Rising from a recent meeting in Abuja on the security situation in the region, the Northern Governors Forum and the Northern Traditional Rulers Council issued a communique calling for “the amendment of the 1999 Constitution to give legal backing to state police.” For a group that has consistently staked out a position against the idea, insisting that it can only incentivize ethnic entrepreneurs and stoke political division at the state level, the turnaround by northern political leaders was truly extraordinary.
While the southern political elite may have grounds for grumbling that the northern about-face is born out of necessity rather than principle, for now, it seems only too glad to see its northern counterparts finally accept an idea that southern advocates have long regarded as a necessary step towards increased political decentralization. The clearest indication that now is not the time for nit-picking is the statement by the Southern Governors Forum “saluting the courage” of the northern leaders and reiterating “the fact of the incongruity inherent in an arrangement which purports to be federal, nominally, but whose observances stand at variance with the best practices espoused by climes considered advanced and progressing…”
Why the northern volte-face? In the first place, the region has borne the brunt of the escalating insecurity in the country, headlined by the Boko Haram insurgency, farmer-herder violence, and incessant banditry and kidnapping. According to the New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, more than thirty-five thousand people have been killed across northern Nigeria since the Boko Haram insurgency took off in 2009. Over the same period, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees puts the number of internally displaced persons in north-eastern Nigeria at well over 2.9 million. Other parts of the region have hardly fared better. The International Crisis Group estimates the number of civilians killed by “vigilantes, criminal gangs and jihadists” in the Northwest since 2011 at over eight thousand, with an additional two hundred thousand displaced.
Furthermore, the northern embrace of state police merely acknowledges the de facto existence of “state policing,” indexed by the proliferation of state-controlled police and paramilitary security outfits across various regions of the country, including the north. Among these are the Western Security Network (aka Amotekun), set up by the six Southwestern state governors in 2020; the Ebubeagu Security Network, set up in 2021 by their five Southeastern counterparts; the Eastern Security Network, the paramilitary group of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra; and the state-backed Hisbah, whose members have worked to implement and enforce the provisions of the Sharia law across several Muslim-majority northern states since 1999. Disarmed on paper, “former” militia leaders in the Niger Delta continue to maintain well-armed vigilantes. Indeed, a few of them are confident enough to flaunt their private militias, as Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, one-time leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, was observed doing earlier this month.
In a nutshell, conditions on the ground effectively rendered northern opposition to state police redundant.
To say this is not to discount the possibility that the decision to reverse course may also have been taken as a last-ditch effort to protect northern political unity. While, as recently as January this year, President Muhammadu Buhari had maintained that “state police is not an option,” it was clear even then that the president was running the risk of being isolated from the majority of northern opinion. For example, several months before, in August 2020, the newly formed North East Governors Group (comprising the governors of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, and Yobe, respectively) had made an unprecedented call on the federal government to “ensure the deployment of state-of-the-art military hardware to the region.” Significantly, the group also recommended “that the manpower deficit in the Nigerian Armed Forces should be bridged by allowing the police to carry state of the art weapons where necessary,” and that “the police should be equipped with strategic equipment like high-velocity tear gas, trackers, and Armoured Personnel Carriers.” Although the group just stopped short of calling for the establishment of state police, the governors’ frustration at the turn of events in their region was palpable.
Additional evidence that the tide was turning in favor of state police could be seen in the fact that, at the submission of its report in 2019, the Presidential Panel on Special Anti-Robbery Squads set up by Buhari in 2018 had recommended the establishment of both “state and local government police.” Lastly, addressing members of the highbrow Island Club in Lagos in October 2019, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo openly expressed his support for, inter alia, “the establishment of state and community police forces as well as state correctional facilities” with the ultimate aim of ensuring that “states must have more powers and more rights.”
Formidable obstacles remain. For one thing, an amendment to the constitution will still have to be passed. For another, having states run their own security apparatuses without having to seek approval from the federal government is just one of the many problems besetting a Nigerian federal system that, two decades into civilian rule, continues to bear the imprint of military unitarism. For good or ill, the federal government continues to pull the financial strings of an economy reliant on oil to a sickening degree. Questions around jurisdiction, funding, and the proper distance between the states and the federal government can be expected to excite divergent political passions.
Notwithstanding, the importance of this shift for Nigeria’s journey towards increased devolution of power from the center to the states cannot be overemphasized. In a country as complex as Nigeria, measuring success in inches rather than miles is the beginning of political wisdom.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.