An alphabet for a life
The lead story in yesterday’s Sunday Trust set me thinking again as to what has become of human life in Nigeria and of the many events, persons and institutions that have contributed to this state of affairs. Sunday Trust reported that the corpses of 21 detainees killed in Sunday last week’s melee at the headquarters of the Department of State Services [DSS] have been lying at the National Hospital’s mortuary for a week and no one has come forward to claim any of them. Not just claim; no one so much as went to the mortuary to see the corpses and determine whether a missing relative or friend could be among them.
Matters were not helped by the fact that DSS did not close to the hospital the identities of the dead men. Each of the bullet-riddled corpses was instead labelled with an alphabet, “A”, “B”, “C” etc. Only DSS would know who “A” is. Why did National Hospital accept the corpses on the basis of contrived anonymity? A man was held at DSS headquarters for months or even years for a suspected terrorist offence. He must had been repeatedly debriefed and the story of his entire life should be somewhere in DSS files. The probe was probably inconclusive, otherwise he should have been charged to court. After all, DSS charged Kabiru Sokoto to court for the Christmas Day bombing at Madalla, one of the single worst outrages in the whole Boko Haram insurgency.
The dehumanising process actually began much earlier, with the indefinite detention of persons incommunicado. If men are held for suspected terrorist offences, DSS should ideally inform their families. I do not see how that compromises state security. In any case, since the men are being held so that investigations could take place, their friends and relatives should have found out about their detention in the course of the investigation. If no relative, friend, colleague or associate was ever contacted by DSS agents, the inescapable conclusion is that no investigation was taking place. Would men be held forever on suspicion? oko Haram is the biggest security problem to confront this country since the civil war, but I still do not see why the rules of detention this time are more Draconian than those in the days of military rule. Under the terms of the military-era State Security [Detention of Persons] Decree No 2 of 1984, people could only be detained on the written orders of the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters for a maximum period
Bof six months, which could be renewed. How did it come about this time that a 2013 amendment to the Terrorism [Prohibition] Act permits DSS to detain persons indefinitely without charge? This provision conflicts with the spirit and even letter of the 1999 Constitution. Any police agency that could simply hold persons in its cells indefinitely has no motivation at all to carry out investigations.
Why is no one asking questions about the number and identity of people being detained not just by DSS but in various military facilities in the North East? Some committee or another of the National Assembly should be asking such questions. Even if the details will not be disclosed on the House or Senate floor, members of a select committee should be furnished with such information on a regular basis, as we see in other lands. The CIA briefs congressional committees about even the most sensitive intelligence information.
The courts too do not appear to be concerned with this matter even though human life and human liberty are central to democratic ethos. It reminds me of a passage in Arthur Hailey’s 1954 book In High Places, which gave a small snippet about the Canadian judiciary. Where a person’s liberty is involved, the matter cannot be left until the following day. If a person is in detention and his lawyer has good grounds to believe that his client should not spend the night in jail, a judge could be aroused from his bed at any hour to sit and review the case. The matter cannot be left until morning, when it could be determined that the person spent the night in jail unnecessarily. Compare that to what happens here. If the police want to punish you, they will wait until Friday afternoon to effect an arrest warrant so that you will spend the weekend in detention before you are taken to the judge on Monday morning. Assuming the judge then finds that you are innocent, what is the compensation for a weekend spent in jail? he Nigerian media too is not asking enough questions. The newspapers are satisfied to be told that “53 students were killed by Boko Haram,” “21 detainees died in a jailbreak” and “Five policemen were killed in an explosion.” Who were they? I often wonder why won’t the police and the military humanise their own casualties and draw public sympathy for them by pushing stories about their widows and children. I can see that the Nigerian military and police do not want
Tto admit that they suffered casualties. In the process, they created a situation where there is little public feeling for military or police casualties.
One dehumanising episode leads to another. Amnesty International is now charging that after the March 14 attack on Maiduguri’s Giwa Barracks, the military recaptured 600 fleeing detainees and summarily executed them. In that it had the collaboration of Civilian JTF members who, wielding clubs and machetes, help to round up the fleeing men and clubbed them to death. What about the possibility that some of them could be innocent? I remember a lecture that the then Chief Judge of old Sokoto State Justice Umaru Kalgo delivered in the 1980s, where he said a judge would rather free ten guilty persons than convict one innocent person. That is especially true where the offence attracts capital punishment. What if at least one of the executed men at Giwa Barracks was innocent? nother observation is, the people of Maiduguri did not seem to cry foul over what happened. At the height of the insurgency, Borno Elders were quite vocal against abuses by the military in their operations against insurgents. Yet, 600 people were killed in one morning and not a voice was raised against it. That could be due to the creeping feeling among many, if not most Nigerians that a Boko Haram suspect deserves summary death. Of course Boko Haram brought this public image disaster upon itself with the wholesale slaughter of students, villagers and highway travellers and the exploding of bombs in crowded civilian areas. I cannot remember one guerrilla group in recent human history that is as completely bereft of local community sympathy as Boko Haram. The Afghan Taliban, Somalia’s Al-Shahab, the IRA and the Tamil Tigers all fared much better.
Back to the question, why didn’t anybody claim the DSS 21 corpses? Every parent loves his child but there comes a time in life when a parent is forced to disown his child in order to save himself from societal opprobrium. Boko Haram insurgents have brought their parents to that critical point. It reminds me of a story a colleague once told me about a funeral he attended in Zaria. A highly respected man in the community received the news that his two grown up sons died in an accident on the Zaria-Kano road. Hundreds of people turned up at his house to await the corpses’ arrival for burial. While they waited, rumours filtered in that the two boys did not die in an accident; that they attempted armed robbery on the highway and were shot by policemen. The story teller said one by one, all the mourners picked up their shoes and crawled away until the father was almost left alone.
AMaybe that is why no one is coming around to ask after the DSS 21 but that does not mean a state agency should not treat human lives with more decency than attaching alphabets to corpses.