When Police attacks become extra-ordinary

*How innocent NHRC staffers escaped death

Last week’s attack on the headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) by the Police raises serious concerns by stakeholders who wondered if Police Act such brazen attack on constituted agencies, writes JOSEPH NWANKWO

The National Human Rights Commission was established principally to deal with matters relating to the promotion and protection of human rights as guaranteed by the constitution, the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other international and regional instruments on human rights to which Nigeria is a party.

The Commission also has the mandate to monitor and investigate all alleged cases of human rights violations in Nigeria and make appropriate recommendation to the federal government for the prosecution and such other actions as it may deem expedient in each circumstance; assist victims of human rights violations and seek appropriate redress and remedies on their behalf and undertake studies on all matters pertaining to human rights and assist the federal, state and local governments, where it considers it appropriate to do so, in the formulation of appropriate policies on the guarantee of human rights among other responsibilities.

Also, the Police Act outlines police duties which include the ‘protection of life and property, apprehension of offenders, preservation of law and order and the prevention of crime’.

The excessive use of force even in performance of lawful duties is covered under the Nigerian Criminal Code pursuant to which any person authorized by law to use force as being criminally responsible for any excess use of force. The code also considers it unlawful to kill any person unless such killing was authorized or justified at law.

This is pursuant to the right to life as guarantee under the constitution. On the basis of these laws, the officer who allegedly killed Kolade Johnson was dismissed on the ground of ‘unlawful and unnecessary exercising of authority by using unnecessary violence’.

In the light of increases in extrajudicial killings, calls for reform of the SARS unit of the Police can no longer be easily disregarded. The police do not necessarily have to be disarmed, as some have suggested, to perform their functions under the Police Act.

Securing the lives and property of citizens in Nigeria at this time requires that law enforcement officers be appropriately armed – but also that they be trained on the use of force. This is particularly important in order to deal with serious cases relating to disruption of public safety, e.g terrorist activity, kidnapping and armed robbery. Unfortunately, the Police Act does not provide any guidance on the exercise of these duties and the scope of police powers remains largely ambiguous.

Other criminal law statutes such as the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (2015) provide guidance in arrest and search powers but fails to do so with regard to the use of force. This glaring gap in the law has led to a situation where armed officers are not aware of the scope of the lawful exercise of power and consequently violate constitutional provisions and fundamental human rights of the citizens they are expected to protect pursuant to their law enforcement duties.

Narrating her experiences after the attack of the headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission by the police, a female staff of the commission said: “I just stepped into my office on the third floor, around 11 am, and had hardly settled on my seat when gunshots rang out. I heard many of them, and before I could ascertain what was happening, a bullet hit the glass window, close to me, went through it and sank into this wall (pointing at the wall close to her)”.

According to the NHRC’s management, a group of armed policemen had attacked the commission’s premises, along Aguiyi Ironsi on March 23, without any provocation, leaving behind damages to property.

Many accounts have stated that officials of the commission were going about their normal duties around midday of that day when suddenly there was pandemonium at the main entrance to the building housing the NHRC headquarters.

They said before the cause of the sudden disruption of activities at the main gate could be ascertained, sporadic gunshots were fired, accompanied by smoke from tear-gas canisters.

The AUTHORITY was at the premises on Tuesday morning and saw the impact of gunshots on walls, ceiling and a black Mercedes Benz car packed directly opposite the main entrance to the premises.

Another official said: “We didn’t know what was happening. We heard several gunshots fired at this building and we all had to lie flat in our offices. It was later we discovered that some policemen were behind the attack. We do not know what their motives were. But, we thank God we are all alive. No one was injured and no one died.

“But, bullets penetrated some offices like the office of the Human Rights Education and Promotion, where a female official narrowly escaped being hit by bullets. All the offices were covered with smoke from tear-gas. Bullets were flying in all direction. We still wonder how we all survived,” the official said.

NHRC’s Executive Secretary, Tony Ojukwu gave his own account of the event as follows: “At about 12.00hours, the commission was having a management meeting at the Council Chambers when we heard sporadic gunshots outside. When the management, comprising all the directors and me came out of the chambers, we saw that the entire compound had been covered with smoke and we all ran back into the Council Chambers, because of the tear gas. When the effect of the tear-gas subsided, the management went downstairs to assess the situation”.

In support of the earlier explanations of the extent of damage occasioned by the attack, Ojukwu gave more graphic details.

