Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

NIGERIA: Rights Activists Await Break With Past

Toye Olori

LAGOS, May 30 2007 (IPS) - The return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999 after years of military dictatorship has not brought an end to extra-judicial killings; rather, the number may have doubled in what is now often a daily occurrence, says the Civil Liberties Organisation – a human rights group based in the financial hub of Lagos.

”While the period of military dictatorship made the wanton destruction of lives and property near state policy, the new democratic administration has quite shockingly witnessed the aggravation of this ugly phenomenon of unlawful killings of innocent civilians by security agents, especially the police,” notes a report issued by the grouping in past months.

The study focuses on the six years from May 1999 to June 2005. But Damian Ugwu, its author and head of the organisation’s law enforcement project, told IPS that the situation had not improved since. ”We have seen an enormous increase in the number of extra-judicial killings in the past eight years,” he said. These were being carried out by the police, army and state-sponsored vigilante groups.

Extra-judicial killings are executions not sanctioned by law. Under Nigeria’s criminal code, an unlawful killing of a human being is a criminal offence punishable by death.

The Civil Liberties Organisation estimates that on average at least five people are killed every day in extra-judicial circumstances in Nigeria. Most of the killings are said to be at police stations: it’s alleged that armed robbery suspects are summarily executed there in the course of investigations. Police claim the killings happen while they are trying to prevent suspects from escaping.

“That figure of five a day is a very conservative one,” Ugwu said, adding that there were also unreported cases in local police stations and vigilante cells. And, it did not take into account what was now happening in the Niger Delta – the troubled, oil-rich region where police and the army are struggling against growing militancy.

The Civil Liberties Organisation report blames the deteriorating economic situation for the rise in extra-judicial killings. Despite the huge increase in oil revenues during the final years of former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s term in office, more than 80 percent of Nigeria’s 140 million people still live on less than a dollar a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme. This situation had led to growth in gun crime, robbery and kidnappings.

Obasanjo stepped down from office this week. During his eight years in power, some 500,000 workers lost their jobs, Ugwu said. Many were left destitute, struggling to maintain their families. “Children cannot go to school because they cannot pay the school fees. Many of them, youths under 20 years of age, have joined cults and gangs and taken to crime,” he added.

The police were “overwhelmed” by the growth in lawlessness. “So what they do is try to eliminate the problem through extra-judicial killings,” Ugwu said. “They think if you kill this person, he is not going to come back and disturb you again. They are resorting to extra-judicial killings to reduce the number of perceived criminals.”

The police were also turning on the people because of resentment over their own economic situation, Ugwu noted. “A policeman who has not been paid for months is angry. They are being prevented now from taking bribes at check-points. But then they see government officials and politicians stealing millions, so they turn their anger on society.”

IPS reports that governors of states where vigilante groups have been set up claim they are needed to deal with the high incidence of armed robbery. These groups have also been accused of the unlawful execution of alleged criminals.

The outgoing Nigerian government did step in to ban some of these groups, such as the Bakassi boys. It charged they were being used for political purposes.

Only rarely have the authorities acted on complaints of extra-judicial killings, Ugwu said. ”In the past eight years, very few policemen have been brought to book by the government or by the police authorities.” He knew of no case where a soldier had been accused in court of being involved in extra-judicial killings.

The authorities only ever took action after a public outcry. This happened after the killing of six young people by police in Apo in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, two years ago. According to an Aug. 22, 2006 statement from Amnesty International, “…the so-called ‘Apo 6’ – five young Igbo male traders and a female student – were arrested on suspicion of armed robbery and executed while in custody in Abuja. In this case, their dead bodies were paraded as armed robbers killed in a shoot-out with the police…”

Noted Ugwu: “That was a peculiar case because at the time Nigeria was looking for a seat in the U.N. Security Council. A U.N. special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings was also due to visit Nigeria. The government needed to do something, so it set up an enquiry. But since then, thousands have been killed and nothing has been done.”

The activist acknowledged that the level of extra-judicial killings was also high during military rule. But, towns and villages were never razed to the ground by soldiers and police in retaliation over killings while the military was in command of the country – while this had happened to the town of Odi in Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta in November 1999. Two years later soldiers stormed the Zaki Biam and Vaase communities in Benue State, central Nigeria. Many hundreds of civilians died, activists have alleged.

IPS approached the Lagos police to comment on the allegations by the rights organisation and Ugwu. A spokesman denied knowledge of any summary executions in Lagos State over the past two years – the period that he had been in his post. “There has not been any extra-judicial killing. That is my comment,” Olubode Ojajuni, a police public relations officer, said.

The Civil Liberties Organisation said it was this unwillingness by the police to admit to the problem that had caused the group to embark on a “vigorous” public awareness campaign that was also targeting government officials and the international community. In addition, it had set up a network – the National Alert on Torture and Extra- judicial Killings – to monitor acts of torture and extra-judicial executions. The network had more than 3,000 members around the country.

”We are hoping that one day, somebody, somewhere, will come up and say ‘These people should account for their sins’,” said Ugwu.

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