Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: What Can We Learn From Nigeria?

By Glenn Ashton · 5 Feb 2010

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The Zuma administration has clearly taken a far harder line on crime, in accord with its populist approach. Central to this is the direct threat to 'get' criminals. 

Invoking this 'shoot to kill' philosophy has already impacted tragically on innocent lives. The pendulum is swinging from a more restrained, western, rights-based style of policing toward a more reactionary and offensively aligned style of policing.

Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula has not only made immoderate statements like “shoot the bastards” but has blithely dismissed the risk that innocents stand to be killed in the crossfire.

Police Commissioner Bheki Cele, a controversial figure even before he was appointed by Zuma (to replace the even more controversial and allegedly underworld connected Commissioner Jackie Selebi) has further muddied the waters by saying "If somebody uses a camera to shoot you, smile. But when they use anything else to shoot you, use deadly force before anybody uses it - and don't miss." He insists that at no time has he said that our police must shoot to kill. 

Everyone is confused. Exactly what is the difference between shooting to kill and using deadly force, please Cde. Commissioner? Could we please have clarity not populist rhetoric?

Photos of Cele covered with belts of machine gun bullets don't lower the temperature either. Its fine portraying the tough guy, but can he control the tiger whose tail he is pulling?

All South Africans are seriously affected by crime. Rich, poor, white, black, urban and rural citizens are impacted by the profound inequality kindling our incendiary crime rates. Everyone wants solutions to the problem. But is a gung-ho approach the correct way to go?

The post apartheid reformation of the then South African Police had inevitable impacts on institutional memory. Scarce policing skills were not properly transferred to the new guard South African Policing Services (SAPS). Mistakes were made. Inadequate training and abysmal pay have fostered poor service and corruption. 

The dissolution of specialist units for children, drugs, police corruption and environmental crime were poorly conceived ideological gambits. Improved spending on personnel and resources have delivered unimpressive results.

Our constitution was drafted by people with profound personal experiences of the potential for human rights abuses by an unrestrained police force. It retrospectively appears to have been a mistake to grant excessive rights to those choosing to live beyond the bounds of the law.

Law abiding South Africans feel their rights have been unjustly infringed upon by the rights granted to criminals. Public frustration with crime has ratcheted up the pressure on the state to take action. This, coupled to the contempt of criminals for the lives of police and how this impacts police morale, has clearly spurred the intemperate utterances of our leadership about taking a more gung-ho approach to criminals.

Even before 'mainstreaming' the shoot to kill ethos by police leadership, the SAPS consistently managed to kill around 500 people per year and injure and maim many more according to numbers supplied by the Independent Complaints Directorate. Last year was a record, with 556 killed, including 32 innocent bystanders.  One has to balance this against the wanton killing of police by criminals, symptomatic of both callous criminals and inadequately trained police.

In September last year there were legal claims pending against the police for over R7.5 billion in damages. This is equivalent to approximately fifteen percent of our annual police budget. Corruption remains a massive problem, with thousands accused and hundreds sanctioned, dockets going missing, seized drugs sold to criminals and bribes supplementing meagre salaries. Of concern is not only the matter of extra-judicial killings by the police but the general erosion of the rule of law.

There are worrying parallels between our situation and what has happened in a country like Nigeria, where the police force has become the single most untrusted institution in that country. We have not yet reached that juncture but our trust in the police is gradually diminishing. Will shooting to kill regain our trust?

The Nigerian police force is slagged off by just about everyone, from Amnesty International to ordinary Nigerian citizens. It has a nightmarish reputation as a corrupt, out-of-control monster. When the police act as judge, jury and executioner - or simply as executioner -  then nobody is safe.

The December 2009 report from Amnesty International provided a lengthy list of extra-judicial killings and abuses by the police, stating that the Nigerian Police kill at will and with total impunity. Although we may have some way to go to match Nigeria's lawless police, our current trend of official sanction of blatant aggression is serious cause for concern. 

While the newly appointed head of Nigerian Police Inspector General Onovo appears keen to rein in the lawlessness within his force, so too did his three predecessors, the most recent of whom was arrested for graft and money laundering after resigning last year.

This has disquieting similarities to the fate of our own previous commissioner Jackie Selebi. Selebi's remarkable statement that alleged gangster Glenn Agliotti was “my friend, finish and klaar”, is a hell of an admission from the ex-commissioner of police, not to mention head of Interpol! What sort of example does that set to the rank and file? Or to the world? 

Once the habitual flaunting of the rule of law becomes established within a police force, order will inevitably dissolve. The police must be the moral and ethical standard-bearers, the epitome of good, the counterpoint to the obvious evil of crime. It is as simple as that – police good, criminals evil. Anything else does not and cannot work in a healthy society, and vice versa: a healthy society cannot exist when the police are perceived as bad and criminals as good, as has happened in Nigeria.

The militarisation of Nigeria led to a sense of impregnability within their police force. Poor pay led to supplemental income becoming normalised in the guise of bribes. Inspector General Onovo's task is certainly Herculean, if not flat out impossible. 

The only thing preventing us from following the Nigerian example and devolving into a similar mess is public oversight of our police force to ensure they remain honest and moral guardians of the law. John Burger of the Institute of Security Studies rhetorically enquired what will get out of control first: crime, or the police? Do we really want to find out for ourselves, which is worse, out of control crime or out of control police? What about both? Surely they go hand in hand?

It is up to 'We, The People,' to keep the police on the straight and narrow through applying the law, through insisting on having a robust mechanisms for public oversight of the police like the Independent Complaints Directorate, which Bheki Cele has promised to bolster. He must deliver on this promise.

Pierre de Vos, a commentator on constitutional and criminal matters, stated - partially tongue in cheek - on his Constitutionally Speaking blog that what may help to get the cops under control is for them to pop off a few FIFA officials, blonde American tourists or consular officials. Those actions would at least get the media to kick up sufficient stink to get some action taken against police excesses. If we maintain the status quo and let the police continue killing mainly poor and already disenfranchised people, then we are on a slippery slope to hell.

The old conundrum – 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' : Who guards the guardians?-  remains a touchstone.   

Our leadership must focus on basic issues like properly training the police and on jacking up our judicial system. The irresponsible, populist sloganeering from the Zuma administration is reckless and will erode an already marginal situation.

We need basic, conscientious, unglamorous policing, backed up by a well-resourced court and rehabilitative justice system. Get the basics right and everything else  follows. 

The fact that our prison system is perhaps the most corrupt branch of government is a telling indictment of our rehabilitation system. That this corruption increasingly seeps into the justice system, with lost dockets and evidence and almost open bribery in certain court precincts is proof of a decline that must be halted, the evil rot excised. Our police are the filling of a septic sandwich.

In troubled times it is wiser to act morally and from an informed perspective, backed up by the full weight of the law, than pretend we are gunslingers, draped in machine gun bullets, shooting first and asking questions afterwards. We simply cannot afford to follow the Wild West, Nigerian model that has become a tragic failure for Nigeria and for Africa. 

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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