THE term “unmarked grave” has a symbolic meaning in the culture of marking cemeteries. An unmarked grave lacks a sign, gravestone, or nameplate indicating the symbol of a graveyard. A gravestone is a sign of respect and affection erected to honor and remember a person. Historically, graves were unmarked because some families were too poor to erect a gravestone. On the contrary, the underlying intention of some unmarked graves may be that the person buried is not worthy of commemoration and should therefore be ignored and forgotten. Centuries ago, the graves of executed criminals were unmarked as an option to avoid disgrace and to minimize the shame of having a family name on a permanent display in such a disreputable context. But more recently, the practice has been to cremate and secretly scatter the ashes of notorious criminals in some anonymous place. This was the fate of Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann, Hermann Goring, Heinrich Himmler, Fritz Sauckel, and Julius Streicher. The remains of British serial killers Myra Hindley, Dr. Harold Shipman, and Fred West were all treated the same way. The headstone of disgraced television presenter and alleged sex offender Jimmy Savile was removed and destroyed three weeks after being erected when subsequent allegations of sexual abuse over decades came to light. However, disgrace and shame are not the only reasons why graves remain unmarked.
As Alicia Hoyt reports: Historically, financial limitations and social status could cause people to bury family members in unmarked graves. Another reason for an unmarked grave might reflect the wishes of the deceased or family members to avoid grave desecration, looting/robbery, and prevent the grave from becoming a shrine after burial. A year after the peaceful EndSARS protests ended in a brutal crackdown by Nigerian security forces in Lagos, justice has finally come for the unmarked graves. An investigation by the Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution at the Lagos Court of Arbitration indicted the Nigerian Army and the Police over the shooting of protesters at the Lekki Tollgate. Recall that the Lagos State government, on October 19, 2020, inaugurated a judicial panel to investigate cases of alleged police brutality by the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The Lagos State government later tasked the Judicial Panel to investigate the Lekki Tollgate incident when Nigerian security forces opened fire on young people protesting peacefully against alleged police brutality. In its surprise report that took more than a year to uncover, the panel accused the Nigerian Army officers of shooting and killing unarmed and defenseless protesters without provocation or justification. They described this manner of assault and killing as a massacre. According to them, the lethal violence committed by the Nigerian military on the night of October 20, 2020, could be considered a “massacre.” The panel also alleged that the conduct of the Nigerian Army was aggravated by its refusal to allow ambulances to give medical assistance to victims who required urgent medical care.
It further noted that the denial of ambulances by the soldiers, which could have assisted in the prompt and effective treatment of injured protesters, was cruel, and it contributed immensely to many deaths and casualties. Hence, the Nigerian Army failed to adhere to its rules of engagement. The judicial team led by Justice Doris Okuwobi listed in its 309-page report the 48 casualties in the Lekki Tollgate shooting on October 20, 2020. The panel established that the Nigerian Army and police forces shot, assaulted, and battered unarmed protesters, which led to injuries and deaths. The panel’s report also alleges cover-up attempts by the police, which it says cleaned up the aftermath of the shooting at Lekki Tollgate and failed to preserve the scene for proper investigation. The police officers also tried to cover up their actions by picking up bullet shells to hide evidence. The investigatory panel also accuses the Nigerian authorities of tampering with CCTV footage and removing the bodies of the dead from the scene. The panel’s report corroborated the previous story by CNN, which used time stamps, video data, and geolocation to analyze hours of video filmed during the protest.
CNN found the Nigerian army fired live ammunition into crowds at Lekki toll gate, killing and wounding several people. Several witnesses also told CNN that the military prevented the ambulances from entering the site to help wounded protesters. Despite the availability of video evidence and the gravity of these human rights violations, the government and the security forces continued to deny they shot the protesters. But why does the military always deny extrajudicial killings in Nigeria? Many years ago, several cases of military brutality and police killings went cold. For instance, in 1999, gang members killed seven police officers in Odi, Bayelsa State. After a few days, the same gang reportedly killed five other police officers in two separate attempts around Odi. Although the gang had no political agenda, it committed the crime against a rising demand for a better share of the oil wealth. On November 10, 1999, President Obasanjo wrote to the governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, condemning the killing of the police officers and threatening to declare a state of emergency if the government failed to arrest the gang within 14 days.
