REPORT: Police prefer using live bullets on unarmed protesters, but govt seems indifferent
We don't just shoot, our action is determined by risk posed by demonstrators - Police
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OLUYEMI Fasipe, a random social media user on Monday morning, 24th February tweeted to Nigerians, “as you go about your hustle this week, the protection of God will be sufficient for you and you will not encounter unfortunate and cursed rogue policemen…”
The tweet came at about 8:30 am.
Two hours later, the tweet has generated over 300 likes and 34 comments, with scores responding ‘Amen’.
It was an upshot of a series of extrajudicial killings by the Police, followed by the incident which occurred two days earlier – 22nd February. Tiamiyu Kazeem, a footballer with the Remo Stars Football Club was allegedly killed by the Police operative in Sagamu Local Government of Ogun State.
The following Monday, scores of women went out in multitudes to demonstrate against the killing. But again, one person was reportedly shot dead during the protest. Two other dead casualties were later reported – an action, which led Mohammed Adamu, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to scrap the 12 Zonal Intervention Squads.
‘Your life will not be cut short,’ he said, as he ends his devotions, and then, wished the public a productive week.
This mass reponse exemplifies the fear that most Nigerians harbour about their safety in the hands of the civil authority responsible for their protection, even as they go about their daily activities.
Apparently, Fasipe’s unusual prayer was premised on seemingly unending police extrajudicial killings of innocent citizens across the country, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
“Clearly police have become our greatest problem in going about our normal and legitimate businesses nowadays and it is just as unfortunate as it can be,” Ezenma Basil, a different user said, expressing his concern.
Police use of live bullets
The news of police harassments is not new. Often time, this leads to the death of innocent citizens, exacerbated by the use of live bullets during riots or protests. There are pieces of evidence of real-life shooting where the police fire at will and killed those they are paid to protect.
Only on a few occasions do the police conforn to the best policing practice by forming a wall around protesters as a way of protecting them.
But this particularly occurs in Abuja, the seat of power, especially during the BringBackOurGirls campaign.
There are also few cases where the police engage in dialogue with the protesters, but many other cases are worse.
In July 2009, a report by the Cable News Network (CNN) detailed how the anti-riot Police otherwise known as (MOPOL) allegedly killed at least 133 people during a two-day riot in Jos, Plateau state with support from the military. This figure was validated by a report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW).
It has, however, become almost a norm that the police kill Nigerians extra-judicially or abuse their human rights in other ways
For nearly five years, Nigerians have witnessed brutal killings due to the use of live arms on unarmed demonstrators. Some of these cases have been reported by major news organisations but the situation persists.
For instance, days after the Lagos State Government banned the operation of commercial motorcycles and tricycles in 15 selected parts of the state; there was a civil protest which drew the police attention. To contain the riot, the Police allegedly used live bullets leading to the death of three persons including a schoolgirl and another female whose stomach was ruptured by the police bullets.
Prior to the Federal Government’s decision to proscribe the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), protesters demanding for the release of Sheikh Ibrahim El-zakzaky, were reportedly killed by the police, also with live ammunition.
After the group’s proscription, over 20 others died in repeated demonstrations. These killings were largely attributed to alleged ineptitude of security agents who were accused of using live bullets on the protesters who were armed with stones.
Last year July, a journalist identified as Precious Owolabi was also killed allegedly by the Police while covering similar protest staged by the El-zakzaky members. Till date, no police officer has been identified as culpable for the offence or prosecuted by the authority.
Moreover, in early January, another journalist, late Alexandra Ogbu was allegedly killed by the same security operatives deployed to curtail the demonstration. He was shot dead through a stray bullet while waiting to board a public vehicle, though the Police denied being responsible for his death.
“Do you know Alexandra Ogbu? He is dead, come to the police station.” These were the exact words the police reportedly used to break the news of Alex passing to his wife over the phone.
But, should the Police make use of live bullets during protests or riots? Is it embedded in the operational framework of the security operatives while controlling protests? What is applicable in other climes etc.
These are some of the questions requiring immediate answers. Yet, the authority has been silent, hence the continuous reoccurrence, despite being a major public concern.
It is ironical that the Police that is always eager to dispense justice, rven extra- judicially have a long history of professional miscoducts, corrupt and criminal practices.
“Indeed, 80 years after its birth, members of the force are viewed more as predators than protectors, and the Nigeria Police Force has become a symbol in Nigeria of unfettered corruption, mismanagement, and abuse,” the Human Rights Watch labels the force in a 2010 report.
