By Chukwudi Nweje

Section 14 (2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution enshrined that: “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.”

However, the provision of security has been challenged by the precarious state of affairs in the country and the seeming inability of the Nigerian Police Force to effectively deal with the worsening security situations. This scenario which has been a problem for a long time has resulted in the military being used for internal security operations, which ideally is that of the police.

This is in addition to their constitutional responsibilities of (a) defending Nigeria from external aggression; (b) maintaining its territorial integrity and securing its borders from violation on land, sea, or air; (c) suppressing insurrection and acting in aid of civil authorities to restore order when called upon to do so by the President, but subject to such conditions as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly; and (d) performance such other functions as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly, as stipulated in Section 217 (2) (a) -(d) of the constitution.

It is common today to see special security outfits like ‘Operation Sweep’, a joint police and military venture established in 1999 by the then military administration of Lagos State, Mohammed Buba Marwa. The outfit is believed to have helped reduce the notorious crime rate Lagos’. In 2002, then Inspector General of Police (IGP), Tafa Balogun, perhaps overwhelmed by the successes of ‘Operation Sweep’ established ‘Operation Fire for Fire’ to crackdown on violent crime in the country.

Under both strategies, the operatives attached to these outfits were given license to ‘shoot at sight’. However, even as the joint police and military operations checked violent crimes, there were also heavy harvests of human rights violations. In fact, local and international observers noted that not only did the confrontational response fail to eliminate incidents of violent crime, but the security agencies were often accused to have invoked disproportionate use of force in their fight against criminal activity.

Across the states

Today, virtually all states of the federation have one form of special anti-crime outfits or the other, all fashioned after ‘Operation Fire for Fire.’ From Operation Sweep in Lagos State now replaced by a new Rapid Response Squad, Operation Flush in Rivers State, replaced by a Swift Operations Squad, Operation Fanou Tangbe in Bayelsa State among others, every state of the federation has established its own special security outfit. All these special security patrol outfits still comprise combination of military and police officers and the task remains specifically crime fighting.

However, even as these security outfits embark on the task of securing lives and property, they have been accused using disproportionate use of force; violation of human rights and of not following the laid down procedures in the discharge of their duties have continued.

Allegations of abuses

The Network on Police Reforms in Nigeria (NOPRIN), a network of 46 civil society organizations spread across Nigeria, and committed to promoting police accountability and respect for human rights has severally accused the police and other security agents attached to these special security outfits of engaging in “unlawful detention, extortion, torture and extrajudicial execution and disappearances of several people accused of kidnapping and other crimes without being charged to court.”

NOPRIN partners with national, international, governmental and intergovernmental organizations and institutions in implementing its programs aimed at transforming law enforcement institutions and practices in Nigeria. It carries out its mandate through monitoring, field research and investigation, documentation, publication, campaign and advocacy.

The group was established in 2000 to provide opportunity for civil society involvement in police reform, and the promotion of safety, security and justice in Nigeria.

Okechukwu Nwanguma, its National Coordinator said it is concerned that successive yearly reports by local and international human rights advocacy groups continue to return the same damning verdicts against the Nigeria police and other security forces for appalling human rights performance.

In a February 11, 2014 report entitled ‘Increasing Spates of Police Killings, Brutality and Abuse: The Nigerian Government Must Wake up to its Obligations, NOPRIN said that it is “worrisome that perpetrators of human rights violations are hardly brought to account and impunity is entrenched. A culture of impunity protects police officers involved in police brutality, extrajudicial killings, corruption and abuse. The Nigerian government has repeatedly expressed willingness to address the problems in the criminal justice system, improve access to justice, and reform the Nigeria Police Force. However, despite several ‘Presidential Committees on Police Reform in Nigeria’ in recent years, which presented detailed recommendations for improvement, little has been done. Nigerian political authorities endanger public safety by paying lip service to police reform. The continued tolerance of massive human rights abuses by police hierarchy makes it very difficult to achieve change at the lower levels. This is why it is necessary to start changing the whole culture of policing in Nigeria.”

Provisions of the law

NOPRIN argued that Nigeria’s Constitution and other legislation govern the operations and functions of the Nigeria Police. According to the group, the framework of legal standards on policing in Nigeria also includes international laws and treaties and laws accepted by or applicable to Nigeria as a member of the international community.

It further argued that Nigeria has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (Torture Convention), both of which prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by law enforcement and state agents.

For instance, Section 33 of Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states that (1) Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria; (2) A person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life in contravention of this section, if he dies as a result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary- For the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property; In order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; or For the purpose of suppression a riot, insurrection or mutiny.

Successive leaderships of the Nigerian police have always acknowledged the principle that the Police is created and regulated by law and vowed to reform some of the perceived excesses.

For instance, former Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Sunday Ehindero is quoted to have while addressing a public gathering in Abuja in December 2005 stated the doctrine of the Police as follows: “It is obvious that the duties of the Nigeria Police Force are a direct consequence of the powers conferred on it by law. It becomes mandatory that the law must regulate the performance of its duties relating to arrest, detention, search, and seizure and the use of force. In other words, these duties must be exercised strictly within the limits prescribed for the Police by law. And any form of exercise of these powers which does not strictly conform to the prescriptions of the law can have unpleasant consequences for the Police Force (as a corporate entity, as well as for the individual Police personnel).”

