By Ayodele AKINKUOTU
“REST In Pieces” was the title of a comprehensive report released in March 2005 by Human Rights Watch on Police Tortures and Deaths in custody in Nigeria.
The investigations, which produced that report were conducted in three cities, Enugu, Lagos and Kano. Some 50 people, victims and witnesses, were interviewed. In its preamble, the summary of the report noted that “Since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigeria, under President Olusegun Obasanjo, has moved to take an increasingly influential position in Africa.”
Aside from his moves to broker peace in regional conflicts, the report noted the important steps he took in combating corruption and reviving the Nation’s economy. Sadly, the report noted that the Nigerian government had failed to show the same determination in “addressing human rights abuses, in particular, widespread and persistent violations perpetrated by the security forces, most notably the police, military and other law enforcement agencies”.
For a nation just recovering from the brutish era of 16 years of military rule at the time, that report was a clarion call to Nigeria to put its Fundamental Human Rights House in order. Obasanjo himself saw fire in that era, and only narrowly missed death by the whiskers.
But, as usual with such reports, the 2005 report must have been presented to an appropriate agency of the Federal Government, which would have promised urgent action immediately. In such matters, though, that is the end of the story. For, the report was dumped along with others preceding it, to gather dust.
Last year, a similar fate befell another report prepared by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, NHRC. Interestingly, the report was based on the findings of the Presidential Panel on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, constituted in August 2018. The panel was mandated to investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuse of office against SARS and the Nigeria Police Force.
The panel sat in the six geo-political zones of the federation; received 113 complaints on alleged human rights violations from across the country and 22 memoranda on how to reform and restructure the notorious SARS and the Nigeria Police in general. It completed the assignment within 10 months and submitted its report to President Muhammadu Buhari in June 2019. That is some 16 months ago. Some of its recommendations, according to media reports in the wake of its submission to the President, were the renaming of SARS and the creation of state and local government police. Ha! If only Buhari had acted with dispatch.
Other notable recommendations were the dismissal of 37 police officers and the prosecution of 24 others. The Inspector-General of Police, IGP, was asked to unmask 22 officers accused of the human rights violations of innocent citizens.
Furthermore, various sums of compensation were to be paid by the Police to 45 complainants by the Police; apologies were to be tendered in five other complaints, and the police were asked to obey court orders in five others. If only Buhari had acted with dispatch.
On the day he received the report, the President directed a three-man panel made up of IGP Mohammed Adamu, inspector general of police, Dayo Apata, Federal Solicitor General, and Tony Ojukwu, Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, NHRC, to review the recommendations and submit a White Paper within three months. That White Paper must have been presented to the President in September 2019, some 13 months ago. Perhaps, if only Buhari had acted with dispatch, today the youths would not have taken to the streets in several cities to demand the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
Since its submission, and while it was gathering dust on a shelf in Aso Rock, several Nigerians have been extra-judicially eliminated by the Police and other law enforcement agencies.
For instance, within the first few weeks of the nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian Human Rights Commission reported that 18 people were extra-judicially killed by the police. Their offence was a failure to comply with lockdown restrictions.
Currently trending on social media is a long list of some of those who have been killed in the last 10 years in the course of their encounters with the police. Here, we will only mention four persons on that list that could have been alive today if Buhari had acted on the report submitted to him last year with dispatch. In the course of a minor misunderstanding with the police, Musab Sammani was killed in Kano last December; In February, 21-year old Tiamiyu Kazeem, a professional footballer died in Shagamu when he fell out of a police van and was overrun by a speeding vehicle. His death sparked a protest which resulted in the loss of five other lives; and in May, 16-year old Tina Ezekwe was hit by a stray bullet from the gun of a drunk policeman who fired at a bus driver who refused to bribe him at a checkpoint; and during the Eid-el Kabir festival in August, Ayomide Taiwo, aged 20, was shot by another drunk SARS official in Osun State for refusing to settle him adequately.
These untimely deaths are aside from the many lives that have had been lost in the last few days to the violent repression of protesters by the police. In fact, in Lagos, the police even shot one of their own. Thus, if the President had acted on the report submitted to him last year, the nation could have avoided the current heartaches from extrajudicial killings. And Buhari would not have needed to sympathise with the family of Jimoh Isiaka, who was the first casualty in the several killings of protesters by the police in Ogbomosho, Oyo State.
While high-handedness by the police is as old as Nigeria, it gained ascendancy under military rule, when soldiers decided to teach “bloody civilians” how to behave. And cumulatively the two military eras lasted for 29 years.
However, not a few thought civil rule in 1999 would herald a breath of fresh air. How wrong they were. The failure of the Obasanjo presidency to champion the upholding of the citizens’ human rights informed the report, “Rest In Pieces” in 2005.
