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IV. Background: Attitudes Towards Policing

History of Policing in Pre-Colonial and Colonial Nigeria

Prior to the onset of colonization by the British in 1861, traditional African policing methods were rooted in the community and closely interlinked with social and religious structures. The enforcement of traditional customs and beliefs was carried out by community structures such as age grades (formal organizations whose membership is based on pre-determined age range), secret societies or vocational guilds (for example, of hunters, farmers or fishermen). Through these diffuse systems of crime control, law and order was maintained, largely without the use of violence.6 

As the British sought colonial expansion across the territories known today as Nigeria, they established local, decentralized police forces. The first such force was created to police the Lagos colony in 1861. Subsequent constabularies were formed in what became the northern and southern protectorates. The composition of these police forces varied depending on location. For example, in the Lagos colony a deliberate strategy utilized officers from the linguistically and culturally distinct Hausa ethnic group from the north of the country. This practice appeared to alienate the police from the local community they were employed to control. By contrast in the northern Nigerian protectorate a system of indirect rule depended on the Hausa chiefs and emirs, and thus the emir’s existing police system was strengthened.7

The primary purpose of the police during this time was to advance the economic and political agenda of the colonizers. In many areas, the police engaged in the brutal subjugation of communities and the suppression of resistance to colonial rule. The use of violence and repression from the beginning of the colonial era, marked a dislocation in the relationship between the police and local communities, which has characterized law enforcement practices in Nigeria ever since.8 

In 1930, the northern and southern police forces merged into the first national police force -- the Nigerian Police Force -- headed by an Inspector General of Police. The following years saw further changes in the organization of the force, such as the introduction of regional commands to reflect the federalism of Nigeria. Responsibility for maintaining law and order was now shared by federal and regional governments. The same basic structure was retained after Nigeria gained independence from the British in 1960. By this time, public perceptions of the police were firmly grounded in their experience of the use of the police force to extend colonial domination, for example, in the suppression of demonstrations from the late 1920s, workers strikes in the 1940s and communal violence from the 1950s.9 Post independence, successive military regimes used the police to enforce authoritarian rule, further entrenching a culture of violence and inhibiting the development of democratic institutions, founded on the rule of law.10

For decades the police in Nigeria have betrayed their responsibility to protect Nigerian citizens and have instead preyed on them for economic gain. Indeed, the relationship between citizens and the police is very often characterized by brutality, confrontation and exploitation. Research conducted in 2000 by the Centre for Law Enforcement and Education (CLEEN), a Lagos based NGO, found that the use of violence by the police against citizens in Nigeria was widespread. Of  637 respondents to a survey carried out in fourteen states, 14.8 percent said they had been beaten by the police, 22.5 percent said police had threatened to shoot them in the past, and 73.2 percent said they had witnessed the police beating another person. A sample of 197 prison inmates, revealed higher figures of police abuse; 81 percent of respondents said they had been beaten or slapped and 39 percent burnt with hot objects.11 

Patterns of police killings and excessive use of force have been documented by other local and international human rights organizations.12 Local organizations and the media have reported circumstances in which police obliged motorists stop at checkpoints and then shot those who refuse to pay bribes of as little as twenty naira (US$ 0.15).13 For the average Nigerian, encounters with the police are negative and public confidence in the force is extremely low. 14

A combination of factors has contributed to this situation. Firstly, like many government institutions, a history of neglect has left the Nigerian Police Force under-resourced.15 Since 1999 the government has sought to address this by progressively increasing the federal allocation to the force. In 2003 this was 8.3 billion naira (US$ 63 million) for capital expenditure.16 Despite these increases, a Nigerian police reform expert explained to Human Rights Watch that poor budgetary planning and processes mean funds are misspent or wrongly allocated. The centrally planned budgeting process allows little input from state and divisional commands and so often their most basic resource needs are not met.17

At a practical level, this has affected the physical infrastructure of the force. When Human Rights Watch researchers visited police stations in Lagos, Kano and other parts of the country they observed poorly maintained buildings, with an intermittent power supply and lacking basic office equipment such as telephones, computers or filing cabinets. 18

