Andrew Walker / BBC News – 2009-04-27 22:59:28
In the first of a series of articles looking at policing in Nigeria, the BBC’s Andrew Walker goes on a patrol with the newly formed, elite Specialist Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) in the eastern city of Enugu.
ENUGU (April 27, 2009) — With machine-gun at the ready, a policeman flags down a car with his torch.
“You! Out Now!” he barks.
The driver wordlessly complies, standing with hands raised before being asked, the routine is now so familiar.
The Nigerian police have a terrible reputation for corruption and brutality. But they also have problems with their technical capacity to fight crime. The main method used by this elite unit of police officers is to stop cars at random looking for guns.
“When criminals see us, their behavior changes. We’re looking for people who try and run from us,” Sars’ Commanding Officer Stephen Osaghae told the BBC.
Their aggressive manner, which includes pointing loaded automatic weapons at drivers who have done nothing to arouse suspicion, is necessary, they say. “You have to make everyone think when Sars are around, they are the owners of the job,” says Inspector Olawole Ohiolebo. On the night the BBC was out with them, Sars did not find any weapons.
Mr Osaghae admits there is probably a better way of catching armed robbers. “But we don’t have the equipment. In Europe you have helicopters and other sophisticated gadgets, we don’t.”
At one of the patrol stops, a van approaching them does a quick u-turn. It’s the moment the police have been waiting for. But it takes them too long to get into their truck and by the time they are in pursuit, the van has gone.
The radio they have doesn’t work properly and they can’t inform other police of where they are for several minutes. Only one truck has been pursuing the suspects. When they meet up with their second police car, Mr Osaghae is furious. “What kind of human being are we working with? We needed back-up!” he yells at his men.
They return to the barracks without making any arrests.
The life of a policeman in Nigeria is dangerous. A few weeks before the BBC caught up with the men from Sars, their patrol was ambushed by a gang. “The robbers we come up against have sophisticated weapons, better than ours ”
Someone sent them into a trap. Their pick-up truck was blown up with dynamite placed by the side of the road. Three officers were killed in the gunfight that followed. Inspector Godspower points to a line shaved into his scalp. “The bullet went here. Fsst!”
He motions over his head, tracing the path of the shot that nearly killed him. Another one went right through his arm.
The police officers say armed robbers are unredeemable evil misfits who smoke marijuana to dull their senses, kill without remorse and use black magic charms to protect themselves. Patrolmen say Enugu’s robbers are led by a notorious bandit called Ngukelomo, who has political connections which have enabled him to be released from custody in the past.
Some of the men admit to being afraid they might one day get killed.
“The robbers we come up against have sophisticated weapons, better than ours. We have no bulletproof vests. We need better equipment to protect us,” says patrolman Tiku, a 34-year-old officer who has been with the police for 10 years.
Kemi Okenyodo, of police reform group the Cleen Foundation, says the police need more than just expensive gadgets to improve their ability to work effectively. “The police capacity to investigate crime is next to zero,” she says.
Officers are not trained in policing techniques – if they do have qualifications, they are often irrelevant to police work, she says. Nowhere is the police’s lack of capacity more evident, reformers say, than in the interrogation of suspects.
Back at the Sars office the next day, two suspects are brought to Mr Osaghae’s office. One, a young man is accused of organising the rape and robbery of a woman who lives in a building he used to guard.
“You will take us to your accomplices,” orders Mr Osaghae.
“I don’t know who you are talking about,” says the man.
“Why are you lying? Take him back to the cells. In 15 minutes you will tell the truth,” says Mr Osaghae.
When asked what he meant by that, he refuses to elaborate. Before speaking to another suspect, Mr Osaghae asks for 15 minutes alone with him. When the BBC is let back in the room, the man tearfully confesses to being a kidnapper.
Mrs Okenyodo says the Cleen Foundation has pictures and witness statements that accuse Sars police of torture and killing of suspects. Enugu Commissioner of Police Mohammed Zarewa denies his men beat confessions out of people – the deaths are likely to be as a result of fire-fights with armed criminals, he says. “Any criminal can get a lawyer and make up a story,” he says.
Mr Zarewa has just been posted to Enugu, and he promises to investigate any accusation levelled against his officers. But Mrs Okenyodo says none of the cases brought up by police reform activists have been investigated. “The east of Nigeria, in terms of policing, is crazy,” she says.
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