That report called attention to how the police and other law enforcement agencies breached observed in the breach, their rules of engagement. To them, constitutionally guaranteed human rights and international laws on the same are mere academic exercises. If only then President Obasanjo had acted with despatch on the suggested police reforms in that report.
For, three months after that report was submitted to his government, a bizarre extrajudicial killing by the police took place in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. That was in June 2005. Five spare parts traders, Ekene Isaac Igbe, Chinedu Meniru, Paulinus Ogbonna, Anthony Nwokike, Ifeanyi Ozor, and the latter’s girlfriend, Augustine Arebu were extrajudicially executed by the police. They were alleged to be armed robbers. The case, popularly called the APO Six, became celebrated in the media. After their murder, they were hurriedly buried in two shallow graves behind a police station.
Unfortunately, as the police themselves know, there is no perfect crime.
A judicial panel of inquiry set up by the President unravelled the mystery surrounding their cold-blooded murder. A senior police officer, Danjuma Ibrahim, then a Deputy Chief Superintendent of Police, had an altercation at a nightclub with the APO Six on the night of June 7. He left the nightclub in fury, only to lay an ambush for the unlucky six at a nearby police checkpoint. Although two locally made pistols were planted by the police in the car Peugeot 406 the victims rode in that day, a ballistic expert discovered the pistols had not been used in the previous six months. It turned out, the pistols were recovered two weeks earlier by the police from an investigation scene in an Abuja hotel. Thus putting a lie to the police claim that the APO Six died in a shootout.
A policeman, Anthony Idam, who was ready to spill the beans as to what transpired was poisoned and died a day before his appearance at the panel. That is not all. The District Police Officer in charge of the APO Police Station, where the gruesome killings were committed done escaped from a cell, where he and the others were being held. For all we know, he is still at large.
The panel recommended the trial of all the policemen involved. Those arraigned were Danjuma Ibrahim, Othman Abdulsalami, Nicholas Zakaria, Ezekiel Acheneje, Emmanuel Baba and Sadiq Salami. The trial lasted all of 12 years, at the end of which two of them, Achejene and Baba, were sentenced to death in 2017.
In spite of the convictions, and the payment of three million Naira compensation to them, the families of the APO Six did not agree that justice had been fully done. Their reason? Danjuma Ibrahim who was the one who accused the victims, and not only engineered the planting of guns in their vehicle but supervised the gruesome murder is now an Assistant Inspector General of Police.
The APO Six, and many others like them, died because Nigerian policemen are not only fond of undue profiling of the youths, but abuse their office to settle personal scores. Their mindset is captured in a recent interview aired on Africa Independent Television, AOT, as reported by the Vanguard newspaper. The interviewee was Vandelan Tersugh, a retired commander of the dreaded but now disbanded SARS.
According to him, “I stop you on the road, and I want to have a look at your phone. I want to have a look at your Facebook. I don’t think I’ve committed any crime… I have seen you with a car, and now I have assessed your age, and I know in Nigeria how difficult it is for someone who is 20, or 30 to start having a car worth seven million naira.”
While many would agree with Tersugh, not a few would point out that against the backdrop of his narrative, the Nigeria Police is conducting business in the 21st century with the mentality of the 19th. And the major reason is the systemic failure that has become endemic in the Nigerian State.
Right from the way and manner of recruitment, the training, deployment, welfare on the job and conditions of service, the system is full of hiccups. A top police officer once revealed that because of poor records keeping of the forensic data of criminals, many former convicts have inadvertently found their way into the Force. So, what can a nation expect from such elevated criminals now armed by the State which they once violated all its norms? And at times, atrocities perpetrated by some policemen and other law enforcement agents make them look like an army of invaders.
Nigerians want to take consolation in the fact that the bad eggs are few. In his Twitter feed recently, President Buhari asked Nigerians “to recognise that the vast majority of the men and women are hardworking and diligent in performing their duties.”
One celebrated officer is Abba Kyari, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, DCP, and commander of the Intelligence Response Team. His Unit has performed wonders in the fight against kidnappers. For that feat, he was honoured by the House of Representatives recently. And in an interview with The Sunday Sun, Kyari struck the heart of the matter mater as to what ails the police.
In his words, “We actually need support from the government because, for more than 30 years, the Nigeria Police Force has not gotten the kind of funding that it needed. We have deficiency in so many areas. And many of the logistics that we needed to work with are not on the ground.”
That is one area the latest presidential panel on police reforms, which begins work shortly, anchoring its work on the White Paper submitted to President Buhari last year, cannot ignore. Many Nigerians eagerly look forward to their review and its speedy implementation by President Buhari.
* Ayodele Akinkuotu, former Editor – in – Chief of TELL, writes from Lagos