Deadlier than COVID-19, Should Nigerians be Isolated from ‘Killer Security Agents’?


By Senator Iroegbu

Caveat: There is difference between upholding and protecting Nigeria’s defence and security institutions of which advocacy for sustained reforms must be upheld, and holding individual personnel accountable for their alleged crimes. Therefore, the focus of this article is to condemn the barbaric and atrocious acts of the few bad eggs and criminals in uniform–whose penchant to kill fellow Nigerians at the slightest provocations–has left an ugly stain on their agencies and undermined the commendable efforts of their professional colleagues. Is it not tragic to note that from the latest figures, Nigerians who were felled by the bullets of the law enforcement officials as a result of the lockdown order, are more than those that have so far died from the Coronavirus pandemic.

This is what happened…

“E go better” is a popular phrase in broken English used by Nigerians to express hope and optimism in the face of adversity. Even though it is good to be optimistic but the sad reality today is that Nigerians are increasingly becoming endangered species cornered by the deadly trio of COVID-19 pandemic, hunger and the ‘killer security agents’/insecurity. The deadly chokehold of these murderous elements on Africa’s most populous nation is odious.

The reports emanating from human rights groups, especially the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), CLEEN Foundation and International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) about the extrajudicial killings of Nigerians in this trying time is alarming. It therefore, calls for urgent reforms and inquiries about the suitability of the current policing system in the country because the prevailing reality has made mockery of the slogan: ‘Police is your friend’. The question however, is how can you be friends with those you would kill at the slightest trigger? It beggars belief.

Of this triumvirate threatening Nigerians, there is a race to the finishing line as to which of them will emerge the fastest killers of the people. As at the time of writing, the trigger-happy law enforcement agents reportedly account for the death of over 24 Nigerians since the lockdown began. This is even more than that of the dreaded Coronavirus that boasts a heightened figure of 21 fatalities so far. This is where the danger lies, as a careful observer will note that with the strict measures being adopted by the governments, we can only but concluded that the more COVID-19 persists, the more will be the aggressive enforcement of the lockdown order. Even though, it may not be entirely the fault of the erring security operatives, it is nevertheless, their responsibility to eschew high level of discipline and self control in the face of provocation.

Apart from the Federal Government imposing a total lockdown in the mega city-state of Lagos and its conurbation-state of Ogun as well as the Nation’s Capital Abuja, there are different levels of restrictions enacted in other states in a bid to contain the virus. Against this backdrop, the security and law enforcement agencies, including the Nigerian Police, Nigerian Army, Department of State Services (DSS), Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) among others, were being dratted to enforce the stay-at-home orders, sparking deadly confrontations in some states.

As at today, Nigeria had a total of 627 confirmed cases with 21 deaths and 171 discharged but the geographical spread of the new cases is worrisome. The latest is Borno State-the epicentre of Boko Haram terrorists in North East Nigeria. The reported case and the tracing of other 99 possible infections, have sparked fears that the virus might spread to the overcrowded Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps in the state with vengeance.

Expectedly, the public attention has been captured by the terrifying onslaught of the security officers and COVID-19 pandemic because the duo belong to what the Bible described as the “noisome pestilence”, forgetting that the havoc being wrought by the silent killer called hunger on a number of already malnourished citizens are yet to be unravelled. The scary part is that possible deaths by hunger has not come into the equation as people are busy responding to the battle cry of “to your tenths o’Israel”. They are busy with their personal survivals to even take note of how many of their neighbours are being slaughtered by hunger in their respective homes.

However, the focus of this gospel is to address what is fast degenerating into an unofficial assassinations order on Nigerians by the renegade elements within the law enforcement agencies with the ugly events in the South East as a reference point. What is even scarier is that over 22 of these deaths were recorded between 30th March and 17th April 2020, which was when the security agents were deployed to enforce a draconian restriction measures being put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 across the country. The dreadful implication is that if the oppressive method of policing is not reformed urgently more hapless citizens may be gunned down before the end of the lockdown.

