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Extrajudicial killings amid COVID-19 lockdown

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As the country grapples with the Coronavirus (COVID-19), and with the grim situation it could have on its hands should the disease spread into the densely habited communities, the Federal Government and indeed some state governments settled for the option of total or partial lockdown to curtail the spread of the disease.

So as health workers battle to save the lives of those infected already being treated in various health facilities, security operatives were deployed to the streets, highways and borders to help enforce the stay-at-home orders. But the deployments, it does seem, is bringing Nigerians more woes than good. While the casualties claimed by the deadly disease have been on a steady rise, deaths occasioned as a result of the enforcement by security operatives spiked alarmingly, sparking outrage.

The flurry began with trigger-happy soldiers gunning down a 28-year-old Joseph Pessu in Warri, Delta State, on the grounds that he flouted a stop-and-search order. Following protests by angry youths over the killing, the state’s Commissioner for Information, Charles Aniagwu, said the state government was worried about the killing and had requested the military authorities to investigate it.

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Reacting to the sad incident, the Itsekiri National Youths Council (INYC) protested and also called for full investigation into the matter in order to bring those behind the act to book. In a statement by the INYC President, Comrade Weyinmi Agbateyoniro, and the group’s Secretary, Appearance Afejuku, they expressed shock at the killing, saying that the slain Itsekiri youth was killed by armed soldiers who were just trigger-happy.

The statement read in part: “The attention of the INYC have been drawn to the gruesome killing of one of his members by men of the Nigerian Army at Ada Val Arenyenka Street, Ugbuwangue in Warri. The council gathered that late Joseph Pessu, a law-abiding citizen, was racing through NPA Expressway to pick his sick father to the hospital when men of the Nigerian Army flagged him down.

“Before he could apply his brakes, one of his tyres was deflated. He managed to negotiate into the nearby Ada Val Arenyenka Street. As he alighted from his car to query why he was shot at, one of the gun-wielding officers shot him at close range. Mr. Joseph died on the spot.

“The INYC is using this medium to call on the Delta State Government and the Nigerian Army to fish out the recalcitrant and blood-thirsty army officer who used the excuse of the COVID-19 lockdown enforcement to murder a defenceless citizen.”

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The group queried the deployment of men of the Nigerian Army to enforce a lockdown against a virus that was yet to claim any life in Delta State. It demanded justice for Pessu and punishment for the murderous officer. The incident led to a breakdown of law and order in the metropolis as residents in their numbers deployed mob action against law enforcement agents in Warri before things were brought under control.

Sadly, the Warri killing has proven not to be happenstance, as more needless killings of innocent citizens by high-handed security operatives had since been recorded across the country.

A concerned Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, would also later express concern over the alleged killing of innocent Nigerians in the South East by policemen enforcing the COVID-19 lockdown. Abaribe noted that the entire Southeast had lost six people to police brutality, a figure he said was higher than COVID-19 fatalities in the region.

He said: “There may be some other unreported cases in this region involving the officers of the Nigeria Police, yet in all of these we have not heard of any decisive action taken by the police high command to stem this ugly tide.

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“The killings have the propensity of being given sinister interpretations. It is the responsibility of the police high command, embodied by the IGP, to rein in his men and prevent the people from relapsing into total state of hopelessness. It is not acceptable to our people, to watch our youths being killed in such brazen manner.”

While urging the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, to call his men to order, Abaride called for a thorough investigation into the killings and the prosecution of culprits.

Nigeria’s police have a long history of brutality, extortion and harassment even before the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown imposed to contain the virus. With a security force reputed for brutality, what with at least 1,476 people having been reportedly killed by state actors in the country over the past year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Abaribe’s concerns were echoed by the National Human Rights Commission, which claimed that security operatives had killed 18 civilians during enforcement of total lockdown in major cities across the country over the novel coronavirus. 

In a report, the commission, founded under a special law to monitor human rights violations in Nigeria, said it got 105 petitions from families of the deceased through their lawyers and carried out investigations.

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“Security operatives have killed about 18 persons following the enforcement of COVID-19 regulations and lock down,” the report said.

