AV Club: “Nigerian Prince” is about a fraudulent scammer, but the police is the real villain

In his newly published book, ‘Boldly Comes Justice: Sentient Not Silent’, author and famous neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar writes, “The problem with law enforcement is not the corruption, but an absolute denial of that corruption”. It’s a statement that is as profound as it is ordinary, because on one hand it captures one of the core ills behind bad policing, and on the other it’s an observation that doesn’t need too much insight, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately.

This year, amidst a raging pandemic, several countries have become grounds for protests against terrible policing systems that enable various dimensions of abuse towards the same citizens police claim to serve and protest. From America to Nigeria to Angola to Uganda, people have come out demand for police reform, but these agitations have been treated with lip service and/or further police brutality. It’s an indicator that, not only are the police unwilling to change, they’re entirely rejecting the notion that there’s any need for change.

In Nigeria, specifically, it’s far from a secret that the police is one of the villains average Nigerians have to deal with on a daily basis. For most of the population, the mere sight of police causes shudders, because extortion has been one of the system’s main ills for decades. From soliciting bribes on the roads to demanding money before taking on any form of investigation, the corruption of the Nigerian police force is as legendary as it is ever pervasive, and it clearly frames their manner of operation as a system of patronage. As long as you pay what the police demands, you’re most likely free to go about your activities, even if they know those activities are downright illegal.

In the 2018 film “Nigerian Prince”, this real but troubling relationship between policing and patronage is depicted to strong results. Directed by Nigerian-American filmmaker Faraday Okoro, “Nigerian Prince” follows two main characters, Eze (Antonio Bell) and Pius (Chinaza Uche), as their unlikely paths collide but they strike up a bond based on desperation. Eze is an American teenager born to Nigerian parents, who was sent to Nigeria to live with his aunt Grace (Tina Mba) for four weeks, only to find out the actual duration is for a year and his mother has cancelled his return flight upon landing. On his path, Pius is a scammer who crafts and engages in a myriads of fraudulent schemes, but here’s the kicker: the Police not only knows what Pius does, they basically tax, enable and generally regulate his activities.

Pius and Eze are cousins, and after an unfortunate first encounter, they basically become two peas in a pod, since the latter is bent on finding his way back home and that involves getting money for a flight ticket, while the former is seeking for people to scam in order to pay off a fine imposed by a high ranking police officer. When viewers are introduced to Pius, he’s seen selling a car, which pretty much vanishes after the victim has already paid over N3million. Immediately after the crime is reported, Pius is quickly brought in for being the perpetrator, largely because the police have a history with him and his scams.

In this interface, the dynamic between Pius and the police is quickly established: not only is he visibly intimidated, he’s clearly subject to the whims of their demands. For not informing him of the scam and not paying the tax percentage attached to each scam, the DPO of the police station, ominously named Smart, fines Pius N4million, and that’s after returning the money he ripped off his unsuspecting customer.

With the fine time bound, Pius has engaged in several schemes in order to ensure he pays up on time. To do that, he cajoles his mentor Baba (Toyin Oshinaike) into a partnership, and after they run a scheme involving non-existent bags of rice, they make a relatively big play to pass off household items as expensive chemicals that can clean “black money”. Unbeknownst to them, though, their white patron is a U.S. secret agent working in tandem with Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Pius and Baba are arrested, but they are soon released following an order from above, much to the befuddlement of agent Bob. Apparently, DPO Smart paid off someone in the EFCC, and in order to ensure they aren’t rearrested and Smart has to pay more, they quickly destroy all evidence, which is one of the key times Eze is fully roped into Pius’ world. This captivating sequence plays into the common trope that the law is only binding to those without connections to places of power, and there’s no better ally than corrupt police to cheat a morally bankrupt law enforcement system.

Between the vividly forced “Nigerian” accent from Chinaza Uche (Pius), whose acting is great otherwise, the not-so-spectacular cinematography, and a storyline that is sometimes gets too literal—that scene where Pius breaks down “419” to Eze is quite cringe—“Nigerian Prince” has its critical bumps, but the portrayal of police in relation to crime is very remarkable. In situating them as arbiters and enablers of crime, the film uses art to represent a reality of Nigerian life that is widely known about but isn’t always shown like this on the big screen.

 

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It’s not that Nollywood hasn’t always depicted the lawlessness of policing in Nigeria—there are scores of films with the trademark scene where the police tortures an arrested suspect to cajole confessions—but there’s a tact in “Nigerian Prince” that we don’t always see. Part of that might be the fear of backlash from the authorities. Earlier this year, the Jade Osiberu-produced “Sugar Rush” was temporarily banned from cinema screens nationwide by the National Film and Video Censors Board, and even though the board claimed that it was a case of expired exhibition permits, there were speculations that the ban stemmed from the film’s less-than-ideal representation of the EFCC.

In “Nigerian Prince”, the police just doesn’t tax and protect Pius’ criminal activities, they also serve as accomplices, as in the final scam where they help rip off another unsuspecting victim. It’s the sort of depiction that can get a Nigeria-based storyteller and production company into hot water. “Nigerian Prince” was commissioned as part of the inaugural ‘AT&T Presents: Untold Stories’, an initiative between the Tribeca Film Institute and AT&T, and it saw theatrical release in the U.S. after debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. With these circumstances, it’s easy to see why Faraday Okoro was more fearless in showing the Nigerian police, and law enforcement generally, in its widely known corrupt light.

Stretching even beyond their corrupt practices,  Okoro incorporates the force’s penchant for brutality and casual murder, showing the prevalence and interdependence between abuse of power and financial gain, a devastating mix that fuels the country’s utterly bad policing system. Alongside other themes like betrayal and being uprooted, “Nigerian Prince” is about fraud, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the police is the main villain.

Don’t get me wrong, fraud deserves to be condemned and Pius is also a villain, but there are moments you catch yourself rooting for Pius, due to how much brutality the police metes out. I don’t think they’ve caught wind of it, but if they have, there’s no doubt that the Nigerian police will condemn their representation in “Nigerian Prince”, deeming it as bad PR when average Nigerians know that they’ve been one of the prominent villains of Nigerian reality.

There’s a popular belief that the Nigerian police know who the actual criminals are, but they’re reluctant to arrest them since these criminals always “settle” them. “Nigerian Prince” reinforces that notion, showing that the police is only friends with those who line their pocket, a relationship that can best be described as “scratch my back and I scratch yours, if not I will stab you in the back”. It’s a reiteration that the people who make up the system charged with maintaining law and order are, more often than not, lawless and disorderly themselves.

[“Nigerian Prince” is currently streaming on Netflix]

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Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter


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Dennis is an advocate for drinking water and occasionally minding other people’s business. Tweet him your favourite Idowest songs @ayo_dennis.

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