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On Thursday September 17, President Muhammadu Buhari signed an important piece of legislation into law.
The new harmonised Nigeria Police Force Establishment bill was hailed by presidential Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina as a modern framework that would transform the police into a “more effective and well organized Police Force, driven by the principles of transparency and accountability in its operations and management of its resources”.
According to the presidency, that Act among other things, established a fit-for-purpose funding framework for the NPF to bring it in line with other key Federal institutions. It would also enhance police professionalism through increased training opportunities and create a proper template for symbiotic relations between the NPF and local communities to maintain law and order across Nigeria.
The news of the bill’s signing was met with praise by several prominent individuals including the UK High Commissioner to Nigeria Catriona Laing, who described it as a “key step toward modernising” the NPF.
NewsWireNGR went through the bill to ascertain whether it was in fact what it was presented as, or yet another piece of vaguely-worded legislation that opens the door to regulatory overreach and systemic arbitrage.
Our findings once again indicated that it was very much the latter. The problems identified in new Police Act boil down to the following three issues: liberal expansion of subjective, ambiguously-worded powers of the police to stop, search and arrest Nigerians at will without any specific or enforceable limit to these subjective powers; a funding framework that effectively incentivizes and legalises shakedowns of citizens by the police; and wording that shields the police from responsibility for police misbehaviour, while effectively criminalising Nigerians for speaking out against such misbehaviour.
Sweeping, Ambiguously-Worded, Subjective Police Powers
The problems begin in Section 34 of the Bill where it states that a suspect may not be handcuffed, bound or subjected to restraint except “there is reasonable apprehension of violence or an attempt to escape.”
In practise, this innocent-looking clause means that whenever a Nigerian has an encounter with the police, the only limiting factor stopping them from being treated like a convict is the individual subjective opinion of the officer in charge. If the officer woke up on the wrong side of the bed and he/she decides that they suspect a Nigerian of potential violence, they can restrain them in the typical manner of the Nigerian police. It is important to note why this point is so important because it sets the tone for a lot of how the rest of the bill is framed.
According to SBM Intelligence co-founder Cheta Nwanze, the insertion of vague or unenforceable clauses in Nigerian legislation is typically an attempt to confer subjectively and selectively enforceable power on the Nigerian state. In other words, when drafting a bill in Nigeria that involves interaction between the state and the public, the extent of the state’s powers must be very clearly and objectively defined, with as little room for subjective interpretations as possible.
Section 38 effectively ends the right to assumed innocence which is one of the founding principles of the 1999 constitution.
It empowers any police officer without the authority of a court order or a warrant to arrest anyone “whom he suspects on reasonable grounds of having committed an offense against a law in Nigeria, or against the law of any other country.” Sub-section D of this utterly nonsensical section also gives the police the power to arrest anyone based on their subjective idea of whether they think an item in that person’s possession may have been stolen.
Once again without recourse to a court order or a warrant, a police officer can decide to stop a young man with an iPhone X, accuse said young man of having ‘stolen’ it based on the police officer’s “suspicion” alone, and then arrest and inevitably extort the young man. This is now completely legal!
As if that is not outrageous enough, subsection K effectively gives the police the power to arrest people without warrant or court order based on nothing more than a suspicion that they may be planning to commit a crime. In case the implication of this subsection is not clear enough, it bears reiteration – anyone in Nigeria can now legally be arrested for absolutely no reason whatsoever, with no basis for suspicion whatsoever, except a police officer’s opinion that they may be planning to commit an offense. Nigeria now officially practises predictive policing, only without algorithms or data – just the subjective opinion on any police officer, depending on what side of the bed they wake up on.
Expansion of Arbitrary Stop and Search Powers
Section 49 takes the ludicrous expansion of police powers to the next level, empowering police officers to stop and search at random in any public place without any specified reason, parameters or conditions guiding such activity.
