Did government summarily kill 21 suspects detained by SSS?
On Sunday March 30, 2014, about 21 persons suspected of belonging to the Boko Haram sect were killed and many others wounded during a reported jailbreak at the Asokoro headquarters of the Department of State Security in Abuja.
The official account of the incident as reported in the media is that a detainee struck an operative who had brought breakfast with his handcuff. The report did not say whether the handcuff had been locked around the detainee’s wrist or had been unlocked. It did not say the extent to which the action of the detainee threatened the life or safety of the operative, and whether the detainee succeeded in dispossessing the operative of his weapon if s/he carried one. The statement further said that bullets were fired at the detainee, but did not say what other detainees did to deserve being fired at or killed. Some media reports quoted Ms. Marilyn Ogar, Deputy Director, Public Relations, of the State Security Service, as saying that “... the attempt by the detainee to escape made other SSS operatives on guard to fire shots to prevent others from escaping.”
A literal interpretation of this statement is that other detainees who posed no danger to the DSS or its operatives, or, who, in fact made no attempt to escape from detention were fired at to prevent them from even contemplating the possibility of fleeing! Is this what happened?
Preventive shooting, or, actually, preventive killing!
No clear justification has been provided by the DSS or the Nigerian State for the killing of such a multitude of vulnerable detainees. We pose many questions to the SSS: Where were the detainees when they were fired at? Outside of their enclosures or within? Within the precincts of the DSS facility or outside? At what point were they fired at, and with what purpose? To restrain their flight or to annihilate them? Then, who fired at them? The DSS/SSS or the soldiers who came to assist them? Were they fired at to avoid political embarrassment? Did they all die immediately after the shooting or were injured persons given medical assistance? There has been no clear, forthright, convincing and consistent statement from the DSS, SSS or government to justify this massacre.
Anyone associated with the Boko Haram sect would ordinarily face considerable public prejudice given the horrifying atrocities attributed to the group; yet, it is this negative perception that renders both them (as well as those wrongly associated with them) so vulnerable to persecution, to being silenced, brutalised or violated capriciously. The death of anyone associated with this sect must be subject to the toughest scrutiny to avoid people getting away with clear homicides only by the sheer unpopularity of the victims’ ascribed label. And yes: Nigerian law enforcement and security agencies do understand how to leverage on unpopular stereotypes and how little sympathies exist for people associated - truthfully or falsely - to reviled groups. We see this every time, everywhere. They abound with the police routinely saying those they extra-judicially killed were armed robbers who were trying to flee from the law, and to refresh our memory with a notorious piece of history, we recall the Apo 6. We see the Joint Task Force (JTF) saying that those it killed in Baga, Maiduguri last year were terrorists, when it fired indiscriminately at unarmed civilians in revenge for the killing of an Army Lieutenant or Lance Corporal. Our security forces, overwhelmed by the escalating affront of extremist groups are, no doubt, under pressure, and have repeatedly acted with impunity and committed grave crimes against many innocent people, in a largely unchallenged way.
Reports of extra-judicial, summary executions by government forces are clearly intensifying and, to some extent, delegitimising what ought to be a credible fight against terrorism. There is some advocacy to take government forces to the International Criminal Court (along with Boko Haram fighters) because our government will not rein in wayward, illegitimate violence meted to innocent victims by its security forces.
We cannot afford to be quiet when the State kills in circumstances like this, notwithstanding the extremism and violence of armed groups that has brought much gut-wrenching bloodshed and dislocation to our country. Our answer to extremist depravities cannot mirror and reproduce the brutishness and mindlessness we condemn, for then, we can’t say we have set a standard by which we are entitled to judge and condemn others, for we can be no different from those judged. But more than that, we run the universal risk of exposing innocent people suffering to the injustice of stigmatisation and victimisation from mislabelling. That stigmatisation has often led to many deaths, unfair, unfortunate deaths. Nelson Mandela, that hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, was once branded a terrorist by the White government in Pretoria. Had he been killed the way the 21 inmates in the custody of the SSS were, the world would have been denied knowledge of the truth of who Mandela really was. Who is to say whether all of those persons in SSS custody were actually Boko Haram members in a country where people are picked up randomly and hauled to face fabricated crimes? In a country where security agencies are plumbing the depths of incredulity to make distorted claims of their progress in winning the war against terrorism?
Prisoners and detainees still have the right to life and where there is an attempt to escape detention, their lives cannot be taken whimsically, or as a retribution for the attempt to escape detention or cause political embarrassment. In the context of the location where this escape bid was reportedly launched, it is untenable to argue that there were no non-lethal means of preventing the escapes. The Nigerian Constitution guarantees the right to life, and the government is under a constitutional responsibility to thoroughly and impartially investigate the deaths of any persons who die in custody. Many international norms and instruments obligate Nigeria to undertake credible, impartial and thorough investigations into the death of any persons who dies in custody. For example, Principle No 34 of the United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection All Persons under Any
Form of Detention or Imprisonment provides that:
“Whenever the death or disappearance of a detained or imprisoned person occurs during his detention or imprisonment, an inquiry into the cause of death or disappearance shall be held by a judicial or other authority, either on its own motion or at the instance of a member of the family of such a person or any person who has knowledge of the case. When circumstances so warrant, such an inquiry shall be held on the same procedural basis whenever the death or disappearance occurs shortly after the termination of the detention or imprisonment.
The findings of such inquiry or a report thereon shall be made available upon request.”
We also urge the National Human Rights Commission, by virtue of its statutory mandate, to undertake a thorough and independent investigation into what actually happened during the jail break and ensure that the truth is not buried under the weight of what is politically expedient for the SSS to claim at this time. After this investigation, the commission should refer any matter of human rights violation requiring prosecution to the Attorney General of Federation.
Otteh and Patrick are Lagos based lawyers with Access to Justice
Ms. Marilyn Ogar