There was a man in London 300 years ago called Jonathan Wild. He lived at a time robbery and violent crimes were rampant in the city – day and night. The people were helpless and the police were largely absent. And because nature abhors a vacuum, this man, a civilian, filled that void. He started hiring himself to the government to capture thieves and get them hanged. He was very effective in catching thieves and in retrieving stolen goods back to their owners. He set up what he called ‘Lost Property Office’ which became a house of relief for traumatized victims of theft and robbery.
Jonathan Wild did everything for a fee, became wealthy, and was London’s toughest guy of his time. He was so astoundingly successful in nabbing criminals that he got the media to crown him ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’ and he rejoiced in that name and fame. He had no rival. English crime and legal historians recorded him as having a very uncanny ability to locate stolen goods and those who stole them. Records say Jonathan Wild, between 1721 and 1723, destroyed all criminal gangs that formed “the hardcore” of the London underworld and stabilised the city. He cleansed London and cleared it of criminals and their criminality. The people could, once again, work during the day and sleep at night. He was celebrated in the castles of the rich and in the crevices of the poor. Without being a policeman, Wild was valourized as London’s super-cop. Even the Privy Council applauded and consulted with him. And the state, by an Act of Parliament, increased the cash reward from £40 to £140 per highwayman caught – by him.
He was arrested on February 15, 1725, tried and sentenced to death for taking £10 as a reward for returning some stolen lace to the owner. It turned out that he himself was the mastermind of the lace theft. Then the press dug deeper. Then it was revealed that “far from combating the crime wave, Jonathan Wild had been the principal driving force behind it; that he himself was the virtual ‘Regulator’ of the underworld he was supposed to be suppressing; that the Lost Property Office was simply a clearinghouse for the huge quantities of stolen goods his own gangs (each allocated an area in London) supplied to him; and that the hundreds of criminals he had ‘brought to justice’ were casualties, or fall guys… in a dark and hidden gang-warfare waged against enemies, rivals, and ‘rebels’” (see Gerald Howson’s ‘Thief-Taker General: Jonathan Wild and the Emergence of Crime and Corruption as a Way of Life in 18th Century England’, 1985, page 6). There was no supercop anywhere, if anything, an analyst said, he was the world’s first super-criminal whose life helped to draw a “fresh picture of the birth of modern organized crime families as part of modern organized political systems.”
The Thief-Taker General was actually a Thief-Maker, “an aider, abettor, and encourager of felons” (see Alexander Smith’s ‘Memoirs of the Life and Times of the Famous Jonathan Wild’, 1726; page 16). The man had an empire of felons, recruited and trained by him to steal for him. But he was a sensible man. He had the stolen goods but never sold them, nor attempted to. He had the sense to know that selling stolen goods might fetch him greater riches, but it would burn him out too soon. So, what did he do? Jonathan Wild simply asked his men to rob for him, got the items, and then informed the owner that what was lost had been found; then he was rewarded with cash which he dictated to the owners. His exploits were so phenomenal that three centuries after his execution by hanging, James Caterer (2009) says he and another sleek felon have remained “archetypal figures” who have “been repeatedly reincarnated as fictional antiheroes across literature, theatre, film, and popular music.”
The trending story in Nigeria, outside politics, is about Nigeria’s nationally celebrated and decorated supercop, Abba Kyari. He was in the news last year courtesy of the American FBI on a 419 case. This time, his troubles are from Nigeria’s NDLEA which last week accused the supercop of being connected to a global hard drug ring. Before his scandals, there was no one like him. He was loud, very loud in operation, and lousy in social (media) engagements. He is now in detention, still innocent until his accusers prove the contrary. When he is charged to court, we may have other details, particularly his side of the story. But whatever happens in this case, Nigeria should have learnt at least a lesson. Never create what you can’t control. Never rear a pet you cannot tame -pets do go wild. My people say if you shoot a racing antelope and you do not trace the game, it will become food for maggots. Eighteenth-century London created Jonathan Wild, indulged him with adulation, and discovered very late that he was an arsonist disguised as a firefighter. Here, it appears we’ve always had a succession of firemen whose expertise is in quenching fires with top-grade petrol.
A character in Maria Edgeworth’s 1800 fiction, ‘Tales of Fashionable Life’ asks another character: “You have all your life been evading the law and very frequently breaking the peace. Do you think this has qualified you peculiarly for being a guardian of the law?” And the other replies, “Yes, sure, set a thief to catch a thief is no bad maxim.” Is that what we’ve always done with our policing system? And will things ever change? The Wild story might have taught some lessons to 18th century London and its officials, but were those lessons strong enough to stop nursing criminals while fighting crimes? For instance, a hundred and twenty years after Wild, the state of policing in London showed that what Wild did as a private citizen, the police subsequently did using official cover.
