|Mohammed D. Abubakar|
Credit: Associated Press
Nigeria’s president has selected a new officer to lead the nation’s police force as a radical Islamist sect increasingly targets the force, but that man already has a past tarnished by allegations he allowed religious and ethnic violence that killed 1,000 people to spiral out of control.
Mohammed D. Abubakar served as police commissioner in Plateau state in 2001, leading up to rioting that saw Muslim and Christian groups armed with machetes and firearms attack each other in the restive central Nigerian city of Jos. And while some victims burned to the death in the street, civil society groups said Abubakar refused to send officers into the street to stop the violence.
“The police commissioner kept saying everything was under control while the whole town was on fire,” one local human rights activist told Human Rights Watch after the rioting.
Abubakar took over Thursday as inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force, an agency still roughly organized and as maligned as it was when the British colonial government created it in 1861. Today, more than a fourth of its officers serve as personal attendants and drivers to the oil-rich nation’s elite, while others extort bribes from motorists at checkpoints.
Abubakar, who previously served as police commissioner in Lagos, found himself appointed to the position after President Goodluck Jonathan forced Inspector Gen. Hafiz Ringim to retire several months early Wednesday. Criticism had grown over Ringim’s management after a series of attacks by the sect known as Boko Haram, including one that saw the force’s headquarters bombed in June. The final straw appeared to be the sect’s coordinated assault last week in the northern city of Kano that saw at least 185 people killed.
Yet in 2001, Abubakar served as the top police official for Jos as the city edged closer to violence. Civil rights activists accused the commissioner of ignoring warning signs and their messages asking him to mediate the growing turmoil. On Sept. 7, 2001, the city erupted in violence, pitting Christians against Muslims in violence that has repeated itself in years since.
The attacks killed about 1,000 people, Human Rights Watch said, violence that went unnoticed on the world stage as the Sept. 11 terror attack happened soon after. Some of the violence could have been averted by the police — including one instance where officers turned away a Muslim man trying to find protection for a Christian later killed, Human Rights Watch said. Officers also did not deploy to stop attacks at the city’s university.
Abubakar was transferred to Abia state in November 2001.
In a statement Wednesday announcing Ringim’s ouster, the presidency described Abubakar’s appointment “as a first step towards the comprehensive reorganization and repositioning of the Nigeria Police Force to make it more effective and capable of meeting emerging internal security challenges.” Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati did not respond to a request for comment, nor did a federal police spokesman.
It remains unclear what effect Abubakar’s leadership will have on police, though he has been lauded for his anti-robbery campaigns in the time since the 2001 Jos violence. Nigeria’s police force remains under-equipped and unable to investigate major terror attacks like those carried out by Boko Haram.
Boko Haram wants to implement strict Shariah law and avenge the deaths of Muslims in communal violence across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people split largely into a Christian south and Muslim north. The group, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s north, has now killed at least 262 people in 2012, more than half of the at least 510 people the sect killed in all of 2011, according to an Associated Press count.