The president did not acknowledge that the governor of a state lacks the power to arrange for such arrests. He forgot that the Nigerian police and other security agencies are under the control of the federal government.
Before the deadline could expire, soldiers from the Nigerian army moved into the Odi community, engaged in a brief exchange of fire with the young men alleged to be responsible for the deaths of the policemen, and proceeded to raze the town. The troops demolished every single building and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians. While the soldiers shot and killed some of the armed youths, many gang members fled for safety. Shortly before the military operation at Odi, Nigerian soldiers were also deployed in the nearby community of Choba, in Rivers State, to disperse protesters outside the gates of Willbros Nigeria Ltd, the subsidiary of an American pipeline construction company. Community members reported that the soldiers killed four people and raped several women. Photographs that appeared to show soldiers in the act of raping several women were published in the Nigerian media. The Nigerian government dismissed the news and denied any rapes charges against them. The government also denied that it had deployed soldiers to the community.
Around October 20-24, 2001, the militia of the Tiv ethnic group abducted and murdered 19 soldiers and spread their mutilated bodies in the village of Zaki-Biam. Soon after the killing, the government deployed the soldiers to restore peace and order in the area. Benue and neighboring Taraba states have been the scene of longstanding disputes between these two groups, which erupted in 2001. On October 22, soldiers from the 23rd armored brigade of the Nigerian army rounded up residents in Gbeji village. They called everyone for a meeting, separated the men from women and children, and opened fire at the men. These killings took place as soldiers invaded the villages of Vasae, Anyiin Iorja, Ugba, Sankera, and Zaki-Biam, all located in the two local government areas of Logo and Zaki-Biam. In the following two days, there was widespread destruction of property and buildings in these villages. The sad thing is that the people did not learn lessons from the Odi experience. They would have known that the military will retaliate after they discovered the bodies of the dead soldiers.Yet, no oneattempted to prevent the military from retaliating.
Similarly, in April 2021, the people of Shangev-Tiev in the Konshisha Local Government District of Benue State also suffered the same fate. An operation deployed by the military using helicopters and missile launchers left scores of unarmed civilians homeless and property worth millions of naira destroyed. According to an eyewitness, the palace of Tyoor Unaha Kôkô and 200 houses were also set ablaze by the soldiers. The army also razed and demolished farms, schools, hospitals, and residences of Bonta, Tse-Jembe, Tse-Anyom, Gbinde, Mbaakpur, Aku, Agidi, Gungul, Adoka, Guleya, Awajir, Shiliki, Achoho, and Ullam in Gwer Local Government Area. The invasion took place following the discovery of 11 bodies of military officers killed by the militias. This invasion followed the recent hostilities between Bonta village in Konshisha local government and Okpute-Ainu in Oju local government of Benue state. Again, no panel or institution investigated the claims. Till today, no military officer has claimed responsibility for the massacres in Odi, Choba, Zaki-Biam, and Shangev-Tiev. The operations indicate a disturbing willingness by the civilian governments in Nigeria to use the same methods as the military governments of the past.
But what makes the ENDSARS massacre different from others? And why did it gain a great deal of sympathy? The protest at the Lekki Tollgate is one of many demonstrations that took place against police brutality. The protestors thronged Nigerian cities, calling for an end to police brutality and demanding justice for victims of police violence and extrajudicial killings. They also called for the abolition of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which had long engaged in the unlawful arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings of youth. Many patriotic citizens were dismayed at the military because they opened fire on unarmed, helpless, and unresisting protesters while sitting on the floor and waving their Nigerian flags and singing the national anthem.Now that the blame game is over, what is next for the ENDSARS victims? Will the unmarked graves receive the justice they deserve? The ENDSARS protests in Nigeria invite us to rethink the famous motto of the Nigerian Police: The Police is Your Friend. “The Police Is Your Friend” is the slogan you see when you walk into a Nigerian police station. Repeatedly, the police force has proven to live up to the opposite of their motto. While working in Nigeria, I heard people say that the police would never be your friend in an environment that does not hold the police accountable for their actions. Hence, the “Police are Your Friend” slogan is a rhetorical strategy that attempts to remap perceptions of state violence. The police are your friend’s mantra misread the way they treat friends. The “Police are Your Friend” motto has lost its meaning on Nigerians because of the inhumane treatment by their supposed friends. It is bizarre that a police officer could raise a weapon because of a one hundred Naira bribe. For the police to write down your statement, you must pay a bribe. To make an arrest, the complainants must prepare themselves to refuel the police car. For the police force to release a prisoner on bail, the surety must pay some money. All of these are blackmails carried out by the police as an institution against Nigerians.
