The death of Desmond Nunugwo should be investigated

The recent death in the custody of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of Mr. Desmond Nunugwo, Chief Protocol Officer to the Minister of State for Defence, has once again brought to the fore the issue of the rights of the accused under the Nigerian law. Nunugwo reportedly died within six hours after his arrest by operatives of the EFCC last June. His wife, Susanne, said the EFCC called her to come and bail her husband “while he was already in the mortuary”. Nothing could be more callous.

According to the EFCC, Nunugwo was arrested because he fraudulently obtained N91 million from an acquaintance after tricking her into believing that he had high networth business associates in Dubai. But that was only an allegation for which the man was never convicted before his curious death. It is all the more sad that he would never be able to defend himself of this allegation. Therefore, it is important that there be a thorough investigation, especially since this is another case in the long list of people dying in what is supposed to be protective custody in our country.

Indeed, it should worry the authorities that far too many people are dying in detention. Just recently, two suspects reportedly died in EFCC custody and up till today, there is no information about the cause of their death. A few months ago, a young man was also alleged to have been tortured to death by the Directorate of State Security (DSS) at their Shangisha detention facility in Lagos. At about the same period, the Sokoto State Command of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) set up a committee to unravel the “mystery” behind the death in its custody of a 38-year-old suspect, Jamilu Abdullahi. The report of that committee is yet to be made public.

In particular, armed robbery and kidnap suspects are arrested and paraded at crowded press conferences addressed by police commissioners. After the “media trial”, there were reports that some of these suspects are extra-judicially executed and secretly buried in mass graves. Such suspects are usually reported to have died during shoot-out with the police anti-robbery squads or while attempting to escape from custody. But the unofficial justification is usually that if the suspects were charged to court they may be released and then turn round to kill the police personnel who arrested them!

Against the background that even condemned prisoners are still entitled to their fundamental rights, as the court decided in the case of Peter Nemi V Attorney-General of Lagos State, we demand that the security agencies to end the culture of impunity and human rights abuses. More importantly, the authorities must overhaul the country’s criminal justice system with the aim of ameliorating the inhumane conditions under which awaiting trial detainees and criminal suspects are detained.

It is all the more important because some of the deaths witnessed in recent times were attributed 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 insist that from now on, the result of such investigations, including 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 ensure that persons taken into custody do not necessarily end up in the mortuary. And the best way to begin is to ascertain the circumstances under which Nunugwo died after spending only six hours with the EFCC.