Nigerian police reform: 5 key measures and why civil society is key to achieving them

Liam O’Shea

New officers from Nigerian Police Formed Unit serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) listen to speaches during their arrival at Aden Abdulleh Airport to take part in the peacekeeping operation in Somalia on January 6, 2016. AMISOM Photo / Ilyas Ahmed via flickr.

Throughout October Nigeria has been rocked by protests, following reports of the shooting of an unarmed young man by members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This follows a decades-long pattern of police abuse and points to systemic challenges. The #EndSARS movement also marks a moment which may be ripe for police reform.

Lessons from previous international police reform efforts can benefit Nigeria but donors should also consider supporting Nigeria’s civil society organizations to seize the moment. Reform is too important to leave in the hands of state elites. Indeed, successful democratic reform requires an ongoing dialogue with civil society.

Lessons from western contexts

One challenge reformers face is that while most know what they want from reform, it is much less clear how to get there. Despite ongoing contestation around western policing in recent years, evidence on police reform from western contexts provides useful pointers. Five measures in particular can play a crucial role in reducing police violence.

  1. Establishing clear organizational policies on use of force. It may sound obvious but political leaders and organizations need to clearly state and reiterate limitations on the use of force, especially given the influence police leaders have on ordinary police officers. In dismissing the latest Amnesty International report on police violence, the Nigerian police elite have some way to go towards acknowledging and mitigating the problem.
  2. Effective monitoring of police use of force. Police organizations need to track and measure use of force. Police should be required to submit use of force reports for all serious incidents and develop standardized data in official records. Survey research is also useful for capturing perceptions of use of force among communities. Although some of these measures may be difficult to implement in a context with resource-constraints, at the very least, Nigeria should be able to track deadly use of force.
  3. Training in violence reduction. Police officers that resort to violence often receive minimal or classroom-based training which leaves them unprepared for frightening situations. Role-play based training, for example, is much more realistic and can better prepare officers to use de-escalation strategies effectively. Training also needs to be tailored to the communities and problems officers actually encounter to reduce any unwarranted fears officers may have.
  4. Internal review systems. The most effective change occurs where police organizations buy-in to change and establish internal review systems. This includes formal review systems which monitor the use of force and provide senior mentoring on alternatives. Informal peer advisory groups can also act as forums in which to evaluate officer performance without formal punitive measures.
  5. Administrative review. This is when other bodies review police action and can have a limited but significant impact in curtailing police violence. Internal-only systems tend not to be trusted and external systems can be limited by police resistance. Therefore, systems which combine ‘in-house’ monitoring with civilian monitoring get the best out of both approaches.

What can donors do?

Donors usually draw more from the burgeoning concept of security sector reform (SSR), a set of policies designed to improve the accountability of security forces across a variety of differing political contexts. SSR tends to be clearer on which models to aim for rather than on how to practically reform predatory, brutal and repressive police or work in environments where political elites are involved in organized repression. Reformers though need options, and, with contextualization, lessons from both SSR and western reform efforts have been helpful in assisting organizations such like the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria and the CLEEN Foundation to assess the state of policing in Nigeria and produce recommendations for reform.

Ultimately, reform of the police can only happen where there is political will. Within their policy toolkit, donors tend to prefer diplomatic and government-to-government technical assistance. However, serious consideration needs to be given to supporting civil society given the profound political impact civil society organizations can have. In contexts such as the US, Tunisia and Ukraine, reform gains have occurred as a result of civil society highlighting and challenging police brutality. Civil society also provides the ideas and concepts for reformers to draw from, helping to generate public support, build alliances and work with interior ministries to instigate change. From a donor perspective, another key advantage of supporting local civil society actors is that they have a strong political understanding of police practices and are in for the long-haul.

Supporting civil society is no ‘magic band aid’. Political pressure and technical assistance remain important. But reform moments such as those in Nigeria are rare and if they are to be seized to generate sustainable, deep reform then effectively buttressing local civil society is vital.

Liam O’Shea is LSE Dinam Fellow at the Department of International Relations. Prior to this he was a Governance and Programmes advisor at the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

This blogpost is part of a new series called Policy Perspectives where we encourage current and former policymakers to share their views on subjects addressed in the journal. If you are a current or former policymaker, researcher or activist and are interested in contributing to this series please email International Affairseditorial assistant Joseph Hills at

The official blog of International Affairs, the no.1 ranked journal of international relations. Leading the field for 100 years. Produced at Chatham House since 1922, published by Oxford University Press.

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