Although some people consider the report of the judicial team to be the ultimate form of accountability and want to move on, others have not so quickly forgotten the stories and collective memories of victims who have never received justice in the past. The question now is: What is the way forward?Whether the report has prompted mixed reactions, whether we doubt the content or discovered some loopholes in it, the fact remains that public support for the police is essential for successful policing. Not only is public support fundamental to the legitimacy of the police, but it is also crucial for enlisting the public in efforts to reduce crime. However, there is growing evidence that public support depends on the public’s perception that police treat people fairly and professionally. Against this backdrop, the police force faces a range of choices to use their limited time and resources to persuade Nigerians to believe in their professionalism and integrity. These might include public relations campaigns, retraining patrol officers in managing encounters with the public, improving supervisors’ capacity to monitor and improve the behavior of police officers in their relationships with the public, and winning over segments of the people through specialized community relationships. If the police choose among these options, they will benefit from how the Nigerian attitudes toward them will change.
The Nigerian Police force charged with the constitutional responsibility of protecting lives and properties has terrorized innocent Nigerians whose taxes maintain the police. Most of their officers have no working conscience. Many Nigerians have lost confidence in the police force due to the offensive acts of its operations. There is a need to teach and reinforce positive police and community relationships to show Nigerians that police officers are their friends and that they are here to help them when they need them most. The courts and judges should allow live broadcasts in cases involving the use of force by the police because such cases have aroused national interest. Departments should provide aggregate information to the public on the number of allegations and type of use of force and what steps, if any, departments take to address the use of force concerns when they arise.
For the Nigerian Police to be effective and people-oriented, the minimum entry qualification should be HND. Applicants must meet police force requirements for nationality, education, experience, vision, and physical fitness and pass a criminal background check. Along with the minimum requirements to apply, the department may have a list of preferred qualifications, such as firearms training. Police colleges should teach state laws, criminal investigations, patrol procedures, traffic control, defensive driving, self-defense, first aid, and computer skills to enable trainees to conduct day-to-day work. Officers should be trained on de-escalation tactics and alternatives to using force. Their tactical training should include strategies to create time, space, and distance to reduce the likelihood that coercion will be necessary and should occur in realistic conditions appropriate to the department’s location. Police college recruits should conduct field trips to prove their understanding of classroom teaching. The authorities should establish a national standard for police recruitment, training, and promotion. Those recruited must be educated on the circumstances under which they can use ammunition. Such education will help these officers become more proficient in handling weapons and using them.
One of the most challenging aspects of having a loved one killed by the military is how invisible the victims become to people in positions of power. They are first a nuisance and second the worst enemy. Then, they deny them even the most basic information. Think about that at the most painful, tragic, unbearable moment in the lives of the ENDSARS families who are coerced by circumstance to become voluntary advocates, fighting for the minimum in human dignity. Words and the call for police reform is not the only answer. We need action. You cannot reform a system willingly engaged in cover-ups, lies, and false reporting to justify the murder and killing of our youth. For justice to occur, we must uproot the weeds of corruption and impunity at the hands of individual officers and law enforcement. This idea is just one reason why family members and policy advocacy groups should persuade lawmakers to pass additional legislation that would allow more victims of police brutality to get justice and compensation. Under the proposed law, the victim of law enforcement should no longer file a police report to receive funds. Instead, families or survivors could submit a note to the designated board from a doctor or social worker certifying that death occurred. A gesture such as this will demonstrate that we value the livesof all victims.
