The Nigeria Police Force: An institutional ethnography



Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1: A Crime Report

On 11th October 2006 I was staying with friends on the outskirts of Maraba, one of the fast-expanding satellite towns of Nigeria’s capital Abuja. The house which my host Mohammed rented was one of six in a walled compound on a street which petered out into the fringes of town, bordering fields and the concrete-block foundations of half-built homes. Electricity supply was irregular, even by Nigerian standards, so we tended to sleep early and wake early. That night I went to bed by eleven, but woke between 1.30 and 2am to the sound of gunshots. Around seven shots were followed by the loud bang of someone trying to break open the metal gates of the compound with a heavy object. I immediately realised that this was an armed robbery (the house had already been robbed before I stayed there) and that I had limited time before the robbers gained entry. Aware that a foreigner found without money would risk a beating by irate armed robbers, I took out my cash and put it in the middle of the floor. I hid my passport under the carpet. Then, to minimise the risk of being hit by stray bullets, I dragged my mattress directly underneath the window, and lay there awaiting what was to happen next. Yet nothing did happen, and eventually after straining my ears for signs of activity, I fell back to sleep.

When I woke in the morning, housemates and neighbours gathered to discuss the night’s events. A gang of between six and eight robbers, at least three of whom were armed with automatic weapons, had approached the compound through the bush, overpowered,
beaten and tied up the night-guard,1 fired shots to scare the residents and then tried
gain entry by smashing the gate and climbing the spike-topped walls. But while they were

attempting this, armed police from the Maraba police post turned up and the robbers ran into the bush. I was told that a wealthy Alhaji who lived a couple of plots away had called the police. There is no general emergency response number in Nigeria, so I said to
my host that we too should get the cellphone number for the police post. That would be no good, I was told, as they only come for the Alhaji because he pays them. Maybe we should pay them too, I suggested, upon which next-door neighbour Barnabas informed me that he had already tried visiting the police post to offer them N3,000 (around £12) monthly on behalf of the compound. He was told however, that the amount was too small. The only solution to the problem, then, would be for everyone to make sure they
had the Alhaji’s phone number. We took stock of our situation, poked fun at each other about how scared we’d been, counted ourselves lucky, and Mohammed vowed once more that when his lease was up, he’d move to a more secure area inside town.

This incident contains within it many of the issues pertinent to this study. Here is the perpetual concern with crime and security which pervades Nigerian society; the de facto semi-privatisation of public goods by police officers who have made provision of an essential emergency service conditional on payment; systemic dynamics which are only
partially captured by the language of ‘state breakdown’ and ‘corruption’; the self
provision of security alternatives; the social networks and hierarchies in which these are embedded; the demographic shifts and new spaces in which crime and policing takes place; the uneasy relationship part-resentment, part-reliance which the public has with the police. And underneath all of this the seemingly contradictory fact that in certain places, under certain circumstances, the police do actually perform a crime-fighting role; a duality which will run through this thesis. This, then, is the starting point for our enquiry.

Overall, this thesis is intended as a contribution to three existing bodies of literature.
Firstly, it is intended to contribute to the study of policing in Africa with some much- needed empirical research into the actual nature of everyday policing by a formal state police institution. Secondly, it can be a contribution towards developing the anthropology
of the state by crossing to the other side of the looking-glass and looking inside the state, and from the state out at wider society. If much of the existing anthropology of the state begins by looking at how citizens and wider society experience, understand, and are shaped by encounters with the state, this study takes a formal institution of state and attempts to understand how it and its practices approach, engage with, and are shaped by, encounters with wider society. Thirdly, by taking one of the prime institutions of governance and looking at its formation, its structure, its means of shaping and mobilising people, its internal incentives, disincentives, logics and rationales, its formal purposes and informal practices and the mutually constitutive dialogues between them, it can be a meaningful extension of the study of the Nigerian state beyond the limits of existing structural and political perspectives.
The Federal Republic of Nigeria police is an example of the systemic contradiction at the
heart of today’s Nigerian state. The police are caught in a tension between two roles: the
stated public-service role of providing effective security to persons and property, and the
obverse, a post-colonial force for internal repression, applying force to keep the populace
subjugated to the interests of a surplus-extracting elite. This tension is reproduced in each
police officer, as they are seen sometimes as the repository of public hopes for security
and a just social order, but also as the embodiment of repressive violence deployed by a
non-legitimate authority. More often than both of these, too, in Nigeria’s fluid and
iterative contemporary system, where parameters are constantly renegotiated, they are an
ambiguous organisation employing significant leeway to pursue their own agendas.

