I believe it is necessary to critically examine any structure or institution when we argue and clamour for its reform. The relationship between the police and the citizenry in Nigeria comes up for scrutiny and complaint very often. Which is why it it not surprising that I have been attempting to write this post for the last year at least. I keep getting over taken by current events and latest outrages against the police. Therefore, I twittered recently:
I think Nigeria and Nigerians need to have a conversation on what the functions and duties of the Nigeria Police are.
— Dr Folúkẹ́ Adébísí (@folukeifejola) December 4, 2017
To understand how a structure functions we need to examine how the structure came to be. So it is imperative to consider the origins of the Nigerian police. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, it is difficult to find information on the origins of the Nigerian Police. Especially not within the Nigerian Police website. The official national webpage on the history of the Nigerian Police gives us the following summary:
‘ In 1879, a 1200 member armed paramilitary Hausa Constabulary was formed. In 1896, the Lagos Police was established. A similar Force, the Niger Coast Constabulary was formed in Calabar in 1894 under the newly proclaimed Niger Coast Protectorate. In the north, the Royal Niger Company set up the Royal Niger Company Constabulary in 1888. When the protectorate of Northern and Southern Nigeria were proclaimed in the early 1900s, part of the Royal Niger Company Constabulary became the Northern Nigeria Police and part of the Niger Coast Constabulary became the Southern Nigeria Police. During the colonial period, most police were associated with local governments (native authorities). In the 1960s, under the First Republic, these forces were first regionalized and then nationalized. The British merged Lagos colony and the southern and northern protectorates in 1913 and named the new colony Nigeria. The northern and southern regional police forces were later merged, in 1930, to form the colony’s first national police – the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).’
So we know for certain, is that the police force/service was established in the colonial context. There were mechanisms of law and order prior to colonisation, but the trappings of these were overwhelmed by the colonial encounter and replaced by the coloniser’s system of law and order. And in this respect, there has been a lot written on anglophone law and order in colonial Africa. And it is to these writings I turn for an understanding of the origins of the Nigerian police as complicit part of the colonial encounter.
First, we have to understand the nature of the colonial encounter and its relationship with law and order. Despite not often acknowledged, law was central to the recognition of colonisable space and those spaces being colonised. Law allowed for the non-recognition of people within certain spaces and thus allowed for the recognition of terra nullius – no man’s land. In other words, law was used to attach non-personhood to certain human bodies. Othered bodies. The effect of that was to attach or transfer colonisability to the land these othered bodies occupied. Once the land was colonised, the non-recognised bodies on the land could also be colonised, placed under subjection to the law and order and system of the colonisers. Subjected, despite the fact that inherent in colonisation was the non-recognition of the bodies of the colonised as bodies, as human, prior to colonisation. Law was used to create a system that was predicated on dehumanisation, on withdrawal of humanity as the logical first step. Non-human-terra nullius-control = creation of a colony.
How then is this colony, this legally and constitutively inconsistent non-polity maintained? By law and order. And by the police. The colonial police. The first step in colonisation was to obliterate the pre-colonial structures and conceptions of law, politics, time, space, property, work, and marriage etc. Then institute a system of indirect rule. Make the erstwhile rulers do the colonisers’ administrative work. [Opolot: 92] The police force created in 1820, populated mainly by Africans, was instituted to maintain the new colonial order. The order of the inconsistent non-polity. And to ensure that the old order perished. To entrench the non-recognition of othered bodies. Both the colonial African rulers and the colonisers benefited from keeping the people in their place. And exploiting them. Collecting heavy taxes that were carted back to the mother state. Seizing property. Detaining them arbitrarily. And visiting them with brute force if they stepped out of line.
