Police: Nigeria’s Boys in Black

On the night of June 7 2005 six people, aged 21 to 25, met Deputy Commissioner of Police Ibrahim Danjuma at a nightclub in Area 11, Abuja. They were Ifeanyi Ozor, Chinedu Meniru, Isaac Ekene, Paulinus Ogbonna, Anthony Nwodike and Augustina Arebun, traders at Apo mechanic village. According to eyewitness accounts Danjuma propositioned Ms Arebun and was turned down. He then proceeded to a nearby police checkpoint and informed the officers there that armed robbers were thereabouts. When the vehicle conveying the six young people got to the checkpoint, Danjuma ordered the officers to open fire. They did, instantly killing four people in the car. The survivors, which included the lady, were taken to Garki Police Division and executed. An assistant superintendent of police, Idirisu Umaru, testified that Danjuma strangled Augustina Arebun in his presence. Police were observed trying to bury the bodies in a bush near the mechanic village. They explained the corpses away as ‘armed robbers’. The victims were recognized by residents, however. A riot ensued in which the police shot and killed two more people.

In the investigations that followed the police initially insisted on the ‘gunfight’ story, alleging that the victims had fired first and that weapons had been found on them. But some police officers turned and confessed to a cover-up to protect Ibrahim Danjuma, orchestrated by Garki Divisional Police officer Othman Abdulsalam, who is still on the run. A month after the killings the Police Armourer admitted that the weapons photographed with the corpses had been planted. Six years after the incident the case is still in court, with Ibrahim Danjuma released on bail.

The Nigerian police has a fearsome reputation for excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings. Annual reports from local and international human rights organisations document, in a gruesome parade of statistics, fatalities from brutal police assault. There are forced civilian disappearances, roadblock shootings, rapes of female detainees, arbitrary and unlawful detentions, extortion, intimidation and summary executions of suspects.

Three-year-old Kaosarat Saliu was shot and killed by policemen at a roadblock. Her parents were then beaten up at the scene and arrested. At Rigasa police station in Kaduna, Binta Ibrahim Sale, nine months pregnant, was locked up after a quarrel with a neighbour over a pair of rubber slippers. Mohammed Bullama, the DPO, allegedly ignored her family’s pleas for medical attention even though she was bleeding. Her condition had deteriorated when she was finally released the following day and she died.

Human Rights Watch and Civil Rights Congress accuse police and soldiers of beating and killing unarmed residents in the wake of the April election riots in Kaduna. But a spokesman for the state government dismisses the allegations as false. “It’s a deliberate attempt to smear the image of the security personnel who have done an excellent job of restoring and maintaining peace in the state.”

Security forces killed at least 23 people last month in Maiduguri in retaliation for a bomb attack that killed three soldiers and several civilians in the area. The attack was blamed on Boko Haram, a radical Islamic sect. “House to house searches, brutalisation, unlawful arrests, killings and disappearances have been the operating practice in Maiduguri for some months now,” says Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Africa. “Unless steps are taken to ensure security forces operate within the law and respect human rights at all times, the next time Boko Haram attacks or kills a soldier, we are likely to see the same thing happen again.”

In 2009 Amnesty International released the results of a three-year study of the Nigerian police. It details frequent checkpoint shootings and suspects being tortured to death. “The Nigerian police are responsible for hundreds of unlawful killings every year,” the group says. “They kill at will.” The report says most of these killings are not investigated and the policemen responsible are not punished. It criticizes a corrupt police culture and Force Order 237, which allows security agents to fire on people fleeing arrest.

Police spokespersons say extrajudicial killings are not condoned in the country and that officers respect human rights when using their weapons. The police deny torturing confessions out of suspects and insist the deaths that occur are from battles with armed robbers. It promises to look into the allegations.

Some human rights organisations and more than a few Nigerians maintain that the police have poor investigative and crime-solving skills. They say suspects are often dispatched without court trials in the face of public pressure to deal with crime. Hospitals complain that corpses brought in by police crowd their morgues.

Given that a gun is a heady thing to wield, a strict selection process, inclusive of psychiatric evaluations of applicants, is the norm in police recruitment in more than a few countries. Not only is this not the case with admissions into the Nigerian Police, the pendulum seems to swing in the direction of the tragically absurd. Thousands of people with criminal records were reportedly recruited between 2004 and 2005 during Tafa Balogun’s tenure as Inspector-General of Police. He was later convicted and jailed on corruption charges.

This reporter saw suspects, shot and denied medical attention, being made to crawl to a rendezvous with a police commissioner. This reporter saw policemen force passersby into patrol vehicles at gunpoint under cover of night. Detained at police stations, payments were demanded from their families to effect their release. This reporter has heard detainees being tortured. The most striking aspect of the last was how police officers at the station went about their business unperturbed, trading news and banter with their colleagues while, in the background, the anguished screaming went on and on.

It’s all done openly. There seems to be no fear of reprisals, no expectations of punishment. Pressed about the fate of a group of suspects observed at a police division an officer responded, “We’ll push them over,” an euphemism meaning they’ll be executed, and took off. It was impossible to determine if the man was in earnest. He did not know I was a reporter and his tone was casual, almost jokey. What is instructive is that the remark was made at all, that the policeman took for granted unspoken understandings between us that executing suspects is normal and unremarkable. Another officer, who did not know I was a reporter either, related some of his run-ins with criminals. He described how he beat a suspect to death for defrauding his friend’s wife. “I took his head in my hands, like this, and smashed it on the floor.”

Sampled public opinion revealed a deep distrust of government institutions and a perception of the Government as hopelessly corrupt and insulated from issues that affect the lives of ordinary Nigerians. Families of victims of police abuse tend to see the pursuit of justice as a luxury, a kind of fantasy, entirely divorced from the logic and practical common sense that guided ‘real life’. “When Danjuma was released, I forgot everything about the case,” says Elvis Ozor, brother of slain Ifeanyi Ozor. “The only way justice will be delivered is from God.”

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