What can you do for me?

Finweek English Edition - - IN BRIEF -

Last week, the po­lice took the num­ber plates from my car at Abuja air­port. While my driver was wait­ing to col­lect me at ar­rivals, the po­lice prised the plates off the car.

My driver went to rea­son with the po­lice and ask for their re­turn. That, the po­lice­man told him, would cost 25 000 naira (around R1 480), the re­sult of mak­ing an il­le­gal turn in the air­port car park (no such thing had hap­pened). Even­tu­ally, af­ter 12 hours, much ne­go­ti­a­tion and two trips to the po­lice sta­tion, the po­lice re­turned the plates for a mere 5 000 naira (R297).

I have tried hard to ex­plain this in­ci­dent to friends out­side Nige­ria. “The po­lice? But why would t he po­lice...? I don’t get it? What?”

I am not say­ing that hon­esty is be­yond Nige­rian po­lice­men, or that that straight, dili­gent po­lice work can’t hap­pen here. But I can­not l ie, and the vast ma­jor­ity of my in­ter­ac­tions with the Nige­rian po­lice have been In the su­per­mar­ket re­cently, I saw a young po­lice­man push­ing the trol­ley of a busi­ness­man who, re­splen­dent in robes, was shout­ing into his mo­bile phone. How must you feel, as a young Nige­rian, when your role has been re­duced to trol­ley pusher rather than crime f ighter, when your uni­form means so lit­tle?

There are mo­ments of lev­ity: last week, in La­gos, a po­lice­woman asked a friend for one of our beers, af­ter pulling us over to tell us drink­ing beer in the car as pas­sen­gers is il­le­gal (though seem­ingly drink­ing on duty while you’re di­rect­ing traf­fic at a busy La­gos junc­tion isn’t).

When I see how en­trenched the cor­rup­tion in the po­lice force is, I won­der where on earth Pres­i­dent-elect Muham­madu Buhari can begin with his much-vaunted crack­down: with the Po­lice Af­fairs Com­mis­sion, the po­lice chiefs and se­nior of­fi­cers. And not for­get­ting my new friend swig­ging her beer in the La­gos traf­fic.

How do you dis­man­tle rack­ets that are as thick with vested in­ter­ests as, for ex­am­ple, the Bada­gry ex­press­way that leads to the Benin bor­der, where a week or so ago I saw of­fi­cers asleep un­der trees while teenagers in foot­ball shirts and armed with golf clubs manned the po­lice posts?

Af­ter our plates were re­turned last week, my driver told me that his dad had been a po­lice­man, and that he’d told ev­ery one of his 11 chil­dren never to join the po­lice force be­cause they’d not only be up against crim­i­nals, but also wide­spread cor­rup­tion among many of their col­leagues.

I’ l l know when Buhari’s re­forms are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence when ev­ery po­lice­man I meet asks what he can do for me be­fore he asks what I can do for him.

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