Fighting Police Corruption in Nigeria: An Agenda for Comprehensive Reform

Nigeria has a serious problem with police corruption, at all levels. At the top, senior police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds. To take just one example, in 2012, the former Inspector General of Police, Sunday Ehindero, faced trial for embezzling 16 million Naira (approximately US$44,422). Meanwhile, at the lower levels, rank-and-file police officers regularly extort money from the public, and crime victims must pay bribes before the police will handle their cases. As a 102-page report by Human Rights Watch documented, police extortion is so institutionalized that Nigerians are more likely to encounter police demanding bribes than enforcing the law. No wonder Nigeria’s police force was ranked as the worst of those included in the 2016 World Internal Security and Police Index, and that Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer survey found that a staggering 69% of Nigerian citizens think that most or all police officers are corrupt.

To combat such a deep-rooted and systemic problem, bold and comprehensive reforms are needed. What would an effective reform agenda look like? Here is an outline of the most important reforms that are needed, drawing on international best practices but also tailored to Nigeria’s particular circumstances:

  • Legal reform. Nigeria’s antiquated laws governing the police force haven’t been comprehensively reviewed since they were first enacted in 1943. These laws badly need updating. In particular, the laws should be amended to make regular training programs for police officers mandatory, and to clarify the grounds and define the protocol for conducting searches. Comprehensive overhaul of the current legislation will lead to creating better trained police officers who are clear about their duties, and will make it more difficult for officers to abuse their authority.
  • Ethical reform. The Nigerian police force has an official Code of Conduct, though it’s not clear how seriously this code is taken (it isn’t even available on the Nigerian Police website), and it doesn’t address police corruption with sufficient clarity or force. Drawing inspiration from language in the NYPD’s Patrol Guide, the Nigerian Police Force should explicitly provide that police officers should not compromise their integrity, or that of their Force, by accepting, giving, or soliciting anything of value which could reasonably be interpreted as influencing the officer’s official acts or judgments, or by using their status as a police officer for personal, commercial or financial gain. A revised Code of Conduct should also explicitly provide for significant disciplinary sanctions against officers who violate these rules.
  • Internal oversight reform. To enforce the more stringent ethical standards outlined above, the Nigerian Police Force should create a Command Integrity Control Officer, who (along with his or her deputies) would exclusively perform integrity control duties, including the development and maintenance of an integrity control program, one that would include a regular audit and review process to check for things like misuse or misappropriation of equipment and supplies, discrepancies in police reports, and payments to individual officers. Reforms to internal management and oversight should also include reforms to the evaluation and feedback system, in order to place more emphasis on integrity and professionalism. After all, unless the police leadership ensures that new policies are clearly communicated to the rank and file, with regular training and sanctions, these new reforms are unlikely to stick. 
  • Institutional autonomy reform. The Nigerian Police Force, as currently organized, is insufficiently independent, rendering it susceptible to the whims of the incumbent government. It is easy for politicians or rich individuals to go to the precinct and hire police officers to intimidate their rivals. Furthermore, the President currently has sole authority to appoint the Inspector General (who is supposed to be responsible for ensuring ethical conduct, among other things). Instead of giving the President such unilateral power, there should be a Board of Advisors, with representatives of all major political parties, to select the Inspector General, the head of the police force, and other senior police officials, and to perform other oversight functions. This will at least ensure that the leaders of the Nigerian Police Force have been adequately vetted and are not just the friends or cronies of the President. 
  • Transparency reform.The Nigerian Police Force should develop an interactive online tool aimed at enhancing public participation and transparency, following the example recently set by the South African Police Service. Such an online tool should enable ordinary citizens to rate their local police stations based on their experiences, and to report specific incidents of corruption. Another technological measure to enhance transparency would be the installation of surveillance cameras (controlled remotely) both inside and outside of police stations, to detect and deter instances of bribery and other corrupt activities. (To ensure that corrupt individuals do not manipulate the videos, the recordings should be audited by a separate body.) 
  • Salary reform. Currently, new recruits in the Nigerian Police Force make less than $400 a year, which practically guarantees that many police officers will engage in corrupt practices. Part of any comprehensive reform package to combat police corruption therefore should include substantial increases in police salaries. There have been some recent steps in the right direction: Last November, President Buhari approved a new salary structure, but the details are not yet public. To be clear, raising salaries alone is unlikely to be effective in addressing the corruption problem; such changes will only work when combined with other measures, such as those sketched above, to increase the chances that those who engage in corruption are caught and punished. But, when combined with appropriate punitive measures, increasing police salaries can make it easier for officers to behave with the expected level of integrity, and will lessen resistance to a crackdown on previously tolerated corrupt practices that supplement officers’ incomes.

