We Police Ourselves

Police is your friend.....and friends depend on friends

I have often mentioned it to anyone who cared to listen that the source of Nigeria’s socio-economic problems is that people feel they can get away with any wrong-doing, misdemeanors, torts or crimes. The average man may not be held accountable for acts or mis-acts. This is why you may see a woman crouching in a corner to defaecate and throw used tissue paper against a wall even though it has “Post No Bill “sign clearly inscribed on it.

The short arm of the law is a huge social anomaly – yes, even bigger than corruption. Let me illustrate: A chap decides to drive his new Honda “End of Discussion” flash motor without a current license, car particulars, motor insurance, fire extinguisher or a caution sign. The officials of V.I.O flag him down on Adeola Odeku Road in Victoria Island, and beckon for him to pull over for a random vehicle check. He gets down, and it is discovered that in addition to the above, he does not have M.O.T for his car.

The V.I.O officers decide to tow the car away and issue a N50, 000 fine. The chap starts begging, gets on his knees and offers them a token to make the traffic crime go away. After much prompting, the officers ask for N20, 000. They both finally agree on N15, 000, which the boy pays in cash and drives away, sighing as he adjusts his rear-view mirror.

Even if this chap is a Dangote or Otedola, and 15 grand bribe is chicken change, his time has been wasted, and this becomes a huge deterrent for him, so he makes sure his motor particulars are complete to avert a future occurrence. The long arm of the law has taken its course to shape a person’s behavior in line with societal ideals.

In Naija, anything can go. If you believe in it long enough, and if you have the money, time or connections to back it up, it can happen. In this country, someone can sell you a plot of land on the moon, and provide the certificate of occupancy as evidence. Here, a sports minister once took a huge generator plant from the National Stadium to his village house for domestic use. He should have taken all NEPA’s faulty transformers and power plants along with him.

In the early 1990s, a popular and rich former presidential aspirant paid a visit to his Alma Mata somewhere in a rural part of Ogun state. He was received by the principals and vice principals and the students congregated at general assembly to meet with him. Noting that he had observed the bushy areas in the school environs, he announced that he was donating 5 grass cutting tractors to be used to cut grass, clear bush around the school, and also help cultivate the school’s huge farmland so as grow food for the student’s feeding. All the students were elated. At last maybe there would now be some actual rice to go with the stones, which usually constituted their afternoon lunches at the school refectory (dining hall, but refectory sounds better)

The principal gave a huge speech, espousing the qualities of the donor, and the school head-boy came out in his over-starched bongo shorts to give a vote of thanks on behalf of the entire student body.

True to his promise, the tractors were delivered about 3 weeks later by the wealth aspirant’s agents. Immediately the agents left the school premises, the principal convened a general assembly. His announcement cut like a knife: the tractors would be sold and the money would be used to buy 10,000 cutlasses, so that now every student had his own cutlass for general labour.

The principal later actually bought 5,400 cutlasses and a used Peugeot 504 saloon car for himself and pocketed the change.

Some years back, my friend’s cousin Gbenga came to Nigeria for Christmas holidays after about 15 years in America. On Christmas Eve, we all decided to go out to a couple of bars and clubs so he could have a good time. My friend had a 6 pack of Heineken in the car and some bottles of Peppermint Schnapps, Rum and Chelsea dry gin for “topping up” before we entered any joint. Don’t blame us, we were cheapskate university kids then, and there was no way we were paying cut-throat fees for warm beer or a watery cocktail in an overcrowded over-rated bar.

Oceanview restaurant had just opened then so we touched base there. The place was as full as hell, so we decided to leave after like 35 minutes. Gbenga was enjoying himself, and we were bumping Ether off Nas’s album “Stillmatic” while cruising past Adeyemo Alakija when we got to a mobile police checkpoint. The junior constable started flagging us down, with an enthusiastic look on his face, like he was seeing awoof. “Make una switch on una car inner light!”

Gbenga started panicking, trying to hide the open and half empty bottles of liquor under the car seats. He couldn’t hide all of them in time. The policemen saw Gbenga’s hand movements under the car seat, and one of the them waved his automatic rifle carelessly, as he asked “Na wetin dey under there?”

My other friend quickly interjected, before a now nervous Gbenga could answer “ Officer na nothing o. We de go our friend house for Ikoyi.”

The policeman didn’t look convinced, and as he cast his gaze inside the car, he saw an empty bottle of Chelsea Dry Gin.

The cop now sneered “Una de enjoy o. No be akpeteshi be that?”

Gbenga who was pissing his pants by now, tried to make a weak excuse “O.C, please…”

The policeman didn’t allow him finish, as his eyes suddenly brightened up at the sight of a wallet with a thick wad of crisp N200 notes sticking out of Gbenga’s shirt front pocket “ Make una do us Christmas.”

“Sure!” replied Gbenga enthusiastically.

We ended up giving the cop about N400 and a half empty bottle of Dark Sailor whiskey, and then they merrily sent us on our way. From our rear mirror as we drove off, we noticed the senior officer snatch the bottle of whisky from the constable, and swig from its contents, emptying it totally.

Gbenga was like a man reborn.

He put this head through the car sunroof and screamed “I fucking love Nigeria!! Anything goes in this country! I cannot believe that a policeman saw us driving under the influence, and we got away without a charge. Plus the policeman even asked us for a drink!”

I wasn’t thrilled though. Alcohol plus armed trigger happy police officer equals accidental discharge. I mean this cops were meant to be protecting the public and other commuters from drunken drivers. It reminded me of the time when the final officer at the immigration desk was begging me for the remaining naira I had on me, rather than concentrating on frisking my luggage properly for contraband or flammable substances.