It was the NHRC that first rang the alarm bell when four days ago, its report indicted security agents in the death of 18 people, a figure higher than the documented 12 death toll inflicted by Coronavirus as at then. The Commission said it received and documented “105 complaints of incidents of human rights violations perpetrated by security forces” in 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states and Abuja; and that of these complaints, “there were eight documented incidents of extrajudicial killings leading to 18 deaths”. Since then we have seen many horrific videos and pictures as well as read stories of how security agents have maximised the unbearable lockdown order to punish Nigerians whose subsistence level of capitalism forces them to eke out a living on daily basis. From the viral video of a woman being beaten to stupor in Oshogbo, Osun State, to those being legitimately tried at a Mobile Court in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, the situation is the same.

Subsequent reports from CLEEN Foundation, Intersociety and National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), have updated the number of those killed by either the law enforcement agents or the COVID-19 pandemic. CLEEN Foundation in particular, have led the way in documenting these atrocities and fatalities, which “brought to the fore the need to re-examine police response in COVID-19 affected countries and to possibly shape police agenda for pandemic policing”, as was articulated by the Programme Director of the Non-Governmental Organisation, Ms. Ruth Olofin, in her article entitled: ‘Policing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Nigeria: Matters Arising’. Olofin expressed concerns about “disturbing reports of some personnel of the Nigeria Police who have been involved in corrupt practices, extra-judicial killing of citizens and the use of force on those who have violated COVID-19 directives.” The issues she raised was also accentuated in the subsequent report by the Head of Public Safety and Security Department of the Foundation, Ms. Teresa Okoro, who facilitated the documentation of gross human rights violations by security agencies particularly in the South East geopolitical zone of Nigeria.

Killings, brutality trail lockdown order in the South East

Despite the fact that the region was not in the immediate radar of the Federal Government, there was however, a lockdown order by Governors of the five South East States to halt possible spread of Coronavirus. So far about four cases have been recorded in the zone with no single death including two in Enugu and a case each in Anambra and Imo states respectively, yet the alleged killing and harassment of the citizens by the armed security agents have dominated proceedings.

As at today, no fewer than five people have been gunned down in the South East with more brutalised and their rights violated by security operatives under the guise of enforcing the stay-at-home order. And some of the reasons used to justify the murderous incidents are as flimsy as they are unjustifiable.

According to the CLEEN Foundation report made available by Ms. Okoro, about three deaths were recorded through extra judicial killing by the Police enforcing the directives. The report also revealed that the first incident happened on April 5, 2020 at Aba Road, Umuahia, Abia State and later a police-officer allegedly killed a petrol station attendant, along popular New Umuahia road in Obingwa Local Government Area.

The report had it that the trigger-happy Policeman, named Stanley Azu, serving under Azumini Police Division in Ukwa East LGA tried stopping a vehicle that violated the lockdown order but the driver defied the instruction.

“Residents of the area said the police inspector chased the driver and reportedly fired at him. The bullet hit Chibuisi, who was in his business centre and was subsequently pronounced dead at Abia State Teaching Hospital where he was rushed to for urgent medical attention,” the report claimed.

Chibuisi until his death was a staff of Greenmac Energy Ltd, a filling station owned by his in-law. The Commissioner of Police in the state, Ene Okon who confirmed the incident said the officer has been arrested adding that the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID) has taken over the matter.

The second death according to the report happened on April 7, 2020 at Umunneochi LGA in Abia State. The report further revealed that there has been extortions and brutality in some states by the Army and Police. It said there were pockets of human rights violations by the Army ranging from flogging of citizens and extorting money from commercial bus drivers at different locations in Owerri particularly at Control Post.

Not done yet in their killing spree in Abia State, the Command confirmed another “shooting incident in Ebem Ohafia by a Policeman which consumed the life of an innocent young man identified as Ifeanyi Arunsi on Friday 17th April,2020 night”.

