What can you do for me?
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.