So there you have it – in Nigeria, people get away with committing offences, and this breeds disrespect for the law and a breakdown of structures. Because the average person believes that an offender would get away with a crime, people are prone to disregard legal structures and take matters into their own hands.

It is no wonder why jungle justice is still prevalent in many parts of Nigeria. If you shoplift at Shop-rite, you are made to return the tin of sardine to the shelf, and are escorted off the premises or handed over the security agents. If you tried to nick a wrap of moi moi at Ghana High buka, you were taken backstage and beaten to a stupor so that you wouldn’t not hold up the line, then released almost half-dead with your purchase. If you tried to “fap” ube (African pear) at Onitsha market, you were lynched by an irate mob, revived, beaten again and introduced to a used car tyre, fuel and a lit match stick.

Going somewhere??!!

Once in Aba’s Ariaria market, a thief was set beaten to a stupor and set ablaze by a mob, after being caught trying to pick the pocket of a market-woman who was wearing Ankara so kept her money in her bra. Just after he was set on fire, he grabbed one of the members of the mob and hugged him, so they  perished together in the flames. I guess the thief wasn’t planning to go out like Joan of Arc.

Sadly, yes, jungle justice sometimes may punish the innocent too. But no system is perfect.

Yes the concept of Jungle Justice is cruel, but it is swifter than our court system. There are no opportunities of grounds for appeal, and the stolen item is usually returned to the victim of the theft, unlike under the court system. It is also convenient and does not cost a kobo. You cannot imagine someone calling 911 or Operation Sweep from a mobile phone wasting precious credit just because someone stole an agbalumo and was caught. Jungle justice also dispenses away with the hiring of lawyers, whom ordinary people detest and distrust anyway.

In Nigeria, people take matters into their hands because the police may not be bothered to do their job. Their greatest forensic or investigative procedure is asking the victim who they suspect. Heaven forbid if you and victim had a mini quarrel some days before the incident.

And in Nigeria, whoever reports to the police first about a matter is usually deemed the right party. Two men had a quarrel, and Peter smashed Paul on the head with a pestle. Bleeding from the head, Paul rushed to the police station to report, but unfortunately the okada he took broke down on the way. Peter meanwhile, took a bus and got to the station and reported that he had caught Paul trying to break into his house and had acted in self-defence. Paul is now “behind the counter” in a cell, surrounded by hardened criminals with names like “Tambolo”; he also has a big lump on his forehead.

The disadvantage of people handling matters instead of reporting the situation is that sometimes the punishment they mete out may not fit the crime. In fact, it usually surpasses the crime or misdemeanor by a huge margin.

lynching then hand-cuffing - a fair compromise?

Sometimes naija people get carried away when they are abroad. Sometime ago, there was this 30 something year old ,Nigerian Post-graduate student working as a security guard at a Virgin music store on Oxford Street in London. He got a call on his walkie talkie from the security cameraman that one oyibo teen had loaded his knapsack with CDs and DVDs and was approaching the exit door of the store.

The guard apprehended the oyibo and asked to search his bag. After a brief resistance, the guard yanked the bag, and while holding on to the oyibo’s belt buckle to prevent his escape, searched the bag. The bag contained stolen merchandise including CDs by Sporty Thieves, Rob Base and Take That, and DVDs like The Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean’s Eleven amongst others. The thief seemed to like Winona Ryder movies in particular.

At this point realizing his game was up, the oyibo tried to leg it, but was held firmly by the Nigerian guard, who started dishing him dirty slaps. People started stopping in front of the store and taking pictures with their camera-phones. The stunned oyibo guy’s face was now bleeding like he had been hit with a scud missile. He sat down on the side-walk too stunned and dizzy to even attempt running.

Then he saw a police car passing and flagged it down and turned himself in. The policemen into the car got down and started taking statements; they were quite angry with the guard and took him in. To cut the story short, the thief was handed over to the NHS for treatment and trauma victim counseling, while the security guard paid a short visit to Scotland Yard Police Head-quarters. I hear he was deported for attempted murder, and tells anyone in Nigeria who cares to listen that he relocated because of the economic “crunch.”

Back in the days of our parents, punishments were more balanced as people were fairer and more forgiving. There were fewer frustrations, and levels of aggression were less among the general populace.

Back then, if you stole a kobo, you were beaten up but allowed to live. If you snuck into your neighbor’s barn and stole a fowl, well the law of otumokpor (jazz) applied. The thief woke up the next morning, and found out that he had grown a chicken comb on top of his head. Panicking, he quickly turned himself in to the village baale.

Similarly, a chap stole a video, and was ejected from the community and exiled. A girl stole suya from a mallam’s tray…

As a nation, we have been policing ourselves for many years now. House-dwellers erect tall walls to help secure their properties and livings from dare-devil bandits, because policemen cannot be relied upon to tackle violent crime satisfactorily. From the 1980s, walls for residential homes just grew taller and taller, with first broken glass then spikes and electric fencing being added to keep out wall scalers. I know someone’s living room which has enough CCTVs installed to rival the number in Al Pacino’s bedroom in the movie “Scarface”

Unfortunately, in Nigeria NEPA must take light, and diesel scarcity is an annual event, and these CCTVs need power to operate. The armed robbers decided to strike during this brief window of opportunity. They were really pleased with the amount of “computers” they saw for the picking in the house.


In the underworld we take care of beef ourself/

And another thing yo, we police ourself/

Jay Z (Gangsta Shit, 1998)


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