According to the State Command’s Spokesman, SP Geoffrey Ogbonna, “the Policemen led by an Assistant Superintendent of Police who were neither on duty nor on COVID 19 preventive assignment, went out in a private car belonging to one of them to a drinking joint where they got drunk and while going back home, the driver hit a truck off-loading goods.

“In an ensuing argument between the Policemen and the people off-loading goods, one of the Policemen, a Constable disappeared from the scene and resurfaced with a Police rifle and started shooting sporadically under the influence of alcohol during which, bullet hit the victim on the buttocks.”

“This singular act and others of same nature is regrettable, condemnable and not tolerated by both the Nigeria Police Force and its Abia State Command,” Ogbonna stated.

Also, taking a clue from the accused Police officers, a Nigerian Army personnel snuffed life out of another Abia citizen and finally forced the seemingly ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ state government to raise alarm through a statement signed by Mr. A.C.B Agbazuere, the Chief of Staff to Governor Okezie Ikpeazu.

Agbazue conveyed the state government’s condemnation “in very strong terms the unwarranted shooting of some Abians and the consequent loss of their lives.

“While Government appreciates the commitment and industry of heads of Security Agencies and some other Security Personnel in the State, the breeding recklessness of some Security Men in the State must be nipped in the bud forthwith.

“Government hereby reassures all Abians that anybody who takes the life of an Abian must definitely face justice.”

The statement assured that the “soldier who killed an Abian at Umuokereke Ngwa has been dismissed from the army and is in prison awaiting final Justice for murder. All other arm bearers must learn their lessons.

“A word should be enough for the wise.”
It is also encouraging to know that the Commissioner of Police Abia State, Ene Okon, confirmed that erring Policemen at Ohafia killing, “have been arrested for investigation and eventual prosecution while the corpse of the deceased has been deposited in a yet to be disclosed morgue by members of his family for preservation”.

In the same vein, Intersociety in a statement issued on April 17 and signed by its four principal officers: Emeka Umeagbalasi, Board Chair; Obianuju Igboeli, Head of Civil Liberties & Rule of Law; Chinwe Umeche, Head of Democracy & Good Governance; and Comrade Samuel Kamanyaoku, Head of Field Data Collection & Documentation, observed extrajudicial killings in other parts of South East by security agents. The rights group also condemned “the extra judicial killing of Mr. Ebuka Agbaja of Frank Moore Street, Nkpor, near Onitsha by Police Corporal Christopher Ozor and twenty others slain across the country. Strongly condemned, too, are brutalities meted out to Mr. Muokwe at Umunze and Barristers Armstrong Ibekwe, Onyemachi and Harrison Chukwu at Aba as well as countless others across the country. It is our firm demand that these conduct atrocities must not be swept under the carpet or go unpunished”.

There was also an earlier directive given by the Ebonyi State governor to security agents to shoot at sight anyone that tries to run away from the State isolation center prompting some human rights watchdogs in the state to issue statements condemning the directive. Not deterred, a video emerged showing members of the state lockdown enforcement team in Ebonyi who approached villagers that gathered for their village meeting, brutalized and looted their property.

The same atrocities were alleged to have been perpetrated in Enugu State, with residents lamenting of Police brutality, extortion amid lockdown. Extortion of citizens was recorded in Nnobi, Idemili Anambra State, victims bailed themselves with the sum of one thousand naira each, the report read by Cleen Foundation and Intersociety noted. It has been generally found, Intersociety claimed, the chief motive behind the broad-day killing of over 23 defenceless Nigerians “was refusal or inability of the slain victims to offer bribes demanded”.

Also, illegal arrests and detention of citizens by different layers of security operatives were recorded in the region, CLEEN Foundation report disclosed, adding that two observers of the Foundation intervened in some cases at Enugu State on Easter Monday April 13, 2020.

