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How Nigerian police steal, torture and kill at will

In 2000, a Professor of Criminology and Sociology, Etannibi Alemika, and the West African Regional Director of Ford Foundation, Innoce...

In 2000, a Professor of Criminology and Sociology, Etannibi Alemika, and the West African Regional Director of Ford Foundation, Innocent Chukwuma, carried out a research on ‘police-community violence in Nigeria.’ They analysed the structural and institutional causes of violence by the police against citizens and violence by the citizens against the police in the country.

Their publication proposed a framework for an effective, civil and accountable police force that would advance democratic governance and respect for human rights. They also suggested a framework for effective involvement of the civil society in controlling and determining the direction and priority of policing in the country.

According to the publication, police violence in the form of summary executions occurred frequently among special task forces assigned to patrol highways and cities to curb armed robbery.

“Police torture in the form of physical assault frequently occurs at all levels of police work – crowd control, arrest, investigation and detention. The use of violence by the police against the citizens has been recognised as a widespread and persistent problem in the country by the government, the public and even the police authority,” the report noted.

Among other reasons, the research attributed police misconduct to a lack of accountability by the political leaders, which encourages lawlessness by government agents and the police to act beyond the law; and an inequitable economic system, which breeds socio-economic conflicts that threaten the interests of the rulers and require the deployment of the police by economic and political power-holders for the suppression of some segments of society.

It argued that poor training of police personnel often misled to misuse of arms and ammunition against citizens, noting that inadequate supervision of junior police personnel encourages brutality towards citizens. The report also blamed stress and frustration by police officers in response to high crime rates, poor conditions of service, a dearth of crime control facilities, and poor screening of police recruits leading to the recruitment of psychologically and socially unstable persons into the police force, “who are prone to violence in the course of law enforcement.”

However, 20 years after the forensic diagnosis of the police misdemeanours, not much has been done to address the problems, which have grown into pandemic proportions. Successive governments and police administrations have failed to implement the necessary reforms that can tackle police violence against the citizens, who they are paid to protect. Analysts say the rash of hostile police actions against Nigerians should give the government and the police leadership a cause for concern.

The National Human Rights Commission in April reported that police personnel carried out 18 extra-judicial killings between March 30 and April 13, 2020. The Executive Secretary of the commission, Tony Ojukwu, expressed concern over the development, noting that the death toll from police killings exceeded that of COVID-19.

“While the new coronavirus has killed 11 patients, security forces have extra-judicially executed 18 people to enforce the orders,” he said, adding that the killings were carried out by the policemen enforcing the COVID-19 restriction order of the Federal Government.

Ojukwu also disclosed that the commission received 105 complaints about human rights violations during the period. The cases were recorded in 24 out of the 36 states, including Lagos, Ogun and Abuja.

Apart from physical violence, some operatives have also been accused of sexual molestation and abuse. Last week, a widow accused a police officer identified as Peter Ebah, attached to the Saakpenwaa Police Division in the Tai Local Government Area of Rivers State of detaining and raping her at a guest house after she was arrested for not wearing a face mask.

The mother of two disclosed that she was taken away from a bus she was travelling in from Bori, Khana Local Government Area of the state, to Port Harcourt around 6.30pm and raped by Ebah after he threatened her. A report said the culprit had been ‘summoned’ by the state Commissioner of Police.

Before the widow’s ordeal, a lady identified as Towobola was seen in a viral video being mocked and sexually intimidated by a policeman in Ibadan. “Where is the guy that deflowered you? He doesn’t have money right? The officer said degradingly. The police authorities said four policemen had been arrested in connection with the incident.

In May, a 27-year-old 500-level Law student of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Augustine Ugwu, was murdered by an officer of the Nigeria Police Force at Nsukka. The deceased was said to have gone to a pub at Odobido with his friend from where he was arrested by a local security outfit and handed over to the officer in charge of the Anti-cult squad in Nsukka, Ferdinand Ochi, who allegedly murdered him over an undisclosed issue.

In February, a footballer with Remo Stars Football Club, Tiamiyu Kazeem, died after he was allegedly pushed by a policeman into the path of an oncoming vehicle. The incident sparked angry protests in Sagamu, Ogun State.