Each police officer, as a uniformed and usually armed embodiment of the state, is
seemingly one of the country’s most powerful citizens. And at the same time, many
ordinary officers are at the extreme end of a political economy infused with corruption
and embezzlement in which they themselves are the greatest victims. This compounds the
problems with morale and professionalism already caused by poor conditions of service in a dangerous profession. Relations with the wider public are characterised by mutual mistrust, yet by accommodation as well as opposition. Meanwhile policy initiatives to reorient the police from the top are severely compromised by the highly contested nature
of government itself, which in times of political competition also draws the police into its partisan battles.
Yet the police force, as a centrally controlled organisation in which officers can be posted
to any part of the nation during their lifetime of service, is one of the few truly national
institutions in a country tending towards ethnic and regional particularism. Along with
the Federal civil service and the military, it is an arena in which people serve and live
primarily as Nigerians, whatever their more locally-rooted or sectional identities. In fact,
this piece of the state itself constitutes a fairly large piece of Nigerian society 377,000
officers may easily have 1.8 million dependants at a conservative estimate, a constituency
larger than the population of some of Nigeria’s smaller states.2 And like a number of
other organs of the Nigerian state, the police is a kind of self-contained institutional
world, having not only its own institutional culture, rules and values but even its own
internal economy; of which police-only markets and police-owned businesses are only a

The starting-point of this enquiry is then to attempt to discover what is distinctive and
important about the NPF which makes it function in the way outlined in the opening
passage? As such, this is intended as an open question, rather than a test of any particular
proposition or theory about policing. As the plethora of issues thrown up by our initial
encounter suggest, policing as an activity and as an object of study is deeply and
fundamentally polysemic. So my study intends to do this due justice; not by testing a
particular theory which would entail pre-selecting a particular activity, aspect or set of
attributes as the subject, nor by setting up a straw man to oppose, which would allow us
only to point out its inadequacies instead of offering much in the way of explanatory
power, but by working through some aspects of the police institution, the work it does,
and the people who do it, from historical roots and external perceptions, via the practices

2 If the conservative assumption is made that each officer has a spouse and three children, we get a figure of
1,885,000 police and their nuclear families. Family sizes are however often larger, and marriages are
sometimes polygamous. The number of officers alone puts the NPF in the second rank of major global
employers, behind giants such as the Chinese Army, Wal-Mart and the Indian railways. The number of
dependents in the wider police family points out the comparison with Nigerian ethnic groups who have
been successful in making claims to have their own states on the basis of their numbers: If the NPF was an
ethnic group, it could have its own state. W
ith which it engages with the public, to the internal preoccupations and emic  worldviews of its officers, in order to draw out the duality of its function and disfunction,
and the ways in which these reproduce a certain kind of society and state.

1.2: Why study the Nigeria Police now?
This work is primarily intended to fill a gap. Very little scholarship exists on formal
policing in Nigeria. Of this, much is historical (Tamuno 1970, 1993, Rotimi 2001, Ahire
1991, Alemika 1993), which will be explored in Chapter 2. The vast majority of
empirical research on contemporary Nigerian policing has been conducted by
criminologists Innocent Chukwuma (of the non-govermental CLEEN Foundation) and
Etannibi Alemika (University of Jos). Their work (notably Alemika and Chukwuma 2000
& 2004) embeds three basic propositions. Firstly, the NPF does not work well and is not
popular; secondly, that it is intrinsically postcolonial in its limited and primarily upward
accountability; and thirdly that it is distanced from the mass public whom it purports to
serve. Their statistical survey works (Alemika, Igbo & Nnorom 2005; Alemika and
Chukwuma 2006; Alemika 2009) indicate a further interesting quality to policing in
Nigeria that it is significantly uneven, performing better at certain tasks, and in certain
places, and worse at others, across this large and heterogenous country. Since Marenin
(1985), Hills has been virtually the only non-Nigerian scholar to attempt sustained study
of Nigerian policing. She contends (Hills 2008) that politics dictates that crime control
activities are put second to regime representation and public order, although later (Hills
2012a) she allows that in a situation of pluralism, the police leadership also brokers peace
by diplomacy. Further, in an otherwise problematic piece (Hills 2012b) she argues that
scope for reforming the situation is limited both by external politicisation and by personal
interests entrenched in the fabric of the institution. Meanwhile, advocacy-oriented
literature by non-governmental bodies such as Human Rights Watch (2005), Amnesty
International (2009), CLEEN (2006), the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria
( and Nigeria Police Watch (
document narratives of police failures largely without interrogating the deeper causes.