‘E. L. Scott, the District Commissioner in Lango in 1913, said that “Opigi and his headmen must be supported at all costs at this present stage, or they will be unable to control their people. No decision by them should be reversed, if possible, even at the risk of occasional injustice. A little oppression even need not be a bad thing”.’ [Killingray: 417]
Nevertheless, the colony, the constitutively inconsistent colonial non-polity was resisted by those subject to it. Always. Combating crime frequently meant dealing with these resistances to the colonial order. The definition of what constituted crime was not any affront to public order but the affront to the colonial order. The resistance to an externally imposed order. These resistances were a thorn in the side of the colonial governments. The economic advantages of colonialism were not allowed to be undermined by a few Africans who presumed that they could rule themselves. Who presumed to be human. No matter how long they had been doing so prior to the institution of the colonial order, Africans could not be allowed to take control, to assert their humanity. Therefore, the colonisers invested heavily in security. In 1910, 27% of expenditure in the colony called Northern Nigeria went to securing the colony against internal dissent. The resistances were therefore resisted with the might of the colonisers, it just happened that the might of the colonisers was the might of the colonised. The colonial police.
The Egba rising of 1918 was suppressed at the cost of several hundred lives, and the ‘Women’s War’ culminated in the army firing on crowds of protesting women at Aba in 1929. [Killingray: 420]
The result of the increasing need to quell dissent was that by independence, the institutions of law and order were much more greatly developed than any other institution. There were a few schools, some hospitals, some transport links, but the organs of law and order prevailed. After independence, Africanisation of the police only resulted in superficial changes. The Nigerian police had imbibed a culture of brutality, exploitation, suppression and oppression. It seems that the only way to maintain stability of a state uncertainly non-constituted is by persistent and repeated shows of brute force. A crime is only criminal when it involves resisting the force of the state. This is in plain contrast with the functions and culture of the police in the mother/colonial state. In the UK for example it has always been understood that:
The police are primarily responsible for the maintenance of public order, prevention and detection of crimes in the state. It also protects the life, liberty and property of the people.
Any reform of the Nigerian police that does not account for its origins will not address the complaints people have about the Nigerian police. A cosmetic solution to the problem of the coloniality of the Nigerian police (and the Nigerian state) will be the problem given new form. Rather than reforming the police we re-form the problem of the police. Re-form its coloniality into a new form of brute force. Because inherent in colonisation is brute force. Colonisation was and is the use of violence to conquer, coerce and police in pursuit of imperialism and colonial settlement. In pursuit of dehumanisation. In pursuit of extortion. Violence as a form of control. Legitimisation of the violence by legitimising police action just means that our ideas of what is criminal are confined to any action that defies this control.
However and ultimately, we should remember that the police is just one example of our failure to decolonise overall. We cannot claim to be decolonised and hope to enjoy the effects of decolonisation if we retain the trappings of colonisation. Which we do. To reverse the effects of decolonisation effectively, decolonisers have to understand the mechanisms and structures of colonisation. This we have not done. And so we are trapped in the ideological moment of the non-creation of the constitutively inconsistent colonial non-polity predicated on our non-personhood. We are trapped in violence. We are trapped in dehumanisation. A thing can never do a thing that the thing was never designed to do. A constitutively inconsistent colonial non-polity predicated on our non-personhood will continue to re-produce non-personhood. Will reproduce dehumanisation. Will produce violence.
Decolonisation is not a metaphor. It is a call to action. It is a call to disruptive change. Change. Now. So our blood stops flowing in our streets.
- Bittner, Egon. The functions of the police in modern society. Vol. 5600. Chevy Chase, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, Center for Studies of Crime and Delinquency, 1973.
- Killingray, David. “The Maintenance of Law and Order in British Colonial Africa.” African Affairs 85, no. 340 (1986): 411-37.
- Mawani, Renisa. “Law and Colonialism.” The Handbook of Law and Society (2015): 417-432.
- Opolot, James SE. “The resilience of the British colonial police legacies in East Africa, Southern Africa, and West Africa.” Police Stud.: Int’l Rev. Police Dev. 15 (1992): 90.
This article was updated in March 2021 to reflect changes on the Nigeria Police Force webpages.