When the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice (AGF), Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), spoke recently at a national dialogue on â€œtorture, extra-judicial killings and national securityâ€, marking this yearâ€™s International Human Rights Day, the nationâ€™s chief law officer only confirmed what before now was an open secret. According to the AGF, over the past four years, no fewer than 7,195 persons had died in the hands of the Police out of which 2,500 were detainees.
In the words of Adoke, â€œalthough these figures have been stoutly disputed by the police, even the most charitable defenders of the force cannot deny that some dishonourable officers indeed have taken the law into their hands in the most barbaric fashion by killing suspects and innocent citizens.â€ The AGF added that this unusual number of extra-judicial killings must be connected to the continued existence of the controversial â€œPolice Force Order 237â€.
Unfortunately, there is nothing new in Adokeâ€™s admission. For instance, about this time last year, the same figure of 7,195 over the same period of four years now being bandied by the AGF, were cited in a report issued by the Centre for Victims of Extra-Judicial Killings and Torture (CVEKT). That report was based on the findings of the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), according to the Director of CVEKT, Rev. Fr. Tony Amarube, who first alerted the nation to the gruesome murders being committed under the cover of the notorious Order 237.
The archaic colonial Order 237 authorises a Police officer â€œto shoot any suspect and detainee trying to escape or avoid arrestâ€. Thus, hiding behind this controversial order, some unscrupulous policemen are known to have carried out extra-judicial murder with little or no regard for human dignity and sanctity of life. Armed robbers and murder suspects, indeed every suspect unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of these trigger-happy policemen may not make it to the next day.
Although somewhat belated, we nevertheless commend Adoke for his willingness to admit that â€œthe rule of law has taken flight in the society which condones a situation where citizens take the law into their hands and summarily try and execute suspected felons.â€ We must, however, express caution about the AGF decision to take over from the police the power to prosecute criminal cases, due to what he called, â€œthe apparent slow pace of the criminal justice system, particularly the corruption that permeates the systemâ€. Although he lamented that most prosecutions are now slowed by tardiness and ceaseless adjournments, we still believe that there is more wisdom in strengthening the police to do their job.
In any case, while there are bad eggs within the Force, there are also many upright and diligent officers who perform their duties, even in the face of daunting odds. They need to be encouraged. But the Inspector General of Police must also show seriousness in ridding the ranks of trigger-happy men whose actions have seriously impaired the image of the Force. The practice of pronouncing dead armed robbery suspects after they have been paraded at press conferences by commissioners of police should cease forthwith. In line with the provisions of the Constitution every person suspected to have committed any criminal offence should be charged before courts of competent jurisdiction.
All said, it is not enough for the AGF to lament publicly about extra-judicial killings; it is his duty to work with all stakeholders to ensure that the rule of law is enthroned in our country. It is also his duty to ensure that laws that impinge on the human rights of citizens, like Police Order 237, donâ€™t remain in the statutes of any government institutions. Talk is cheap, action is what Nigerians demand of the AGF.