Amid the general disenchantment and despondency in the country, the Federal Government gave some cause for cheer on Tuesday. In a keynote address delivered at a two-day capacity building workshop for civil society organisations on the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, Anti-torture Act and the Draft Rules guiding their implementation, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), rejected the use of torture as an interrogation method by the country’s security agencies. At the event organised by the rights group, Access to Justice, in collaboration with the National Human Rights Commission, National Committee Against Torture and the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee, the minister, represented by a director in the justice ministry, Victoria Ojogbane, lamented that Nigerians had become fearful of their encounter with security agencies, including the police. He promised that his office and other concerned parties would ensure that education and information regarding the prohibition against torture were finally included in the training of law enforcement personnel, civil or military; medical personnel, public officials and other persons involved in the custody, interrogation or treatment of any individual subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment.
According to Malami, his office, with the approval of President Muhammadu Buhari, would enact rules and regulations that would ensure the effective implementation of the Anti-Torture Act. He drew attention to the fact that the Police Act provides for personal liability of a police officer for any act committed by him which is beyond his authority, adding that Section 251 of the Penal Code provides for a punishment of a term of imprisonment of seven to ten years for any act of torture voluntarily causing hurt for the purpose of exporting confession of information which may lead to the detection of an offence. While making a case for more sensitisation of the public to the Anti-torture Act, Malami stressed the need for the production of the Act in small pamphlets, possibly in the three major Nigerian languages, and distribution to the public.
Truth be told, the justice minister, in his latest prouncement, has the law, morality and ethics on his side. Although it is quite absurd that the AGF still has to make policy statements against barbarities long outlawed by the laws of the land in order to get the security agencies to shelve them, the fact has to be recognised that his pronouncement goes to the heart of an issue whose currency and pervasiveness cannot be denied. Beyond the grammar and grandstanding, though, Nigerians certainly know that kicking, whipping and shooting by the police are the norm rather than the exception in their daily encounters with them. The police, particularly members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, detain suspects in squalid conditions for months on end without prosecution in the law court, putting the lie to the country’s pretence to democratic governance. They shoot at will and kill without any compunction. In police stations across the country, the agonising cries of suspects subjected to the worst form of bodily harm in a bid to extract confessional statements are routine. The police are the accuser, the judge and the executioner in most cases.
As for the armed forces, the less said, the better. They beat up and harass civilians at will, even in bus stops. Their barbarity is copied by the paramilitary agencies, including the antigraft agencies, even though the fact is well established in criminal jurisprudence that an innocent person unable to endure torture by security agencies would readily confess to crimes (s)he never committed just to have some respite from pain. To the extent that the torture of suspects remains the norm among the security agencies, the AGF’s advocacy for public sensitisation and education promises to significantly address the malaise. A citizenry fully conscious of its rights under the law is a plus for democracy. However, since the law enforcement agencies’ use of torture to extract confessional statements is not due to ignorance of the law, public sensitisation of Nigerians to the illegality of torture and other forms of barbarity that they perpetrate has to be complemented by training and retraining of their personnel, and swift punishment of transgressors.
The foregoing notwithstanding, it is lamentable that the Federal Government which wants the security agencies to be civilised and law-abiding in their handling of suspects has treated the nation essentially like a captured territory. Time and again, it has clamped down on free speech, serially violated the rights of political detainees, and muzzled dissent, including legislative dissent. Under its watch and apparently with its imprimatur, the National Assembly has been invaded twice with the obvious purpose of enforcing leadership change. In any case, it is noted for habitual disobedience to court orders and undisguised harassment of other arms of government. It is therefore coming into its latest advocacy without any moral authority. But it can, and should, change. It is not too late to toe the path of honour, civility and rectitude.
We urge the Federal Government to walk the talk and stop the torture and brutalisation of suspects and the citizenry in general by the security agencies. More fundamentally, it must lead the way by running the country in accordance with its laws. All forms of executive lawlessness must stop. That is the way to go.