Like many other state employees in Nigeria, police officers are poorly trained, ill-equipped and poorly remunerated. The average take-home salary for a constable is approximately US$ 61 per month, slightly less than the average wage for a schoolteacher which is approximately US$ 77 per month. Indeed partly because of their poor pay and conditions, corruption within the force is rampant as the lower cadres try to supplement their meager incomes. At the other end of the scale however, is a more gratuitous form of corruption, appeared to be motivated purely by greed.19 This extends to the very highest levels, allegedly including the former Inspector General of Police who in January 2005 resigned and was subsequently accused of stealing US$ 98 million of public funds.20

Rising poverty, high unemployment and the breakdown of traditional social structures have led to an upsurge of violent crime in recent years which the Nigerian police have been ill-equipped to address.21 Official crime statistics, compiled by the police, show that reported incidents of murder across the country increased from 1,629 in 1994 to 2,136 in 2003. Incidents of armed robbery increased from 2,044 in 1994 to 3,497 in 2003. 22 While crime trends are notoriously difficult to analyze or interpret, it is apparent that the public perception is that crime rates in Nigeria are extremely high, particularly armed robbery.23 Crime rates and the perception of crime have been exacerbated by the high proliferation of small arms throughout the country. Fully and semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, machine guns and shoulder fired rockets are readily available for purchase in parts of the Niger Delta.24  Many of these weapons are smuggled through Nigeria’s porous borders from neighboring conflicts in west and central Africa. Others are stolen or purchased from the security forces. 25

The police have often been unable to meet the safety and security needs of local communities and are often overpowered by well-armed and often violent criminals. According to Nigerian police reform experts, the police force has insufficient well-trained manpower to adequately address policing needs. The loss of public confidence in the effectiveness of the police has resulted in the emergence of private security outfits and local vigilante groups, the most notorious of which include the Bakassi Boys in the south-eastern states, but also extends to hundreds of smaller groups across the country.26 

Since 1999 numerous special police units have been created to address the problem of rising crime. These include the Rapid Response Squad, Operation Sweep, and the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), some of which are the perpetrators of torture as documented by Human Rights Watch in this report. On his inauguration in 2002, former Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun established a federal anti-crime task force known as “Operation Fire-for-Fire.” As part of this operation, Balogun announced in the national media and on promotional posters, that there would be “[a] massive onslaught against armed robbery, gruesome murder, assassinations and other violent crimes.”27 He instructed officers “[to] conduct aggressive stop and search operations by carrying the battles to bank robbers. This would involve raiding all known and suspected black spots, flash points and other criminal hideouts.”28 

In October 2002, the Inspector General of Police appeared to effectively give his officers instructions to use deadly force if police stations or barracks were attacked. According to media reports, this was in response to violent protests against police abuses at a number of stations and barracks across the country. During an address to his officers he told them, “You have the fundamental right to defend your barracks. Any mob that attacks the barracks should be shot.” He went on to imply that they would be immune to prosecution for anyone killed in the course of a confrontation: “You have the right to defend your selves. This is my slogan. It is time for fire-for-fire. Start now to rise up to the occasion as we will praise you, not blame you.”29 Local and international observers note that not only has this confrontational response failed to significantly reduce incidents of violent crime, but the Nigerian Police Force is often accused of the disproportionate use of force in their fight against criminal activity.30 

The force headquarters regularly publish statistics detailing the number of armed robbery suspects arrested or killed in confrontations with the police. For example, in March 2005, the Acting Inspector General of Police announced that twenty-two “armed robbers” were killed during gun battles with the police in February and March 2005. 31 However, there appears to be a large discrepancy between the total number of weapons recovered and the total number of armed robbery suspects arrested or killed. While it is not implausible that some of these may have been lost or stolen, the discrepancy is so great it raises troubling questions that force may have been used disproportionately.  When Human Rights Watch met the former Inspector General in 2004, he presented a chart detailing crime statistics which revealed that in 2003 the police killed 3,100 “armed robbers” in gun battles, arrested 8,300 armed robbery suspects, and recovered a total of 3,451 fire arms. The statistics also show that the ratio between the number of suspects arrested and the number killed is extremely low and appears to be diminishing year by year. In 2000 there were approximately five arrests for one killing. In 2003 this ratio had dropped to just three arrests for each killing. The chart is reproduced on the opposite page:





Jan-March 2004

Armed robbery suspects arrested






Armed robbers killed in combat






Fire arms recovered






Ammunition recovered






Stolen vehicles recovered






Policemen killed in operation






Table 1:  “Crime Statistics from 200-February 2004,” chart presented to Human Right Watch by Inspector General of Police, Abuja, July 2004.