Head of the Commission, Anthony Ojukwu, said civilians’ complaints of “brutality and killing” by security operatives were received from 24 out of Nigeria’s 36 states between March 30 and April 13. He noted that cases of violations were higher in Lagos, the country’s commercial hub, the capital Abuja, and some southwestern states.

Another human rights front, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) appealed to the international community to prevail on the Buhari administration to stop the killing of impoverished citizens under the guise of enforcing lockdowns.

In a statement by its National Coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko and National Media Affairs Director, Zainab Yusuf, HURIWA condemned the “atrocious state-sponsored killings by the police, the Nigerian Civil Defence Corps and the Nigerian Army,” adding that the killing of Nigerians hungry and desperate to buy food for the starving members of their families who are locked up without much-needed food relief was a crime against humanity.

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HURIWA said: “The police operatives responsible for these attacks in Anambra, Abia, and the soldiers and Civil Defence Corps personnel that deployed lethal weapons to kill unarmed citizens in Aba, Warri and Sapele in Delta State must be arrested, prosecuted and punished severely. Otherwise, they would be sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, for crimes against humanity.

“The policemen, who killed five traders in Kaduna while seeking to enforce the draconian COVID-19 curfew ordered by Governor Nasir el-Rufai have still not been caught, prosecuted and sanctioned in accordance with the principle of the rule of law.”

The group said further: “This show of official impunity and reckless disregard for the rights of Nigerians is the reason we are appealing to world leaders to speak out and put President Buhari under pressure to name, shame and dismiss and punish the killer security operatives responsible.”

On its part, the police have encouraged citizens to report officers who violate rules on conduct, adding so that, “the rights of Nigerians are not infringed upon under any pretext.” The Police Force added they were doing their best in bringing erring officers to justice. It said one of such efforts was the arrest of an officer in Lagos who was caught on video extorting about N40,000 from a motorist.

“The officer is being tried, while the money has been returned to the victim. Another officer was demoted in Akwa Ibom State for assaulting a medical doctor during the restriction period,” a police spokesman said.

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In similar vein, over the weekend, the Inspector General of Police, IGP Mohammed Adamu, condemned the unwarranted, unnecessary and unjustifiable assault on an innocent citizen shown in a viral video at Odo Ori Market, Iwo, Osun State, by some men of the NPF attached to Iwo Division, Osun Command.

According to a statement by Force Public Relations Officer, Force Headquarters, Abuja, DCP Frank Mba, following the IGP’s condemnation and directives, the Commissioner of Police, CP Johnson Kokumo in charge of Osun State Command where the incident occurred, arrested the officers involved in the unfortunate incident.

“The duo Inspector Ikuesan Taiwo with AP NO 251724 and PC Abass Ibrahim with Force No. 509634 is currently being detained and their orderly room trial has since commenced,” the statement read.

The IGP reiterated that the police under his watch would not condone any act of misconduct and recklessness on the part of his personnel and enjoined citizens to continue to cooperate with the leadership of the force as it strives to reposition the NPF into an effective, efficient and people-friendly force.

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President Muhammadu Buhari, in his recent address on the lockdown measures, had noted that the security agencies had risen to the challenges posed by the situation with gallantry. He urged them to continue to maintain utmost vigilance, firmness as well as restraint in enforcing the restrictions orders, while not neglecting statutory security responsibilities.

But many Nigerians have continued to express lack of confidence that the attitude of the security forces will improve soon despite assurances by the authorities.

Reacting to the development, a former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, condemned the highhandedness of security agencies enforcing the lockdown.

He expressed sadness over the NHRC report, saying, “This is most unfortunate and condemnable, especially when we consider that the number of coronavirus fatalities in the country, stands at 12, as at today. I call on President Muhammadu Buhari and the relevant security and government agencies to ensure that the reprehensible acts are thoroughly investigated and the culprits brought to book. We must ensure that law enforcement agents do not turn their weapons against the very citizens they are supposed to protect.”

He added: “While the lockdowns and other precautionary measures are very necessary for containing the pandemic, they must be enforced with every sense of professionalism, discipline, restraint, empathy, and above all, with utmost respect for human life, which the lockdowns were put in place to protect in the first place.”

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