For nearly two decades, law enforcement agencies have explored and implemented the use of body cameras as a tool to help hold officers accountable and make departments more transparent. Body cameras have been viewed as one way to improve law enforcement practice more generally. Police in the United Kingdom began experimenting with body cameras in 2005, after which American police showed a slow-growing interest in them. By 2013, about one-third of local police departments in the U. S. reported using body cameras. Around the same time, a study on the Rialto Police Department in California showed a 59 percent reduction in police-reported use of force incidents among officers who used the cameras. As we call for police reform, it might not be a bad idea to call on our legislatures to mandate the use of body cameras and in-vehicle cameras as part of broader efforts to increase police transparency and accountability. The technology, which can be mounted on an officer’s eyeglasses or chest area, offers real-time information when used by officers on patrol or other assignments that bring them into contact with members of the community. Another benefit of body cameras is their ability to provide law enforcement with a surveillance tool to promote officer safety and efficiency. The use of body cameras will help rebuild trust with the community and reduce crime. Video footage can also enable departments to collect evidence during investigations or better defend their actions during a particular encounter.
The right to protest or peacefully demonstrate with fellow citizens is essential to any functioning democracy. Unfortunately, law enforcement officials sometimes violate this right through means designed to prevent free public expression. In recent times, denial of the right to protest has come under severe attack. In some cases, the police suppressed demonstrations through mass arrests, force, or curfews. Other times, law enforcement agencies use rival gangs to intimidate the protesters. The Nigerian government should not deprive Nigerians of their constitutional and international rights to a peaceful protest. Thus, the police force should conduct a risk assessment to decide the correct response to those declared missing during the EndSARS protests.The Nigerian authorities must also immediately and unconditionally release all EndSARS protesters who have been detained unlawfully since last year. The Nigerian authorities must ensure that victims and their families have effective remedies, including appropriate compensation, restitution, and guarantee that this incidence will not happen again. Thus, members of the Nigerian military that went to Lekki Tollgate should face appropriate disciplinary action. They should strip the officers of their job before being dismissed. The reason is that they are not capable of serving in any public or security service of the nation. We also recommend that the Nigerian army should no longer intervene in the country’s internal security. The dark days of military rule are over. Hence, in a democratic society, simple principles and approaches are required to deal with an internal security crisis. But in the case where the military is involved, they should adhere to the rules of engagement that are consistent with the law. When acting against unarmed crowds, the property of local civilians, the use of force in self-defense, the shooting of guns, the taking of prisoners, the level of hostility, and several other issues must be reasonable.
Rules of engagement (ROE) are the internal rules or directives that define the circumstances, conditions, degree, and ways we interpret the use of force or actions as provocative. Rules of engagement do not dictate how to achieve the result but suggest what measures may be unacceptable. Rules of engagement have three sets of considerations: policy, legal, and military. An example of a policy-driven rule prohibits the use of force without Presidential approval. Necessity justifies the use of force to secure submission or to achieve a specific objective. Based on the circumstances, the question must be asked: Is this a legitimate threat? If the answer is affirmative, the application of force to subdue, control, or engage might justify it. Once they establish that force is justified, they should act in adherence to the law. If the army had applied these principles, the brutality during the ENDSARS should not have occurred. An example of a legal-driven rule is the prohibition. It prohibits attacks on hospitals, churches, shrines, schools, museums, historical or cultural sites. The judicious use of force not only prevents unnecessary harm to structures but instills confidence in the public at large that every encounter with law enforcement will not destroy, end in death or violence. An example of a military-driven rule is the indirect firing commonly encountered to achieve a successful target. As a military officer, once people are in your custody, you assume responsibility for their welfare. If they are injured and need water, food, shelter, or other necessities, you are responsible for them since they are your detainee. Equally, if someone presents a threat to your detainee, you are obliged to intervene on their behalf and prevent further harm. Hence, if the army had applied this principle during the ENDSARS saga, they could have prevented the government-sponsored thugs from disrupting the protest. Police officers, like military officers, take an oath to protect and serve their communities. As a country, we have a long way to go and much work to do in policing our communities. If the police and the military hope to win the hearts and minds of Nigerians and prevent our streets from devolving into battlefields, they need to respect the rules of engagement.
