By Babatunde Olanrewaju
The Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) set up a joint investigation panel to unravel circumstances leading to the death of three members of the Intelligence Response Team (IRT) of the police, which President Buhari subsequently asked the Defence Headquarters to take over.
It is noteworthy that the evidence needed to get to the root of this matter is being contaminated even as this piece is being written. Interestingly, the contamination is not taking place at the sad spot where the officers lost their lives. It is taking place in our collective consciousness, we are being bombarded with spin and manipulated content. The stories and half truth being dispensed to all of us on social media and, in some instances, the mainstream media are modifying our perception of what happened. Ultimately, facts could fuse with fiction to confuse even the most thorough mind.
An abridged version of the army’s account was that they received distress calls about a kidnapping and the IRT team soon forced its way past some checkpoints in a manner that made them fit the description of the “kidnappers” the army units were alerted about. What followed next was an exchange of gunfire at the end of which three of the IRT members and another civilian were dead. This abridged account immediately raises some issues that the honourable panel must look into.
First, it highlights the imperative of reverting civil policing back to the NPF. The failure of the police was the necessity that brought soldiers onto the streets. The efficiency with which the army neutralizes threats like Boko Haram terrorists can be seen in the body count from that tragic encounter with what is obviously be best team in the police force. Such efficient killing machines are not needed on our streets. Certainly not after what we was recorded in Taraba state.
The second issue is the pressing need to reorient policemen, especially those in specialized units like the IRT and SARS, that their operations are police operations and not Nollywood movie shoots. There is a degree of recklessness that comes from officers considering themselves as invincible, and that is irrespective of their track record. Members of the public can testify to the catastrophic outcomes that accompany such exaggerated actions. Only such behaviour will encourage the ill fated team to keep beating checkpoints without stopping to clarify their mission of reveal their identify.
Furthermore, someone had suggested that the team possibly didn’t stop to identify themselves at the military checkpoints ostensibly because they felt that criminals in uniform had laid ambush for them as part of a plot to free the kidnap suspect they were transporting. If this were true it will be the greatest travesty ever as it will amount to policemen dressed like ragamuffins suspecting military men in uniform of being hoodlums. A first recommendation here is to restore confidence in military and paramilitary uniforms, all security agencies must be proportionately hard on criminals that operate in uniforms because of the damage they are doing to our collective psyche – the point where even a police team is wary of stopping at a roadblock mounted by men in military uniform testifies to the extent to which policing has failed.
Then the police itself must address the manner in which its personnel, particularly its special teams – again IRT and SARS – dress. Members of its Anti-Terrorism Team get some credit for dressing the part expected of them. But to have policemen dress in jeans, t-shirts, caftans, tennis shoes, sandals and even bathroom slippers is a recipe for disaster – it always leads to mistaken Identity on the fast lane. There have been instances when civilians mistook them for robbers manning road blocks, refuse to stop or attempt to speed past, get gunned down in the process, and such episodes get swept under the carpet. In Taraba, the shoe was on the other foot. Soldiers mistook policemen for kidnappers and the unthinkable happened.
The panel must look at recommending changes to procedures. It is efficient for plainclothes policemen on covert operation to have stormed the location where the suspect was picked up to effect his arrest. An immediate transfer into the custody of the divisional police station would have averted disaster. The station would have of course conveyed him in a vehicle that is conspicuously marked “Police” and have him accompanied by men in that uniform Nigerians are accustomed to seeing. These measures, combined with the team properly identifying itself at the point of making the arrest, would have reduce the likelihood of the mistaken identity that brought us to this sorry pass. There is nothing to be ashamed of in the police uniform and personnel must learn to be properly kitted.
There is something to be said for communication too. We may not have noticed but too much of the communication around security operations is now conducted on mobile phones. The Federal Government should invest in overhauling radio communication equipment for security and military agencies. The personnel of these agencies must equally be retrained to appreciate that their Android phones or Whatsapp cannot replace the old and trusted radio communication that would have allowed the IRT reach out to soldiers of the Nigerian Army that manned those checkpoints. The tragedy might have been avoided.
Even with the best of preventive measures as itemized, bad things still happen, which makes is necessary that the panel must caution security agencies to show restraints when there is a crisis between or among them. Poor information management practically turned the tragedy in Taraba into a bonanza for criminals, who will now likely exploit the possibility of setting security agencies against each other to evade arrest. The point must therefore be made that the cyberspace is not the place to settle inter-agencies squabbles; there are acceptable channels and fora that deliver better results than doing dirty laundry in the market square as was the case in this instance.
These are the issues that I find disconcerting, the ones that the current bedlam on social media is distorting and that we might lose sight of unless the panel takes an holistic view of its assignment.
Olanrewaju is a security analyst based in Lagos.