LEX Files, Series

LEX Files: Empty The Guns!

By Adebayo Okeowo, Nigeria:

'#Ferguson is #Lagos #Abuja etc every darn day. Police brutality, extra judicial killings, gassing protesters and more. We watch on.’
Tweet by @TosynBucknor on August 18, 2014

America is yet to recover from the tragic shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. The incident has gone beyond accusations of police brutality or incompetence and become a racial battle. Sadly, there are several accounts of such police attacks against the black community which make it easy for anyone to play the racial card at such times like these (even if it wasn’t the intent of the police officer in this instance). I have heard and read several comments in relation to the issue and I am not about to make a case for the late Michael Brown or for Officer Darren Wilson. I just cannot help but wonder: how about 22 year old Oscar Grant (shot at Fruitvale Station on New Year’s Day 2009), or 16 year old Kimani Gray shot on March 9 2013. What will you say about John Crawford who was killed on August 5 2014 for holding a pellet rifle (that was just four days before Michael Brown’s incident)? These cases give people cause to be angry and to ask questions. Authorities have an obligation to answer those questions honestly and hold themselves to a higher level of accountability.

But just like the quoted tweet above reflects, the sanctity of life is not just a problem in the US of A. Sanctity of life is a mega problem in Africa’s most populous nation – Nigeria. Security forces the world over are known to use excessive force in the execution of their duty as law enforcement officers but it would seem there is a particular notoriety that comes with the Nigerian Security Forces, especially the Police. This comes as no surprise because the Police Force Order 237 practically authorizes a police officer to shoot suspects on sight whether they pose a threat or not. Several local and foreign organizations have called for the repeal of the Order as it directly contravenes the presumption of innocence and aids the violation of the right to life, which is fully guaranteed under S. 33 of the 1999 Constitution. It is unfathomable that until to date, the Order is still in force.

'The Police is Your Friend' is a parlance within the Nigeria Police Force which citizens find ludicrous because nothing could be farther from the truth. Several instances of police brutality, both within detention cells and in public spaces, have crushed any possible ardent relationship between Nigerians and those mandated to keep them safe.

Even though the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (The Constitution) guarantees the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Association (Section 40), as well as the Freedom of Expression (Section 39), holding a peaceful rally in Nigeria has increasingly become extremely difficult, if not impossible. The police force is always present to tear up peaceful rallies and protests using not just gas canisters but even guns. In January 2012, there was a coordinated civil disobedience to protest the removal of fuel subsidy by the Federal Government. During this period, economic activities ground to a halt and for about 7 days, Nigerians kept gathering at public spaces nationwide to protest the removal of the subsidy. However, before long, the streets became militarized, while in some States of the Federation the police used lethal force on protesters which led to the death of at least 16 people.

While it is understandable that in some instances, force will have to be resorted to in maintaining law and order, such force need not be deadly, excessive or lethal. The excessive use of force is not exclusive to the Nigeria Police alone. The military Joint Task Force (JTF) has also been known to use lethal force to the extent that they have escalated the rate of extra-judicial killings within the country. A report by the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) released in 2011 estimated that 7,198 suspects have been extra-judicially killed by security forces in the space of four years.

The use of lethal force should be seen as a measure of last resort and the only condition under which it should be deployed is in the protection of life. In the event that lethal force is being resorted to, the principle of proportionality must be adhered to. In other words, the extent of force used must not be disproportionate to the crime committed. The disproportionate use of lethal force by the JTF was on the front burner when in April 2013, the task force launched a reprisal attack on the village of Baga (northeast of Maiduguri in Northern Nigeria) for the murder of a soldier. In their military action, there was indiscriminate shooting and according to Human Rights Watch, no less than 2000 homes were destroyed in the process. The impunity with which these acts are committed is worrisome and the absence of an effective oversight body further allows deterioration in the quality of conduct expected of security forces.

With all these killings, one would expect the citizenry to be livid. Certainly, they are! But most of the anger is spewed on social media – at least that is one territory which is gun-free.
So from Africa to the Americas, Europe to Asia (yes unspeakable things are also happening in countries like Russia and North Korea) and other parts of the world, let security agents empty their guns! Sounds impossible but really it’s either the guns or us!

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