These limitations mean we must look to the wider study of policing in Africa for cues to
shape our enquiry.

Bruce Baker’s argument (2004) is that policing in contemporary Africa is intrinsically
plural, with official police forces of limited competence complemented by (and in no
more than parity with) assorted militias, vigilance organisations, private companies and
other state and non-state bodies. Thus, he says, the study of policing in Africa should de-
centre formal police forces and consider security sector governance more broadly (Baker
2010), as suggested by Bayley and Shearing (2001) who note the increasing global
multilateralisation of policing, wherein the state stays relevant primarily as the agent
which authorises activities carried out by others. Hills (2000) concurs, characterising
policing in Africa as being about a ‘police system’ which includes both state and non
state actors. She contends that state policing shows the limits of 1990s political
liberalisation, retaining a limited focus on regime security to the detriment of human
security, in providing which police forces have ceded ground to competing actors.

Recent scholarship has developed in a direction consonant with Baker and Hills. Few in-
depth studies of police in Africa (outside South Africa) have been conducted over the
past two decades, with much greater interest shown in non-formal actors such as
vigilantes. Nigeria, with its efflorescence of vigilance militias from the mid-1990s, has
been fertile ground for such studies, which can help to mark out the security landscape
and highlight some of the issues we must integrate into our study of the police. Baker
(2004, ibid) notes that across Africa, alternative security forces were never entirely
displaced by state police. But vigilantism has been notably resurgent in Nigeria since the
mid-1990s, amid the state failures and political instability which marked the transition
from military to democratic rule.3 Some studies Nolte (2004, 2007) emphasise vigilance
in Nigeria as combined crime control and political vanguard. In Nigeria as in Africa more
widely, vigilante movements became evidence for a ‘crisis of youth’ linked to the
collapse of state patronage systems. Meanwhile Ekeh (2002), Ukiwo (2002) and Meagher

3 As the reader will ascertain in the course of this thesis, demilitarisation should not be seen as an event
which occurred with the return to civilian rule in 1999, but as a continuing process.
(2007) emphasise the rational and civic origins of vigilance groups such as Bakassi Boys

in Igbo-speaking south-eastern Nigeria. The modalities of vigilante practice also entail
‘retraditionalisation’ – the reactivation and reinterpretation of indigenous concepts and
repertoires of power (see Chabal and Daloz, 1999). As these ‘innovative
traditionalisations’ multiply, some authors (Casey 2007) have had trouble disaggregating
the blurred lines between law-makers and breakers, criminal gangs and vigilantes, while a
debate has continued between the ‘rationalist’ and ‘culturalist’ poles of interpretation. A
better lesson is that vigilantism in Nigeria has revealed and articulated a gap between the
ideals of legitimacy in formal law, and powerful popular understandings of legitimacy,
power and security which continue to exist in parallel with state power and justice.
Pratten (2007, 2008a) for example shows analogies between the treatment of thieves and
witches in Annang, renewing Austen’s (1986) point that witchcraft has persisted as a
powerful template for understanding social deviance across Africa. Similarly, Last (2008)
sees in Northern Nigerian vigilantism the revival of a deep-rooted Islamic understanding
of security redirected toward the anxieties and physical and spiritual dangers of the
postmodern world. We must recognise these, because as we will see, competing
conceptions of legitimacy, fairness and rectitude even interpenetrate the world of formal

Globally, anthropologists have presented vigilantism as an activity which problematises
the state by usurping its sovereignty; challenging Weberian monopolies of violence and
legitimacy. Jensen in Cape Town (2005) notes the strong “anti-apartheid notions that the
real and true sovereignty is located in the community rather than in the state”. The
particular modernity of vigilantism is situated within the logic of late-modern capitalism
and the neoliberal state. Buur (2007) calls vigilante policing in South Africa sovereignty
‘outsourced’, and for Goldstein (2007) the mob lynching of thieves in Bolivia is the direct
result of the state’s retreat from policing, and the consequent cutback-led
‘responsibilisation’ which withdraws state violence to protect the ramparts of privilege.

