The Police as violators and protectors of human rights

(By Emmanuel Ojeifo)

Compiled from interviews, testimonies and evidence gathered over a period of 10 years, from over 500 torture survivors and family members of victims, but also from police perpetrators, the report exposes the unofficial institutionalisation of torture as a procedural instrument of police investigation. What it brings to the fore is that despite the prohibition of torture and other forms of ill treatment by the Nigerian Constitution and other international instruments and protocols, such as ICCPR and CAT, to which Nigeria is a signatory, torture is not a criminal offence in Nigeria.

“Across the country, the scope and severity of torture inflicted on Nigeria’s women, men and children by the authorities supposed to protect them are shocking to even the most hardened human rights observer.” – Netsanet Belay, director of Research and Advocacy for Africa, Amnesty International (2014).

IN 2012, the Dutch office of Amnesty International published a very important resource manual titled Understanding Policing: A Resource for Human Rights Activists in which it set out to improve a more thorough understanding of the security sector and its workings, in view of furthering the discourse on security and supporting police reform programmes in line with human rights principles. Written in four parts, each of which is further divided into many sub-parts, the 323-paged resource book covers a wide range of issues from the police and human rights, maintaining law and order, the criminal justice system and operational independence, to use of force, arrest and detention, accountability mechanisms and enhancing professionalism.

   In its introductory chapter, the document states: “The police are the primary institution responsible for the maintenance of public order and the rule of law. They are also one of the key State agencies responsible for the prevention and investigation of criminal acts including those that can be qualified as human rights abuses or violations.” In exercising their functions, “police can be violators of human rights, but at the same time they play an essential role in the protection of human rights,” says Eduard Nazarski, Dutch office director of Amnesty International, in his Foreword to the resource book. In the light of these remarks, we can understand why policing is at the heart of a broad spectrum of human rights discourse.

   The foregoing offers a good starting point for discussing the complex realities of policing in a knotty country like Nigeria with respect to human rights. On 18 September this year, Amnesty International presented its 2014 report to journalists in Abuja. Titled ‘Welcome to Hell Fire’: Torture and Other Ill-Treatment in Nigeria, the 64-page report reveals that thousands of Nigerians have suffered and continue to suffer various forms of “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of the Nigerian security forces, including the police and the military.” It accuses the police of gross human rights violation by routinely using torture of men, women and children, as well as a wide range of unlawful methods such as beatings, shootings and rape, as investigative tools, extracting confessional statements from them and obtaining bribe.

   Compiled from interviews, testimonies and evidence gathered over a period of 10 years, from over 500 torture survivors and family members of victims, but also from police perpetrators, the report exposes the unofficial institutionalisation of torture as a procedural instrument of police investigation. What it brings to the fore is that despite the prohibition of torture and other forms of ill treatment by the Nigerian Constitution and other international instruments and protocols, such as ICCPR and CAT, to which Nigeria is a signatory, torture is not a criminal offence in Nigeria. “The absence of acknowledgement and public condemnation of such violations by senior government officials assists in creating a climate for impunity and raises serious concern about the political will to end such human rights violations,” the report adds.

   It also accuses the Nigerian justice system of failing to prevent torture and other ill treatment. “Despite torture being constitutionally prohibited, a bill to criminalise the practice is yet to be passed. This is despite the fact that two different bills have been pending in the National Assembly for over two years.” According to Amnesty International, what is partly responsible for the unofficial institutionalisation of torture and its integration in police investigation procedure is because no one is being held accountable. Unless perpetrators are investigated and prosecuted, the situation can only be expected to escalate.

   As is expected, the police spokesman swiftly responded to the report, describing it as “blatant falsehood.” He refuted allegations of police formations and detention facilities being used as torture chambers and applauded the significant improvement of the police on its human rights records and operational efficiency since the return of democracy in 1999, largely due to systematic reforms, structural transformation and attitudinal change. He noted that whenever instances of human rights abuses are brought to the notice of superintending officers, the offending personnel are promptly sanctioned in line with existing laws and regulations. He went on to state that the police have “zero tolerance for corruption and abuse of power.” While maintaining that the police are citizen-friendly (a remark which brings to mind the popular cliché, “the police is your friend”), the police spokesman restated the commitment of the Nigerian police to improving service delivery.

  In defending the Nigerian Police Force, what its spokesman failed to remember is that Amnesty International is not the only organisation that has reported gross human rights violation of detainees in police custody. The Human Rights Watch in its 2014 World Report had earlier raised this same issue, amongst others stating as follows: “The Nigeria police have also been involved in frequent human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and extortion-related abuses. Despite the dismantling of many ‘road blocks’ by the inspector general of police, corruption in the police force remains a serious problem. The police routinely solicit bribes from victims to investigate crimes and from suspects to drop investigations. Senior police officials embezzle or mismanage police funds, often demanding monetary ‘returns’ that their subordinates extort from the public” (pp. 150-151).

