Emmanuella Odum: A Tale of Human Rights Abuses By The Men In Uniform

It was another hot Saturday morning in Igando, South–west, Lagos, Nigeria. At 9am, the traffic was already building. It worsened as commercial vehicles and motorbikes “okadas” were locked tightly in its jaw breaking embrace. Passengers and drivers seemed to wish for a magical wing that would miraculously lift them away from the surrounding chaos into the safe, loving hands of their destination. Suddenly, blaring horns, hooting sirens, flashes of camor green prints permeated the dusty air. The sirens grew louder and the bustle became uncontrollable as drivers of various vehicles struggled to leave their envied spots on the road, as though to pave way for the unseen kings. It was either that or face the angry whips of the Nigerian Army. It was the conventional understanding that these men in camouflage prints will not wait their turn in the traffic and hell would befall the motorist that stood in their way.

One man did. Unknowingly.

He had inadvertently scurried into the path cleared by other motorists as his greed had blinded him from seeing the open advantage for the biblical “mess of pottage” it truly was. To serve as a deterrent to other motorists, the men in green prints jumped down from their “armored vehicles” and menacingly approached the erring driver. The latter peed in his pants, whilst attempting to beg his way to mercy. His pleas fell on deaf ears as all I could see from my bus window was the continuous rhythm of the whips as they repeatedly connected with their victim’s soon limp body.

The arbitrary use of power by uniformed officials has unarguably become part of the societal norm. This can be seen in a plethora of dire results caused by the violent use of such arbitrarily acquired power. For instance, in unearthing the list of reasons adduced by the Boko Haram terrorists which they claim began their fervent attack on Nigerians, the extra-judicial killing of their erstwhile leader by members of the police force definitely comes tops. In July 2009, Boko Haram members refused to follow a motorbike helmet law, leading to heavy-handed police tactics that set off an armed uprising in the Bauchi –Northern Nigeria, and spread into the states of Borno, Yobe, and Kano. The army suppressed protests, leaving more than eight hundred dead. It was reported that Yusuf, his father-in-law, and other sect members were arrested during the clashes and shot outside police headquarters, actions human rights groups denounced as extra-judicial killings. In the aftermath of the 2009 unrest, “an Islamist insurrection under a splintered leadership” emerged. Thus the beginning of the senseless killings in Northern Nigeria by this deadly terrorist group is a vendetta which began with the unjust killing of the sect’s members by our Police force.

In another dimension, the South-South of the country has also experienced its fair share of military harassment. The locals and other inhabitants of indigenous communities in the Niger Delta region, South –South, Nigeria, experience the same measure of military violence when they vigorously pursue the campaign for their economic and social rights. Human rights defenders and journalists, including foreign reporters and television crews, have been harassed, detained and sometimes beaten for investigating oil spills or violations by the security forces, sworn to protect the country’s rich oil assets. Also, the inhabitants of communities suspected of obstructing oil production or harbouring criminals are sometimes targeted and harassed by the security forces. The federal government has in many cases rejected calls for independent and impartial inquiries into abuses by these security forces, which operate under its direct control. Its inactions have ultimately resulted in the death and injury of unarmed civilians and the razing of whole communities. Leading these forces has been a Joint Task Force – an army-led unit that includes officers from the Navy, Military, Paramilitary Mobile Police (MOPOL) and regular Police force. The Joint Task Force was formed in 2003, with codename “Operation Restore Hope”, to protect major oil installations as strategic national assets and to combat increasing kidnappings of oil company personnel, attacks on police stations and military patrols, interruptions to oil production and oil thefts, as well as communal unrest. Amnesty International believes that in 2003 and 2004, over 1,500 people died, most of them in the area around Warri, the commercial capital of Delta State, in inter-communal conflicts over oil and oil revenues as well as in grievances over political boundaries.

Away from territorial victimization, the Nigerian Navy has unarguably and persistently infringed on the Fundamental human rights of civilians, as cases of violent attacks meted on civilians by the “sea men” have repeatedly been brought to fore. One of such cases was the gruesome beating of yet another victim by a naval rating on the 29th of January, 2010. The victim, a Law lecturer at the University of Calabar, claimed in Suit No FHC/CA/M88/2010, the sum of N300 million Naira as damages for injuries sustained following severe beating by a naval rating. The incident occurred opposite the Naval Barracks, Atimbo in Calabar, where he had gone to deliver a wedding gift to his niece. The Federal High Court sitting in Calabar, Cross River State, South-South Nigeria, awarded N150 million against the Nigerian Navy following the brutality and the violation of the applicant’s human rights. In delivering judgment, Justice Adetokunbo observed that trampling on human rights by naval operatives had become common in Nigeria and declared that if the development is left unchecked, it will result in serious consequences.

Another infamous incident is the senseless killing of Mr. Peter Edeh, who was shot dead in broad day light by a senior naval officer (Lt.Felix Olarewaju Odulami) for merely “brushing” the hallowed vehicle of the latter. Despite pleas from the victim and his passenger who happened to be his sister, the trigger-happy officer preferred justice to be wielded by his hands.

Furthermore, despite national and international law prohibiting the use of torture, a Human Rights Watch investigation in Nigeria in March 2005 found the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by the Nigerian Police Force to be widespread and routine. The organization conducted interviews in the cities of Enugu, Lagos and Kano with some fifty victims and witnesses. They described brutal acts of torture, dozens of which resulted in death. The violations were perpetrated by and with the knowledge of senior police officers, including inspectors, divisional police officers, a deputy superintendent of police and a chief superintendent of police.