Rights of the accused

Under Nigeria’s laws and international human rights standards, every arrested person has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law in a public trial at which the person has had all the guarantees necessary for his or her defence. It is for the court to decide if a suspect is guilty. This can only be done after all the evidence has been heard and the person has been proven to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

However, Nwanguma said that contrary to these provisions, “in Nigeria ‘confirmed’ armed robbery suspects are usually ‘escorted,’ sent on an ‘errand,’ or ‘transferred to Abuja’–all euphemisms for the unlawful summary and extrajudicial execution of suspects. Suspects are ‘confirmed’ through torture and ‘escorted’ or ‘transferred’ through summary execution or disappearance. Persons suspected of, or arrested for, armed robbery are particularly at risk of extrajudicial execution”, he said.

Fighting crime with crime In the words of Nwanguma; crime-fighting and observance of human rights are not to be viewed or treated as though they are in conflict or that they are mutually exclusive. They are no substitutes or alternatives to each other. Both can and must go side by side. It is possible to respect human rights and due process while fighting crime. In fact, to undercut due process and abridge human rights in the process of fighting crime amounts to crime.”

SARS: The Special anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a section of the Nigeria police under the Force Criminal Investigation Department and specifically charged ‘to combat armed robbery and other heinous crimes nationwide’ seems to be mostly accused of human rights violations.

But according to NOPRIN, “SARS in all parts of Nigeria have gained embarrassing notoriety tainting the image of the Nigerian Police locally and internationally.”

Nwanguma argued that “the authorities and operatives at SARS operate as though they are above the law and beyond legal control and accountability. SARS operatives are known for arresting people for all manner of alleged offences, torturing, extorting and executing suspects and detainees in their custody and secretly disposing of their dead bodies. They also dabble into civil disputes. The police in SARS are being used by politicians and other influential persons to victimize their opponents or to settle disputes that are purely civil or communal.”

He also insists that the police authorities are aware of the abuses going on in SARS. He said that shortly after his appointment as IGP, Mohammed Abubakar was quoted in several news reports as lamenting that “Our Special Anti-Robbery Squads (SARS) have become killer teams engaging in deals for land speculators and debts collection… ”

Nwanguma therefore urged the IGP to “as a matter of urgency, re-organize SARS and the entire anti-robbery operations of the Nigeria police force, so as to insulate them from abuse of office.” According to him, SARS “should either be scrapped or comprehensively reformed to conform to modern standards of policing or human rights-compliant policing.

Mkpochapu: In Anambra State and many of the South East states, the crime of kidnapping seems to be on the rise. To combat this, security agents promptly arrest anyone accused of being a kidnapper.

The state government not only arrests and detain persons accused of kidnapping even as the property used for such purpose is also demolished. The prompt demolition of these properties allegedly used for criminal activities is often quoted as legislation in force in many of the states in the region.

For instance, On June 18, 2014 some newspaper reports quoted Mr. Usman Gwari, Commissioner of Police Anambra State Command, as having referred to a certain ‘Anambra State Law’ which supposedly empowers the police in the state to deal summarily with anyone accused of kidnapping and to demolish any building/property ‘used for kidnapping’ in the state. He said this while parading some people as ‘kidnappers’.

The NOPRIN national coordinator however said that the group has inquired from those who should know but cannot confirm the existence of, or lay hands on, any such law.

He said “There is no doubt however that the ‘law’ or the notion of the existence of the ‘law’ which the CP and the O/C SARS often refer to in their presumed fight against crime in the state have emboldened them to commit more crimes and abuse rights with impunity.”

According to him: “Any state law or policy, such as ‘Mkpochapu’, which conflicts with the constitution and undermines international standards of due process and the rule of law is illegal and, we dare say, criminal. You cannot fight individual crime with state crime. Presumption of innocence is the foundation of police investigation.

“Mkpochapu is a belligerent anti crime policy similar to and reminiscent of “Operation Fire-for-Fire” a federal anti-crime task force established by former Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun on his inauguration in 2002.”

Fanou Tangbe: In the South South state of Bayelsa, the state government was said to have set up Operation Fanou Tangbe, a slang NOPRIN said meant ‘kill and throw away’ in the local language, to fight crime.

NOPRIN said that “Many officers linked to the operation reportedly unlawfully killed, tortured, arbitrarily arrested and detained people. Suspects in detention reportedly have no access to their lawyers or relatives.”

Conflict with rule of law

Incidentally, Chapter 1, general provisions of the constitution states in Section 1 (1) that “the Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” It further stated in sub section 3 of the same section that “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”

Demands The NOPRIN National Coordinator therefore demanded that the Federal Government and police authorities should ensure that police officers and other security operatives work in line with laid down procedures. He said: “the police must always allow all those held in custody for whatever reason full access to lawyers of their choice, their families and private doctors;

“The police must ensure that conditions of detention and imprisonment are in full compliance with international standards.

“Police authorities must enforce code of conduct, discipline and professionalism in the police by ensuring that all police officers responsible for breach of these fundamental human rights and due process guarantees for persons that come to their attention are appropriately punished.”

Source: Daily Independent