Okechukwu Nwanguma is the Executive Director, Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre, an organisation that promotes justice for victims of human rights violation and has handled several cases of human rights violation by the Nigeria Police. He tells ALEXANDER OKERE how the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the security agency became an organised ‘criminal entity’
How would you assess the government’s reactions to #EndSARS protests, especially with the replacement of Special Anti-Robbery Squad with the Special Weapons and Tactics unit?
I am happy that after many years of apparent docility and passivity, Nigerian youths eventually experienced a reawakening, found their voices, picked up the gauntlet and rose to the occasion. I never thought that this day of renewed consciousness would come in my generation. The youth have for many years, been the main targets and victims of police brutality and they rose courageously, in their numbers, to demand an end to police brutality, beginning with the demand for the disbandment of the notorious SARS, a tactical intervention force that was created to fight crime but ended up committing crime and enjoying impunity.
The protests were widespread, resounding and sustained. It achieved substantial success. The youth were clear in their demands and the government made reasonable concessions. However, public cynicism and distrust of government arising from many years of deceit, lies and betrayal, made the protesters doubt government’s sincerity and seriousness to make good its many promises. Hence, the protesters persisted, insisting on seeing concrete actions before they would back down. But when it became clear that sponsored hoodlums had infiltrated, hijacked and derailed the good cause, it was time to tactically retreat, re-assess and continue to engage through other legitimate means. I foresaw and warned of the need to avoid the casualties that the rogue government, using the highly politicised military, was predictably determined to cause among defenceless people whose only crime was peacefully demanding good governance.
Do you consider the redeployment of personnel of the defunct SARS to other units an action that shows the will to address the real problems?
The IGP has said that no member of the defunct SARS will be part of the new outfit that has been created to replace SARS. That is a good first step. The next step would be to do an audit of personnel of the disbanded SARS, identify those with cases of murder and abuse to answer and be investigated and prosecuted. Their victims are also entitled to redress, including apologies and monetary compensations. The personnel also need to go through a psychological evaluation to isolate those with mental health problems. They can’t be reintegrated or redeployed into other units because they will not only continue with their crimes in their new places of postings but also negatively influence other less brutal and corrupt officers. The Nigeria Police needs purging and those who are untrainable and irredeemable must be shown the way out.
What are the problems created by the defunct SARS that require urgent actions from the authorities?
The SARS operatives, just like those of other tactical units, were laws unto themselves because they were answerable only to the IGP. They held senior officers, including state commissioners of police in contempt and were beyond their control. They acted as they liked without supervision and accountability for crimes and abuse.
This was the background against which the IGP, as one of his earlier reform measures, decentralised the command and control of SARS and made state command CPs and zonal assistant inspectors general answerable for any excesses by operatives within their operational jurisdictions. Prior to this, SARS operatives could move from one state to another state to abduct people, take them around, detain, torture and extort huge sums of money in ransom from them. People were taken to their banks or forced to use ATM or POS and their accounts emptied. We are not talking about exhibit money or property. We are talking about rogue operatives robbing people of their hard-earned money and properties. SARS became an organised criminal entity.
Police brutality is a problem that has persisted for long in the Nigerian police system and many Nigerians accuse the leadership of the police of alleged complicity. Do you share that opinion?
Nigeria at independence inherited the institutional culture of the colonial police, the culture of violence and repression. Its philosophy is regime protection rather than service and protection for the people. This culture was reinforced by military rule and has persisted under the current dispensation. Inadequate funding of the police and poor welfare conditions of the personnel are also contributory to abuse and corruption. When officers have to require money from complainants or accused persons to investigate cases, it creates room for corruption and violence.
When junior officers are required to make returns to senior officers to retain their ‘lucrative’ beats, corruption becomes institutional. It will be difficult to achieve change at the lower level when there is also corruption at the top.
The new Police Act provides a new legal framework to reposition the police. It provides a funding framework to ensure that police budgeting is bottom-top and reflects the actual budgetary needs of the NPF at all levels.
There have been concerns raised about Awkuzu SARS in Anambra State. Can you share your experience with the centre?