From the foregoing, it is safe to state that the lives of Nigerian citizens are not only in jeopardy in the hands of these security operatives who have sworn to protect the same people they brutalize. In reality, however, the problem is that those responsible for human rights violations, including members of the military and police, are rarely held to account, sending the message that they can get away with it. It is indeed worrisome to comprehend the arbitrary display of power and the brutal use of force, utilized by the same bunch of uniformed men who are automatically empowered by the people to secure their lives and property. Bringing to mind the tragedy of the “Apo six killings” where six Nigerian citizens were brutally murdered by members of the police force who had discovered that the hapless individuals had been travelling with a huge sum of money and were not adequately armed to protect themselves. Nemesis however caught up with this bunch of criminals draped in official regalia when one of the 6, who happened to be the only female (presumed dead by the culprits) revealed hidden facts to the freelance journalist before giving up the ghost.

The most recent casualties in this growing trend of murderous crimes by uniformed officials are a young mother, Idongesit Ekpo, and her husband, Godwin, who on 17th September 2015, were shot by a team of policemen attached to the Isheri Osun Police Division. While Idongesit died on the spot, Godwin was said to be in critical condition at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Ikeja, where he was taken for treatment. The couple was returning from a church programme on Wednesday in a tricycle belonging to the family. A police corporal, identified as Aremu Musesiu, was said to have opened fire on the tricycle. It was learnt that the bullet pierced through the tricycle backside and hit Idongesit, who was breastfeeding a three-month-old baby. Her husband, Godwin, who looked back when the shot was fired, was said to have also been hit in the neck. Sadly, the story of Idongesit and her husband Godwin will yet burn out unnoticed as justice may yet evade another helpless victim of malice draped with the regalia of the uniform that swore to shield.

The nefarious acts of these armed personnel is not only a contravention of Section 33 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), which provides for the Right to life of all citizens, such acts are also punishable under Sections 68(1) (a), 103(i), 105,106 of the Armed Forces Act Cap A 20 laws of Nigeria. The court in Odulami v The Nigerian Navy, Per RHODES VIVOUR, J.S.C,stated

“Section   68(1)(a) of   the   Armed Forces Act creates a strict liability offence.

That is to say a crime that does not require proof of mens rea, e.g. traffic offence.

Once a serving officer of the Nigerian armed forces is given arms he is   expected

to   guard   them   jealously   and return   them   when   due   or   demanded,     or

explain to the satisfaction of the appropriate authorities where   the   arms are.

Failure   to give proper account of the arms entrusted to a serving officer makes such

an officer liable under section 68(1)(a) of the Armed Forces Act.”

In addition to this, the violent actions of an increasing number of military and paramilitary men violates various codes protecting the fundamental human rights of their helpless victims including Sections 34 (1),(2) of the 1999 Constitution , which specifically provides for the Right to Dignity whilst frowning at actions and omissions which strip the dignity of unduly harassed individuals . Instance of such abuse is often carried out in local and state police stations, often in interrogation rooms which witnesses and victims said appear to be especially equipped for the purpose. These persons often affirm that the forms of torture and other ill-treatment committed by the Nigerian police included the tying of arms and legs tightly behind the body, suspension by hands and legs from the ceiling or a pole, repeated and severe beatings with metal or wooden objects (including planks of wood, iron bars, and cable wire), resting of concrete blocks on the arms and back while suspended, spraying of tear gas in the face and eyes, rape of and other sexual violence against female detainees, use of pliers or electric shocks on the penis, shooting in the foot or leg, stoning, death threats, slapping and kicking with hands and boots and denial of food and water.

Despite an official stance by the authorities that human rights violations by the military and paramilitary personnel in Nigeria happen because of a few “bad eggs”, evidence shows that these “few” notably have tripled. This increase may be attributed to various factors including:

  • Unemployment: Due to the pathetic wave of unemployment in the country, persons who have no real passion to protect and serve their country are coerced into military and paramilitary institutions, as a leeway to escape from the vortex of unemployment which has gradually swallowed up a large percentage of youths. Consequently these persons, with the absence of the spirit of true patriotism carelessly wield their wrongly assumed power with a “god-like” mental understanding, that they can do anything without lifting the brows of the Law.
  • Medical screening lapses: Certain military personnel may as a result of experiencing some form of horrific occurrences during wars and insurgencies may mentally be unsuitable to handle such ammunitions and the failure of the security system to adequately provide such mental screening services for her personnel is tantamount to having mad men raid the streets only this time, wielding powerful weapons to the detriment of the public.
  • Poverty: The daily increasing rate of poverty in the nation is yet another premise for the unruly behavior of our uniformed men. The infamous N20 bribe (Now fifty Naira or hundred Naira) forcefully collected by officers of the Police force from helpless commuter drivers at illegal roadblocks is, proof of the sordid rot in the system. Many Nigerians have lost their lives, both commuters and drivers alike to the bullets fired from the guns of these trigger-happy officials who strike in a bid to either have the bribe in their pockets or silence members of the public who try to speak up against the injustice of it all.

Summarily, Nigerians now undoubtedly live in fear of these uniformed men and have thus become compliant despite their illegal demands. Passengers in commuter buses will passionately reign insults on a reluctant driver who fails to give in to the demands of a corrupt official. This is not to say that they support such acts of bribery but for fear for their dear lives, would willingly succumb. The unjust actions of uniformed officials is seen as authoritative (the right to so act) rather than illegitimate (the lack of recognition of the right to so act). This culminates to one question, “Whom do we swear our allegiance to? The Man, His country or his Gun?



photo: Brutality by men in uniform remains rife in Nigeria, photo from #OccupyNigeria