By Joshua Onuekwusi
The Nigerian police force as an institution over the years has become synonymous with an unparalleled record of human rights abuses and extra judicial killings. In a recent ranking by World Internal Security and Police Index of police organizations around the world, the Nigerian Police was ranked as the worst in the world, with a normalized culture of arrest of persons on reasonable or non-reasonable suspicion, probable or non-probable cause and fabrication of capital offences claims against suspects to ensure their continuous detention and extortion.
Sadly, the Government of Nigeria, whether in recent past or present, has not shown any commitment to addressing the widespread and persistent human rights abuses perpetrated by the police against persons they arbitrarily arrest or detain. In another vein, Nigerians’ experience with military rule has not helped in the effort to combat police arbitrariness and violence, as there exists an extremely entrenched societal outlook that readily admits police abuse as a justifiable means to crime fighting.
The Nigerian Constitution guarantees the right to life and the right to respect for dignity of the person. International conventions ratified by Nigeria, including the United Nations (U.N.) Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, also affirms these rights. Despite these national and international laws prohibiting indignity to the human person, various studies, human rights observers report, which were quite invaluable in this piece, and legal practitioners still find arbitrary arrest, the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by the Nigerian Police to be widespread and routine.
These brutal acts of torture which sometimes result in death, are perpetrated by and with the knowledge of even senior police personnel. They include suspension by hands and legs from the ceiling or a pole, tying of arms and legs tightly behind the body, resting of concrete blocks on the arms and back while suspended, repeated and severe beatings with metal or wooden objects, spraying of tear gas in the face and eyes, use of pliers or electric shocks on the penis, rape and other sexual violence against female detainees, coercion to shoot unless a suspect admits to a crime, shooting in the foot or leg, death threats, denial of food and water and sometimes summary executions of suspects.
The challenge in civilized policing for the Nigerian police has stemmed from a recurring penchant for disregarding the due process of law, impunity and abuse of power such as pro-longed pre-trial detention by various Nigerian police units. They maintain an aura of invincibility to discipline and sanction, since in all but a sprinkle of cases, are sanctions rarely meted out for violations perpetrated by police personnel, further emboldening the perpetrators and establishing police violence as a normal form of lawful policing and investigation.
It is a matter of public knowledge, more so in the era of social media, that suspects are routinely arbitrarily arrested. This happens without the police informing them the reasons for their arrests nor producing evidence against them, falling back mostly on the lame excuse of acting on “tip-off”. Suspects or their relatives are ingeniously or directly coerced to part with funds as a means to; “regain freedom”, i.e. be released without charge. At times, they are also made to sign incriminating statements dictated by a police officer. Reports have emerged frequently, and of note a former Chief Judge of Delta State, who publicly accused the police on purposeful withholding of case files or under the guise of “ongoing investigation”, in order not to produce suspects before a court leaving families and lawyers helpless.
Some of the ways these arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention are given semblance of lawfulness is through the abuse of the “holden charge” phenomenon. The police habitually refer suspects charged with capital offenses (sometimes on concocted charges), such as kidnapping, armed robbery and murder, to Magistrates Courts, conscious they are not of competent jurisdiction to entertain the case, as a deliberate ploy to further punish suspects and to detain them.
Administrative channels for registering complaints, such as the Police Complaints Bureau and the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, which are abysmally under-resourced, lack political support and legislative impetus, have by general understanding proven unable to neither bark nor bite in remedying the situation.
A case in view is The National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria established by the National Human Rights Act of 1995 (as amended in 2010) for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Commission has the mandate to deal with all matters relating to the protection of human rights in Nigeria as guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international treaties to which Nigeria is a party. The Commission’s Act, by its 2010 amendment, now has quasi – judicial powers to summon persons, acquire evidence, award compensation and enforce its decisions. It also has power to visit any place of detention with a view to ensuring that detainees’ rights are not violated. But in matters of complaint against members of the Police, the commission was not empowered to pursue indictment and prosecution, leaving this critical responsibility to the Police Service Commission in relation to Senior police officers and the Nigerian Police as it relates to junior police personnel, a task that both administrative bodies, by general consensus, has failed beyond woefully.
Legal representatives and human rights groups who have made attempt to pursue complaints or police abuse with police authority are mostly met with police obstruction in variety of ways such as verbal and physical threats to intimidate lawyers, complainants and witnesses to drop such complaint.
These recommendations are not in themselves a magic wand nor necessarily superior to alternate solutions, but are means to start a long overdue conversation about an effective and efficient model of oversight, investigation and prosecution of erring police personnel in the Nigerian Police as it concerns human rights violations.
In light of the above, studies have shown that reform models that include external oversight outside the police department go a long way in rendering the complaint and disciplinary process with an aura of objectivity and efficiency. Hence, an external control and oversight model, though having its challenges, is likely to improve Nigerians faith in the fairness of the police complaint and disciplinary process and demystify the common aura of “untouchables” in the Nigeria Police.
- Development of Nigerian Police detention centers inspection policy in partnership with the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria: This policy should set out basis and guidelines for inspection, inspectorate structure; being mindful of remote areas where poor infrastructure and communication mean the arbitrary activities of police go largely without inquiry, and should provide for scheduled and unscheduled visits to inspect police detention centers.
- Creating awareness of the Policy and its benefits: It is essential to get the support of those who will be influential in ensuring its actualization such as the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, The Attorney General of the Federation, Attorney General of various states, The Inspector general of Police and the Police Service Commission. The introduction of this policy should expect some level of resistance for various reasons which may include general nonchalance about the benefits, apprehension about change by some constituted authorities, and inspection policy exposing systemic weaknesses.
- Periodic publication of inspection findings and recommendations.
- Funding partners and nations who continue to offer resource assistance and training to the Nigerian Police should unceasingly be encouraged by the Nigerian Bar Association to condition these support to an assessable decline in abusive policing practices.
- The Nigerian Bar Association should advocate for external oversight of the Nigerian Police by lobbying the Nigerian National Assembly to amend The National Human Rights Act of 1995, to empower the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria to accept complaint bordering on human rights violations by members of the Nigerian Police, investigate same, make recommendations to the Nigerian Police, Police Service Commission and pursue prosecution where it meets stipulated threshold of prosecution.
In Nigeria today, human rights violations and injustice kill more people than many diseases, and continues to scar communities. In my view, amongst numerous raison d’être of the Bar association, helping to proffer solutions to check these human rights violations should form part of the challenges that will face the next Nigerian Bar Association president and its leadership and whether the association will continue to see itself reside in a bubble outside the realities of Nigeria today or step up and have an impact by advocating and supporting reforms and initiatives that will revive a long and overly abused policing system, remains a choice to be made, and it is one that will determine my support, and that of many, for a presidential candidate in the on-coming Bar general elections.