For the six hapless traders extrajudicially killed by the police in 2005, the path to justice was long and tortuous. After what seemed like an eternity, a long-drawn-out legal battle came to an end recently. Justice Ishaq Bello of an Abuja High Court on March 9 returned a guilty verdict on two of the six people arraigned for the crime. While sentencing the two to death, he ordered that three others be set free, but kept mum about another, now at large.
In a country where extrajudicial killings by security men are commonplace, and verdicts such as this are few and far between, many would have thought that Bello’s judgement would be hailed as courageous and refreshingly different. But it is a judgement that is already generating controversy; it has failed to fully assuage the feelings of the victims’ relations, some of whom have already taken to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, insisting that the judge did not go far enough.
In the judgement, Bello said Emmanuel Baba and Ezekiel Acheneje were sentenced to death on account of their own confessional statements, having admitted that they shot two of the traders while acting on orders from their superior officers. In his view, however, the same confessional statements were not enough to indict the superior officers who allegedly ordered the shooting, thus resulting in Danjuma Ibrahim, Nicholas Zakariah, Sadiq Salami and Othman Abdulsalam, who is currently at large, being let off the hook.
In the view of the bereaved, justice may not have been served to their satisfaction, yet, it is a good starting point upon which further actions could be taken. The option of appealing the judgement is still open, and it is an opportunity for the prosecutors to get their act together after the judge accused them of shoddy handling of the case that has come to be known over the years as the “Apo Six trial”. According to Bello, the prosecution failed to diligently establish any case against the other accused persons.
It is sad that this case took this unfortunate twist. The gruesome murder of Ifeanyi Ozo, Chinedu Meniru, Isaac Ekene, Paulinus Ogbonna, Anthony Nwodike and Augustina Arebun, who reportedly met their untimely death while returning from a night party, has once again demonstrated how easy it is for lives to be wasted by security agents in the country. Many are yet to get over the shock.
More shocking however were the circumstances of the death of two of the victims who were said to have survived the earlier shooting that claimed four of their colleagues and were sighted alive in the police station the following day, only to be summarily executed later on. They were cruelly labelled “armed robbers,” with their alleged weapons of trade on display along with their dead bodies. It is the height of irony when the police turn weapons bought with taxpayers’ money for the protection of citizens against the very people they were hired to protect.
But this is a paradox that Nigerians have had to live with over the years. Many cases abound of such mindless killings of civilians in Nigeria by security agents. In one of the most revealing incidents that have not failed to shock the world till today, an Inspector-General of Police, Mike Okiro, announced on November 14, 2007 how the police killed 785 suspected armed robbers in gunfire exchanges between June and September that year, while arresting 1,628 others.
The announcement was so sensational that the then Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, Peter Takirambudde, lamented, “It’s stunning that the police killed half as many armed robbers as they managed to arrest during Okiro’s first 90 days.” While calling for an investigation that never took place, the HRW official also wondered why senior police officials should regard the scandalous and “routine killing of Nigerian citizens – criminal suspects or not – as a point of pride.” This is a practice that has to stop.
Also significant is the lengthy and bumpy nature of the Apo Six trial. Nobody is likely to be impressed that it took more than 11 years to arrive at a verdict the judge said was based on “confessional statements” of two accused persons. At this stage, the aphorism, “Justice delayed is justice denied,” often attributed to a former prime minister of Great Britain, William Gladstone, becomes pertinent, because when justice comes after so much delay, it could as well be seen as justice not well served.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that lengthy legal battles could give room for evidence to be tampered with or witnesses to be influenced. For instance, Bello complained that the handling of the forensic evidence was poor and was responsible for his inability to convict Ibrahim, an assistant commissioner of police, as well as the others alleged to have participated in the shooting of the Apo Six victims. Even if a better job had been done, it could have been difficult to preserve such evidence for 11 years.
Apart from speedily dispensing with such cases, it is appropriate to say that, since life is sacred, it should not be wasted the way it is being done in Nigeria. Besides, judges should demonstrate greater courage in dealing with cases of extrajudicial killings. Only when this is done will trigger-happy security agents be more cautious in pulling the trigger.