Police-citizen Trust and the Survival of Nigeria’s Democracy

“Ordinarily, encounters between the citizens and the Police or other law enforcement agents should be reassuring and delightful. In fact, the mere sight of the Police ought to generate in the citizen an instant feeling of relief, safety and security. This, unfortunately, is not the reality in Nigeria today’’ – wrote Deputy Commissioner of Police Frank Mbah now the current Public Relations Officer of Force. This captures explicitly the story of love lost between the Nigeria Police and the citizens they are to protect.

Nigeria Police Force established in 1820 is backed as a law enforcement organisation by the 1999 Nigerian constitution as the only policing institution for the whole country, while Section 4 of the Act that made it a lawful organization under a constitutional government outlines the duties amongst many others, to include; detection of crime, arrestpreservation of law and order, detention and prosecution of offenders.

Proper policing is a necessity for governance and nation-building anywhere in the world. The Police play an important role in a democratic society because they are saddled with the responsibility of defending the rule of law which is one of the most essential ingredients of democracy, improves civic trust and perhaps preserves social order. Democracy provides the environment for one of these basic principles for growth in any society, equality under the law as protected by the police in that society.

Democracies require high levels of civic trust between the various components of society because democratic governments receive legitimacy only from the consent of a majority, a government of the people for the people and by the people.  It is, therefore, safe to say that no agency of government no matter how legitimate or powerful can operate outside this principle of getting the trust (consent of the people) in a democracy. This is why it is very important for Nigeria to take deliberate steps towards building trust between the Police and the citizen as this is a panacea for the promotion of peaceful coexistence and the rule of law.

Capacity and Trust, Anything for the Boys?

It will not take a foreigner up to 24 hours to know Nigerians don’t trust the Police Force, first, as simple as that sounds, it is a National Security threat. Among many others, the capacity of the institution to deliver on its mandate is always among the first to be questioned when debated against the citizen’s mistrust. Can the police as an institution deliver fully on it mandate if Nigerians decide to corporate?

Capacity can be defined as the ability of individuals, institutions, or societies to perform given roles at different levels, solve problems that may arise, set objectives and put in place processes that can achieve objectives in such a sustainable way. In this case, we are looking at both institutional capacity as well as the individual capacity of an average Nigeria Police officer to respond to a security challenge and deliver on his/her mandate.

This piece is not intended as a criticism of the Nigeria Police Force, but to maintain an honest and constructive conversation towards nation-building and the survival of our democracy.

The lack of trust between the average citizen and the average officer of the Force, in my opinion, is what translates to the trust in the institution itself. It is possible to have the most Professional Officer as Inspector General and still have a battered image in the eyes of the public when citizens meet officers at checkpoints and are asked ‘’ anything for the boys?’’

When you travel the distance of 10 miles anywhere in Nigeria, you are sure to see armed military men on either a stop and search checkpoints or in patrol vans or stationed along major roads and public places. This the proliferation of military checkpoints and armed military men in public places all around Nigeria I believe is an indicator of two things. One, a response to the insurgencies that now characterize the Nigerian State: Boko Haram in the north, armed militants in the Niger Delta, bandits in the middle belt and many new fronts the nation is yet to come to terms with and secondly, it shows the inability of the Police to keep the peace and security of lives and properties in the country.

The army is currently deployed in the 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria (FCT) performing the duties of the Police. Seriously underfunded and under-trained, the police are now unequipped to deal with local security issues of the country. Many have blamed the inability of the Nigeria Police Force to perform its lawful duty on the complete mistrust of the entire police institution by members of the public, with soldiers everywhere; police officers lose more credibility and the entire institution faces a confounding of the challenge of the trust issues with citizens not only based on a bad image from the conduct of the officers alone but also a lack of capacity to deliver.

While I believe the current leadership of the Nigerians Armed Forces is committed to the sustenance of our democracy, we lose a great deal when civilian spaces are governed by military officers who are trained for war instead of Police officers trusted and entrusted with these responsibilities by the Constitution. One of such is the use of the army for election duties.

This week, Nigeria celebrates 20 years of uninterrupted democracy in much faith that it will continue on the democratic path it has taken. With so many security challenges facing the country, its time the country begins a reform of its police if it 20-year-old democracy will survive another decade.  With the dawn of democracy on May 29th 1999 to date, the Nigerian Police Force has become the most mistrusted, criticized, vilified and lampooned organization by Nigerians both in private and public conversation. While most Nigerians will agree that most of these condemnations might in some cases be considered right, a good number also stems from the misinterpretation of the role(s) of the police in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy with weak institutions like ours. This the Force must deal with through enlightenment of officers and men and the general public which they serve.

The relationship of the Nigeria Police Force and Nigerians should ordinarily be that of cooperation and collaboration. The citizens rely on the Force to “protect and secure” and the police, in return, rely on public support and cooperation in order to be effective.

Like DCP Mbah wrote as quoted in my opening lines, Nigerians don’t believe this ‘phrase’ which should ‘ordinarily be the case. And the political class is less bordered because they are at the positive receiving end. The leadership of the Force has in several public communications admitted that almost half of the men of the force are protecting VIPs who are mostly politicians. Out of the 334,000 policemen currently in service in Nigeria, 150,000 are attached to VIPs and unauthorised persons.

When there is a breakdown in communication and trust deteriorates, tensions build between the citizens and the police and strain their shared goal of safer communities. National cohesion is threatened and so is our democracy.

Nation-building and democracy cannot survive outside a safe society. Violence breeds injustice and widens the gap that equity should fill. When citizens mistrust law enforcement, society is left with a more scary option, learn to live with and tolerate criminality as we see partially in semi-urban communities and in absolute in rural communities across Nigeria.

Urgently, both the citizens and the Nigerian state must decide what kind of policing they want to have and place greater emphasis on police-citizen partnerships.  The first step towards this is a strong focus on equity, transparency, accountability, shared information, and changes in how police are trained, evaluated and promoted.

And until Nigerians have a Police Force they can trust, the sustenance of our democracy is not only elusive but is farfetched and unfortunately will extend to the rest of the continent because as Prof PLO Lumumba famously said ”When Nigeria sneezes, Africa catches a cold”.


Adanu Moses is a programme officer with ROGAN (Research on Governance and Nation-building) Leadership Foundation and he writes from Abuja.

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