By Alexis Coopersmith
Staff Writer

A video uploaded to YouTube in August showed a Nigerian police officer stop a car, sit down in the passenger seat and demand 25,000 naira, or $155, from the driver, claiming that he committed an offence. When the driver responds saying that he does not have that much money to give, the officer threatens him with arrest. The video was recorded secretly by the driver in Lagos, Nigeria and within a few days of being uploaded to YouTube, it had over 150,000 views (Agence France Presse 2013). The video made public a common occurrence for many Nigerian citizens, igniting outrage among Nigerians and bringing the issue of law enforcement corruption into the national spotlight. The short video illustrates a greater issue that currently threatens the development of Nigeria: public sector corruption.

Transparency International defines public sector corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain within the government and its decentralized units—including the police force, primary education institutions and the healthcare system (Slater 2011). The public sector is “the part of the state that produces or allocates goods and services for the benefit of the state and its citizens” (McNab & Bailey). Corruption that occurs within the public sector is particularly damaging to a nation’s development because it directly disadvantages the everyday lives of citizens. Amartya Sen, economist and Nobel laureate, defines development as the removal of unfreedoms that restrict peoples’ choices, actions, and opportunities (Sen 1999). Public sector corruption perpetuates extreme poverty, exacerbates social inequalities, and “diverts scarce funds, denying poor people access to basic social services and resources to improve their livelihoods” (Transparency International 2012). Corruption fuels feelings of powerlessness among the poor masses in Nigeria by undermining accountability of those entrusted with power. It ultimately disadvantages everyone who depends upon the integrity of those in positions of authority. In these ways, corruption obstructs development by denying people the social, political, and economic freedoms necessary to exercise fully one’s agency.

Nigeria lags behind much of the world terms of development, as is shown by various development indicators. Nigeria is ranked 153 on the Human Development Index, with an index of .471 and an inequality-adjusted index of .276, making it a “low human development” nation. The average life expectancy at birth is 52.3 years, while the mean years of schooling for adults is only 5.2 years. The gross national income per capita is $2,102 (United Nations Human Development Reports 2013). According to the United Nations Human Development Programme (2013), 68 percent of Nigeria’s 170 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. Nigeria is considered partly free by Freedom House, but is noted to have experienced a decline in political rights and civil liberties in 2013 (Freedom in the World 2013). On Transparency International’s scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean of corruption), Nigeria scored 25 in 2013, an even lower score than it received in 2012, placing Nigeria at 144 of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. These indicators demonstrate the urgency of Nigeria’s need to pursue policies that can usher in development and provide tangible benefits in the lives of citizens.

Of the various forms of public sector corruption, corrupt law enforcement is a particularly devastating problem for Nigeria’s development. In “Locus of Control and Self-Efficacy as a Means of Tackling Police Corruption in Nigeria (2008), police corruption is described as being context-dependent. There is no one definition of police corruption because it can occur in various forms, “any unethical behavior on the part of a police officer is corruption” (Aremu, Pakes, & Johnston 2008, 98). As the video posted to YouTube demonstrates, police officers bribe, extort and embezzle money throughout the nation on a daily basis. Because these acts of corruption figuratively and literally takes money out of the hands of poor Nigerians with the threat of imprisonment, it has the immediate effect of directly robbing citizens of their ability to act freely as agents by limiting their daily resources. In the long-term, police corruption diverts money away from impoverished masses who already live below the poverty line and destroys citizen trust in its nation’s institutions. The Nigeria Governance and Corruption Survey found that Nigerians rate the integrity of law enforcement as the lowest of all state institutions (Aremu, Pakes, & Johnston 2008). This blatant lack of trust in an institution intended to ensure citizens’ security significantly detracts from the legitimacy of the government (Agbiboa 2012).

Corrupt conduct within Nigerian law enforcement has been a national issue since the establishment of the Nigeria Police Force in 1930 (Human Rights Watch 2010). Under colonial rule, Nigeria’s police force had a reputation of incivility, ruthlessness and unpredictability. Law enforcement continued its criminal conduct and disregard for people’s rights post-independence. In the decades after Nigeria declared independence from Britain in 1960, political instability allowed police corruption to go unchecked. Impunity incentivized officers to continue their corrupt actions. Failing to earn the public’s support, the police force’s legitimacy has since suffered dramatically (Alemika 1988). Currently, Nigeria’s police force, the largest police force on the African continent, is “a symbol of unfettered corruption, mismanagement, and abuse,” and the officers “are viewed more as predators than protectors” (Human Rights Watch 2010, 2). Police officers have garnered such a negative reputation because, for decades, officers have threatened the economic well-being of Nigerians, abused people’s rights, and undermined rule of law.

