#ENDSARS: Judicial Intervention in Cases of Police Brutality

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This article by Raymond Nkannebe chronicles some cases of Police brutality going as far back as 1973, evincing the fact that this problem did not just start in recent times with the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), but is a malaise that has plagued us for many years; culminating in the #ENDSARS Protest, which was simply an expression of years of accumulated grievances against the Police by citizens, especially the Youths

Introduction

In the last few weeks, Nigerian youths filtered into the streets of at least 26 State capitals of the Federation, in condemnation of the history of Police brutality in Nigeria. And, there is nothing to suggest they are stopping soon.

In Rivers State, the youths, defied a ban on protests by the State Government and took over major roads in the State capital until the Governor himself, who had placed the ban, had to come out to address them. Also in the Federal Capital Territory, a similar scene played out. A ban against protests announced by the Abuja Federal Authorities on 15th October, was roundly disobeyed. As a matter of fact, the youths, took things to a different dimension as they blocked the popular Airport road, leading to the cancellation of so many pre-scheduled flights due to traffic gridlock.

In a sense, those two incidents sum up the anger and frustration of the Nigerian youths, against the epidemic of Police brutality that they had been subjected to for too long.

Interestingly, the menace of Police brutality has received ad nauseam, the intervention and condemnation of the Nigerian courts in a long league of cases.

Whether in aiding and abetting crime against their constitutional mandates; or the elevation of abuse of the fundamental right of dignity of citizens to State craft by their modus operandi; or in their being used to settle otherwise civil disputes by unscrupulous members of the society, and more, our adversarial jurisprudence is rich with chilling cases of the professional malfeasance of personnel of the police force, and the condemnation of the intermediate appellate court and the Apex Court in tow.

In this season of global attention to the notoriety of the Nigeria Police, it is sufficient to highlight some of the diverse interventions of the judiciary against the menace, with a view to giving more ideological rigour to the agitations of the youths who were out there on the streets.

A Trip through the Cases

In Njovens & Ors v State (1973) LPELR-2042 (SC), the facts of which are mindboggling, the four Appellants were the Defendants at the trial court arraigned before Adesiyun J. in the High Court of Ilorin, Kwara State on a nine count charge bordering on conspiracy to abet and abetting the commission of crime. The long and short of the case is that, one Felix Dumeh and other criminals, robbed the then Barclays Bank Nig Ltd. Ilorin branch a total of Thirty-Five Thousand Pounds on the 13th day of April, 1971, and promised the sum of five thousand Pounds to the Appellants who were Police officers in consideration of concealing the robbery, and which they received. After a protracted trial that eventually got to the Supreme Court, the Court acquitted them on counts 3-9, but affirmed their conviction and sentence on counts one and two, for aiding and abetting the robbery of the bank.

If the circumstances of the Njovens case are not chilling enough, the conduct of the Police officers in Oyakhire v The State (2006) 15 NWLR (Pt.1000) 157 are particularly disturbing. The Appellant, and his co-accused, a constable, did not only rob and murder their victims. They also set the bus in which they were travelling, ablaze. In venting its spleen and condemning the conduct of the Appellant after affirming his conviction and sentence, the Apex Court roared:

“This case represents the height of man’s inhumanity to man. The Appellant and his co-accused Police officer constables, employed by the nation to protect the lives and properties of its citizenry, embarked on this unlawful mission, and in their brazen brutality terminated the lives of these five innocent and defenceless victims, with unimaginable damages to their loved ones and families back at their various homes. The case demonstrated the regrettable reality that numerous Police check points along our highways, only give citizenry a false sense of security”.

In Nwankwola v FRN (2015) LPELR-2439(CA), the Police was also at their worst behaviour. There, the Appellant, a Police officer was arraigned before a High Court in Benin, where he was convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labour for demanding the sum of One Million Naira from one Alexander Okiye, a person against whom criminal complaints were made, and eventually receiving the sum of Five Hundred Thousand Naira (N500,000) from him. It was a case that shed light on the rackets that are being run by Police officers across Police formations in the country, to line their pockets while intimidating suspects under investigation.

