The inauguration, late last month, of the Lagos Neighbourhood Safety Corps was long overdue. Criminality is rampant in Nigeria’s most populous state and megacity, despite robust funding and counter-measures by successive administrations. Lagos State should make this initiative work to serve as the take-off point for all other states to take charge of their security.
Governor Akinwunmi Ambode emphasised that the agency was not set up to compete with the Nigeria Police, but it would rather complement the force. To this end, safety corps members would not bear arms but “seek peaceful resolution of conflicts, proactive policing engagement, dispute mediation…and other skills that would assist in curbing crime and nipping in the bud the activities of criminally-minded individuals.”
As a response to rising crime and the obvious failure of central policing in a federal state, the LNSC is a template, which the other 35 states should immediately replicate. Nigeria is perhaps the only federal polity in the world that constitutionally decrees only one police force, controlled by the Federal Government for the entire country. This anomaly is becoming more untenable by the day.
Whereas the constitution describes them as “chief security officers” of their respective states, governors have often been helpless as crime flourishes and state commissioners of police continue to take orders from Abuja. In Lagos, for instance, it has taken billions of naira in funding for equipment and allowances to support the police and other federal security agencies to prevent criminals from taking over the state. Still, Fatai Owoseni, the commissioner of police, last October identified 164 “black spots” across the state where crime is rampant. Cases of rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, gangland violence, motor park gangsterism and scams abound. Notorious flashpoints include Ikorodu, Agege, Mushin, Somolu, Ajegunle, Bariga, Ebute-Meta, Isale Eko and Iba. The 33,000-strong police contingent is stretched securing a population of 21 million, both in number and, sometimes, inefficient deployment of personnel and resources.
The crime complex is replicated across the country with the Nigeria Police overwhelmed. But modern policing has long recognised the need for a paradigm shift away from central control to community policing. Federal polities solve the problem through state, local and county police forces, unitary states through devolution. Nigeria’s absurdity reflects in the posting of security agents to areas where they are unfamiliar with the terrain, people and customs. On account of this, the communities are often alienated from police officers and vice versa. A nationwide survey by Sheriff Deputies, a private security firm, in 2013, found that, on the average, 82 per cent of crimes went unreported, with some states recording as low as six per cent (Jigawa), seven per cent (Osun and Zamfara) and eight per cent (Ebonyi and Kaduna).
Prompted by the urban riots and street protests of the 1960s in the United States and Europe, community policing emerged as a strategy that focused on building ties and working closely with and among members of the community to deter and detect crime. It has become the norm in the US and many European Union countries. The United Kingdom rolled out its Neighbourhood Policing Programme in 2005 with dedicated police teams and officers across the country and Police Foundation, a think tank, says improvements were soon noticeable in hitherto crime-prone communities. Canada, Australia and Singapore have also adopted this model.
Unlike other countries that sensibly decentralise policing, our states are constrained by the constitution from setting up separate police forces. The LNSC is therefore limited in scope. Within that, however, we believe, with sound management, it could make a major force for good. It must never be allowed to follow the familiar pattern of becoming a force of tyranny like many before it. Lagos State Transport Management Authority officials descended into thuggish aggression and extortion until the administration of Babatunde Fashola refocused it back to its objective of service delivery that Ambode has sustained.
The LNSC should not be allowed to oppress Lagosians: there should be a high level of discipline and decorum from inception. Its managers should be conscious that they are to build, not to alienate, public confidence. There should be open channels of feedback reaching even to the governor to gauge public response to the corps. The uniform should not be a licence for impunity nor confer immunity from obeying the law as many uniformed personnel in Nigeria appear to believe.
The LNSC should immediately forge a good working relationship with other security agencies and effectively put the 171 cars, 377 motorcycles, 4,000 bicycles and other equipment that Ambode provided to use. The 5,700 corpsmen should demonstrate a high level of discipline and efficiency. For a state that officially recorded 246 murders, 542 car thefts, 162 rapes and 51 kidnappings in the 12 months leading to November 2016, according to the police, the task ahead is onerous. Every other state should key into this: the safety and security of the people should be the paramount objective of governance. Lagos should not allow the LNSC to derail either by excessive emphasis on fines and revenue or by meddling in political disputes. There should be a strong internal provost/monitoring unit to keep officers in line.
Ultimately, however, all stakeholders should continue the agitation for an amendment to the 1999 Constitution to allow for independent state-controlled police agencies.