Growing up as a child in the 80s and 70s, the Police we knew were mostly only seen on highways, and occasionally in towns and villages during crime investigation and arrests. They weren’t the best fared service outfit in Nigeria, but passion, commitment and dedication to duty, discipline and self-respect were key attributes of its workforce.
Their constitutional business was crime detection, investigation, preservation of public order, arrest of offenders (under high professional ethics), neutralizing armed conflicts and crimes as well as protection of property. Once a while, the Police entertained civil complaints such as land disputes, but mostly refer such to community leaders to resolve.
At that time, town criers, palace guards, vigilante and youth leadership played vital roles in maintaining order in communities. Any issues they could not resolve were referred to the Community sub-heads who would further refer to the Village Head, any matter outside their jurisdiction, or beyond their capacity. The Village Head, acting as traditional judge hears a matter brought before him and could issue sanctions or reliefs as may be dimmed fit. Parties in dispute were however allowed to appeal any matter to any magistrate court when not satisfied with the verdict of the village Chief.
The Army, Navy and Airforce were rare and highly dreaded in our streets. Their personnel were only seen on Television, barracks or borders. Internal armed conflicts and related disturbances were effectively controlled by Police, making it almost impossible to see military personnel in uniform in civilian Communities, except on the request of the Police when overstretched during internal security challenges.
The State Security Service introduced in the mid-80s was also almost invincible. We heard its name and knew its agents could be living with us but hadn’t the slightest idea who they were or what they looked like outside what we saw on TV. Those whose family members served in the outfit themselves likely didn’t know their real service identities. Their name alone was intimidating, yet, highly admired. Their counterparts in the Police Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (CIID) likewise.
These services had few personnel, but they kept crime level minimal and maintained high corporate integrity, despite poor staff welfare and working conditions. Those who retired from the services were often given special roles and respect in our communities, their ranks notwithstanding. Some of us dreamt to be part of them someday.
Today, however, I see Police being reduced to revenue Officials, collecting fees at market entry points, highways and motor parks, a role previously known to be exclusive to civilian Road Traffic union members and local government revenue staff. I see Police deploying armoured personnel carriers to arrest people having verbal quarrels, running errands for “bloody civilians” with money and power. I see a whole Inspector General of Police attempting to enforce dress code. I see army, DSS and related organizations acting like political thugs, a huge embarrassment for a country that prides itself as the giant of Africa, a giant for shamelessness perhaps.
Other countries reserve their military organizations only for high-risk operations but Nigeria deploys long-range artilleries to clamp down on unarmed protesters. Real terrorists are given special offers with persistent appeals for dialogue, but never will any civilian demonstrator be given such luxury. Such a one is even hunted down to his private house, apprehended and locked up, sometimes executed without trial, a treatment considered too cruel for a terrorist who is proud to kill civilian and military targets on camera. Such an abberation.
Why won’t anyone just carry arms and fight, knowing they would be rewarded with fame and wealth, as well as a chance to dine and wine on a discussion table with those he seeks an ear from? Why waste one’s time protesting with placards, flags and leaves in civilian streets when those who express their feelings through the barrel of the gun are given VIP treatment and sometimes, political appointments?
This is the conclusion of the matter: we are taught to “rise” as “compatriots” and “serve” our “fatherland” with love, strength and faith, that the labour of our heroes past might never be in vain. But increasingly, those whom we select to lead the way, setting up functional institutions to deliver a progressive nation bound in “freedom, peace and unity” have exempted themselves from the call to serve and declared themselves more important to the fatherland. The institutions setup in our name are tools and properties they use to force us to be faithful, loyal and honest, to serve the Nigeria they wouldn’t serve, with all our strength regardless of our pains and frustrations.
But perhaps, all these anomalies started with the rise of democracy, a system considered better than autocratic military regimes. Perhaps, things were much better during their days; and perhaps, it would be justified to suffer rights abuses under known dictatorial military administrations than so-called democracies. God save Nigeria!