Elsewhere, the proximate facts of Ibikunle v The State (2007) LPELR-8068 (SC) are not completely out of the known pattern of Police notoriety. There, the Appellant who had gone to effect the arrest of a suspect, ended up killing the suspect, only to find out afterwards, that he had killed the wrong man. His defence, as usual, was that he did not shoot to kill. It bears stating that he had forced himself into the apartment of the victim who had refused to open the door for whatever reason, but met his untimely death at the hands of the trigger happy Police sergeant who clearly was baying for blood. Their lordships of the Apex Court would have no qualms in affirming his conviction and death by hanging, by the lower courts.

In Agbo v State (2004) LPELR-7388 (CA), we find the same trend. Here, the Appellant was a young Police constable of about 24 years. Following a short argument with the deceased, he pulled out a Beretta pistol loaded with seven rounds of ammunition he was carrying and pumped it into his victim, who died at the spot. What was the sin of the deceased? He had stopped almost in the middle of the road, to unload some passengers he was carrying in a Peugeot 504. The prosecution having made a clean sweep of its case, the intermediate appellate Court endorsed his conviction and sentencing by the lower Court, while dismissing his rehearsed defence of accidental discharge. A familiar refrain.

In Okonkwo v Ezeonu & Ors (2017) LPELR-42785 (CA) the Court of Appeal condemned the attitude of the Police vis-à-vis the fundamental right to dignity of persons in their custody, describing it as barbaric and unconstitutional. In that case the Appellant who had been unlawfully arrested by the 3rd and 4th Respondents (Police officers), was detained for eleven days without trial at the instigation of the 1st and 2nd Respondents. He was tortured and brutalised, following which he filed a fundamental right action for the breach of his fundamental right. Having failed at the lower Court, his appeal was allowed by the appellate Court which mulcted the Respondents in costs and damages for their egregious conduct.

In recent years, the use of Police officers as debt recovery agents, and their undue meddling in otherwise civil relations between individuals and/or corporate organisations, have also earned the rebuke of the courts. In the very recent case of Kure v COP (2020) LPELR-49378 (SC), the Apex Court decried the disturbing practice thus:

“As I went through the facts of this case, I was wondering how a purely civil matter could easily metamorphose and transubstantiate into a purely criminal case. The end result now, is that the Appellant has suffered irreparable damage, disgrace, shame, odiousness and untold hardship in the hands of the Police that is constitutionally and legally saddled with the prosecution of criminal offences. The Police have muzzled the rights and freedom of Nigerians, even where cases are clearly outside their jurisdiction, power or corridor….if this is not tackled, everybody would have suffered in the merciless hands of the Police, who has become a law unto itself in this country”.

Now, the above dictum of Abba Aji, JSC, pretty sums up the notoriety of the Police, particularly in the context of the ongoing protests, as the protesters have continued to chronicle cases of police officers encroaching into the personal affairs of private citizens, and in the process, harassing and abbreviating their rights as citizens.
Yet, all the above decisions are only but a footnote in the compendium of cases of judicial intervention in Nigeria, for which space constraints would not allow us to explore. Suffice to state however, that the judiciary has had its own faire share of the protests against Police brutality through the leaves of our law reports.

Conclusion

This intervention will be incomplete, without mentioning the infamous #ApoSix case. A case so emblematic of the Police menace in Police, involving the murder of six young civilians in 2005 by a team of the Police at a checkpoint on Gimbiya Street by Ahmadu Bello Way, in the Apo district of FCT Abuja, while returning from a night out.

Despite the conviction and sentence to death of two out of the Police officers involved in the dastardly act, three years ago by an Abuja High Court, (and acquittal of the other suspects including one Danjuma Ibrahim, a Deputy Commissioner of Police at the time, whom witnesses told the Court personally shot at the victims), the circumstances surrounding the case, continues to highlight the impunity culture of the Nigeria Police, and stands out as the climax of the fractious relationship between the Police and the citizens in recent history.

What we saw in the streets during the #ENDSARS protest, is therefore, the expression of years of accumulated grievances against the Police by citizens, particularly the youth. And, if it eventually opens a new slate of Police-citizens relationship in Nigeria, then it would have been worthwhile.

Raymond Nkannebe, Legal Practitioner, Lagos