In 2016, the Amnesty International prior to the report, titled You Have Signed Your Death Warrant, also found the Police guilty of extra-judicial offences but nothing seems to have changed for better, except the partial unbundling of the Special Anti-Robbery and Response (SARS) unit.
“The scale of the reaction to this incident shows that the concerns of the Nigerian people are reaching boiling point. All incidents of violence meted out by this notorious police unit must be independently investigated, and those found to be responsible must be prosecuted in fair trials.”
“The #EndSARS hashtag is rightly gaining the attention of the police and Nigerian government and now officials must do more to end these horrendous abuses of power. Amnesty International highlighted such abuses more than a year ago, yet these shocking incidents still continue. Restructuring SARS is not enough, the government must take concrete steps to protect Nigerians.”
But are there better alternatives to managing protesters?
In other countries, peaceful demonstrators are controlled through the deployment of special police operatives with tactical skills. They often make use of batons and shields, water cannon, taser guns and at worst the use of tear-gas among other measures.
Last year in Hong Kong, for over three months, scores of civil protesters demonstrated against the government’s policy on a controversial bill that later evolved into a pro-democracy agitation. The recorded height of human rights abuse was torture and brutal beatings and arbitrary arrests. Yet, there was no account of where the police actually used live ammunition on the demonstrators.
According to a report by the UK Guardian, over 1,400 protesters were arrested during the protest.
However, there were no dead casualties. The aggrieved persons and international observers either accused the Hong Kong Police authorities of violent attacks or another form of maltreatment during or after the demonstrations.
Another study conducted by the AI, where 48 persons were interviewed including lawyers and 21 arrested protesters, the respondents all accused the Nigerian police authorities of violent attacks.
“Time and time again, officers meted out violence prior to and during arrests, even when the individual had been arrested or detained,” Nicholas Bequelin East Asia Director of AI stated in the report.
It is illegal – Police sources
In the course of this report, The ICIR reached out to a few Police officers who decided to speak off-record.
One of the officers admitted the use of arms during protests is illegal.
“No law says we should use arms during protests but we also need to protect ourselves,” he said justifying their actions.
Reminded of the budgetary allocations to the Police almost on an annual basis, to procure anti-riot equipment, the sources explained that the issue of mismanagement cannot be fully ruled out as the 36 states police commands should have been provided with adequate special equipment for such purpose.
“First and foremost, whether a protest is peaceful or not police/law enforcement officers were not expected to engage in the use of live ammunition. Therefore, the use of live ammunition is not allowed for whatever reason in an ideal situation,” another Police source revealed.
According to him, crowd control measures are often determined by the threat posed by the protesters, constitutional provisions; and the rules of engagement.
He explained further: “The police or law enforcement officers involved in crowd control during spontaneous demonstrations were expected to avoid the use of lethal weapons, long-range weapons which are capable of inflicting serious injuries on protesters and ultimately result to loss of lives.”
The security operative emphasised that in an attempt to control a rampaging demonstration, the first step should be to make a loud noise and issue instructions to the demonstrators to stop and disperse, through the use of public address system or megaphone.
He said police deployed to control protests should be equipped with personal protective devices, such as riot helmets, face visors, riot shields, gas masks and body armour (vests, neck protectors, knee pads, shoulder and elbow pads).
“In view of the need to avoid collateral damage, unnecessary loss of lives and conform with the rules of engagement, the following devices are recommended for riot control or crowd dispersal by the police during protests. They are: Tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, electric teasers, long-range acoustic devices.”
Other listed devices include: “Water cannons; armored fighting vehicles, aerial surveillance, police dogs, mounted police on horses.”
However, he described the recommendations given above as non-exhaustive as they could be improved upon.
What the Police Service Act says
There is clearly no provision of the Police Act that instructs the force to use live ammunition on protesters either violent or otherwise.
As empowered by the Nigerian Police Act, findings revealed that the Nigerian Police is administratively structured in seven departments ‘A’-‘G’.
‘B’ Department of Operations is primarily responsible for, “formulating policies, planning and management of incidents such as riots, national disasters,” among others including union protests.
The old Police Act CAP P.19 enacted in 1943 also prevents the force from using live ammunition on demonstrations. It, in fact, forbids women officers from taking drills under arms or partakes in protests.
