By Simon Kolawole
Mallam Abba Alhaji Kyari, the deputy commissioner of police widely celebrated as “Super Cop”, dotes on limelight like an ant on sugar. But the celebrity cop may be seeing the dying days of his super stardom with his stinging indictment in the US. The principal character in the case is the self-confessed Nigerian inter-continental scam artist, Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, best known as Hushpuppi. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has secured a warrant of arrest to pick up Kyari, who has denied all allegations — notably the one that he, for a fee, helped Hushpuppi arrest, detain and torture one Vincent Chibuzor, said to be Hushpuppi’s co-fraudster who had snitched on him.
Hushpuppi, who — like Kyari — is an indigene of Instagram, was arrested in Dubai in June 2020 over allegations of hacking, impersonation, scamming, banking fraud and identity theft. Eleven of his associates were also picked up. They were extradited to the US. Hushpuppi has already pleaded guilty to money laundering charges, which means he may spend up to 20 years behind bars. But the real shock for me, and I guess many Nigerians, is the extent of the alleged involvement of Kyari in the network of fraudsters. He has denied the allegations, mumbling something under his breath about native clothes and caps. Police authorities in Nigeria say they will do an “internal review”.
I may here confess that I used to be a fan of Kyari. About 12 years ago, a senior friend had narrated to me how his car was stolen somewhere in Yaba, Lagos state. Kyari led the team of police officers that eventually recovered the car and arrested the suspects. I started hearing good things about the officer, and I was not surprised when he eventually got double promotion. He began to hold sensitive positions and was delivering results, as far as my eyes could see. I was happy. Everybody who knows me very well can testify that I am ever guilty of always looking for Nigerian heroes and role models to celebrate in the midst of the bad news that always surrounds us. Kyari fitted the bill.
I never celebrated him in my writings, but I used word of mouth to speak good things about him, even though we have never met or spoken or had any contact whatsoever. My opinion of him was based on what people I respect were saying. But I was very uncomfortable with his celebrity lifestyle. A police officer, or any law enforcement officer, should always be discreet and remain as faceless as possible. To start with, you are going after criminals. You can easily be the target of gangs who may want to harm you. Discretion is vital. My discomfort turned to disgust when I started hearing about the activities of his boys and how they were living large. Another Nigerian hope betrayed, oh dear!
But if we are to be candid, it is because things are so weird and warped in Nigeria that we would be celebrating police officers for arresting criminals. What else is their job? Is it to be blaring siren all over the place? To be carrying suitcases for politicians and their girlfriends? To be speeding recklessly on the road, driving against traffic and parking in places clearly marked “No Parking”? To be drinking gin and playing “Baba Ijebu” at 8am as those ones on Kaffi Street, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos, do every day? To be waylaying and extorting motorists? I must regret that we celebrate mediocrity too much in this country and that is why many of us cannot cultivate or understand excellence.
You cannot really blame me, I would plead. In a country where it is alleged that police officers randomly arrest sex workers and rape them as part of “fringe benefits”, that police officers give weapons to robbers, that you go to report murder at the police station and they demand for money to do investigation, you cannot but celebrate the Kyaris that come along your way once in a Blue Moon. That is a rare commodity in the police force. I have to restrain myself from commenting on the specific allegations against Kyari before he exercises his right to defend himself, but some of us already have enough knowledge of the policing system to come to some reasoned conclusions.
Without prejudice to the police investigation, the right of Kyari to clear his name, and the actual resolution of the US case, I want to make the following preliminary and general observations. One, the way Nigerians use the police to settle personal scores is something we have to address in order to stop urinating on the rule of law. It was alleged that Kyari was used by Hushpuppi to “teach” Chibuzor “a lesson of his life”. Chibuzor had allegedly badmouthed Hushpuppi before a Qatari victim whom they were about to dupe $1.1 million. The alleged phone exchanges between Hushpuppi and Kyari were quite worrisome and scary. Let’s just say the “Super Cop” was not smelling of roses at all.
