Security services deemed unprepared to stop election violence

Police Inspector General Sunday Ehindero is confident Nigeria’s oft-criticised police force can cope with whatever national gubernatorial and presidential elections in April might throw at it.

“Outside the general training on the traditional police duties, recruits are given some specific instructions with regards to general conduct of elections and the anti-riot units are also given intensive drills and training to prepare them for the election duties,” Ehindero said from his office in Lagos.

But many Nigerians are not so sure, accusing the police of putting corruption and brutality ahead of democracy.

“It’s like there’s no government here,” said Hygenus Waku, a market trader from Lagos, where dead bodies frequently wash up on the banks of the river, and many of the city’s long bridges become no-go areas at night as armed gangs set up roadblocks.

“The police do nothing to protect you.”

A security official with a multilaterial institution in Nigeria speaking on condition of anonymity said he also doubted Ehindero’s confidence was well placed.

“The approach taken by armed forces when political meetings start to get out of control is known as 'spray and pray’,” he said, referring to the police’s reputation for indiscriminate shooting.

"They have no riot equipment to speak of or training in tactical crowd control and human rights."

Tensions rising

Voting for the country's 36 state governors and state parliaments is to take place on 14 April followed by elections for president and the federal legislature on 21 April, and there have already been assassinations and fighting between supporters of opposing candidates.

Political tensions are high, with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) having banned one of the leading presidential candidates, the country's current vice president Atiku Abubakar, ater he was indicted on corruption charges, and many observers saying that widespread voter fraud could follow.

The tensions are also adding to existing ethnic and religious animosities. Clashes have occurred in the south-western city of Abeokuta and in rural towns in central Benue state, claiming several lives according to local media reports.

Security analysts including the International Crisis Group say ongoing unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta region has grown into an insurgency with almost daily kidnappings of foreigners in recent weeks.

Elections now add to these problems with politicians accused of paying local gangs, known as 'area boys', to intimidate their opponents.

Officials from the INEC say they have taken all necessary steps to ensure adequate security, with police set to guard each of the 120,000 voting centres around the country and police escorts to move voting materials and ballot boxes. The boxes are often the target of hired thugs working for politicians.

But the police and criminals are often in cohorts together, observers say. "In the day time it is the police that man checkpoints to extort money from passers by; in the night the gangs take over," the international security official said.

Weapons not wanted

Still, an announcement by Inspector Ehindero in early March that 80,000 weapons and 32 million rounds of ammunition had been procured for the police to enhance security was met with alarm.

“We have seen in the past that all these weapons may just be used to impose the will of the ruling party,” said Mike Onochie, a banker in the country’s capital Abuja. “The problem with the police is their colonial orientation which makes them act like an occupation force instead of protectors of its citizens.”

An editorial in the Vanguard newspaper on 13 March, a leading national daily newspaper, questioned the procurement of the additional weapons and ammunition. “It would be interesting to know whether these arsenals are meant to secure the votes that would be cast or to protect the voters at the polling venues,” it said.

The international security official said the army should be playing a bigger role in securing the elections as it is perceived as being more neutral and less prone to extortion of civilians than the police. It has also been effectively deployed in quelling violence during previous elections.

Yet other analysts say the army does not have a good record in crowd control. “The danger with sending soldiers to perform civilian policing is that they have are more likely to use their guns on civilians than the police,” said Nigerian rights activist, Nnenna Okenwa.

“As we have seen in the past, each time soldiers are sent out to quell civil unrest we record more gun shot casualties,” she said, referring to riots in 2004 in the northern city of Kano and efforts to put down protests in 2001 in Gboko and Katsina-Ala in Benin State and in 1999 in the town of Oli the Niger Delta.

Meanwhile, many Nigerians are taking matters into their own hands. In Kano, Nigeria’s third largest city, although the government is promising a peaceful election, many people said they would be packing up what they could and taking their families to villages away from urban areas before 14 April. CLICK to read about how people are preparing for elections in Kano

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