“A man was arrested for walking on the street in the state but through prompt intervention of two volunteers of CLEEN Foundation, he was released. Also, Toll gate Police station Ogbunike illegally arrested the siblings of Ms Nzube Chukwu of Amawa village Ogbunike for a fight she had with a relative but when the Police came for the arrest, they didn’t see Ms Nzube Chukwu, however against the rules of engagement of the Nigeria Police Force, they arrested her mother Mrs. Christiana and brother Peter Chukwubunna aged 14 years. They were detained at the station and paid a total of twenty-six thousand naira for bail and instructed to report to the station on 13th April, 2020 with Ms Nzube,” the report revealed.

Culture of impunity pervades and persists across board

Over the years, there has been culture of impunity with regards to the killing of Nigerians by security agents. Most times the perpetrators go scot-free with little or no reprimand. Even though there has been spirited efforts for reforms and noticeable improvement in human rights records of the Nigerian Police and other law enforcement agents as well as a robust Civil-Military Relations, these measures are not just enough. There is no sustainable results because most of the touted reforms are often ad hoc and tokenistic measures put in place to dilute public pressure or justify overhead costs and budgetary allocations.

Sadly, the notoriety of the impunity is not limited to the rights violations of the “bloody civilians” but are also reinforced through interagency rivalry. Examples of unresolved homicide cases within, between and among law enforcement officers litter in the media as well as government’s archives. The most famous and recent case was the unresolved spat between the Nigerian Army and Nigerian Police special forces. The ugly incident allowed the notorious kidnap kingpin Wadume to escape while the lives of some of the best serving officers of the Police were wasted and the Army Captain alleged to have ordered the murderous act was reportedly rewarded with advanced course at the Armed Forces and Staff College, Jaji.

In their interrogation of the prevalent impunity, Intersociety stressed: “It must be boldly and factually stated that the conduct atrocities of subordinate armed personnel of the Nigerian security forces particularly the Army and the Police have continued untamed because their high commands and oversight institutions such as the National Rights Commission have always sanctioned or condoned them or facilitated ‘escape routes’ for the perpetrators particularly the superior officers who are vicarious or supervisory culprits.”

It is however, apt to note that these unrestrained assassinations by some security agents continuing unabated is an indictment on our eroding social values and reflection of the rot within our governance system. Take two recent examples, one was the veiled threat by Mr. Bello El-Rufai, the son of Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, to pass someone’s mother around for unconsented sex orgies and at same time exhibited a frightening level of bigotry against fellow Nigerians of Igbo ethnic nationality. The rape threat, which has rightly provoked outrage, especially from women groups, is a window through which we can gauge how low the standard of our governance and quality of leadership has fallen.

If what was uttered was the mind-set of the younger El-Rufai who is actually being groomed for leadership, then we have a lot to fear for out country. Or what could have given such a young man the audacity to boast that he could pass someone’s mother around for free sex if not impunity? Physicality looking, it is not guaranteed that he is too strong enough to intimidate and muscle someone’s mother to sexual perverts but he knew quite well that he could deploy either his influence; money, thugs or some criminally minded individuals masquerading as security operatives to carry out such a dastardly act and at the end nothing will happen. Or has anything happened yet apart from the 67 women groups that had in a letter sought for the intervention of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami?

The second case was that of the Commissioner for Water Resources in Kogi State, Abdulmumin Danga, who is alleged to have brutally raped and subsequently tortured one Elizabeth Oyeniyi through the aid of hired thugs. Even though NHRC has intervened in the situation but Danga is still unruffled and well grounded member of Governor Yahya Bello’s administration. He may get off the hook as well.

This is not Policing but a colonial mentality

Despite the fact that Nigeria is approaching 60 years of independence, its defence and security architecture are still anchored on the vestiges of colonialism. While Nigerian Police and other supporting law enforcement agents possess many brilliant and honest officers, but the orientation and mentality exhibited by some of the personnel culpable in the homicidal attacks on innocent civilians are testament to the prevalence of colonialism.

