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Harry Cassin
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Nigeria’s Crooked Blue Line

A new report from Human Rights Watch, Everyone’s in on the Game, describes the enormous challenges police face every day in Nigeria. Despite that, many officers serve with honesty and full merit, it says.

But there’s institutionalized corruption at every level. Innocent people are regularly detained and a fee demanded for their release. Rank-and-file police officers are often forced to pay their senior officers a share of the money they extort from the public. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 145 Nigerians from 2008 until last month — including market traders, commercial bus drivers and passengers, okada (commercial motorcycle) drivers, sex workers, criminal suspects, and victims of common crimes. It also talked with rank-and-file and senior police officers, federal government and anti-corruption officials, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, religious and civil society leaders, journalists, diplomats, and members of an armed vigilante group.

“People who are assigned to lucrative posts such as roadblocks or working traffic are given monetary targets that they must meet and then give back to their superiors,” lead researcher Eric Guttschuss said. Police officers said punishment for failing to meet monetary targets was a transfer to a less lucrative post.

Guttschuss said, “I interviewed a father in Anambra State, whose only son, a 16-year-old boy, was arrested by the police. They detained him and tortured him over an extended period and then demanded money from the father in order for his release.”

The father paid, but not everyone can afford to. “Unfortunately we also interviewed people who were unable to pay the money and who’s loved ones were then found later to be in a hospital morgue, dead,” he said.

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Here’s how Everyone’s in on the Game begins:

Countless ordinary Nigerians attempting to make precarious ends meet as taxi drivers, market traders, and shopkeepers are accosted on a daily basis by armed police officers who demand bribes and commit human rights abuses against them as a means of extorting money. Those who fail to pay are frequently threatened with arrest and physical harm. Far too often these threats are carried out.

Meanwhile, victims of crime are obliged to pay the police from the moment they enter a police station to file a complaint until the day their case is brought before a court. In the shadows, high-level police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds meant to cover basic police operations. Senior police officers also enforce a perverse system of “returns” in which rank-and-file officers are compelled to pay up the chain of command a share of the money they extort from the public.

Those charged with police oversight, discipline, and reform have for years failed to take effective action, thereby reinforcing impunity for police officers of all ranks who regularly perpetrate crimes against the citizens they are mandated to protect.

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