In Nigeria, more people were killed through brutality by police enforcing the lockdown rules than by coronavirus in the early weeks of government’s response. Since the lockdown began on March 30, 18 people have been killed by the police, according to the National Human Rights Commission in a report.
Amnesty International has reacted by calling on the government to uphold human rights during the efforts to curb COVID-19.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the West African region. As of June 19, there were 19,147 confirmed cases with 6,581 recoveries and 487 deaths, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.
Speaking up on growing brutality
In the wake of these killings during the lockdown and reports of police brutality, Nigerian priests are speaking up and condemning the use of force by the police.
It shows the character and attitude of the policing towards civilians across the country,” Father Aniedi Okure said. “In other countries, the police are trained to protect the people and keep law and order, and not to kill them like we have in Nigeria and other African countries. And this was happening even before coronavirus.”
Okure is the executive director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network, (AFJN), a non-profit Catholic organization which acts as a voice to inform and motivate people across Africa to take action in their local communities.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the culture of police brutality and human rights violation in the country. Nigerian police have a notorious record of human rights abuses, brutality, and extrajudicial killings. In some cases, citizens are arrested, tortured, and killed for the slightest of offenses, such as driving fancy cars, having an expensive phone, or paying bribes.
Okure said the police in Africa were created along with colonial enterprise and trained to suppress the people.
After independence, that culture has not been changed. The state still uses the police to suppress people while the politicians use the police to supress the people and their opponents.”
It is a big problem, not just in Nigeria but across the world,” said Father Martin Anusi, who is the communications director at the Catholic diocese in Awka, Nigeria’s southeast region. “There were cases of police brutality during the lockdown and this shows the level of violence on harmless citizens.”
The first time I heard they would be using the police to implement and enforce the lockdown in Nigeria, I was so scared, and my fear came from the history of the police service in the country,” said Sister Eucharia Madueke of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. “The police is never for the people but for institutions that created it. I knew it was going to be very brutal because the security agents who are going to be implementing this are not interested in the people.”
Madueke, who is the coordinator of the African Women Project at AFJN, says, “In Nigeria, they say police is your friend, but that is not the case. With the number of people they have killed during the lockdown, how will I trust the police again? When you are not trained for human rights, the chances of violating human rights will be high. I think there is something wrong with the way security agents are trained in the world, including Nigeria.”
Two parishioners at the Archdiocese of Lagos have expressed their concerns on the growing cases of police brutality across the country.
I consider Nigeria as a nation with laws and not a nation of laws,” says Obinna Udeh, a parishioner at Thomas More Catholic Chaplaincy. “We are a nation that created a lot of laws but [is] not guided by [them]. Police brutality has always been with us even before coronavirus, and every new regulation by the government is always used as an excuse by the police to brutalize members of the society.”
Udeh says the policing system needs to be evaluated so structural issues and problems can be corrected, because “the police is created for the people and not against the people, and we cannot continue overlooking the consequences of their actions.”
Henry Ihuoma, a parishioner at St. Jude’s Catholic Church said, “the police brutality in our country is unacceptable and it is irresponsible for the police to be the ones killing those they are meant to protect.” He adds: “We encounter this every time and it seems as if there are no laws guiding the police force.”
The solution to police brutality in Nigeria is a difficult task, but Anusi said the Church is at the centre of the “resolutory role” in the country, especially in local communities.
There are various ways that resolutions could be found, and I think the Church belongs to the institutional perspective,” he says. “So, the role of the Church is more elaborate, because it must go in the way of mediation. I feel the Church has enough reach to talk to the police, community, youth, and family and advocate for mediation. The Church has a resolutory role in all these, especially in the case of police brutality.”
Anusi said the Church in the country uses its structure, especially in local communities and regions, to de-escalate tensions during cases of police brutality and call for mediation in situations where someone is killed by the police. At every region in the country, the Church has a parish, and so if anything happens, the local bishop directs the local priest in the area to intervene and take mediation actions.
The Church tries to reach out to the community because the church has grassroots, so it uses its parishes, zones, and regions and deaneries to reduce the damage, because if one man is shot by the police and young people go on rampage to protest, more people could be killed. So, the Church recognizes its role, and that is to calm the nerves of tension by reaching out to young people through its instrument of grassroot orientation.”
The families are also involved in this process, which is the first step, according to Anusi. The Church, in the mediation process, “talks to the family of the deceased young man or woman, and so, when the nerves are calm, we can now move to the second stage, which is that of mediation by talking to the government, police, community, and when this happens, you discover that everybody is brought to the table. When it goes into the level of mediation, the police will begin to acknowledge that some of its officers were wrong in the first place and sometimes the officers involved are disciplined,” he said.
Police training is also important so they can learn how to be compassionate…because every problem is not solved by shooting a rifle or use of force,” Anusi said.
Okure agrees with Anusi and says the police needs to be trained and retrained especially in the use of arms to ensure that civilians are not killed extra-judicially.
They need to be retrained to understand that their mission is to protect the people and ensure law and order because right now, they are antagonistic to the people,” he says. “Just look at the basic human rights violation of the police during this lockdown. It is incredible in a country that is meant to be democratic.”
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