The Puppet Show was a 19th-century newspaper published in London. On Saturday, September 26, 1848, it ran an editorial on the sorry state of the police in that city. If you search well, you will find that content well preserved online. I read the newspaper’s lamentation and thought it was about 2022 Nigeria. It described policemen as “the guardians of the peace of the country” who ironically had become “the only villains unpunished in it.” I reproduce part of the editorial here: “It is with shame and disgust that we have observed in the newspapers, of late, how fast the Police Force is becoming an organised brutality. Scarcely a week passes without their committing some offence which disgusts everybody but the magistrates. Boys are bruised by their ferocity, women insulted by their ruffianism; And that which brutality has done, perjury denies and magisterial stupidity suffers to go unpunished. Something must be done to check this growing nuisance, for it is utterly impossible that it can be tolerated in a civilised town.”
It is not finished. If you are a Nigerian young man whose phones and laptops are daily serially abused and violated by street-corner cops, you will connect with the next paragraph from that newspaper: “The whole body is corrupt. A policeman may be seen setting himself up as a judge in the corners of the streets, and calling on men of the lower orders for evidence. They may further be seen as executioners thrashing the boys and if any humane person interferes, he at once becomes the object of their ferocity in the street, and of their lies in the court. They are open to bribery, as is well known, and may all be bought – like so much manure- by a liberal purchaser. No night passes in London that some offence is not compromised by their venality, nor a morning that some other is not exaggerated by their falsehood. They are the natural enemies of the poor, and the festering discontent of the masses is kept at fever pitch by the provocation they administer.” That was London two centuries ago sounding very much like Nigeria of the pre-EndSARS period – and, even, of today.
How clean are special squads created in the Nigeria Police? Elite guards anywhere throughout history almost always misbehaved. I don’t know if I am permitted to say that spiraling out of control is the certain character of special people and special forces – if not closely monitored. Imperial Rome had ‘The Praetorian Guard’ whose members began life as Augustus Caesar’s bodyguards. They carried out their tasks with a queer combination of panache and impunity. They employed all tools and tricks in the arts and science of “espionage, intimidation, arrests, and killings to protect the interests of the Roman emperor.” But the force later evolved into a power-hungry monster responsible for the rise and bloody fall of a succession of emperors. British historian, Guy de la Bédoyère, has an interesting account of this force. He wrote in his ‘The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard’ that “The Praetorians may have been tasked with protecting the Roman Emperor, but they were also the single greatest threat to his life. The unit was a major player in the webs of deceit that characterized imperial Rome, and they were willing to slaughter and install new emperors when tempted by promises of money or power.”
Special forces are a special menace. Further down history’s lane, there existed another elite military unit called ‘The Persian Immortals’ of the Achaemenid empire. For almost two centuries, ‘The Immortals’ called just and unjust shots while their empire sat helplessly. The Nigerian Police has all kinds of Special Squads, Response Teams, Intelligence Teams. It had (or has) SARS which grew and gave the force global ignominy. It is the IRT elite unit headed by fine boy Abba Kyari that is in the news today. It has been slammed with the dubious reputation of doing Jonathan Wild with the privilege Nigeria gave it. Yet, both SARS and the IRT started well and, like Wild, they received the people’s acclaim and reward for doing great jobs.
The first sermon that confronts you on the Twitter handle of the Nigeria Police is “change begins with me” written in capital letters. How much of belief has the messenger in his message? It is less than two years after the EndSARS crisis, yet in the darkness of corner streets, you see unkempt policemen in scary vests waylaying poor drivers and plebeian commuters. They criminalize the poor. Young men and women; phones and laptops are their special delicacy. I will be shocked if good men in the force are not tired and ashamed of this shame. Can we think of life without the police? No. We cannot. The result will be catastrophic and anarchical. Yet, with the police around, there is no rest of mind. And that is because of sad things like the terrible odour that oozed out of the force last week. Nigeria is a tiring behemoth. The problem is institutional and the rot systemic. The Kyari scandal is not the first attached to the Nigeria Police, it will not be the last. We can only help ourselves, going forward, by restructuring the country and rebuilding its decrepit vital institutions for stricter monitoring and better accountability.
Lásisi first contributed this piece to the Nigerian Tribune where he is a senior Editor