In 1970, as the Nigeria-Biafra war was ending, a new war began. Robbery with violence. Some soldiers on both sides of the war began to use their guns to deprive people of their belongings. Some other soldiers sold or lent their arms to those who would rob with violence.
It was during military rule. Soldiers who ruled Nigeria by force decreed that anyone found guilty by the Armed Robbery and Firearms Tribunal was to be publicly executed by a firing squad. But the ruling soldiers overlooked some issues.
First, military rule is itself armed robbery. When soldiers use their guns to take over government of a country, without the consent of the people, it is armed robbery. But soldiers who took over government by armed robbery decreed that anyone convicted of armed robbery be publicly executed by a firing squad. Of course, the soldiers appeared this wicked logic to each other. Whoever staged a coup but failed was publicly executed. The one whose coup succeeded became “father of the nation”. There was bloodshed before, during and after military coups. The bloodiest outcome was of course killing of the Igbo before and during the Nigeria-Biafra war.
Secondly, to Nigerian soldiers who shot their way into power, who, in the process, abducted and killed a defenceless Prime Minister, some of his ministers, and their own colleagues and friends in the military, life had become very cheap. Read accounts of the January 15, 1966 coup, and you learn of soldiers who were wining, dining and dancing together, left the party, and went about on a killing spree. It did not bother their consciences to violently enter the bedroom of defenceless politicians and military officers and kill them and their spouses. After the Asaba Massacre and the Ikot Ekpene Massacre, when defenceless civilians were summarily executed by soldiers on both sides of the Nigeria-Biafra war, it became easy to tie human beings to the stakes like animals to be slaughtered, and then use bullets to tear their flesh apart, sending them to the world beyond. The commandment: “Thou shall not kill” was obeyed in the breach.
Thirdly, the soldiers in charge of Nigeria at that time had no idea that capital punishment is barbaric, and that capital punishment by firing squad is most barbaric. Erroneously, but arrogantly, they thought public execution was a solution to armed robbery. A few voices of reason who spoke against it were ignored. That the soldiers were in error was evident when the first public execution in Lagos took place on July 24, 1971.
On that Saturday afternoon, before a huge crowd, three men—naval officer William Alders Oyazimo, Joseph Ilobo and Babatunde Folorunso, who wore expensive lace material at his execution in an act of defiance, were publicly executed at the Bar Beach in Lagos, and the execution was televised later in the evening. To show the error of the military and their civilian enablers, as the three men were being executed, pickpockets were operating.
It was an act that showed convincingly that, contrary to what the military government thought, barbaric execution of robbers was not going to serve as deterrence. It was going to harden the minds of potential armed robbers. Armed robbery became more frequent and armed robbers became more daring after that. Later that year, there was a robbery at WAHUM, a factory on Adeniyi Jones Avenue in Ikeja. Leading the robbers was the notorious “Doctor” Isola Oyenusi, an associate of Babatunde Folorunso. He and his gang stole 10, 000 naira from the factory. That was a lot of money in the Nigeria of 1971.
I was a primary school pupil when the first public execution in Lagos took place. But I still recall the words of Oyazimo spoken to then Fr Pedro Martins who was present to minister to the condemned men before they were killed. Tied to the stakes, Oyazimo said: “Father, I am innocent. My blood will cleanse my family, and my children will prosper.” He had said during his trial that what happened between him and one Alhaja Taibatu Opene, who accused him of robbery was not robbery, that they had business dealings that went awry. Was his crime armed robbery or use of his military rank to harass a civilian? As for Ilobo, seeing the large crowd that came to witness the execution said: “Are all these people here to see me die? Ah! This is a wicked world….I have not committed any crime.”
Armed robbery in Nigeria has a long history. It is not just a history of robbery with violence, it is also a history of fighting the symptoms and leaving the cause. It was thought that violence by the state would curb armed robbery. It has not. However, in that erroneous presumption, since it was thought that brutality was panacea to armed robbery, the police became even more brutal. That logic of brutality, not a well-thought out strategy of policing, led to the establishment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) notorious for its mindless brutality. The law says an accused person is innocent until proven guilty in a properly constituted court. In Nigeria, the mere fact of being suspected pronounces one guilty, and our men and women in uniform believe they have the authority to mete out “punishment”. In this country, young Nigerians jogging on the streets of our cities have been “suspected” and accused of armed robbery by operatives of SARS. Innocent Nigerians have been killed by the police and nothing happens.
But the problem is neither SARS nor the Nigeria Police. The problem is, proximately, the relationship between the government and the citizen, and, ultimately, the constitution. The purpose of government is to protect the rights of the citizen. But successive governments in Nigeria have been known to be at the vanguard of human rights violation in Nigeria. We still carry on as if we were in military rule. If government is at the vanguard of human rights violation, then the police, more specifically, SARS, will violate the rights of Nigerians. And, we must add, it is not just the police. Nigerians are at the mercy of government and its officials at various levels and in every institution of government, and Nigerians are at the mercy of one another.
Police officers are agents of the state. What is at stake is the relationship between the government and the citizen? What kind of state do we have? What kind of state has the 1999 constitution created in Nigeria? Is it a friendly state? Is it a state that respects the citizen?
We know of the slogan: “The police is your friend.” Whoever believes that slogan will believe anything. It is one of the most cynical lies ever told. The police is not our friend because the state, whose agent the police is, is not our friend. If you have an unfriendly government then you will have unfriendly government agencies. If you have an unfriendly state you will have an unfriendly police.
Police brutality in Nigeria is symptom of impunity by government. In a country where impunity is paraded as governance, police brutality cannot be addressed by a presidential directive issued to the Inspector General of Police. It is one of the many symptoms of our dysfunctional constitution. We have ended up with a hostile state because we have a hostile constitution. The 1999 constitution sets up Nigeria in such a way that government is more powerful than the citizen. That is why the problem is not the police, not SARS, but the constitution. Is anyone still wondering what restructuring is about?
In 1984, when the Buhari-led military junta and its kangaroo courts were dishing out long jail terms to politicians, Wole Soyinka said: “This beating about the bush is no substitute for properly done homework.” The urgent task before us is to re-envision our society, re-envision and rewrite our constitution, rediscover what it means to be a nation, re-envision the police. Not to embark on this task is to continue to beat about the bush. It is becoming increasingly clear that you cannot police a country so vast and so populous as Nigeria from Abuja.