Strong relationships of mutual trust between police agencies and the communities they serve are critical to maintaining public safety and effective policing. Police officials rely on the cooperation of community members to provide information about crime in their neighborhoods and work with the police to devise solutions to crime and disorder problems. Similarly, community members’ willingness to trust the police depends on whether they believe that police actions reflect community values and incorporate the principles of procedural justice and legitimacy. In the wake of recent incidents involving police use of force and other issues, the legitimacy of the police has been questioned in many communities. Many cities in Nigeria experienced large-scale demonstrations and protests in March 2020. In other circumstances, there have been riots over perceptions of police misconduct and excessive use of force. Police agencies must make relationships with their local communities a top priority. The police should do all they can to bridge the gap of mistrust with the youth. Hence, the government should erect a monument at the Lekki Tollgate with the names of the victims. If we want a nation that lives up to its principles, we should honor these youth. If we desire to connect to the history of this nation in ways that are more truthful, meaningful, and vital, this monument must change our attitude as a nation. The better way to start is by honoring the ENDSARS protesters who died after being stripped away from their families. While they left this world, we want their memories to live forever in our hearts.
Policy advocates in Nigeria have a lot of work to do to persuade the government to end the impunity enjoyed by the military and the police force. They must demand that anyone held responsible for crimes against humanity face justice. For decades, several inquiry commissions and committees had probed judicial killings in the country, yet no one was held accountable. Despite reports by local and international groups and media accusing the military of human rights abuses in several operations, the government had largely left the military to investigate itself and thus clear itself of the allegations. We sincerely thank the Lagos state government for setting up an independent commission without the presence of the military. We must, therefore, continue this path and ensure that all commissions inaugurated by the government are free from those accused of participating in the act. This action will guarantee a fair hearing and ensure that those held responsible face justice for their act of wickedness to humanity. The issue of bringing offenders to justice has always been in the Nigerian domain. Yet, we don’t see where those responsible are in these proceedings. It is high time we demand transparency to determine how many people that experience crimes have justice. Thus, a certified copy of the Report should be given to President Muhammadu Buhari so that the soldiers and police officers who engaged in the torture and reckless murder of citizens will serve their punishment. President Buhari must act quickly to ensure that those found guilty of shooting and attacking peaceful protesters face justice. Nigerian authorities must grant access to justice and effective remedies, including adequate compensation, restitution, and guarantee of non-repetition to victims and their families.
Police officers are the most visible representatives of the Nigerian legal system. They are close to the community and most responsible for direct intervention in cases of criminal activity. An attack against a police officer is an assault against the legal system. But quite often, the very nature of their responsibilities puts them in danger of attack. Police officers constantly face the unknown and the unpredictable. They pay the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives to save us. Our brothers and sisters called to this job knowingly accept these risks every day, choosing to walk into danger to protect us. These uncertainties make policing a dangerous profession. Thus, when an officer dies, he often leaves behind a spouse and children. Though no amount of money can make up for the loss of a loved one, surviving families of police officers need compensation. Such support from the government can help defray the educational and other related expenses of the family.
As for the unmarked graves of the ENDSARS protesters, the most basic question is who is dead? Why did they die? Where are they buried? At the beginning of this crisis, the army and the Nigerian government denied the killings at Lekki Tollgate. After videos of those murdered emerged, the Lagos state government changed its narratives from nobody was killed to one or two persons died and a few injured. The government denied the investigation by CNN and Amnesty International and called them “fake news.” Today, as the Judicial Panel establishes that the Nigerian army and police forces killed some of the protesters, the question is, will the unmarked graves receive the justice they deserve? One part is admitting that the murder happened, while another side is accountability. Without accountability, justice is incomplete. I hope that this time, the government will accept responsibility and hold someone accountable.
- Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit priest and doctoral student in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.
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