Since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigeria, under President Olusegun Obasanjo, has moved to take an increasingly influential position in Africa. Heralded on the international stage for his efforts to broker peace in regional conflicts, Obasanjo has taken some important steps to combat corruption and introduce economic reforms in Nigeria. The Government of Nigeria has not shown the same commitment to addressing human rights abuses, in particular widespread and persistent violations perpetrated by the security forces, most notably the police, military and other law enforcement agencies against persons they detain. While foreign governments have applauded Obasanjo’s efforts to fight corruption, they have been reluctant to criticize Nigeria’s human rights record, including the frequent use of torture by the police.
Despite national and international law prohibiting the use of torture, a Human Rights Watch investigation in Nigeria in March 2005 found the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by the Nigerian Police Force to be widespread and routine. The organization conducted interviews in the cities of Enugu, Lagos and Kano with some fifty victims and witnesses. They described brutal acts of torture, dozens of which resulted in death. The violations were perpetrated by and with the knowledge of senior police officers, including inspectors, divisional police officers, a deputy superintendent of police and a chief superintendent of police. So routine is the practice, that some of these senior officers are known within the police stations by the nickname “Officer in Charge Torture.” The abuse that Human Rights Watch documented is carried out in local and state police stations, often in interrogation rooms which witnesses and victims said appeared to be especially equipped for the purpose.
Victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the forms of torture and other ill-treatment committed by the Nigerian police included the tying of arms and legs tightly behind the body, suspension by hands and legs from the ceiling or a pole, repeated and severe beatings with metal or wooden objects (including planks of wood, iron bars, and cable wire), resting of concrete blocks on the arms and back while suspended, spraying of tear gas in the face and eyes, rape of and other sexual violence against female detainees, use of pliers or electric shocks on the penis, shooting in the foot or leg, stoning, death threats, slapping and kicking with hands and boots and denial of food and water.
A twenty-three year-old man who was arrested by the police in Enugu in mid 2004 described his treatment to Human Rights Watch: “They handcuffed me and tied me with my hands behind my knees, a wooden rod behind my knees, and hung me from hooks on the wall, like goal posts. Then they started beating me. They got a broomstick hair [bristle] and inserted it into my penis until there was blood coming out. Then they put tear gas powder in a cloth and tied it round my eyes. They said they were going to shoot me unless I admitted I was the robber. This went on for four hours.”
In another account, a thirty-six-year-old trader who was detained at the Kano police headquarters told researchers: “Our arms were tied with handcuffs. One at a time we were hung by a chain from the ceiling fan hook. I was the first. They started beating me with a yam pounder, saying I should confess for the robbery. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was beaten, beaten, beaten. They beat my knees, the soles of my feet, my back and my joints. This went on for twenty-five minutes. I was beaten too much. I shit and piss while I was hanging. Then I became unconscious.”
Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses documented dozens of deaths as a result of injuries sustained during torture or after summary executions. Four detainees in Kano estimated that between twenty and forty people had died in the state police headquarters alone between early 2003 and early 2005. One witness described to researchers how police officers in Lagos shouted “rest in pieces” after shooting suspects in their custody. He explained this was a common euphemism used by the police to signify the death of a detainee.
The majority of the victims are ordinary criminal suspects, arrested for crimes ranging from petty theft to armed robbery. Many of these arrests were unlawful and arbitrary because the police failed to inform the suspects of their reasons for arrest or produce evidence against them. Suspects who claimed to be innocent told Human Rights Watch researchers that they were arbitrarily apprehended at police checkpoints or during anti-crime patrols, either because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or on the basis of what the police later told them was a tip-off. Most of those interviewed said they were tortured to extract confessions admitting to an alleged crime and forced to sign a statement that was written or dictated by a police officer. Many described how they signed a statement without knowing what it said because they were illiterate or because the document was withheld from them. According to the interviews, young men aged between eighteen and thirty-five appeared to be most vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment. However, Human Rights Watch also documented cases of abuse against women, children and the elderly.
Human Rights Watch also investigated cases of torture and ill-treatment against members of political organizations, particularly those who advocate greater autonomy for a distinct ethnic, regional or religious group. In particular, Human Rights Watch documented violations against members of the Igbo Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). In these cases, the purpose of torture, according to the victims, appeared to be punishment and to force them to renounce membership in the organization.
Although this report focuses primarily on torture by the police, Human Rights Watch came across cases of torture and ill-treatment of suspects held in the custody of other law enforcement agencies, such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA).
Disregard for due process of law, which facilitates the abuse of power, is characteristic to all the cases documented. Amongst the main concerns identified are the failure to inform suspects of the reasons for their arrest, lack of legal representation, prolonged pre-trial detention and acceptance by magistrates and judges of confessions that were extracted under torture.
Impunity among those in the security forces is one of the biggest single obstacles to the reduction of torture and other serious abuses by police in Nigeria. Deeply engrained societal attitudes that accept police torture and other abuses as legitimate tools to combat crime help sustain this impunity.For many Nigerians who have experienced decades of oppression and brutality by military rulers, the use of violence by the institutions of the state is accepted, even seen as normal. One female detainee who had been brutally beaten in Lagos told Human Rights Watch: “Of course the police will torture, that is their work. If they see suspects, they must torture.”Even when they know the police action was wrong, indeed illegal, those interviewed often described feeling utterly powerless to seek redress.The fact that in all but a handful of cases, there was no accountability for violations committed by the individual police officer no doubt emboldened the perpetrators and has perpetuated the culture of violence in the Nigerian Police Force.
Victims of police torture who attempt to attain accountability face numerous obstacles. Many torture victims who had reported their experiences to the police authorities or representatives of local non-governmental organizations told Human Rights Watch that they later faced intimidation, harassment and obstruction by the police. For example, two schoolgirls who were gang raped by police in Enugu, received threatening phone-calls from the principal accused. He told them, “If you don’t drop the case, I will deal with you and show you I am a man.”
Official channels for registering complaints, such as the Police Complaints Bureau and the National Human Rights Commission, are acutely under-resourced and lack political support. In addition, the failure to carry out legally required inquests and autopsies on suspects who died in custody further impedes accountability.In the unlikely event that a legal case is brought against an officer, obstruction or lack of co-operation from the police and connivance with the lower cadres of the judiciary ensure that prosecution is rare. According to Human Rights Watch interviews with victims, human rights organizations, lawyers, government and police representatives, the end of military rule in 1999 has unfortunately seen no successful prosecutions against Nigerian police officers alleged to have committed torture.
National efforts to reform the police have, to date, been largely symbolic and consistently failed to prioritize human rights issues, including torture. An ambitious new ten-point program, launched by the Acting Inspector General of Police in January 2005, offers some hope that more comprehensive and meaningful reform is at last being considered. A review of the Police Act, initiated in November 2004, is also a welcome opportunity to bring the laws governing the police into line with international standards, particularly the inclusion of a code of conduct that specifically prohibits the use of torture. Whether the police leadership can rise to the challenge and contest the many vested interests opposing change — both from inside the police force and in the wider political environment — will depend on political and financial support from President Obasanjo and the executive branch of government.
The international community, in particular the British and United States governments, both of whom have since 1999 invested millions of dollars into developing the Nigerian Police Force, must also take a stronger stance to pressure the Nigerian government to bring about an end to the torture of detainees, address impunity for police abuses and bring about genuine reform. Both governments have repeatedly assured Human Rights Watch they are voicing concerns about human rights issues with the Nigerian authorities. However, this approach has proven to be largely ineffective as police abuses, including routine torture, persist. Human Rights Watch calls on the British and the U.S. governments to at the very least condition continued financial assistance, equipment and training they are now providing to Nigerian police to measurable decreases in abusive police practices. It also calls on the British and U.S. governments to publicly denounce torture and killings by the Nigerian Police Force.