Two, is there any code of conduct for our police officers on their personal relationships and the boundary lines? In his rebuttal, Kyari explained that Hushpuppi saw some of his native clothes and caps on his social media page and said he liked them. So, he “was connected” to the seller, Kyari revealed, and the clothes and caps “were brought to our office and he sent somebody to collect them in our office”. Can you imagine a tailor sending personal clothes to the FBI office for delivery to any agent, much less someone who was not in any way working at the bureau? Kyari said it with so much panache that you must weep over how low our standards are in Nigeria. It is what it is.
Three, how do we check the intimacy between police officers and criminals in the community? Kyari has been very open when it comes to his relationships with known political thugs and people of questionable wealth. He has never hidden it. In fact, Kyari is a socialite. I do not know of any serious country in the world when a police officer of any cadre would be attending lavish parties and wearing “aso ebi”. It is not just that professionalism has gone to the dogs or that he appears to be bigger than the police institution that employs him. Those are serious issues, but of particular concern is the potential conflict of interest when a police officer is in bed with dubious characters.
Four, the FBI has not paraded a single suspect to be interviewed by the media. The agency gathered all its facts from the investigations, did forensic analysis and headed for the courts to kick-start the prosecution process. In Nigeria, the so-called suspects will be paraded before the media where they will make plenty “confessions” and that would be the end of the matter. The all-time low has to be the case of the murder of Usifo Ataga, the CEO of Super TV. After police made an open show of the confession of Chidinma Ojukwu, who said she was the killer, she later granted an “exclusive” interview from custody to retract her confessions. We are just a collection of clowns in this country.
Five, on reading the court deposition by Andrew John Innocenti, the FBI special agent that led the investigation, I was ashamed all over again for the Nigerian security agencies. You could see a professional job by the FBI. Painstaking investigation, intelligent analysis and lucid presentation of the facts. I tell people that if the FBI comes for you, your chances of escaping conviction are next to nil. In Nigeria, the police or EFCC will first arrest and detain you for weeks before looking for evidence to take you to court. They lose cases so easily. In climes where they take themselves seriously, they first build up the evidence and prepare the indictment before knocking on your door.
If Nigeria is a country that learns lessons, the Kyari affair, irrespective of how it is resolved, will not go to waste. It is an opportunity to review the conduct of police officers and come up with reform initiatives to restore professionalism to the force. I understand that Nigeria is generally upside down and we should not expect the police to be insulated from the rot and the mediocrity. After all, are they not products of a rotten system? But this is a defeatist mindset. I do not accept that we are genetically bad. We are just dirty. What we need is to be cleaned up, given new clothes and re-programmed to stay clean. At least one institution can lead the way and show what is possible.
In a conversation I had with President Muhammadu Buhari two years ago, he said something that gets me thinking anytime I am frustrated with the Nigerian system. “If the judiciary and police live up to expectations, Nigeria will get better. In fact, the job of the president will be easy,” he said. While I largely agree with him, I would not say he has done much to reform those institutions. We may argue that the judiciary is independent and separation of powers in a presidential system should be respected, but what excuse can the president make about the police? Reforming the police to become more professional is not impossible. It is about determination. It can be a legacy for him.
In the wake of the Kyari affair, we need to pay more attention to ethics in public life. There is a reason why judges, police officers and other public officers are expected to have limited social lives. The risk involved in mixing with the wrong crowd is one; the need to always appear impartial to potentially contending parties is another. While an argument can be made that socialising can be a source of intelligence gathering or gaining better understanding, doing so without cover, as Kyari was doing, not only creates a moral muddle but also puts lives of prized state assets at risk. Why was he never called to order by his bosses? Nigeria could have been saved this global embarrassment.
The Nigerian government should now be working seriously to tackle the matters arising. How can police officers become more professional? How can we curtail the menace of using the police to settle personal scores? How can we address the agelong issue of torture, which is probably a carryover from military regimes when security agencies operated with impunity? How can police stop parading suspects before the media? How can police officers be held personally liable for misconducts and misdemeanours such as bribery, collusion with criminals, torture, extra-judicial killings, breaking traffic rules and misuse of siren and firearms? This is not rocket science, I think.