Supporting police reform in Nigeria: learning from officers on the ground

Research by Oliver Owen is providing evidence for change in the Nigerian Police Force.

Public security issues are among the biggest challenges to Nigeria’s consolidating democracy and the Nigerian Police Force is central to managing and responding to those challenges. However, there is little existing research on the conditions or performance of the force, and where such research does exist, the voices of police officers themselves are largely absent

Responding to this gap, Dr Owen’s doctoral work involved an institutional ethnographic study of the Nigerian Police Force. He visited 33 sites across the country, including spending 16 months in one division in North-Central Nigeria, using an approach that combined participant observation fieldwork with historical, analytical and interview research with officers past and present.

His research focussed on recruitment, training, everyday working practices, morale and structural issues and led to some interesting findings. For example he found that most police cases, except for serious offences, resulted in negotiated solutions – parties ‘settled’ with each other rather than proceeding to prosecution: in a sample of 75 cases he recorded during a one-month period, only 2.6 per cent were charged to court. He found there was public support for this approach and suggested it should be recognised and encouraged.

According to Dr Owen, ‘Often the problems and answers are well-known by many inside the system, but they are not in a position to bring them up. By building trust, providing new evidence and supporting frank and open discussion, this on-going project is helping to support the slow process of policy reform and culture change.’

New measures are already being introduced that draw on Dr Owen’s findings, and he has been invited to participate in future conversations on the implementation of some of his other suggested reforms. The Inspector General himself has also reviewed his proposals and since asked national heads of departments to provide written responses to them. 

In addition, the DFID-funded policing assistance project Justice for All (J4A) has facilitated dialogues between Dr Owen and a Nigeria Police headquarters strategy team, and J4A itself has incorporated some of his work into their own training programmes for serving officers. He has also worked with Nigeria’s CLEEN Foundation, a civil society organisation working on justice sector reform and aimed at improving public safety and security, the Police Service Commission and the National Human Rights Commission, to protect the police from political interference. 

In 2015, Dr Owen won an ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for his work, coming second in the Outstanding Early Career Impact category.

The project was funded by Oxford's ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.


Photo: AU UN IST PHOTO / David Mutua. Public domain