The term “armed robber” has become part of the national lexicon and is frequently used by Nigerians to refer to any person suspected of any form of criminal activity, regardless of whether they were carrying a weapon. For those individuals labeled “armed robbers” there is often an automatic presumption of guilt, which, according to those interviewed by Human Rights Watch, served as a justification for unlawful detention, torture and killing. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions commented during a visit to Nigeria in July 2005, “While I do not for a moment under-estimate the scourge of armed robbery which plagues too much of Nigeria, there is no doubt in my mind that the label of armed robbers is very often used to justify the jailing of innocent individuals who have come to the attention of the police for reasons ranging from a refusal to pay a bribe to inconveniencing or insulting the police or some general offence against public order.”32

Once arrested, armed robbery and other criminal suspects are frequently paraded before journalists in order to illustrate the success of anti-crime operations, thus appearing to label them guilty prior to a trial before a court. For example, at a Lagos press conference in October 2002, the state commissioner of police paraded ninety-three suspects accused of armed robbery, and announced this as “the fruits of the efforts of Operation Fire-for-Fire to fight crime and check criminals.”33  In October 2004, the local media reported that fourteen crime suspects were paraded before journalists at the federal capital territory police command in Abuja.34 

This has, on numerous occasions, also extended to the public display of the dead bodies of “armed robbers” at police press conferences. For example, in August 2004 a national newspaper reported that the Bauchi State police command had shot dead thirteen suspected armed robbers as part of a renewed anti-crime campaign. The paper described how the corpses of eight suspects were paraded at a press conference at the state police headquarters as evidence of the police authorities’ “war against armed robbers.” 35 

The police have been instructed with orders to use lethal force while maintaining law and order at public demonstrations and during inter-communal conflict, which has on several occasions led to the disproportionate use of force against unarmed demonstrators. For example, during nationwide protests against an increase in the price of fuel in July 2003, large numbers of police were deployed to the streets of Lagos and other major towns and cities. According to a witness to a telephone conversation between a senior federal police official in Abuja and the Commissioner of Police for Lagos State, the authorization to shoot protestors on sight was given from the police headquarters.36 As policemen violently broke up demonstrations using tear gas and live bullets at least twelve and possibly more than twenty people were killed.37 Similarly, during large scale rioting between Christians and Muslims in Kano in May 2004, dozens of people were killed by police and the military which had been publicly given orders to shoot on sight to quell the violence. 38

Structure and Organization of the Nigerian Police Force

The Nigerian Police Force is a centralized and federally administered institution. It is headed by an Inspector General of Police appointed by and accountable to the President. The constitution vests the overall operational control of the force in the hands of the President. Section 215 (3) states: “The President or such other Minister of the Government of the Federation as he may authorize in that behalf may give to the Inspector-General of Police such lawful directions with respect to the maintenance and securing of public safety and public order as he may consider necessary, and the Inspector-General of Police shall comply with those direction or cause them to be compiled with.”39 This is further codified in the Police Act which states: “The President shall be charged with operational control of the Force” and that “the Inspector-General shall be charged with the command of the force subject to the directive of the President.” 40

A system of patronage, where individuals are favored by the government in return for their support, appears to extend to the middle ranks and has led to accusations that the police function as a tool of the ruling party. There are numerous examples of this documented by Human Rights Watch including the use of the police to harass journalists, protestors, and members of groups opposing government policies.41 In addition, during Human Rights Watch research on political violence around the 2003 elections, it was widely alleged by human rights groups that the police were given orders by the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) at the highest level to turn a blind eye to incidents of fraud and electoral malpractice in their favor. In Anambra State, where there has been serious political infighting within the PDP since 2003, a detachment of police was involved in the attempted abduction of the state governor in July 2003.42

Each of the thirty-six states and the federal capital territory is served by a unit called a command, under a state commissioner of police. Three or four state commands are grouped together to form one of twelve zones, each under an Assistant Inspector General. State commands are divided into smaller area commands, below which are divisional police stations, headed by a Divisional Police Officer (DPO) and finally local police posts.43 The force size currently stands at approximately 325,000 officers. With an overall population of roughly 130 million people, this is a ratio of one officer to every 400 Nigerians. This compares with similar ratios in South Africa and the United Kingdom.44

As a federal institution, the Nigerian Police Force recruits officers from across the country. New recruits are posted to any one of the thirty-six state commands. Under a strict system of rotation officers are transferred to a new post every few years and therefore communities are policed by officers who may be from different ethnic or religious backgrounds to their own.