Though people of all socioeconomic statuses are negatively affected by police corruption, impoverished Nigerians suffer the greatest. Nigerian police officers routinely demand money from the public and threaten arrest or assault when people fail to pay. Drivers and passengers are often targeted for bribes during traffic stops or during police roadblocks in which officers demand a toll fee to pass (Human Rights Watch 2010). Officers are also reported to conduct mass arrests of innocent citizens in public spaces such as markets and demand money from them and their families for their release. When impoverished individuals are forced to give up their money or are arbitrarily detained, their livelihoods are severely threatened. The physical safety of the individual and their family is put into jeopardy, denying them freedoms and ultimately restricting their choices and opportunities in society. Extrajudicial killings, torture, and holding hostages for ransom continue to be common practices that blatantly disregard human rights and violate citizen’s entrustment of power (Human Rights Watch 2013). Furthermore, criminals with money can “avoid arrest, detention or prosecution, and influence police investigations” through bribery, leaving citizens unequal under the law (Human Rights Watch 2010, 3). The police activity threaten the nation’s development by disempowering the poor, undermining the rule of law, failing to provide for people’s security and creating cash flows outside the national economy.

Previous leaders of Nigeria, General Abacha and Olusegun Obasanjo, failed to bring an end to the police’s corrupt practices. According to Agbiboa (2012), General Abacha’s kleptocratic regime did little to stop corruption and rule of law crumbled. President Obasanjo, on the other hand, gained popular and international support when he enacted tough anti-corruption measures in Nigeria’s police force. He formed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a law enforcement agency that recovered $5 billion in stolen funds and prosecuted corrupt businessmen and policemen (Nigeria’s elections: Big men, Big Fraud, and Big Trouble 2007). Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police was even convicted and imprisoned in 2005 on corruption charges under Obasanjo. Within a couple years, however, Obasanjo’s regime no longer enforced anti-corruption initiatives, and private and public sector corruption once again flourished with impunity. His international and domestic support dwindled drastically as a result (Nigeria’s elections: Big men, Big Fraud, and Big Trouble 2007).

More recently, the Nigerian government under President Goodluck Jonathan has acknowledged problems with the nation’s police force and has taken measures to improve the quality of law enforcement. In an effort to curb corruption, the government has increased funding to the national police force as well as improved officer wages (Human Rights Watch 2010). Despite these efforts, enforcement has been intermittent and the government has failed to seriously address citizens’ grievances and to implement policies that adequately prevent officer impunity.

Law enforcement corruption shatters citizen’s trust in Nigeria’s public sector and in other government institutions and it devastates the nation’s rule of law (Aremu, Pakes, & Johnston 2008; Human Rights Watch 2010). Rule of law is the foundational mechanism to end private abuse and public mismanagement (Agbiboa 2012). Without functioning rule of law, Nigerians will remain impoverished and the nation will fail to provide its citizens with the freedoms essential to development. Economic development efforts require robust restrictions on the arbitrary exercise of power and without well-established laws regulating the law enforcement sector, national development will be significantly undermined. Corrupt police officers weaken Nigeria’s future for their own personal gain, because ultimately, “all corruption is a deceit, a lie, that sacrifices the common good or the public interest for something much less” (Caiden & Truelson 1988, 19).

Work Cited

Agbiboa, D. E. (2012). Serving the few, starving the many: How corruption underdevelops nigeria and how there Is an alternative perspective to corruption cleanups. Africa Today. 58(4), 110-132. Indiana University Press. Retrieved March 2014, from Project MUSE database.

Agence France Presse. (2013). Nigeria’s police corruption problem highlighted by youtube clip of cop soliciting bribe. Huffington Post.

Aremu, O. A., Pakes, F., & Johnston, L. (2008). Locus of control and self-efficacy as means of tackling police corruption in nigeria. International Journal of Police Science and Management. 11(1), 97-107.

Caiden, G. E., & Truelson, J. A. (1988). Whistleblower protection in the usa: Lessons learnt and to be learnt. Australian Journal of Public Administration. 47(2), 119-129.

Human Rights Watch. (2010). “Everyone’s in on the game” Corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigeria Police Force. Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch. (2013). World report 2013. Human Rights Watch.

Freedom in the World 2013. (2013). Democratic breakthroughs in the balance. Freedom House.

McNab, R. & Bailey, K. Manuscript 2: Defining Corruption. U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Nigeria: Corruption Fueling Police Abuses. (2010). Human Rights Watch.

Nigeria’s elections: Big men, big fraud, and big trouble. (2007). TheEconomist.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. Random House, Inc. New York.

Slater, R. (2011). What is public sector corruption?. Transparency International.

Transparency International. (2012). Poverty and corruption in africa: Community voices break the cycle. Transparency International.

Photo by Zouzou Wizman


  1. […] This review essay describes past and present conditions of police corruption in Nigeria as well as intermittent efforts at reform. It emphasizes the corrosive effects of corruption on rule of law and the financial impact on poor people forced to pay bribes. […]


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