There is no single anticorruption strategy that is sufficient to fully address police corruption. It is a complex problem that needs a multifaceted solution. While a comprehensive reform agenda like that sketched above may seem like a huge undertaking, it is the only way to disrupt the entrenched police corruption that has taken root in Nigeria over a period of decades. With a problem this serious, bold and far-reaching reforms, not half-measures, are essential.

11 thoughts on “Fighting Police Corruption in Nigeria: An Agenda for Comprehensive Reform

  1. Thanks for the useful update. Would add one more measure. Undercover sting operations or what is politely termed “integrity testing.” Classic example is a patrol car is summoned to an apartment to deal with a noise complaint. When the officers arrive, they find the door open and what appears to be a drug distribution center just abandoned. Cash and drugs are lying about. If all cash and drugs are packed up and handed over to evidence custodians, the officers pass.

    Police unions hate such tests and have vigorously opposed them. One clue that they are effective. Best defense is by perhaps the leading student of police reform, Cambridge Professor Larry Sherman. His 1978 Scandal and Reform: Controlling Police Corruption is a classic.

    • This sounds like a bribery provocation. In a system where it is common to behave corruptly, such provocations would only undermine staff attitude to their bosses: “they are punishing regular officers while having enormous illegal incomes”

    • Interesting point! A relevant number of studies indicate that integrity testing is an effective tool for assessing the integrity of public officials and could be used as another practice to try to curb police corruption. Unfortunately I don’t know many things about Nigeran legal system. However in many countries “integrity testing” would certainly be a controversial practice. In some jurisdictions, especially in countries that have a recent dictatorial past, privilege against self-incrimination is such a fundamental value that an attempt to introduce a “integrity testing” would be probably held unconstitutional. So, despite some seemingly good results that “integrity testing” obtained in some countries, it is not a legal instrument that could de transplanted to every jurisdiction.

  2. As a retired police officer, I applaud any efforts to erradicate corruption with the Police Service (and every other public service). Any professional officer should not worry about ‘sting’ style operations, as long as they are prepared, implemented and recorded correctly. Tackle ALL LEVELS of police & public services AND public office – get those right and then expand the profile to the private sector . . . . long and hard work, but so vital in the ‘anti-corruption’ chain.

  3. Just as a history lesson, it was not too long ago that the New York Police Department (NYPD) had significant corruption problems. New York’s issues then likely pale in comparison to Nigeria’s issues now. But, the tactics used to clean up the NYPD were effective and are similar to what you are proposing.

    In 1970, New York Mayor John Lindsay empowered the Knapp Commission to look at the systemic corruption plaguing the NYPD and appointed Patrick Murphy, a notorious anti-corruption reformer, as his Police Commissioner.

    One of the most important findings of the Knapp Commission was that the majority of corrupt police in New York were “grass eaters,” or practiced low-level corruption. These cops engaged in low-level corruption because it was not enforced and part of the culture. The Commission also found that the small number of really corrupt cops, or “meat-eaters,” were completely separate from the grass eaters because the carnivores lined their pockets by facilitating substantial criminal activity, rather than making small amounts of money voiding tickets or other low-level offenses.

    I would not be surprised if the police force in Nigeria has a similar dynamic. What constitutes grass eating and meat eating may be different there, but the Knapp commission’s strategy for reform and Police Commissioner Murphy’s actions still might prove instructive. While cases were built against the most heinous violators, Commissioner Murphy completely halted most low-level corruption in a very short time by placing undercover Internal Affairs officers in every precinct, sending known Internal Affairs officers to every precinct, and holding commanders accountable for their officers’ corruption.

    While many of these programs were already discussed in the main post, I would posit that they were only able to be implemented because Commissioner Murphy was an exceptionally effective police leader. So while a corruption reform package can be designed to root even the most seemingly benign instances of corruption, the person chosen to implement any program will be critical to its ultimate success.

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