(Lagos) - Widespread corruption in the Nigeria Police Force is fueling abuses against ordinary citizens and severely undermining the rule of law in Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch called on Nigerian authorities to take immediate steps to improve budgetary transparency in the police force and to investigate and bring to justice police officers at all levels implicated in corrupt practices.
The 102-page report, "‘Everyone's in on the Game': Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigeria Police Force," documents the myriad forms of police corruption in Nigeria. It also shows how institutionalized extortion, a profound lack of political will to reform the force, and impunity combine to make police corruption a deeply embedded problem.
"Good policing is the bedrock for the rule of law and public safety," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The long-term failure of the Nigerian authorities to address police bribery, extortion, and wholesale embezzlement threatens the basic rights of all Nigerians."
The report is based on interviews with more than 145 victims of and witnesses to police corruption in Nigeria. They include market traders, commercial drivers, sex workers, criminal suspects, and victims of common crimes; rank-and-file and senior-level police officers; federal government officials; judges, prosecutors, and lawyers; religious and civil society leaders; journalists; diplomats; and members of an armed vigilante group.
Human Rights Watch's research revealed that many Nigerian police officers conduct themselves in an exemplary manner, working in difficult and often dangerous conditions. However, it also showed that corruption and abusive behavior within the Nigeria Police Force is endemic. One police sergeant lamented to Human Rights Watch that corruption is like "a disease in all of us."
Extortion and Bribery
The report documents how, on a daily basis, countless Nigerians traveling on the country's roads, buying or selling at markets, running daily errands, or working in their offices are accosted by armed police officers demanding bribes. To extort money, these officers frequently threaten victims and commit human rights abuses.
In some areas the extortion at police roadblocks, ostensibly put in place to combat the rampant crime that afflicts many Nigerian communities, has taken on the nature of a standardized "toll." The officers at the roadblocks make little attempt to hide their collection of money, exposing the near total lack of will on the part of senior police officers and government authorities to hold officers accountable.
Human Rights Watch's research revealed that people refusing to pay bribes are routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, and threats until they or their family members negotiate payment for their release. Extortion-related confrontations between the police and motorists often escalate into more serious abuses. The evidence suggests that police officers have on numerous occasions severely beaten, sexually assaulted, or shot to death ordinary citizens who failed to pay the bribes demanded.
The frequency of such acts of extortion has also led many Nigerians to become as complacent about police corruption as they are distrustful of the police. As one market trader put it to Human Rights Watch: "When you have a problem, you should expect the police to help you, to safeguard life and property - but instead, they go the other way.... The police are not protecting us; they are fetching money for their own pockets."
System of "Returns"
Human Rights Watch found that some senior Nigerian police officers enforce a perverse system of "returns," in which rank-and-file officers are compelled to pay up the chain of command a share of the money they extort from the public, thereby institutionalizing and driving extortion-related abuses.
Current and former police officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how officers must pay money to be assigned to "lucrative postings." Once there, these officers are told to meet daily or weekly monetary targets for their superiors or risk being "punished" with transfer to a posting with lower extortion potential. One police corporal explained to Human Rights Watch that he does everything he can to make sure that he meets the returns demanded by his superior: "If we don't have money at the end of the week, we will get money. We will pick someone and arrest them."
Several officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that these "returns" are passed up to the senior ranks in the force, which creates a strong disincentive to hold subordinates accountable for extortion and other abuses.
At the same time, senior police officials are also allegedly embezzling staggering sums of public funds meant to cover basic police operations. The 2009 budget for the Nigeria Police Force totaled $1.4 billion. But the daily reality is that embezzlement and mismanagement has left the police with limited investigatory capacity and government forensic laboratories at a near standstill. The lack of needed resources appears to lead many police officers to use torture as their primary tool for collecting information from criminal suspects.
Police officers complain of lacking fuel for their vehicles or funding for the most basic supplies needed for investigations. One police sergeant noted: "We get none of what we need to do our job ... pens; complaint sheets, we buy; bail bond sheets, we buy; fuel, we buy it." One lawyer described to Human Rights Watch how he saw an officer remove a light bulb from the fixture in a police station, explaining to a second officer, "[I]f you want light, buy your own."
Despite one landmark corruption conviction of a former inspector general of police, impunity remains the norm. One victim of police abuse told Human Rights Watch that this culture has led the police to "feel like they will never go to prison for the badness they do."
Justice and Public Safety for Sale
Crime victims are routinely forced to pay the police to conduct every stage of an investigation from the moment they enter a police station to report the crime until the day their case is handed on for prosecution. Those with no means to pay are left without justice, while criminal suspects with money can simply bribe the police to drop a case, influence the outcome of a criminal investigation, or even turn the case against the victim. As one civil society activist concluded: "Justice is for sale to the highest bidder."
One former police official described to Human Rights Watch how individual officers at all levels have simply turned the force into a "money-making machine." Senior police officials routinely and illicitly contract out, for their own personal enrichment, police protection to Nigeria's wealthy elite, depriving ordinary Nigerians of adequate security. This has led some communities to turn to armed vigilante groups who operate outside the law and are notorious for their abuses and for dispensing arbitrary justice.
Failures of Oversight
The report also shows how government ministers and officials charged with police oversight, discipline, and reform have failed to root out systemic corruption. Public complaint mechanisms, internal police controls, and civilian oversight remain weak, underfunded, and largely ineffective. Victims of police abuse and extortion also cited fear of further victimization as a key reason for not reporting these abuses.
Successive Nigerian administrations have acknowledged many of the problems described in the Human Rights Watch report, and have set up panels and committees to examine and make recommendations for police reform. Unfortunately, the recommendations of civil society groups and the various government panel reports have been largely ignored.
"It's time the Nigerian government at all levels took the devastating problem of police corruption seriously," Dufka said. "They should start by investigating and removing senior officers who tolerate and encourage extortion, and who deprive hard-working members of the force of the resources they need to do their jobs effectively."