British imposed Police system and structure was an occupation force, established solely to protect Her Majesty’s interest and whip people into line even if it requires murder.

Unfortunately, most of their erstwhile colonies still retain this oppressive Policing regime without any inclination that it was purpose built for the interest of the exploitative colonial masters and not necessarily for the security of the local populace. They reigned with impunity and were only answerable to the colonial administration and sadly enough, the African ruling elites inherited the regressive Police regime with little or no reforms because it feeds their appetite as the new overlords. What is even grave in this historical anomaly is that colonial police carried batons unlike the nascent penchant to be armed to the teeth and kill at will by some undisciplined officers.

Consequent upon these developments, it’s worth reminding that Police is not the military that is established and trained to kill and that’s why they were not expected to use live ammunition until as a matter of last resort and in a situation of self defence when their lives are threatened. They were expected to be equipped with water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and aforementioned batons but this is not the currently the case in Nigeria. It is true that high level of indiscipline and unruly behaviour of some people as well as the emerging threats from criminals and non-state actors could be some trigger factors but how do you justify the fact that most of the victims were unarmed and innocent citizens going about their business or might have committed minor error of judgement?

Urgent but sustainable reforms needed

The urgent need for sustainable reform and restructuring of the Nigerian Police Force that is accountable and citizens’ friendly cannot be over emphasised. This will however, not be achieved without discarding some of the colonial laws and steer the security architecture away from the relics of colonialism, which was built on not protecting the citizens but to whip them into line.

More importantly, the prevailing situation where the presence of security agents rather than instil sense of security instead evoke fear among the citizens, needs to be stopped. Fortunately, the constitution has in theory provided guidelines that recognized human rights as the cornerstones for policing Nigerians. According to Olofin, the Police by virtue of their constitutionally mandated functions have a duty to protect lives and properties if we take a look at their general duties as encapsulated in the Police Act Section 4.

Therefore, a durable reform is the one that should be built on justice meaning that security agencies should go beyond the promise to investigate to ensure that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes against Nigerians–be them civilians or the operatives of the state–are prosecuted accordingly. To this end, the Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Toby Okechukwu, while expressing concern for the killings, has also called on the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu to “bring to justice the officers who killed some innocent Nigerians in the course of enforcing the coronavirus lockdown order”.

In essence, the policing system reforms in Nigeria apart from making sure that it is entrenched on justice must also be humane and people-centric.

Finally, it is worth to remind us that the elasticity of “e go better” spirit, which encapsulates the resilience and “die hard” attitude that hallmarks the secret to Nigeria’s survival both as a nation and as a people in the face of an overwhelming lethal threats, is not infinite. While resilience is a commendable virtue but the flipside is the temptation to underestimate the limits occasioned by human fragility. And it is this knack by Nigerians to always bottle up our unflattering situation as a fait accompli that Fela Anipolaku Kuti described in one of his hit tracks as “suffering and smiling”. This also has an expiry date.

While we mull and meditate on lasting solutions, the fact remains–Nigerians are agonising and beaten by the cyclic force of hunger, Coronavirus and some bloodthirsty security agents. The vicious cycle sees the people being forced into their homes by the COVID-19 pandemic but only to face forced eviction to the streets by hunger and then brutalised by some law enforcement agents, driving them again back to the start of the cycle. It is in deed, a tragedy .

Note: There are citizens whose stock in trade is to disobey rules and make life difficult for security agents. All over the country we have seen how citizens who should know better have deliberately flouted the stay-at-home order and social distancing rules to contain the Coronavirus and consequently endanger the lives of others. However, as aggravating and irritating as this behaviour is, it is not enough reason to kill. There are other Policing and security measures other than the “kill-at-sight” mentality.

Iroegbu is a media practitioner, security and public affairs analyst. He can be reached on [email protected]

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