But as well as supplanting formal policing, vigilantism can also influence its modalities.
Comaroff and Comaroff (2006) opine that in the neoliberally transformed postcolony,
official policing deliberately mirrors the spectacle and dramaturgy of public vigilantism,

in ‘detective fictions’ – stagings of state power which reverse modernity’s transformation
of punishment from spectacle into rational institutional power (after Foucault, 1977); in
their formulation the deconstructed state no longer has this omniscient capacity and must
once again substitute symbolic images of its potency in order to stay in charge. Other
recent studies similarly find repertoires of vigilantism incorporated into state power in the
postcolonial world: Jauregui (2012) describes the ‘encounter’ killings of criminals by
police in India amid a failing criminal justice system as ‘police vigilantism’.

As Loader and Walker (2007; 2) observe, global movement is not unidirectional. ‘On one
hand’ they say, ‘the state is being de-centred from security, and on the other it is
resurgent’. Moreover, the idea that security should be primarily provided by the state
remains strong and persistent (and both of these facts will be evident in the thesis which
follows). So clearly this prompts us to redress the study of policing in Africa by bringing
the state back in. The theoretical literature on policing in Africa is littered with
assumptions about the role of police in the neoliberal era which have not been adequately proven, because the characters missing in the discussions above are formal state police themselves, what they do, and how, and why.4 Therefore an in-depth empirical examination of an African police force especially one which is a key focus of public debate and of contested reform, as in Nigeria can be a useful contribution.

1.3: How to approach a study of the police?

The question then becomes what approach to take in studying the Nigerian Police. Classic Euroamerican police sociologies are of limited use. Although valuable in pointing out the universality of professional ethics around, for example, secrecy (Bittner 1970) or the extralegal use of force (Klockars 1980), they do not venture far outside the bounds of policing to ask what we are learning in the process about the nature of the wider state and its structuring effects on society. Secondly, they usually consider policing in reference to
and whose generalisation is immediately challengeable in situations such as Nigeria, which is more distinctively statist than it is neoliberal. Terms such as democracy, liberalism and the rule of law which are taken as normative and self-evident. This limits their applicability to contexts where such concepts are neither normative, nor self-evident, nor perhaps particularly entrenched. So we need to begin by understanding the constitutive relationships between policing and the state in the broadest possible sense. Once we have done so, we will be in a better position to see how a consideration of policing in Nigeria can also speak more broadly to a better understanding of the state in Nigeria.
1.3.1: Disaggregating the state

Miliband (1969; 117) states the issue clearly: “There is one preliminary problem about the state which is very seldom considered (…) this is the fact that the ‘state’ is not a thing, that it does not, as such, exist”. The state does not actually exist in any form other than its institutional manifestations and the imaginaries they produce. Abrams (1988) notes that we only cloud the picture by taking the political imagining at its word and studying an abstracted state as a concept separate from what its component parts and agencies actually do. Thus when Marenin (1982; 384) tells us that “the police are a crucial nexus between the state and the people”, his terms unwittingly subscribe to the state’s own fiction, implicitly assuming that the state is located above, at a displaced elsewhere, instead of consisting partly in the police. Some attempts to broaden our definition of the state lose explanatory power; Migdal’s (2001) concept of ‘the state in society’ includes the whole wider terrain of a national political system, thus losing sight of what is ‘state’ about the state. This can of course be bypassed with the simple definition that state bodies are those which derive their foundational authority from laws and constitutions. A more effective critical understanding is found in the work of Tim
Mitchell (1999) on the ‘state effect’. He notes that state practice also serves to create the imaginary the state itself, partly through legal fictions, draws its own lines which define what is state, what is private sector, and what is (civil) society, even as these roles can often disguise the same actors, involved in the same processes and relationships, under their multiple various guises. Elsewhere (Mitchell 2002) he disaggregates the processes, persons, interests, institutions, materials, and relationships of which state and government..



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