Serving alongside the regular police force are the Mobile Police, an especially trained anti-riot unit, numbering approximately 30,000 officers. Known locally as MOPOL, they were originally created to contain civil disturbance or large-scale conflict but today are also deployed to carry out various other policing duties. The Mobile Police operate under a parallel authority structure with forty-six squadrons, organized into state and zonal commands and headed by a commissioner of police at the force headquarters.

Several other national agencies carry out law enforcement functions and have the power to arrest and detain suspects, some at their own detention facilities. These include the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the Customs and Immigration Service and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), a body established in 2002 to investigate a range of financial crimes such as money transfer fraud and money laundering. In addition, there are two principal intelligence agencies: the State Security Service (SSS) and the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), dealing with criminal matters affecting the security of the state.

[6] Akin Ibidapo-Obe, “Police Brutality: Dimensions and Control in Nigeria,” in Civil Liberties Organisation, Law Enforcement and Human Rights in Nigeria (Lagos, 1994), and Human Rights Practices in the Nigerian Police Force, Constitutional Rights Project, (Lagos, 1993). For a detailed history of the police in Nigeria see, T. Tamuno, The Police in Modern Nigeria, (University Press Ibadan, 1970).

[7] Human Rights Practices in the Nigerian Police Force, Constitutional Rights Project, (Lagos, 1993) and

T. Tamuno, The Police in Modern Nigeria, (University Press Ibadan, 1970).

[8] Innocent Chukwuma, “Police Transformation in Nigeria: Problems and Prospects,” paper presented at conference on Crime and Policing in Transitional Societies, Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung, in conjunction with the South African Institute for International Affairs, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, September 2000.

[9] T. Tamuno, The Police in Modern Nigeria, (University Press Ibadan, 1970), and Etannibi Alemika and Innocent Chukwuma, “Analysis of Police and Policing in Nigeria: A desk study on the role of policing as a barrier to change or driver of change in Nigeria,” prepared for the Department For International Development, 2004.

[10] For details of human rights violations perpetrated by the police, military and other security forces during the periods of military rule in Nigeria, see Human Rights Watch, “The Ogoni Crisis: A Case Study of Military Repression in Southeastern Nigeria,” July 1995, and “Permanent Transition: Current Violations of Human Rights in Nigeria,” September 1996, and “Situation of Human Rights in Nigeria, Report Submitted by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission for Human Rights, Mr. Soli Jehangir Sobabjee pursuant to commission resolution 1997/53,” E/CN.4/1998/62, and “The Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission Report,” by Hon. Justice Chukwudifu A. Oputa, found at

[11] Etannibi Alemika and Innocent Chukwuma, Police Community Violence in Nigeria, Centre for Law Enforcement Education, Lagos, February 2000 .

[12] “Impunity in Nigeria, Reports of extra-judicial, arbitrary and summary executions in Nigeria, December 2001-December 2003,” LEDAP, May 2004, and “Nigeria: Security forces constantly fail to protect and respect human rights,” Amnesty International, 2003.

[13] For example, “Shot to death,” in The Educator, official newsletter of the Civil Liberties Organization, July-September 2004, and “Nigerian Police slay driver, triggering riot in south-west,” Associated Press, January 14, 2005,  “Police Kill 9, Arrest 2,” This Day, October 21, 2004, “Nigerian police kill 3 over 15-cent bribe,” PANA, August 18, 2004.

[14] See also Etannibi Alemika and Innocent Chukwuma, Police Community Violence in Nigeria, Centre for Law Enforcement Education, Lagos, February 2000, and “Abusers not protectors -- how Nigerians view their police force,” IRIN, May 24, 2005.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview Lagos, March 7, 2005, telephone interview, May 23, 2005,  and Etannibi Alemika and Innocent Chukwuma, “Analysis of Police and Policing in Nigeria: A desk study on the role of policing as a barrier to change or driver of change in Nigeria”, prepared for the Department for International Development, 2004.

[16] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with senior staff of the Police Service Commission, May 23, 2005.

[17] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, June 24, 2005.

[18] See also, “Report of the Police Station Visitor Walkthrough Survey Conducted on October 29-31, 2003 by Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN), Lagos, Nigeria.”