Last December, a mechanic, Chima Ikwunado, was tortured to death by some policemen in Rivers State. The deceased was arrested alongside four of his friends in the Ikokwu area of Port Harcourt and accused of being robbers. Ikwunado died after he was reportedly tortured by the cops. The police disclosed that four officers linked to the incident had been dismissed and might be prosecuted.

In September 2019, police officers killed two students of the Federal University, Oye Ekiti, who were protesting poor electricity supply in the town at an event attended by the wife of the governor of Ekiti State, Bisi Fayemi. The deceased are Oluwaseyi Kehinde, a 100-level student of Crop Science and Horticulture, and Joseph Okonofua, a 300-level student of Biology Education.

Many students were also injured in the fracas. Footage of the incident showed armed policemen hunting the students like rabbits in a carrot farm. Nothing was heard from the police authorities about the murderous action of the thugs in uniform. There have also been many unreported cases of police assault, corruption and killings across the country.

In a report, ‘Time to End Impunity’, released in June, Amnesty International documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad between January 2017 and May 2020. It said the victims were predominantly male between the ages of 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups.

The organisation noted that the Nigerian authorities had failed to prosecute a single officer from the SARS despite anti-torture legislation passed in 2017 and “evidence that its members continue to use torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish and extract information from suspects.”

The AI said its investigation revealed a disturbing pattern of abuse of detainees in SARS custody despite the Anti-Torture Act. In many cases, the AI said it bore witness to the scars, bruises and dried blood on victims’ bodies, adding that many of them were subjected to beating with sticks and machetes, and denied medical care.

It noted, “Despite repeated promises by successive governments to reform the Nigeria Police Force and the immediate overhauling of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad announced by the Inspector-General of Police on August 14, 2018, gross human right violations, inefficiency and disregard for human rights remain widespread within the force.”

Commenting on the situation, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, said, “The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS or to bring any SARS officer to justice is shocking and unacceptable. Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity.

“The systemic use of torture and other ill-treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigeria Police Force point to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”

The Executive Director, United Global Resolve for Peace, Shalom Olaseni, called for an effective oversight by the Police Service Commission to check, regulate and discipline errant police officers.

“We need a police force that is accountable to us; only then can police brutality and rights violation be curbed completely,” the activist noted.

In his own view, a lawyer and former military officer, Johnson Oyewole, said discipline, adequate training and respect for human rights were the missing ideals in the nation’s policing system.

He noted, “Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution stated thus, ‘Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person and accordingly, no person shall be subjected to torture or degrading treatment’. So, if the police can respect the constitution, there will be no crisis between the police and the citizens, because no law permitted the police to torture or brutalise a citizen.”

The Convener, Concerned Nigerians, Deji Adeyanju, called for institutional reforms to curb police violence on citizens, noting that the recruitment process should be more stringent and transparent. According to him, the current system ensures that only the “scum of the society” joins the force due to unemployment.

“I believe the human rights desk in the police is weak; I think the human rights officer in the police should always go out with the operatives on operation. We need to institute the necessary institutional framework to address the problem, because we have been discussing the issue of police brutality for over 20 years and we keep repeating the same thing,” he stated.

But the Police Service Commission said it was carrying out effective oversight on the police, noting that many officers had been dismissed or demoted for misconduct. A senior official explained that the commission had sacked over 12 senior police officers and demoted eight others for misconduct in the line of duty this year.

Those dismissed include one Superintendent of Police, five Deputy Superintendents of Police and four Assistant Superintendents of Police. The PSC also demoted a Deputy Commissioner of Police, a Chief Superintendent of Police, four SPs, one DSP and ASP for various infractions. At its last plenary meeting in June, the commission said it looked into 83 disciplinary cases, which included 18 appeals and petitions.

However, a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr John Campbell, observed that the Nigeria Police had lost public confidence due to the deteriorating security conditions nationwide, widespread corruption among its officers and overreliance on the armed forces to ensure public order.

Campbell, currently a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, also observed that these compelling considerations had invigorated the agitation for the decentralisation of federal policing powers, thus leading to the creation of regional security architecture such as Amotekun.

In a research analysis published on the website of the CFR on July 14, the former ambassador supported the decentralisation of the police force, stating that “the states could impose greater accountability on the police than the Federal Government.”


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