Also, no part of the proposed amended Police bill (Nigerian Police Act 2018) empowers the police to use arms on unarmed protesters. From the principal objective in Part 1 Section 2 to the primary functions of the force in Part 2 and a standing order reflected in Section 15, Part 4, none of the provisions gave the backing on use of arms on demonstrators.
Also, Part 5, Section 28 (Powers of Police Officers) which clearly stated powers of the police in ensuring public safety and public order only obligated the police to function within the confine of human rights protection including Administration of the Criminal Justice Administration (ACJA 2015).
Lastly, Part 9, Section 70 (Prevention of offences and security for good behaviour) also charged the police to perform its best within acceptable condition such that would, “prevent the commission of an offence.”
Police got N1.87 billion in four years for riot control equipment but still uses live arms
Checks by The ICIR in the course of this report revealed that the Police have significantly benefitted from budgetary allocations in recent years up to 2020 to provide anti-protest equipment for its personnel.
Such equipment listed in the budget line as ‘procurement of riot control equipment,’ is supposedly required to disperse demonstrators, mostly when protests become violence. But, despite these allocations, live arms are commonly used on protesters.
For instance, from 2016 to 2020, the Police got N1,876,458,864 to procure the anti-protest machinery.
In 2016 the sum of N728, 415, 480 was approved. In the same 2016 budget, N666,240,000 was approved to purchase 10 anti-riot specialised water cannon and 5 K-9 operational vehicles.
There are no verifiable data for 2017 but in 2018, the Police got N266, 933,966.
By 2019, budget approval for the equipment reduced to N150, 958,730 and this year, N63, 910,688 was approved for the ‘procurement of riot control equipment.”
We shoot at protesters who shot at us – Police
Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Frank Mba, reacting to the allegation, told The ICIR about the operational guidelines of the force and the stage, at which the police would deploy force by using live bullets.
He explained that at first, the police would engage demonstrators in conversation, before it transits to the use of baton and shields, if they remain recalcitrant, then water cannon are deployed if the case continues, before eventual use of arms.
“The amount of force the police use is dependent on the risk posed by the demonstrators,” Mba said. “Normally, the police will start by having a conversation. If you want to be honest, you must have seen the police engaging demonstrators in conversation. They talk to them, tried to calm them down, not to cross a line or use a particular street.
“If that works, police will have no reason to deploy teargas or water cannon. Where that failed, the police will move to the use of batton, shields and one on one with the rioter. If that fails, then the teargas section comes in. If it degenerates and it’s becoming very rioter and properties are being destroyed, police will deploy teargas.”
The police spokesperson cited instances of where student cultists shot at the force during protests.
He said, at extreme points where rioters are armed and they begin to shoot at the police, throw bombs, stones and all kinds of offensive weapons, the force would resolve to the use arms, even though he was unable to affirm if such action was legal or not.
“Once rioters cross the redline and begin to threaten lives of innocent people, burn down properties and shoot at policemen or wound policemen – it happened recently in Abuja where some policemen were killed, the police will issue a proclamation in the name of the Head of State, and if the shooting continues and you see clearly that someone is aiming at the police, our engagement rule authorises you to take down that individual with arms, aim at his legs and take him down.”
The ICIR cited why it might be difficult to ascertain the exact shooter, particularly if the protesters are many, and instances of where a journalist was killed including the young female victim whose stomach was ruptured during Lagos Okada ban protest.
But the police spokesperson declined to comment on the particular cases but on a broader perspective stressing that it is often time cruel, when blames are placed on the force.
According to him, in situations where rioters also own arms, stray bullets could fly from any end.
“In the case of the riot in Abuja where a police officer was killed and two others injured, including a journalist who was killed. Will you, in all honesty, say that the policemen shot and kill themselves? ”
Mba further justified his argument on the case of arms proliferation in the country. There are lots of weapons in the hands-on non-state actors.
“The weapon in the arms of non-state actors is more than the weapon in the hands of the law enforcement agencies, military and government forces in Africa,” he added, quoting recent AU report.
The ICIR then pushed further on the legality of using the armed weapons on rioters but, he attempted to flip the argument.
He said: “If I am dispersing rioters, and you….what’s your name, Gbenga.
“Okay, if Gbenga is a journalist and your life is threatened by an armed bearing rioter, and the only way to stop the man from bringing you down is to shoot at his legs, I will be justified to use my weapon and protect you.
“My weapon is designed to protect the state, citizens of the state and protect the common wealth of the state, and I must do so within the bounds of the law.