He said: “The driver’s door glass of one of the staff vehicles, parked in the compound, was pierced with two bullet holes, while the driver’s door frame had a live bullet presently lodged inside it. The window panel of the glass window of the security gatehouse was also pierced by a bullet hole”.

On what could have informed the invasion, Ojukwu said: “Having assessed the situation, we are of the view that the premises of the commission were deliberately attacked by the police with not only tear gas canisters but with live bullets. Now, this is not the first time the commission was attacked directly by officers of the Nigerian Police Force.

“Several officers of the commission investigating complaints of human rights violation have, in the past, been assaulted and intimidated by officers of the Nigeria Police. It will be recalled that on 23rd April 2018, the commission was also attacked by officers of the Nigeria Police with tear gas which destroyed cars and smashed windows.

“This was reported to then Commissioner of Police, FCT (Federal Capital Territory) and the then Inspector General of Police (IGP). Nothing to the knowledge of the commission was done by the authorities despite all the complaints of the commission. The commission bore the brunt of replacing all damaged properties including staff and visitors vehicles that were damaged during that incident.

“The present incident is one too many. The leadership and staff of the commission have been severally threatened in the course of their official duties by police officers”.

He declared that “this portends grave danger for the defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Nigeria. The premises of the commission just like the courts, should be one of such place where every Nigerian should feel free, where human rights must be respected and staff should be able to carry out their constitutional mandate without fear of intimidation.

“We view this as an attack on the commission and further confirms our belief that most of the officers of the Nigeria Police act with impunity with regard to their law enforcement duties”.

He faulted suggestions that the attack may not have been deliberate, and could have been directed at some protesting members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). He said: “The police supposedly tear-gassed members of the banned IMN, who were peacefully processing along Aguiyi Ironsi street, where the head office of the NHRC is located.

“But, the attack was deliberately targeted at the commission. Other government agencies along Aguiyi Ironsi street may have felt the effect of the tear gas, but none of them reported live bullets shot into their compounds destroying official and personal properties.

“These constant attacks by the police has made the work of staff and management of the commission riskier than that of other non-uniformed government agencies”.

The Director, Corporate Affairs and External Linkages, NHRC, Lambert Oparah who threw more light on what could have informed the attack stated: “Yes, we have made pronouncements in recent time that have condemned the behaviour of some of these policemen. You recall this commission headed the Presidential Panel on the Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which among others recommended the disbandment of this arm of the Police Force.

“Also, we have insisted over time, that people should be allowed. to engage in peaceful protests, and that there is no law that disapproves peaceful protests. We have also argued that the police should not use any force of arm to disperse protests and that they should learn. to engage protesters in a more peaceful and civilized way”.

Opara maintained that “these have been our preachings and I don’t think they go down well with men of the Police Force. We have however stepped up measures adopted to bring the incident to the attention of relevant authorities”.

On the steps the commission is taking to draw the attention of relevant authorities to the development, Oparah said: “Immediately the incident happened, we drew the attention of the police. I think it was the DPO in the area that led a team of police personnel to see things for themselves.

“There were able to see the damages done, from the offices that were affected to the windows shattered and gunshot marks on the security post and car with bullet holes.The commission’s Executive Secretary, Tony Ojukwu, with other management staff, led the team of policemen around to see the impact of the gunshots”.

On what the commission’s next steps were, Oparah said: “We are already preparing a letter to the effect that the men or, and officers of the police who perpetrated this act should be punished. We are, at the moment, writing a letter, seeking an audience with the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF). We are equally writing a similar letter to the Inspector-General of Police.

“These are the levels we feel the matter can be handled for now. For us, we just want those who perpetrated this act to be held accountable, because if they are allowed to get away with it, then they can get away with anything.

“This is a Freedom House. And, for anyone to invade a Freedom House, it then implies that nowhere is safe again. We were very lucky that no life was lost, because one office, where our officers were on duty, was penetrated by bullets.”

According to Ojukwu, the Commission requested that there must be accountability for these attacks. He said: “It is because the earlier attacks were not punished that this reoccurrence has happened. We, therefore, call on the Commissioner of Police, FCT, the Inspector-General of Police and the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice to take immediate action in line with their duties to safeguard the commission in the performance of its duties.”

“We also call for a comprehensive investigations into the attack on the headquarters of the NHRC and the masterminds brought to book to ensure that such does not reoccur.

“The Police high command urgently needs to ensure that all police officers receive adequate initial and on-going training. All training should include responsible use of force and firearms in line with national and international human right standards,” he stresses.

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