    In other words, there is ample evidence to suggest that our police officers have widely employed the instrument of torture in criminal investigations. One only needs to read chapter eight (“The State and the Victims of Torture”) of Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah’s Oputa Panel book, Witness to Justice: An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission (2011) to get a clearer view. It is a picture of how “successive governments and their agencies in Nigeria have gradually come to see torture as an instrument not just of control, coercion and enforcement of obedience but also as a tool for extracting facts and also of punishment” (pp. 299-300).

    The reaction of the police authorities to the report will not do the institution much good. While I strongly believe that the sensational title of the report, ‘Welcome to Hell Fire’ is rather too harsh to describe the Nigerian situation, its content and the severity of the allegations made cannot be wished away by the polemics of verbal gymnastics. What we are talking about here is a report that focuses on the personal testimonies of countless first-hand victims of police brutality. The report also “draws on interviews with relatives of victims of torture, human rights defenders and lawyers who have dealt with such cases and government officials in Nigeria, as well as documents relating to court cases, medical records, photographic evidence and policy reports.” These include “testimony from current and former police officers,” as Belay noted. Thus, no matter how much effort the police authorities make to drown or dismiss the report, they cannot suppress or obscure its essential character.

   Rather than generate ill feeling, the report should help to stimulate honest, open, critical and intelligent conversation on the issue of torture and its use in criminal investigation. This is what will boost the public image of the Nigeria Police Force and aid its efforts at institutional reforms. In other words, the police authorities should take time to carefully and objectively study the report and, in line with the issues raised, make effort to re-examine its methods of operation and upgrade its performance to meet international best practices. The police institution that pledges its commitment to investigate and punish cases of human rights violations cannot at the same time continue to refute evidence of systemic torture. What needs to be seen is a renewed commitment to do better and to be civil and humane in the exercise of police duty.

  On the part of Amnesty International, effort must be made to improve its methodologies of information gathering, documentation and reporting and ensure that its reports offer an objective, balanced and fair perspective on documented issues. In the field of human rights, scholars and observers have noted that strategies for addressing human rights violations can vary from the confrontational to the cooperative. In this light, approaching the police as human rights protectors rather than as human rights violators presents both Amnesty International and the police with an opportunity for increased cooperation in a search for areas of mutual interest based on a common understanding that human rights and policing go hand in hand. The discourse on policing and human rights should move from conflict to conversation and from confrontation to cooperation. Human rights do not impede policing; on the contrary, they provide the police with a space in which to operate and use their powers lawfully. Police should not be opponents of human rights advocates but should rather be counterparts, seeking to achieve similar goals.

   Consequently, the 2014 Amnesty International Human Rights Report on Nigeria should be seen for what it is – a commendable effort to localise and call attention to what is clearly a global problem. The truth is that if the Nigeria Police Force is to be a bastion for the protection of human rights in the 21st century, it must begin from the protection of the rights of police officers themselves. In a country where professionalism and discipline have been “subsidised” in the police and where lower cadre officers have become commodities to be rented to moneybag politicians, high profile traditional and religious leaders, big and medium-size businessmen and other brands of the social elite for their personal and family security, leaving the vast majority of the populace with little or no police protection, so much work needs to be done to reboot the institutional engine of the Nigeria police.

   In addition, there is a strong need for an effective collaboration between the police, civil society, the ever-expanding network of private security providers and the human rights community. This synergy will help to develop an effective security strategy to combat crime and foster the protection of human rights. In today’s technologically driven and highly digitalized world, where criminal gangs carry out sophisticated crimes with amazing connections to centres of partnership, resources and knowledge production, the bar for security intelligence and information gathering has been raised higher for the police. This calls for a knowledge-driven and research-based security system, powered by massive investments in cutting-edge scholarship, in which security and law enforcement agencies strive to be two steps ahead of criminal networks and their agents.

   Truly, we also have to acknowledge that the reality for police is extremely hard. In many countries, including Nigeria, police officers often work excessively long hours, are underpaid, they carry out dangerous work with little, if any, protection, and are ill prepared (both in terms of training and equipment) to perform tasks. They have little social status and receive criticisms from all sides. Many scholars working in the field of police and human rights have often asked how the police can be expected to protect rights when their own rights are not protected. With this in mind, any effort undertaken to improve police respect for human rights should include making a fair analysis of their own situation as well. Where necessary, it should include advocating protection of police rights, as enshrined in international civil, social and economic rights protocols, such as leisure time, fair pay, fair working hours, safe working conditions and equal promotion opportunities, amongst others.

  No doubt, the new IG, Mr. Suleiman Abba, already has his responsibilities clearly cut out as he mounts the saddle of leading the Nigeria Police Force from a security agency with a battered public image to a Force that can rise up to the challenge of effective law enforcement, in this age of terrorism.

Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja. 

emmaojeifo@yahoo.com  07066363913.

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