With echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, massive demonstrations against police brutality have rocked Nigeria. Protests that initially focused on the police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which many Nigerians have long accused of abuses including torture and murder, have broadened to demands for systemic police reform.
These protests erupted, and continue, against a background of widespread public perceptions and experiences of the police as corrupt, untrustworthy and unhelpful. These negative views are particularly strong in Nigeria, but importantly, they are common in other African countries, too.
Based on Afrobarometer’s face-to-face interviews in 18 African countries in 2019-2020, almost half (48 percent) of Africans say “most” or “all” police officials are corrupt — a harsher assessment than for any other key public institution (Figure 1). Fewer than half (45 percent) say they trust the police, and a majority (52 percent) of those who sought police assistance during the previous year found it difficult to get the help they needed.
Nigerians are highly critical of their police
In Afrobarometer’s survey in January to February 2020, only 1 in 4 Nigerians (24 percent) say they trust the police “somewhat” or “a lot” — the lowest level of popular trust recorded in 18 surveyed countries (Figure 2).
Six in 10 Nigerians (61 percent) see “most” or “all” police officials as corrupt — that’s well above the 18-country average of 48 percent.
For Nigerians, perceptions of the police are rooted in everyday experiences. While only 11 percent of respondents say they requested assistance from the police during the previous year, almost five times as many (49 percent) report police encounters at checkpoints or during traffic stops, identity checks or investigations.
Among Nigerians who had dealings with the police, large majorities say they had to pay bribes to get police assistance (77 percent) or avoid problems with the police (68 percent), and two-thirds (65 percent) say it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to get the assistance they needed (Figure 3).
Problems with the police aren’t limited to Nigeria
While particularly stark in Nigeria, these negative assessments are common in many African countries. Figure 2 shows that respondents in Gabon, Kenya, Uganda and Sierra Leone report similarly high levels of police corruption. And Nigerians’ low levels of trust in the police are matched by citizens in Gabon (25 percent) and Sierra Leone (26 percent). In fact, in 12 of the 18 countries in the Afrobarometer survey, fewer than half of citizens express trust in the police.
As in Nigeria, a majority of respondents in Uganda and Guinea report bribery during police encounters. On average across the 18 countries, about one-third of citizens who had dealings with the police say they had to pay bribes to get assistance (35 percent) or avoid problems (33 percent). And more than half (52 percent) of those who tried to get police help say they found it difficult.
Across all 18 surveyed countries, including in Nigeria, poor citizens are particularly likely to distrust the police. Among the poorest Nigerians, only 16 percent express trust, compared with 45 percent of the most well-off citizens.
On average across 18 countries, trust is also weaker among younger respondents — ranging from 42 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds to 53 percent of those above age 65. That’s not the case in Nigeria. Although young people have been highly visible in anti-SARS protests, distrust of the police is shared fairly consistently across all age groups.
Some countries report fewer problems with the police
In a few countries, experiences with the police are much more positive. Levels of reported bribe-paying are far lower — 10 percent or less — in Botswana, Namibia and Cabo Verde. These are also the countries where perceived police corruption is lowest (along with Burkina Faso and Tunisia) and where the fewest citizens say that getting police assistance is difficult (along with Lesotho and Mali). While the records in these countries are far from perfect, their police forces may nonetheless serve as models for some of the poorly performing countries to examine and emulate.
Perceptions of the police: Fertile soil for protests?
Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests flared in response to reported SARS abuses and a viral video of an officer shooting a young man to death in early October. The government’s reaction, in addition to disbanding the SARS unit, has been to deploy security forces, whose clashes with protesters have led to more than 70 deaths. Officials have also called for limits on social media, a move rejected by 61 percent of Nigerians, who say that Internet and social media access should be unrestricted.
But even if such steps were to prove successful in containing street demonstrations, citizens’ lack of confidence in police integrity and service, in Nigeria and other countries, may remain fertile soil for protest action.
Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny is the Afrobarometer regional communications coordinator for anglophone West Africa. Follow her on Twitter @JAppiahNyamekye. Brian Howard is head of publications for Afrobarometer. Follow him on Twitter @twitbh1.