A few days ago, I opened my usual news platform to read the sad and unfortunate story of a young man identified as Friday Arunsi who was reportedly shot dead by a police officer in the Ohafia area of Abia State. The young man's murder took a drastic effect as youths attacked a Police station, burning down police vans and releasing detainees in the Police cell. An unfortunate outcome you might say.
When the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had earlier disclosed that 18 persons have been killed by security agents in Nigeria in the cause of enforcement of regulations related to lockdown measures, I, at the time, thought that it was an exaggeration of fact until I sat down to do a recollection of the several news reports of extrajudicial killing incidents that have made news headlines in the last three weeks alone.
From a young Joseph Pessu who was shot dead in Warri, Delta State while on his way to get drugs for his pregnant wife, to the four that were killed for violating the lockdown in Kano, amongst other incidents, it becomes worrisome how the figure comes very close to the death toll recorded from the novel COVID-19 in Nigeria.
The independent human rights watchdog further disclosed that it received 105 complaints of rights violations by security forces which included the Nigerian Correctional Service, the Nigerian Police Force and the Nigerian Army in 24 states between March 30 and April 13.
When the Federal and some state governments ordered a lockdown in the height of the novel Coronavirus that has threatened the country, the idea was not to have its citizens brutalised and murdered by law enforcement officers in the name of enforcement of a sit-at-home order. Their presence was supposed to deter those with intent to disobey the lockdown.
Over the years, security agents in Nigeria have become very notorious for their excessive or disproportionate use of force, and abuse of power. In the course of the lockdown, there have been many complaints about the high-handedness of security officers while enforcing the lockdown order which took effect in several states. The officers tend to intimidate and harass the residents at the slightest provocation. They do not hesitate to play 'master', expecting the citizens to tremble at their sight. This is, however, a situation Nigerians have endured for many years.
An average Nigerian youth goes around with the fear of getting harassed, assaulted or extorted by the Police. Mere suspicion can have a person subjected to various levels of degradation like what we saw in the viral video where a woman identified as Tola Azeez was repeatedly flogged for alleged violation of the lockdown in Osun State.
In the height of a social media campaign (#EndSARS) against the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police in 2017, the government announced a revamp of the unit. However, very little has changed from the usual harassment and extortion.
This lockdown has put a lot of pressure on everyone. A lot of people’s daily means of survival has been halted by the order to stay at home. The worst part is, they have not benefitted from the palliatives promised by the government. These conditions will necessarily stir up tension and dissatisfaction and so, it is humanly expected that security agents would understand why total obedience to the order will not be possible.
Where a little advice and persuasion could have sufficed in making people understand the need to obey the lockdown order and maintain social distancing, Nigerian forces would choose to show force like they are dealing with criminals. It begins to seem like they are obsessed with oppressing the common man.
It is rather unfortunate that the security agents in Nigeria never learn from their mistakes even after erring officers are sometimes court-martialed and punished. Regardless of the widespread condemnation, it is very unfortunate that tomorrow another officer will pick up his gun and shoot dead another innocent fellow.
Written by Victor Enengedi