Lagos-based property lawyer and realtor, Bolanle Raheem, was behind the wheel of her automobile on Christmas morning when she was flagged down by police officers managing a checkpoint in Ajah, a neighborhood of upscale Lekki in Victoria Island, Lagos. The other occupants of the car were Ms. Raheem’s sister and her four children; they were on their way back from a delicatessen where Ms. Raheem had apparently gone to do some last-minute Christmas shopping for her family. According to media reports, Ms. Raheem was in the process of obeying the police officers’ instruction to pull over when one of them inexplicably took aim at her car. Struck by a bullet, Ms. Raheem, who was pregnant, was rushed to a nearby hospital where she eventually gave up the ghost.
Predictable outrage has ensued in the wake of this tragic incident. The long list of those who have condemned Ms. Raheem’s unprovoked killing includes Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu; Inspector General of Police Usman Baba, National Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Akorede Lawal; presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar; Omoyele Sowore, presidential standard bearer of the African Action Congress (AAC); All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate Bola Tinubu; and Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Police Superintendent Benjamin Hundeyin, who has also promised that “the Nigeria Police Force will carry out a reappraisal of its rules of engagement in a bid to put an end to such avoidable ugly incidents.”
Anger has also exploded across Nigerian social media, with many shocked Nigerians describing the incident as “heartbreaking,” “unacceptable,” “senseless,” or “unwarranted.” Not surprisingly, the killing has invited comparisons with the mood back in October 2020 when public frustration at persistent brutalization of ordinary citizens by a unit of the Nigeria Police Force precipitated a monthlong protest. Indeed, for many commentators, the fatal shooting of Ms. Raheem is evidence that nothing has changed in the character of Nigerian policing.
Quite what happens next is difficult to hazard. While, for many reasons, a mass protest on the scale of #EndSARS is unlikely, Ms. Raheem’s status as a well-known lawyer and member of the Nigerian Bar Association increases the likelihood that the case will not be memory-holed, as tends to be the case with most incidents of police involved shootings in Nigeria. For example, the officer who fatally shot one Gafaru Buraimoh in the same vicinity earlier this month is yet to be identified. Most cases of police molestation or shooting of unarmed civilians go unreported; fewer still are prosecuted. In this regard, the arrest and detention of assistant superintendent of police Drambi Vandi, the officer believed to have recklessly fired at Ms. Raheem’s car, is a good sign.
While public pressure and the professional connections of the decedent may well ensure that the arrested officer gets his day in court, the issues with law enforcement in Nigeria, specifically police brutality, go beyond the misdemeanors of random officers; in any event, they do not lend themselves to speedy resolution.
As such, any policy reform must consider, first, the way in which the travails of the police and policing are a mere expression of larger problems inherent in the structure of the Nigerian state and the country’s volatile political process. Even for a landscape littered with ailing institutions, the Nigeria Police Force is uniquely dysfunctional. Poorly trained and kitted, it is also, according to a 2019 Corruption Perception survey by the Lagos-based Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), “the most corrupt institution in Nigeria,” with “a 63 per cent probability than an average Nigerian would be asked to pay a bribe each time he or she interacted with the police.” The fact that, out of a total workforce of 400,000, some 150,000 police officers are attached at any given time to private citizens and companies hardly helps matters. A public-serving force in theory, in practice, the Nigeria Police Force is a patchwork of private militias, available for mobilization by the highest bidder.
Furthermore, police brutality in Nigeria cannot be comprehended without taking into account the sociology of the checkpoint. The question of why encounters between law enforcement and civilians at checkpoints are frequently lethal is answered in part by the fact that the checkpoint is, perhaps above all else, a site of retaliatory extraction by low-ranking policemen. For the average policeman whose salary has not been paid for months (in September, police constabularies in the Southwestern state of Osun staged a peaceful protest over non-payment of 18 months’ salaries), the checkpoint is one of the few spaces where he can harness the power of the uniform to obtain what he feels he is legitimately owed by the public. Treated disdainfully by the system, the policeman literally takes out his frustration on ordinary citizens who cross his path. The incessant savagery of the encounter is already implied in the relational logic. Motorists often fail to stop at checkpoints because they are not sure whether they are dealing with actual policemen, or bandits in police uniform; the difference between the two can be a matter of definition.
That such encounters also have an important class dimension goes without saying. To be sure, police brutality in Nigeria is often random; yet, the fact that those most likely to come up against the police in daily interactions—students, drivers, public transport passengers, hair stylists, motor mechanics—are drawn from the same social pool underscores a critical class aspect. Status can be a shield against flagrant police misconduct, but only up to a point.
In its comprehensive ugliness, the Nigeria Police Force holds up a mirror to the Nigerian society. While justice for Ms. Raheem would be ideal, the problem defies a quick fix.