#EndSARS: Citizens’ perceptions of police as corrupt, untrustworthy, and unhelpful go beyond Nigeria

6 Nov 2020

By Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny and Brian Howard

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.

Originally published on the Monkey Cage blog.

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 as well.

Based on Afrobarometer’s face-to-face interviews in 18 African countries in 2019/2020, almost half (48%) 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%) say they trust the police, and a majority (52%) of those who sought police assistance during the previous year found it difficult to get the help they needed.

Figure 1: Perceived corruption | 18 African countries | 2019/2020

Respondents were asked: How many of the following people do you think are involved in corruption, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say? (% who say “most” or “all”)

Nigerians are highly critical of their police

In Afrobarometer’s survey in January-February 2020, only one in four Nigerians (24%) 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%) see “most” or “all” police officials as corrupt — that’s well above the 18-country average of 48%.

Figure 2: Perceived corruption and popular trust in the police | 18 African countries | 2019/2020

Respondents were asked:
How many of the following people do you think are involved in corruption, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say? (% who say “most” or “all”)
How much do you trust each of the following, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say? (% who say “somewhat” or “a lot”)

For Nigerians, perceptions of the police are rooted in everyday experiences. While only 11% of respondents say they requested assistance from the police during the previous year, almost five times as many (49%) 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%) or avoid problems with the police (68%), and two-thirds (65%) say it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to get the assistance they needed (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Encounters with the police | 18 African countries | 2019/2020

Questions to respondents who tried to get police assistance or encountered the police in other situations during the previous 12 months:
How easy or difficult was it to obtain the assistance you needed?
And how often, if ever, did you have to pay a bribe, give a gift, or do a favour [in order to get the needed assistance or avoid problems]? (percent who say “often,” “a few times,” or “once or twice”)
(Note: Figure excludes those who had no contact with the police.)

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%) and Sierra Leone (26%). 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%) or avoid problems (33%). And more than half (52%) 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% express trust, compared to 45% of the most well-off citizens

On average across 18 countries, trust is also weaker among younger respondents — ranging from 42% of 18- to 25-year-olds to 53% of those above age 65. That’s not the case in Nigeria. While young citizens 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% 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% 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.