Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Apo six and the wait for justice

IT will be uncharitable to write off the police in any society, less so in our environment where the challenges of living are so overwhelming. Let us give it to the rank and file that they are doing the best they can in the circumstance with available resources at their disposal. Hardly is a society totally free from crime. Admittedly the level of crime our own law enforcement agents have had to handle in recent past is high indeed. It might not have ranked the highest, definitely it couldn't have ranked the lowest either.

But we don't need a diviner to tell us that we have every cause to worry about the surge in criminal activities around us. In their attempts to cope with the situation, however, they compound the situation either out of panic or due to over-zealousness.

Every time the country sends out these servicemen on international assignments like peacekeeping, they always return to us with high ratings by independent assessors. At home, however, most Nigerians have a convergent opinion of these men in black uniform: they are only a necessary evil, the real agents of the devil himself. So how do we place the two extremes?

During a discussion with a friend one weekend at a public viewing centre (adjacent to a police station) in my area, after an English Premiership match, the chat veered into the perception of an average policeman in our midst. He simply dismissed the force with some unprintable words. The gentleman is a nephew to an AIG but he would rather keep a distance from any police station. As long as God would help him, he said, he would do anything to avoid dealing with a policeman.

The police institution has a blighted image and it would take years of reconstruction and re-orientation to change this, to present the man in uniform as a friend of the people he is always touted to be. If a policeman presents himself as a friend, watch it. Nothing goes for nothing, he would be quick to remind you. (He is also a product of this very corrupt system we all talk about and of which the core values have been completely eroded).

One area of notoriety clearly established against the police is extra-judicial killing. Many cases have been proven, many have been covered up through espirit de corps. Many give up on the cases owing to the uncooperative attitude of the police themselves or simply because the families of the victims have no capacity to challenge the state. Good enough, a new order is unfolding through its insistence on the Coroner's inquest into some murder cases like banker Modebayo's who was killed around Lekki axis one fateful night and a senior editor Abayomi Ogundeji around Dopemu last August. Reports said the police - uncharacteristically - has admitted recently that one of its own pulled the trigger on the defenceless banker, for no just cause. I wonder what would have become of the killing if the famous family of the victim had not put the pressure on the Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice in Lagos to seek justice.

Up north, four long years after the unwarranted, gruesome murder of six innocent Nigerians by some police personnel in the Apo village area of Abuja, justice is yet to take its full course for the simple reason that the culprits were men of the Nigeria Police. That is the typical Nigeria police for you; it is nothing new to try to cover up crime involving its own men. I still wonder why the force finds it difficult owning up to the misdeeds of its men even if it is established the messengers of death in uniform commit the atrocity.

Except for family members of the Apo victims who still moan the loss of their relations, it is doubtful if the June 8, 2005 inexplicable, barbaric acts of the brutes in uniform still occupy any place in the minds of most Nigerians. But the blood of the innocent souls will continue to cry for justice. It is natural. These were people said to be returning home after a night out at the club. The blood-thirsty agents of the devil branded them as armed robbers and opened fire on them. On the spot, they turned themselves to prosecutors, judges and executors of the supposed capital punishment. Unfortunately, nemesis caught up with them.

With so much uproar and protests accompanying the unprovoked extermination of innocent souls, the police was forced to admit the error of judgment of its men who had already taken to their heels. Up till now one Usman Abdulsalami, a chief superintendent (CSP), the team leader of the killer gang I suppose, is on the wanted list! For four years? How did he escape by the way, if not with the active connivance of some other officers? It would not be surprising if Usman is still walking the streets a free man, or at worst hiding in a village known to his officer colleagues. If he has not done something evil, why is he on the run?

It is baffling that if it were to be the other way round, I mean for that number of officers to be killed by bandits in a day, the police would have launched an all-out offensive on the culprits because they know their hideouts. It is an open secret that if the police would do their job as efficiently as required by law, the killers would have been brought to justice by now. By the way, what is the difference between the lives of men in uniform and their civilian counterparts? The other day in the Niger Delta, during the Olusegun Obasanjo era, 12 policemen were reportedly killed by some militants in an incident. In the reprisal attack sanctioned by the oga himself, Odi village was levelled by soldiers who moved in with the rage of a fiery fire. Odi became history for the inhabitants. Four long years after the mauling of the civilians in Apo, we are waiting for justice.

The Apo killing is not an isolated incident. Many other extra-judicial killings have been reported. There are still many of such police killer gangs on the streets, sustained by the state. Once they are armed, they ironically become terrors to the people they are paid to protect. The terrorism goes beyond abandoning their primary duties of protection at times. Instances have been cited of some officers who, for a cut of blood money, arm the accomplice bandits to rob, maim and kill citizens in their homes or on the streets. Pray, what manner of policemen are these? Do they have any conscience at all? Meanwhile, the senior officers are busy fighting the political battles of their masters. Power is transient; if not, where are the men of yesteryear? They're gone with the wind, withered like lilies of the field.

Let's ask some simple questions pertaining to the activities of the men in black uniform. What is the quality of the training or orientation they receive at police colleges before they are let loose with the arms? At what level in the hierarchy are the personnel exposed to instructions on human rights? (What has been the response to the human rights desks created in the stations some time ago, that is, on the assumption that citizens have the courage and are encouraged to utilise the service. How do you lodge complaint against a policeman who infringed on your rights).

The Police Affairs minister recently suggested a psychiatric test for police recruits. The tests may need to go beyond the recruits to ensure a safe society. The killer gangs already in uniform are not greenhorns. A personal encounter with an armed policeman one night was scary. Once it is dark, my instincts tell me it matters less driving a branded car. "You work with The Guardian?' he asked, a little bit tipsy. "Yes sir," I quickly replied, not sure of his motive for the question. "Go," he ordered. I thanked my God for little mercies. Don't argue with an armed man, I always remind myself. Only an idiot stands in the way of a moving train, the late Chief MKO Abiola would say.

As the police sort out the mess of the Apo six - it would continue to recur - the government would have set on the path of a lasting legacy if it set about a massive reform of the police institution of a standard that the citizens would be proud to have and identify with. The nation has gone beyond the 'Wetin you carry', bang-bang men on the streets. The present corps needs some lesson in civility and respect for human lives.