
Why isn’t it obvious to the Federal Government that, on the whole, apart from lending itself for use in private errands and election rigging, the police force is hardly serviceable for anything else? Yet the same states that Abuja is unwilling to relinquish control to are the ones funding the force without the benefit of holding them to account.
I watched the comical video of the House constitution review committee voting down the proposal for state police by a vote 14 – 11, and couldn’t for the life of me understand if the committee chairman was counting hands for those for state police and counting hands and legs for those against it. The vote would have made nice comedy, if it wasn’t a serious matter.
Advertising for a larger pool for the Nigeria police is not the answer. The lukewarm response from sections of the country should make the message loud and clear.
The current system where recruitment into the police is done on the basis of local government quotas, will naturally, tilt the numbers in favour of states with more local governments. And in this instance, recruitment at the level of constables which requires lower certification, may attract a larger pool from areas where such applicants are in significantly larger numbers.
But what really is the sense in maintaining the current recruitment/operational structure of the police that is based on quotas that completely and willfully ignore the peculiar security needs and challenges of communities? Whose interest does this system serve?
The flawed recruitment system, which is prevalent in the security services, neither enhances the image of the services nor inspires confidence in them. And worse, the bulk of the recruits end up in communities from which they feel alienated and, which in turn, do not feel obliged to share confidence vital to get the job done. Large sections of the country can’t see a future for themselves in the Nigeria police. That’s why the applications are falling.
It’s instructive that while the Eastern Security Network, IPOB, Amotekun and even the hisbah continue to attract droves of talented and enthusiastic young people, a number of who are happy to serve on voluntary basis, the Nigeria police is at its wit’s end to find competent recruits for the service.
The force has passed its sell by date. What the Federal government needs is a relatively small, highly resourced Federal police, whose powers and functions, by law, need not conflict with those in regional and state forces, especially in areas of federal and cross-border crimes.
Of the 54 commonwealth countries – including those with spectacularly unitary systems of government – Nigeria has the reputation, closely followed by Uganda and Sierra Leone, of having one of the most notoriously centralised police forces. Yet, Nigeria is a federal state.
The system is not working. The force must reform or face extinction.
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP