Thursday 4 December 2008

Nigeria: Torture defended as standard police procedure

The rickety stool of the hamlet

With the way every nonentity incapable of achieving peer-reviewed and internationally recognised titles borne of the dint of cranial-matter exertion, I was not too worried about the title of heir apparent.

The number of frogs that are princes and ugly ducklings that are princesses in Nigeria has cheapened the idea of being titled that plain formal address as Mr, Ms, Mrs or academic titles seem to be more respectable without the baggage of being tagged a crook.

The issue here was that an heir apparent to the rickety stool at a hamlet in a backwater of Yorubaland had come to nought in police custody [1] having gone there to report a robbery. Mercifully given to hyperbole, the copywriter assumed every community title had a throne.

Suspicious of reporting a crime

The search for justice in Nigeria is a difficult one; in fact, the search for a police force that acts anything like a civilised and professional service in Nigeria is fraught with danger where any contact with the police could lead to the loss of life.

The man, mechanic having notice that his workshop had been burgled called on a scion of the mechanics community and with him went to report the burglary to the police. He had this witness to forestall a situation where the police would have acted funny, but it made no difference.

Unbeknownst to him, his boss had already reported the matter to the police, strangely the police did not go out to investigate or gather clues as to the matter, it just went into file.

As the man reported the burglary, the other report came out of the file and though one cannot say what the boss had reported, the man was arrested.

Of guilt and innocence by sides

The shocking revelation but everyday reality with the Nigerian Police is that the plaintiff or accuser is always considered innocent and the defendant is automatically considered guilty with the full force of unlawful restraint visited on the person without interrogation.

In fact, for plaintiff, read first mover, richer person, influential community leader or an influence peddler – a plaintiff is not so much a complainant seeking redress, rather it is someone seeking to oppress with menace in such a way that the person on the receiving end is taught a lesson regardless of the person’s innocence or guilt.

Committed suicide by himself

Somehow, this man in police custody for 48 hours suddenly died – or as Divisional Police Officer Ben Osuji averred, Dauda Najeem had committed suicide by himself in the cell.

I am a bit confused by that construction, if he did commit suicide, it by implication means he did it himself, but when by himself is added for emphasis, I suspect the suicide might also have been assisted – when this happens in police custody, it is an extra-judicial killing, a murder by the authorities and someone needs to get to the bottom of the case.

Somehow, if Mr. Najeem had committed suicide by hanging, even the police should have a Polaroid camera to record the scene of the hanging as the first course of action on discovery of the man.

The impunity of glaring police negligence

So many things are amiss in this situation, the police were supposed to conduct hourly checks on the cells and in fact monitor those who might be susceptible to self-harm. Somehow, Mr. Najeem could not have been suicidal; he was overjoyed at the arrival of his new son, his close-knit family seem to be quite integral to his life and as the only son was the heir-apparent.

The police were not as forthcoming as they should be in circumstance of serious public interest and concern as the head of the state Criminal Investigation Department offered as much information as to say that only the Commissioner of Police could ask him questions about the case.

It leaves one wondering if there is any accountability of law enforcement in a democracy in the first instance and if law enforcement really realises that their existence depends on confidence that the public has in their ability to enforce law and order as well as serve as the first port of call for complain and conflict resolution.

Humiliation, not a justice function

There is no indication as to how the man hanged himself apart from the reference that the man was in his trousers, hopefully that is always the case, there is no reason to completely denigrate and humiliate a man because he is a suspect.

Even so, if the man is charged and arraigned before a court where due process is followed; the sentence meted out should be punishment fit for the crime, if it causes humiliation it should be a matter of how the punished has reacted to the punishment, it is not the function of the courts to create the moral context for humiliating redress.


However, it would appear we are closer to the truth about the cause of death when a word creeps into the story – TORTURE. Apparently, torture is the main means of extracting information from suspects in the Nigerian Police Force – this really makes you sick.

I can only quote verbatim the opinion of a top police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Torture would continue to be a weapon for extracting information from suspects as long as modern high technology investigative gadgets were not provided to the police.

He goes on to say, “We have no tools. In as much as we are not sorcerers, there is no way we could unravel many cases without the use of torture. Look at the type of gadgets used by European and American detectives. The efficiency of their police dissuades criminally-minded people from committing crime because they know they will be caught. And when suspects are caught, they quickly own up because they know that the police will get to the root of the crime.

Flawed criminal investigation ideas

Where do I begin to break down this flawed philosophy of criminal investigation?

I do wonder if the modern high technology investigative gadgets alluded to are basic detective work with the use of common sense and deduction, fundamental forensics or thumbscrews.

Maybe lie detectors could be useful but you need good questions to arrive at some useful answers but they cannot be the basis of case argued beyond reasonable doubt.

I would agree that the police are not sorcerers, clairvoyants or seers, but if the replacement for detective and investigative work is condensed to torture as a means of solving cases, nothing could be as uncivilised and barbaric as to have that as a fundamental criminal investigation procedure.

A fallacy and a fantasy

The assertion that the efficiency of the police dissuades criminally-minded people is a fallacy if I ever heard one – but this is typically Nigerian where supposedly knowledgeable people make unsupportable statements about some view abroad and use that as a basis of unchallengeable authority.

Since people do not bother to check the facts or ascertain the veracity of such outlandish statements those views are taken as gospel truth and they become part of the accepted body of Nigerian knowledge.

When suspects are caught, they quickly own up? Not in the Europe I live in and not in the America that I have read about – it makes you wonder what constitutes the curriculum of our police forces and where these myths of policing and crime resolution come from.

I would contend these people need no tools or gadgets, if you cannot use basic commonsense and deduction to research a situation you definitely cannot move on to the sophistication of some tools which presumably are supposed to extract the truth without causing pain.

Torture cannot elicit the truth in truth

What baffles me more is the notion that torture, the inflicting of pain can elicit the truth about a situation. Supposedly the police have not cottoned on the idea that a person might just admit to anything in the natural tendency for self-preservation.

This obviously does not take into account the possibility that the administration of torture can be quite suggestive by compelling the person to affirm what the police wants to be affirms to clear up their case work though not necessarily solve the crime.

The lack of finesse in such heinous activities which seem to have no limits lead the victim suspects to a point of expiration that is beyond medical help, the perpetrators then attempt to walk away from their crimes with the claim that the suspect committed suicide.

Record the torture as evidence

In fact, if torture should really be a tool for crime resolution, the whole truth extraction process should be available to the crime and punishment system. Complete audio and video recordings must be made available to the defence and the jury, the police who use torture cannot be allowed to present their cases as objective if the means by which they have obtained evidence is so subjective.

Subjective evidence acquisition should suffer wider scrutiny for others to judge not the case in as much as the animals that are paid to police but resort to such abhorrent methods.

No evidence obtained under torture should be admissible in any court anywhere in the world and definitely not in a democracy. We might well take riffraff off the streets and inculcate them in the police if there is no art, science, methodology and reviewable counsel to the work of criminal investigation.

I have no confidence

Unfortunately, I have no confidence in the police hierarchy to pursue to satisfactory conclusion the need to assure the right to life and the preservation of human rights such that civil means are employed to gather evidence.

Neither am I confident that this would be the last death in police custody attributed to suicide when it is almost definitely a torture-induced murder and that impunity would continue as the police lives up to its despicable malevolent moniker of ‘Torture Chambers’.

May Dauda Najeem rest in peace and if there is any justice in this world, those responsible for his death through commission, omission or negligence must be brought to book and made to pay a very heavy price.


[1] The Punch: Controversy trails heir apparent’s death in detention

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