Letter from Africa: Should Africa's police recruits be put through the lie detector?

Police in Abuja Nigeria Image copyright Reuters

In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo questions whether lie detectors could help promote honest law enforcement.

Last week's news that Nigeria's Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, wants all new recruits to the country's police force to undergo a lie detector test cannot have been an April fool's joke as it's now the end of August.

A police statement stated clearly that the "polygraph test is aimed at ensuring that candidates are not of questionable character", and that new police officers should "conform to acceptable standards necessary for an ideal police officer the Nigerian people deserve".

Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe's former finance minister:

Image copyright AFP

"Whenever I see a policeman, I run away because he sees me as an ATM"

Just what sort of questions would be set for the future cops is not clear, but the move is innovative and opens up all manner of possibilities on the African political landscape in our search for the kind of public officials the continent deserves.

And why stop at just police recruits? Journalists could be asked: "Have you ever taken money to write or ignore a story?"

Football players in the Under-17 World Cup could break out in a sweat at the simple inquiry: "How old are you?"

Politicians and presidents, meanwhile, may find the truth-telling exercise a challenge too far.

Default setting

The search for honest police officers who fulfil the "acceptable standards" sought by Nigeria's police chief could be extended to most African states.

Back in July, citizens in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, vented their anger over phony police roadblocks, which crop up every few miles "to check the roadworthiness" of vehicles, but more importantly provide a pretext to spot-fine drivers and extract money from impoverished commuters.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption These are police officers pictured in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, in May...
Image copyright Reuters/AP
Image caption .... This month Zimbabwean police officers have not tolerated protests in capital, Harare

And since the state is struggling to pay public workers, it is entirely credible that such fines exist to supplement the officers' meagre and late salaries.

"Whenever I see a policeman, I run away because he sees me as an ATM," declared Tendai Biti, former finance minister.

Encounters with African police forces can also be deadly.

Ethiopian police clashed with demonstrators demanding answers to human rights abuses in the north-west of the country, and several people lost their lives in the city of Bahir Dar in the Amhara region.

Farai Sevenzo:

Image copyright Farai Sevenzo

"Following orders, history has sometimes instructed us, is not a credible excuse"

Force is the default setting for African police, with officers deployed on the streets willing to unleash tear gas in Nairobi, Harare, Lusaka, Addis Ababa or any other African capital.

Anti-government demonstrations in Harare last week saw water-cannon and yet more tear gas as the government blamed unknown "foreign elements" for trying to incite rebellion.

In the age of instant news and social media sharing, the evidence of African police brutality is a click away and all over the web.

Image copyright Twitter/@maDube_
Image caption These images were tweeted and retweeted in the wake of protests in Zimbabwe last week

So, would a polygraph test for new recruits lessen such incidents?

What kind of questions would the recruits have to answer?

Would there be questions about their sympathy for the beaten citizens?

Or would they be about their loyalty to entrenched police chiefs who have had jobs for life, much like the men who appointed them?

As governments face dissent, citizens are promoting the idea that those police officers firing live bullets into groups of demonstrators, or starring in their own brutality videos as they rain down truncheon blows on fleeing citizens, should be recorded, identified and have their details stored for future prosecutions.

Following orders, history has sometimes instructed us, is not a credible excuse.

Whatever becomes of the Nigerian inspector general's intriguing idea to introduce lie-detector tests, he should remember the double-edged nature of such an exercise.

The polygraph reveals the truth-tellers and may show him honest cops who pass the test, but it will also give him the best liars who will bluff their way through anything.

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