Awkuzu SARS was the most notorious of all the SARS bases across the country. It was notable for the cruelty and mindlessness of its operatives in the abuse of arrest and detention procedures, and in the use of torture and extrajudicial killings as means of ‘investigation’. They were notable for framing and parading people for crimes they had no evidence that they committed. They extorted huge sums of money from their victims and family members of their victims. They also killed for politicians and were available for hire to settle scores. The majority of the victims who were lucky to come out alive or their relatives alleged that Awkuzu SARS harvested and sold the body parts of some people they executed. This needs to be properly investigated to ascertain its veracity or otherwise. One notorious man ran a human ‘abbatoir’ at Awkuzu SARS where lives were willfully terminated. He denied detainees access to anybody and disregarded court orders. His activities, including his connection with politicians and notable businessmen in Anambra State should be investigated.
Justice for the victims of extrajudicial killings by the police has been a difficult task for affected families. Who should be blamed for this; the police or the Nigerian judicial system?
Amnesty International, in one of its old reports, described the Nigerian criminal justice system as a conveyor belt of injustice. This is true. From poor police investigation due lack of funds, proper training and facilities, to inefficiency and delay by the prosecutors, to congestion, delay and, sometimes, corruption in the judiciary leading to delay of and, sometimes, denial of justice, to congestion of correctional centres, the entire criminal justice system is a curse on the citizens, especially the poor. In few cases where the courts have determined cases of extrajudicial killing and ordered the police to pay compensations to victims, the police disobey most of such orders and the courts are often helpless. The attorneys general are also complicit in many cases by failure to effectively ensure that court orders are obeyed by executive agencies or that justice is dispensed fairly and speedily in their jurisdictions.
For how long has the defunct Awkuzu SARS had its reputation as an abattoir?
It was as far back as 2005 or 2006, when I went to Anambra State to do research on the patterns and prevalence of police abuse in my advocacy for police reforms that I came about specific cases. It has maintained that notoriety (Awkuzu SARS) and that particular commander spent several years in that same unit. What you would find is that in most places, officers like that are usually kept for so long because they work not just for law enforcement but also for people in government and businessmen. There is one area we need to further investigate: Every single person I have interviewed who passed through Awkuzu SARS spoke about the sale of human parts. I know that this is something difficult to prove, even though they all say it. And they described a particular man called Doctor, who always came in a white robe any time somebody was shot at the back of the torture chamber. What he came to do, they did not know. So, that gave them the impression that the man was coming to harvest human parts but that needs to be investigated.
What specific methods of torture were employed at the centre?
The most prominent was tying the two hands and legs of the victims behind their backs and hanging them from a ceiling fan with their victims’ chests protruding. They would leave them for hours, flog them, administer electric shock and use fire, hot objects and machetes on them. Sometimes, they (SARS officers) would also insert broomsticks into their genitals, for males; and for females, they would use bottles. Sometimes, also, when they wanted to execute, without shooting them, they would use a trampoline to cover their face so that they would suffocate. So, these were the usual methods that we heard from the people we interviewed.
Did some of the female victims say they were raped?
I have come across many female victims of torture who, in the course of narrating their ordeal, would not normally tell you that they were raped. But when you probe further, they tell you in confidence and tell you not to include it in the report. So, sexual violence is prevalent. The only problem is that there is a culture of silence that makes victims not want to talk about it.
Why do you think nothing has been done about the activities of policemen at the defunct Awkuzu SARS?
The man (former head of Awkuzu SARS) has serious connections with power businessmen in Anambra State. A former IGP told me that, following our numerous petitions against the notorious former head of Awkuzu SARS, he wanted to remove him from that place, but that he (IGP) received calls from a governor, a prominent traditional ruler in the state, and a prominent transporter, who was a regular visitor to Awkuzu SARS as of that time. With the connections with these powerful people, it was difficult for any IGP to take steps. The IGP also had difficulties in removing a former head of SARS in Lagos but had to create a new office for him and move him to Abuja.
Do you know if any of the officers of Awkuzu SARS has been prosecuted for the crimes committed?