The nonsense of detention and search based on nothing other than a police officer’s “suspicion” again rears its head in subsection 2 where it says that police officers may stop and search any person or vehicle whom they think may be conveying something stolen.
In other words, the regular scenario of crooked police stopping and accusing young men who have committed no offense of being internet fraudsters, and then extorting money from them before letting them go now has legal backing. Nigerian law has effectively legalised corrupt policing and the extent to which this statement is true will be seen as the bill is explored further down the page.
Section 52, subsection 3 states that if a suspect has been arrested (an innocent young man with an iPhone for example), the police is empowered to search him “If there are reasonable grounds for believing that he has on his person any stolen items.”
In other words yet again, a completely undefined and fully subjective, sweeping power has been written into law. Say for example, corrupt Nigerian police stop a young man driving his vehicle and decide to “suspect” him of internet fraud, he can then be arrested and searched to see what he has on him. Sub-subsection c then references “tools connected with the kind of offense he is alleged to have committed,” so if he has an iPhone or a laptop on him, that becomes evidence of a crime and by default he is criminalised.
This is how using passive, innocent-sounding words, this bill enables all kinds of police atrocities against Nigerians, giving police officers the power to be on-the-spot judge, jury and executioner based on nothing more than their famously well-educated and informed personal viewpoints and opinions.
This is reiterated in Section 86 where yet again the police are given powers to arrest anyone, anywhere at any time without recourse to any sort of legal process based on nothing more than whatever they feel like at that moment in time.
In comparison, the UK Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which contains clauses about warrantless detention goes into great detail to explain and clearly define what powers are available and under what circumstances they can be used, and how to define the individuals on whom they are used.
Bail is NOT free after all
In Section 63, the next steps of the corrupt policing enterprise described above are then laid out in lurid detail.
In plain English, what this section says is that when anyone is arrested for any offense except one involving death (such as the innocent young man accused of internet fraud based on nothing more than a police officer’s all seeing third eye), this person will then be bailed within 24 hours “for a reasonable sum of money.”
Once again it is important to reiterate that whenever terms like “reasonable” are used in Nigerian legislation, it is almost inevitable that they become opportunities for arbitrage. In the example above, a completely innocent young man will thus find himself obligated to pay a sum of money to bail himself for an offense that existed purely in the imagination of the police. The police will then get to decide how much that sum of money is, because the bill does not say so.
In case it is not clear what this is, then it should be spelled out plainly – this is a framework that deliberately enables legalised theft by the Nigeria Police Force.
The extent of the legalised shakedown becomes clearer with section 98 and 99, where it states that for the vague and undefined offense of “obstructing” a police officer, Nigerians are liable to pay a fine of N500,000. For the even less believable offense of “failing to aid or assist a police officer,” Nigerians are also liable to pay a fine of N100,000.
Where does said money go when these fines are paid? Section 91 answers:
This bill has thus devised a framework to legalise corrupt policing in Nigeria by criminalising everyone instead of reforming the police. To this end it has then created a “Police Reward Fund” that in all but name serves as a way of laundering the expected proceeds from what will almost certainly be corrupt policing.
Police is not your Friend
In Section 89, the bill lays out the procedure for what should happen when the police kill someone. Throughout this section, only passing mention is made of the act itself or its legality thereof. It is treated as an administrative box-ticking exercise.
In fact throughout the entire bill, no mention of any specific examples of common police misbehaviour is made, and there is no reference to any proposed punishments for such behaviour. It is worded in a way that suggests that Nigerians are the enemy and the NPF is not the extremely deformed institution it is universally known to be.
Section 100 even prescribes punishments for people who give alcohol to police on duty, as though the officers themselves do not have any responsibility in the matter. No punishment or administrative action whatsoever is prescribed for police officers who drink on duty
Finally section 135 prescribed punishment for “false information against police.” This section says absolutely nothing about any consequences for police misconduct including false information against members of the public, which could lead to it being construed as a silencing or intimidation tactic.
You can read the full Police Force Establishment Bill 2020 here.
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