Frustrated by what they call slave-like conditions of work, a group of Nigerian police officers recently gave one of two options to the authorities: an improvement in their welfare or a two-week warning strike.
The officers complained about inadequate pay, poor gratuities, outdated arms, and the failure to compensate the dependents of colleagues killed in the course of work. They warned, in a letter, that if these grievances are not addressed, they would down tools, starting from Saturday, March 26.
While the force spokesperson was swift to deny any threat of industrial action, the report has been substantiated by an internal police signal obtained by the press, which urged restraint and promised improvements in welfare.
The neglect, underfunding, and under-equipping of the police have been extensively documented. The security personnel grapple with a broad range of problems, including poor housing facilities, inefficient insurance packages, targeted attacks and killings, neglect of murdered officers’ widows and children, and a lack of transparency in promotional exercises.
The government has repeatedly promised reforms but little has changed.
“The only thing that can save this country is a police strike because we have been reduced to nothing,” a police spokesperson in southwest Nigeria told HumAngle. “The country is becoming lawless and a police strike will let the world know whether we are working or not. The public will determine whether we are useful or not during the strike action.”
Meanwhile, the general perception is that law enforcement and military officers are not supposed to embark on strikes, not only because of the security risks this could pose but also due to the regimented nature of their duties.
So what does the law say?
Various Nigerian legislations guarantee the right of people and members of trade unions to take part in a strike, especially when the dispute arises from a fundamental breach of the employment contract or some other collective agreement.
However, both the Trade Unions Act and the Trade Disputes Act state clearly that their provisions do not apply to members of the police, armed forces, and other security agencies such as the prisons, customs, and immigration services. The police, according to the former, cannot lawfully organise themselves into a trade union or join one.
The Police Act sheds more light on the issue.
One, it criminalises the offences of sedition (inciting others to rebel against authority), mutiny (open rebellion), and desertion (illegally leaving the force) as well as supporting any of these or keeping information about such conducts from superior officers. Though the Act does not expressly prohibit embarking on industrial actions, striking officers may well be penalised using existing provisions.
The Act also states that police officers who are absent from work without leave shall forfeit their pay for the period. Additionally, anyone who is absent for more than 20 days will be considered to have deserted and so will be dismissed from the force. The dismissed officer may be reinstated if the Inspector-General is satisfied with his explanation for not showing up for work.
Upon their appointment, police officers swear an oath to obey all lawful commands of the government and of officers set over them during service.
While there are police trade unions in many countries including Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and the United States, strike actions are still frowned upon or prohibited. To drive home their demands, the union members instead often rely on physical protests or only do the bare minimum required by their contracts.
A 2012 petition to get the United Kingdom parliament to repeal laws banning police strikes did not get the required 100,000 signature threshold. “[The] police officers cannot strike. That is not going to change. As a civil emergency service, it is vital that the service is able to discharge its duty to protect the public and keep the peace, at all times, particularly those of serious national and local disorder,” the UK government noted, adding that the same restriction applies to members of the armed forces and prison officers.
If the aggrieved officers in the Nigeria Police went ahead to strike, it would not be the first time such would happen.
In Feb. 2002, junior officers across Nigeria stopped working, leading to a crime scare and a rise in traffic offences and jams. The reason was the same as it is today: a demand for better conditions and pay. The strike started in the southeast before spreading to other parts of the country.
The authorities, however, did not take it lightly. The government, led then by President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military head of state, declared that the officers had mutinied and deployed soldiers to sensitive areas.
“The federal government wishes to state emphatically that we do not regard the action of the policemen concerned as a strike but mutiny, the implications of which are very grave,” said Steven Akiga, who was Police Affairs Minister.
“In recognition of the fact that some policemen have abandoned their duty posts, all sensitive points will be manned by the military. Similarly, all essential escort duties that need to be performed will be handled by the military.”
About a month later, Obasanjo sacked members of the police brass, including Inspector General of Police Musiliu Smith, who was replaced with Adebayo Tafa Balogun. Junior officers were threatening a second strike and the government said the trend was leading to a crisis of confidence in the Force. Obasanjo had also approved the release of ₦4 billion to meet the needs of the officers.
The immediate reaction two decades later has not changed, with the force insisting that it does not tolerate industrial actions from its officers.
“It is pertinent to restate that the Nigeria Police Force is a regimented and disciplined organization with laid down rules and guidelines for addressing grievances and in no circumstance is a strike action one of such means,” said the acting spokesperson, Muyiwa Adejobi on Monday.
“The men and women of the Nigeria Police Force are fully aware that a strike action or other deliberate disruption of law enforcement services by any security organisation is mutinous and the personnel of the Force would not degenerate at any point to that level of disloyalty and indiscipline, as policing services are paramount and essential in the maintenance of orderliness and peace in the nation.
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