Not a single one has been prosecuted.
Who do you think should be blamed for the lack of accountability in the defunct SARS and the police in general?
Let me tell you the truth. The responsibility is at two levels. One thing I know is that the commissioners of police in state commands usually don’t have control over SARS. The person that has control over SARS is the IGP, but he hardly does anything because the units make a lot of money and make returns to retain those posts. So, at one level, it is because some of the IGPs benefit from the money they get from SARS units. On the other hand, it is because of political interference. The truth is that the President is the operational head of the police, not the IGP. Nigeria is the only country in the whole world where we have that kind of arrangement, where a political leader that ought to be in charge of policies, is in charge of both policies and operations. So, that is one of the reforms that must happen if the Nigeria Police must be insulated from political control and inefficiency, and be made professional.
Some of the accounts reported about the defunct SARS are wicked and horrific. Why do you think people meant to protect unarmed citizens lost their conscience and became evil?
It is because of the impunity in the system. They killed once and nothing happened, so they would do it again. When there is a culture of violence and brutality, nothing happens. That is why an officer in SARS would use his powers to settle personal scores. If you have a person who committed no crime, they could arrest the person and label that person a kidnapper or an armed robber. They would demand money and if the person failed to bring it, they could kill the person.
Some states have set up judicial panels of enquiries to look into the issues raised by the protesters, with regard to the excesses of the police. Do you think these will give justice to the victims?
This is a rare opportunity for justice for the numerous victims of police brutality. In the past, many decisions of judicial panels of inquiry have been ignored. The ‘Apo six’ is a handy example. But we need to explore this opportunity and engage it to ensure that it works for the people and achieves the justice they deserve and desire.
There were allegations that the protests derailed and turned violent as witnessed in Lagos, Edo, Osun, Abuja and others. What do you think went wrong?
The protest lasted about 11 consecutive days and remained peaceful up to the last few days. There was no reason for people who remained peaceful all along and who, from the start, continued to express their commitment to remain peaceful, to suddenly resort to violence. Of course, we heard news and saw videos of hoodlums attacking peaceful protesters in many states. At some point, pro-government protesters also confronted the #EndSARS protesters. So, clearly, government sponsored hoodlums to infiltrate, hijack and derail the otherwise peaceful protests. And they did that to discredit the protesters and to provide the pretext to crack down on them. This is cowardly.
What is your reaction to the curfew imposed by some state governments?
The curfew would have been unnecessary if the hired agents of violence had not intervened and escalated the situation to violence just to provide the basis to impose a curfew and smoke the protesters out of the streets. I commend the Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde, for making the difference and demonstrating leadership which every responsible and well-meaning governor and the President should take a cue from. Rather than blame the protesters, he deployed forces to go after the hoodlums and provide protection for the protesters.
What other ways can true reform be made in the police force?
The new Police Act provides the framework to drive police reform. All the stakeholders who have roles to play under the law must play their roles. We need to sanitise the recruitment process, ensure proper training and retraining, adequately fund and equip the police and improve welfare. Discipline and accountability for abuses are important.
What is your reaction to the killing of peaceful protesters at Lekki, Lagos, by military officers, in view of the issue of extrajudicial killings and disregard for human rights?
What I find completely unwarranted, unjustifiable and, therefore, unacceptable is firing live bullets at unarmed protesters. Military deployment was uncalled for. The IGP had earlier deployed anti-riot police officers who, expectedly, would have used minimum and proportionate force to disperse those who turned the peaceful protest into unnecessary violence. While violence is deplorable, the use of excessive and disproportionate force is a crime under international law that Nigerian subscribes to.
The Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, on Wednesday said the incident at Lekki on Tuesday night was beyond his control. Do you think he should take responsibility for the loss of lives?
Some news reports and videos in circulation report that protesters were shot at by the military and casualties recorded. If the governor said ‘no life was lost,’ then this calls for an investigation. The governor remains the chief security officer of Lagos State and will take responsibility for the state of insecurity enveloping Lagos State. If the situation is beyond his control, he should resign.