The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999), as amended, by S.33(1) provides that “[e]very persons 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.”
This is the constitutional provision safeguarding the right to life of all persons in Nigeria and this Constitution is the fundamental law of the land and any other contrary provision in any other Law in Nigeria is void for such inconsistency with the Constitution.
There are exceptions to the above provision, whereby the law allows persons to use deadly force if such actions are reasonable, warranted by the circumstances, and carried out to prevent greater harm or harm to others. Specifically, the Constitution provides one may use lethal force:
(a) for the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property;
(b) in other to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; or
(c) for the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection or mutiny.
Despite the Constitution's clear mandates, there have been daily, gross violations of this Constitutional safeguard to the right to life by security operatives, particularly the Nigeria police.
The highest and may be, the most brazen form of extrajudicial killing with impunity was the killing of several persons in Awka, Anambra State of Eastern Nigeria in January 2013.
On 19th of January 2013, news broke out that more than 50 corpses were found floating in Ezu River in Awka, the capital city of Anambra State. The River is the boundary between Anambra and Enugu States of Nigeria. The bizarre pictures of floating corpses were shown in Television and published in various newspapers.
As the First Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association, I was alarmed by the enormity of the incident. I was also then Chair of the NBA Human Rights Committee, which investigated incidents of extrajudicial killings, including arbitrary and summary executions in Nigeria.
The Committee’s findings were truly alarming. We interviewed locals who described seeing between 60-67 corpses floating in the river on that fateful morning. They described the grotesque sight in unprintable details.
The final result of our investigations indicted the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police at Awkuzu, few kilometres from Awka, where the unlawful execution of the alleged robbery suspects and their corpses were dumped in the river. Extrajudicial deaths are so common in this area that the locals considered the incident routine, the exception being the huge numbers of corpses involved. According to them, suspected criminals are routinely brought out of cells and executed, without trial or conviction by a Court of Law.
Even though our report was made public with copies sent to appropriate authority and governmental Agencies, no action has been taking against the Police to date. It is this impunity that is fuelling the circle of extra judicial killings in the Country.
There have also been reports of commercial vehicles drivers being shot and killed by officers at various highway security checkpoints.
On 29 April 2014, a hotelier was reportedly shot dead by a senior police officer, who is the head of a police division in the full glare of the public in Ilesa, Osun State, West of Nigeria. The matter has since been 'swept under the carpet' and the families of the deceased secretly pacified due to public outcry.
There have been other murders, including the Apo killing of a pregnant woman in Abuja by the operatives of State Security Service and the killing of a pregnant woman in Mpape, also in Abuja. The pregnant woman in Mpape was a passenger in a taxi cab that stopped to drop off another passenger in front of Bank. According to our reports, one of the policemen guarding the Bank opened fire at the cab killing the woman.
There is also the killing of four Ibo boys in Lagos by the police who effected their arrest on mere suspicion of being armed robbers. They were arrested at their respective homes, taken to the police station, and allegedly shot dead. The Human Rights Committee of the NBA, under my leadership, filed an action in Lagos High Court against the police and the Attorney General of the Federation. The action is still pending in Court.
The Legal Defence And Assistance Project (LEDAP) documents most of these killings. For example, in 2011 LEDAP reported that 491 incidents resulted in the deaths of 1,989 people. Of those deaths, 128 were classified as extrajudicial executions and 1,861 were classified as summary killings.
Perhaps the most worrisome of these extrajudicial killings, are those carried out by civilian mobs. It is a common occurrence today that if a petty thief or burglar is apprehended, a mob will immediately gather around him or her. The suspect is then beaten to death or given the tire treatment, whereby a rubber tire is put round his neck and set afire, burning the suspect alive). This exercise is locally referred to as 'jungle justice'. And it is perpetuated by a mutual mistrust between the police, judicial system, and civilian populace.
The extrajudicial killings carried out in the North-East of the Country are now being ignored or justified as a war zone matter with Boko Haram insurgents and the military locked in battle resulting in daily killings on both sides.
To restore confidence in the current system and reduce the likelihood of mob related extrajudicial killings, the Nigerian government must reign in its police and military forces; make security personnel accountable; and strengthen its criminal justice system so that it is an effective mechanism for dealing with person or group accused of committing extrajudicial, arbitrary, or summary executions.
Osas Justy Erhabor, Esq. works and resides in Nigeria. He is the Vice Chair of Special Projects for the ABA SIL International Human Rights Committee.
Osas Justy Erhabor Esq,
Past First Vice President, Nigerian Bar Association,
Vice Chair, American Bar Association SIL IHRC
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