Godwin Eze, a school leaver was in Ikeja to see a friend and had to avail himself of the opportunity to buy an Airtel sim card on Awolowo Way, Ikeja. On his way to the Ikeja Along Bus Stop along the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, to board a bus home he was approached by a plain cloth man who told him to come back to see him. Not knowing the man before and unknowing to him that the man is a policeman, he made to go but the man in two strides grabbed his hand and dragged him to a waiting unmarked white bus. Before he could ask what the problem was, his pocket was searched, and on him was only N150 meant for his transport fare.
He was asked his identity and queried why he did not wait when he was called. He said having not found anything incriminating or amount substantial on him, he was left off the hook after being delayed for over 30 minutes.
Another individual, Femi Olanrewaju, is still nursing the scary memory of the experience he and his friends had in the hand of the police on his birthday.
Recounting his experience to The Next Edition, he said on September 20, he decided to hang out with a few friends on Allen Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos. While he was going back home with his friends in a taxi, about four policemen stopped them and asked them to get out of the taxi.
Olarewaju said the policemen, five in number and obviously intoxicated, asked them to identify themselves. “Unfortunately for us, only one out of four of us was with his ID card. They said since we weren’t with our cards, we should pay N100, 000 or follow them to Alausa Police Station. They pushed us into a waiting taxi like common criminals. We couldn’t argue with them because they were drunk and pointing their rifles at us. It was really scary. We obeyed as we were scared that anything could happen in the night,” Olanrewaju said.
“My friend who had his ID card on him called the Supervising Officer (SO) of MAN Centre police station, Ikeja, before they could let us go. But not without collecting two thousand naira from us though,” Olarewaju added.
The accounts of both Eze and Olanrewaju give a clear picture of the new antics of the police in their duty of stop and search which has led to the harassment of many innocent citizens besides making them to part with money as a license to extricate themselves from their captivity.
Although police raiding of hotels and drinking spots supposedly to look for suspected criminals has been a regular feature over time, many Nigerians frown at the way police approach people on the road, collect their phones and scroll numbers as well as check their wallets, diaries, bags and trouser pockets.
This practice, according to Barrister Joseph Usoro is a gross infringement on the people’s right to privacy. He said the police could only search phones, wallets and diaries of any person in their custody and under investigation not people just walking on the road.
Rotimi Adewale who has been a victim of police extortion said, “Seeing police breaks my heart. They must ask for something impossible. How do we co-operate with them when they have made it impossible for that? The real criminals are out there. Some of these politicians who have looted billions will never be investigated by these cops. The only people they harass are the ordinary Nigerians.”
According to The Next Edition findings, if the police see a young man casually dressed, they will assume that he is a “Yahoo boy” (Internet fraudster). They search people’s phones even though the Inspector General of Police has said that it is illegal to do so without a search warrant.
Recently the media was awash with a story of two young men, Kwam Adesina and his friend Innocent Igwe, who were on their way to Computer Village in Ikeja to buy some phones. They were searched and all the money they had on them (Adesina N25, 000 and Igwe N40,000) were forcefully collected by the police.
According to the report, after fleecing them of the money on them, the police officers took the boys whom they labeled “Yahoo boys” to an Automated Teller Machine (ATM) along Oba Akran, Ikeja, where they withdrew N40, 000 from Igwe’s bank account.
Adesina said, “They said they were going to kill me and that I did not have the right to ask any question. My friend and I went to Computer Village around 11am. Suddenly, some plain cloth men accosted us. They were carrying guns and said they were policemen. They didn’t ask us anything. They just bundled us into a car. I was surprised and I asked them why they were doing that and what our offence was.
“They started beating me. They used stick and gun to hit me. They handcuffed me and my friend. They were just driving us around, saying that we were criminals. They started searching us and when they found nothing, they said we should settle them or they will take us to their station as criminals.
“They collected the N25, 000 I had on me and took my friend’s N40, 000. They collected our ATM cards and asked us to give them our pin. They now drove to a bank at Oba Akran in Ikeja, Lagos and collected N40, 000 from my friends account,”
But is there no way out of this mess? A human rights activist, Caleb Okwara suggested a solution. According to him, to stem the tide of corruption by police officers in the course of their duties especially in the area of extortion of people, there was a need for police in Nigeria to move with spy cameras as it is being done in developed countries to curb their excesses.
According to him the spy camera will record the daily occurrence and what transpired between policemen and citizens. The spy camera, Caleb advocated for does the function of the black box which during plane crash will revealed what transpired on or before the crash.
He believes that with cameras or recorders on the policemen, most of them will behave well knowing full well that when there is an incident involving a civilian, the recording will be played for those in authority.
He maintained that that would help to curb the excesses of policemen with regards to how they relate with civilians.
For Olajide Smith, who works in an Information Technology firm, the best solution is to employ members of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, as policemen during the one year compulsory service.
“It is high time decent people joined the force. I am suggesting that members of NYSC should be trained for one month to do police jobs for a year. That way there would be some sanity in the force. They say bail is free but when you are arrested they extort money from you before setting you free.”
But the Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer ASP Olarinde Famous-Cole said contrary to the insinuations by people, the police were doing their best to sanitize the force while also not failing in the duty of weeding the environment of criminal elements and ensuring peace and security in the society.
He said the Inspector General of Police was carrying out a sensitisation campaign to assure everyone that bail is free. And that he had advised members of the public to report any station that collects money to free anyone through the citizen’s complaints numbers.
On the issue of police going through people’s phones, wallets and diaries in their duty of stop and search the PPRO said: “We are granted the authority to search phones of suspects. If a police has a search warrant, he has the right to go through the phone of a suspect. He can search phones in the cause of investigation.”
Although the explanation of the PPRO on what is required of them to carry out search on people indicts the police on one hand and tallies with the opinion on Barrister Usoro on when private items of people should be subjected to scrutiny, he insisted that in most cases such random searches on people had produced results with arrest of notorious criminals and cronies of criminals.
He said it was unfortunate that Nigerians always vilify the police and it is the same police that they look for in times of trouble.
Stressing that rather than continuous criticism, what police needed was support for them to carry out their work effectively.
“We are not saying we are angels. There are bad eggs in the police force just like every other institution. But what we need from Nigerians is support to help us effectively carry out our primary duty of ensuring the security of lives and properties and maintaining law and order.”
The Lagos police spokesman said the police command had not been failing in its duty to punish erring officers and would continue to do so to weed the force of bad eggs tarnishing the image of police force with their acts which not only contravene the law but work against the constituted authority and rules of the force.