It is time to overhaul the country’s criminal justice and prison system

Nigeria is a signatory to international protocols prohibiting the use of torture and other inhuman measures to extract confessions from detainees. Indeed, Nigerian laws consider such acts a taboo. But most detention facilities in the country today are more or less death chambers, where suspects are treated to a cocktail of ordeals.

Gbenga Omolo, a 70-year-old man and a member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), for instance, was allegedly tortured to death while in detention in the cells of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Ondo State Police Command. Omolo was reportedly beaten by police officers for several hours at the Oda Road SARS office before he died in their custody. His real offence, according to members of his union who staged a protest, was having the effrontery to challenge a police officer in mufti for obstructing traffic.

Similarly, Samuel Chimezie Omeagwa a 400-level student of University of Agriculture, Makurdi, met his untimely death in weird circumstances last May. Omeagwa and his friend, Ekene, were whisked to the Police Thunder Zone 4 Office, Old G.R.A, Makurdi, after complaining of losing his phone at the place where he went to buy oranges. At the station, they were laid on the bare floor with “a flash-light” permanently fixed to their faces. Thereafter, there was a “systematic session” of torture led by an officer nicknamed “undertaker”, perhaps for his brutality. By the time he was released the following day, Omeagwa had become incoherent. He was rushed to the Federal Medical Centre where he died on May 16, 2016.

Death from torture in facilities run by security forces notably the police, the military, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and even the National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), is widespread. The mode of torture varies from one security agency to another and they range from suffocation and starvation to severe beatings with metallic or wooden objects as well as spraying of tear gas in the eyes. Some are shot in the leg during interrogation and left to bleed to death.

Just recently, two suspects reportedly died in EFCC custody. A few months ago, a young man was also alleged to have been tortured to death by the Directorate of State Security Service at their Shangisha detention facility in Lagos. The Sokoto State Command of the NSCDC recently set up a committee to unravel the “mystery” behind the death of a 38-year-old suspect, Jamilu Abdullahi, while in its custody. It is common knowledge that the notorious trans-border convicted armed robber, Ahmani Tijani, died in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons last year.

Many of the victims were often arrested arbitrarily while others were suspects arrested for crimes ranging from petty theft to armed robbery. In particular, armed robbery and kidnap suspects were arrested and paraded at crowded press conferences addressed by police commissioners. After the “media” trial, majority of the suspects would be extra-judicially executed and secretly buried in mass graves.

The suspects were usually reported to have died during a shoot-out with the police anti-robbery squads or while attempting to escape from custody. But the unofficial justification is that if the suspects were charged to court they may be released and turn round to kill the police personnel who arrested them!
Some of the deaths were, however, due to overcrowding, prolonged pre-trial detention and inadequate medical attention. But our laws are clear on issue of deaths in custody.

They require thorough investigation. We therefore insist that from now on, the result of such investigations, in the form of autopsies, must be placed in the public domain. In addition, government should take concrete steps to overhaul the country’s criminal justice and prison system. It is time to put an end to a situation where persons taken into custody come out only in body bags.