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What we can learn from communities in Nigeria on how to improve security

Policewomen lock hands during a protest march in Nigeria.Collaboration between police and communities is helping improve safety in parts of the country. Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

It is glaringly obvious across the world that state capacity to prevent crime and provide security is becoming overstretched and inadequate. Hence there is a search for alternatives or complements to official crime-prevention approaches. One such alternative is to promote community-based crime-prevention strategies.

It may at first sound ridiculous to suggest that the world could learn how to better promote community safety from Africa, which has its fair share of security problems. But who is better placed to teach than someone who has lived through an experience?

In Africa, state capacity has always been inadequate. The continent has also lived through some of the world’s most devastating conflicts and has, by and large, survived.

A recent study showed that some of the Nigerian communities devastated by the Boko Haram insurgency are emerging with stronger bonds and determination to rebuild their lives and communities. The same can be said of many Acholi communities devastated by the 20-year war in northern Uganda. These societies have also nearly perfected the “art” of surviving where state capacity is inadequate.

Our study of collaboration between the community and police in 18 communities in Ibadan, in the south-west of Nigeria, shows that some communities have achieved a degree of community-official agency collaboration.

A successful safety strategy

Our study involved widespread surveys and ethnography in 2015. Our surveys showed an amazingly symbiotic relationship between the community and the police, with 70% of the residents claiming that the collaboration brought safety to their community, and their sense of security had gone up. Seven out of ten residents in the concerned communities thought that the collaboration between their communities and the police was responsible for the high level of safety in their communities.

Each of the communities studied has what is called a community association or landlords’ association, which drives security. These associations also drive community development efforts. What makes the security and crime prevention efforts work is what is termed “communitisation” by the researchers. This plays out in three forms.

First, the associations driving the crime prevention efforts declare nearly everything, including private spaces, as subject to community inspection and oversight.

It is true that community associations could be intrusive of private spaces and might even be dictatorial. They can walk into your house and demand to search it. They could ask you to evict your tenants if their conduct compromises security.

But citizens seem not to mind such intrusion, claiming that intrusion for the sake of security is better than privacy with insecurity. A female resident interviewed for the study said:

What would you rather choose: privacy without security or security without privacy? And what is privacy? They are not coming to look into our pots of soup or nakedness or something like that. They want to see if you’re harbouring criminals or bombs … you know, with Boko Haram now. And they’re taking all these troubles for our sake. If they want to inspect the house, that’s a good thing.

Second, community associations also “communitise” some of the private concerns and problems of their members, shielding them from the complications that arise in Nigeria each time a citizen has to report a matter to the police. The associations thus represent concerned or aggrieved individual members.

Third, community associations also “communitise” the role of the state: they step in to fund the police by supplying police vehicles with fuel. They have also built police posts – small police stations that are bigger than shelters but smaller than standard stations. In addition, the community has repaired patrol vehicles and given officers monetary incentives to ensure patrols are improved.

The flip side, of course, is that the arrangement opens grounds for bribery. Interestingly, the communities call the incentives support, not bribes.

Community associations have also supplied intelligence and facilitated the arrest of suspects. The officers reciprocate by patrolling regularly and responding rapidly to distress calls from community associations.

Importantly, the relationship between the police and the community associations is informal. A community leader who was interviewed said the divisional police officer

visits me in my house anytime for pleasure. They invite us to their events and we invite them to our events, even when we have our annual party.

All these arrangements have been made by the communities without any prodding or intervention by the government. They have been conceived, owned, structured and sustained by the people.

It is important to repeat that this type of arrangement is found in different versions all over Africa. Examples include the Sungusungu and Ulinzi Shirikishi in Tanzania, the Nyumba Kumi in Kenya and the partnership boards in Sierra Leone.

Trust in the state is low

Our study shows that residents in the selected Nigerian communities have little or no trust in formal institutions. They do not trust the police to protect them.

But they do not blame them either. They just don’t expect very much from them. As a result there is this feeling of “we’re on our own” which, though sad, has become the fodder for greater community unity and participation.

And given the ill-equipped and over-stretched state security apparatuses in Nigeria and most of Africa, it is not surprising that community-based and community-owned crime prevention and security practices are flourishing. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

Different forms of informal crime prevention and security practices do exist elsewhere in the world. For example, the US neighbourhood watch is widespread. But recent events in France and in the US suggest that these practices may be under intense strain of distrust.

In addition to amassing and deploying technological resources and calling up reserves, the West would do well to deploy human and community resources.

Of course, this calls for, among other things, an “informalisation” of police-community relations. It calls for a shift in the definition and protection of personal space. Definitely, relaxing the boundaries of personal spaces will be tough to tolerate in many countries. But the question that needs to be answered is: what would you rather choose – privacy without security or security without privacy?

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