[19] Etannibi Alemika and Innocent Chukwuma, “Analysis of Police and Policing in Nigeria: A desk study on the role of policing as a barrier to change or driver of change in Nigeria,” prepared for the Department for International Development, 2004.

[20] See for example, “Nigeria's ex-police chief charged with 100 million dollar swindle,” Agence France-Presse, April 4, 2005.

[21] Kole Settima and Innocent Chukwuma, “ Crime and Human Rights in Nigeria,” paper presented at The International Council on Human Rights Policy, Crime, Public Order and Human Rights Project Review Seminar, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, New York, October 21-22, 2002.

[22] The police crime statistics can be found at The absence of reliable and independent crime statistics has made it difficult to quantify or analyze crime trends in Nigeria. Official crime statistics, which have only recently been recorded, are unreliable because they present only those crimes officially reported to the authorities and records may be manipulated to satisfy political interests. 

[23] The Nigerian NGO, the CLEEN Foundation, in collaboration with the Federal Office of Statistics, has recently undertaken one of the first crime and victim surveys in Nigeria. “Criminal Victimization and Fear of Crime in Lagos State: A report of the Lagos Crime Victimization Survey, 2004” can be found at

[24] See Human Rights Watch, “The Warri Crisis: Fuelling Violence,” November 2003, pp 24-26.

[25] Human Rights Watch, “The Warri Crisis: Fuelling Violence,” November 2003, and “Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State,” a Human Rights Watch briefing paper, February 2005. See also, International Alert, “Small Arms Control in Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal,” March 2004. 

[26] The Bakassi Boys were formed by traders in the south-eastern market towns of Onitsha in Anambra State and Aba in Abia State in 1998 to combat armed robbery. At their height in 2001-2002, the Bakassi Boys were also active in Imo State and carried out vigilante activities with the support and encouragement of state governments. The Bakassi Boys have been responsible for widespread human rights abuses including extra-judicial killings, torture and arbitrary detention. Due to public condemnation of their methods, the federal government took steps to disband the group in 2002. For further information on the Bakassi Boys, see Human Rights Watch/CLEEN report, “The Bakassi Boys: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture,” May 2002.

[27] Nigerian Police Force promotional poster detailing Tafa Balogun’s Eight Point Strategy for crime control and “IG to Reposition Police,” Vanguard, April 16, 2002.

[28] “IG Gives Fresh Directives on Fire for Fire,” This Day, April 17, 2002.

[29] “IG to Policemen: Shoot Arsonists at Sight,” This Day, October 18, 2002, and “Nigerian police boss orders protestors shot on sight,” Agence France-Presse, October 18, 2002.

[30] “Human Rights Group criticizes Fire-for-Fire,” Daily Trust, April, 2002, “Student shootings spark concern over Nigerian police tactics”, Agence France-Presse, June 24, 2002, and U.S. Department of State, Nigeria Country Report on Human Rights Practices in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

[31] “Nigeria cracks down on banditry,” Xinhua news agency, March 31, 2005.

[32]  “Press Statement, by Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,” Abuja, 8 July 2005.

[33] “Police Kill 25 Robbers, Arrest 93,” This Day, October 25, 2002.

[34] “Police Kill Three, Parade 14 Crime Suspects,” P.M. News, October 7, 2004.

[35] See for example, “Police Kill 13 Bandits in Bauchi,” This Day, August 14, 2004.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, July 20, 2003.

[37] For further details of the police response during the July 2003 demonstrations see Human Rights Watch report, “Renewed Crackdown on Freedom of Expression”, December 2003, pp 7-13.

[38] Human Rights Watch, “Revenge in the Name of Religion: The cycle of violence in Plateau and Kano States,” May 2005, and “Shoot-on-sight order in Kano as death toll hits 30,” Vanguard, May 13, 2004.

[39] Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, section, 215 (3).

[40] Police Act, 1990, Section 9(4) and (5). 

[41] See Human Rights Watch, “Renewed Crackdown on Freedom of Expression,” December 2003.

[42] See for example, “Anambra: Police Commission to Review Officers' Conduct,” This Day, November 29, 2004, and “Anambrassment and Police Double Standards,” Vanguard, November 19, 2004.

[43] For further information see

[44] In South African the police/population ratio is 1: 404 and in the UK 1: 412. Information taken from and

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