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Journalism

Making friends on the air

by Halima Umar Sani, Abubakar Salihu Abubakar
SA man is detained by police officers on the outskirts of Kano during election-related unrest in 2007

SA man is detained by police officers on the outskirts of Kano during election-related unrest in 2007

In Kano, Nigeria, a local radio station is broadcasting a weekly programme on police matters. Citizens are invited to share grievances and police officers respond. The programme has already helped to improve policing, but more needs to be done. By Halima Umar Sani and Abubakar Salihu Abubakar

“Dan sanda abokin kowa” means “the police are your friend” in Haussa. It is the name of a weekly programme that Freedom Radio started three years ago. The aim is to enlighten the public about the operations of the police force, its constitutional mandate and societal duties. It also provides a platform for listeners to air their grievances.

We invite people to share their experiences and views by e-mail, phone calls and text messages. Typical complaints are about
– police brutality,
– extortion and corruption,
– slow responses to reported crimes,
– unlawful arrests and detention,
– armed robbery and
– rape.

Some of the issues raised are answered on the spot and others postponed to the next programme, so further investigation or verification can be done. The programme is studio-based. The host has the authority to invite police officers to respond to issues raised by members of the public.

The worst police incident reported to Freedom Radio was when three officers were accused of abducting, detaining and raping a 16 year old girl for 26 days. Initially the police denied anything had happened, but after extended public debate, the police leadership apologised to the public and commenced prosecution against the officers concerned. Alhaji Hafiz Ringim, Nigeria’s highest ranking police officer, appeared on Freedom Radio, stressing that the police’s job is to ensure justice and the rule of law “without fear or favour”.

Another depressing incident involved a taxi driver. He was wrongfully accused of abducting girls and an angry mob lynched him. There were not enough police officers in place to prevent his death. Moreover, people did not trust the police and suspected officers of cooperating with criminals, so they decided to act on their own.

There is a long list of other depressing events that Freedom Radio covered, including
– motorists shot to death at police checkpoints because they refused to pay bribes,
– other shootings of civilians,
– police officers’ involvement in crimes,
– their links to criminal gangs and
– extra-judicial killings of suspects.

Discussing such cases on Freedom Radio highlights Nigeria’s problems with lawlessness. Dysfunctional police behaviour also makes headlines in major newspapers. It is evident that reforms are necessary. The root causes of Nigeria’s police problems include
– low salaries,
– the lack of comprehensive retirement plans and insurance coverage,
– obsolete and inadequate police equipment as well as
– inadequate training and wrong incentives.

In recent years, police salaries and allowances were reviewed and raised. More needs to be done, however, to improve training and upgrade their equipment.

Nigeria does not have enough police officers. For a population of 150 million, 400,000 police officers will never do. This number is too small to fight crime. Nigeria has incidents of religious and sectarian crises, moreover, and the police force often seems overburdened.

It is a long-standing tradition in Nigeria for politicians and people in authority to use security agents, namely the police, to influence and intimidate media organisations. One of us, Abubakar, was recently threatened, when reporting on a notorious gangster with alleged police backing. An alleged police informant warned me that publishing further stories on this man was tantamount to digging my own grave. I called the bluff and pursued the story.

Eventually, the gangster was arrested along with a suspected group of armed robbers and drug dealers. Soon after, they all escaped from police custody. That was two months ago. Only one of the six has been recaptured, but not the gangster in question. The story itself seems to confirm earlier allegations of possible police connections. By mid February, the police command in Kano was still declining to comment on this issue, arguing that investigations were still going on.

Evidence of success

Though there still are problems, it is evident that Freedom Radio has had a positive impact on police operations in Kano. There are far fewer accusations of brutality, torture and extortion.

When we started “Dan sanda abokin kowa” we got many complaints about the police detaining suspects beyond the stipulated 24 hours without prosecuting them, extortion of money under false pretenses of bail or mishandling of detained persons. The number has gone down.

Police officers have obviously become more cautious and more respecting of people’s human rights. The police leadership in Kano, moreover, has taken measures to penalise officers who have committed injustices. We invite listeners to report wrongdoings to the officers’ superiors or to the radio station.

Indeed, the people have become more likely to report crimes, and the police are doing a better job of following such leads. As a result, the incidence of people taking the law into their own hands is dropping too. It certainly helps that all parties know that Freedom Radio is providing a forum to discuss these matters.

Freedom Radio is the most popular radio station in Kano. Because of the many listeners, the police has to pay attention to the station’s programmes. Individual police officers tune in, moreover, because the programme discusses issues that relate to their daily lives. Some of them have informed us that they are attracted to our programme because they learn about reform efforts as well as police ethics and etiquette.

Spreading such information is, of course, the duty of the police leadership. But we are happy to help where we can.