Examining police brutality through the lens of Democracy

Examining police brutality through the lens of Democracy:
By Akinwande Bisola


Nigeria had fully attained the democratic state since 1999 and has since been found wanting on the account of not properly observing basic human rights which is a major attribute of democracy. This is due to the prevalence of police brutality in the country associated with extra-judicial killing, accidental discharge and other unlawful acts perpetrated by the Nigeria police force which directly affects innocent citizens of the country. This paper examines the inadequacies of the Nigerian police force as how the right to personal liberty and dignity and other basic human rights have been absolutely disregarded and also highlighted several steps that can be taken by the Nigerian government to curb this menace.

The Paper Proper : Examining police brutality through the lens of Democracy

Human beings by the reason of existence possess certain basic rights which are fundamental, unalienable and universal. Human beings acquire these rights inherently, perhaps from God or nature but must be upheld by states.  Right to personal liberty and dignity is one of the most central rights as it affects the basis of an individual’s freedom. This right is interrelated with other fundamental human rights and can be traced back to the provisions of the English Magna Carta of 1215.[1] However, the infringement of this fundamental human right has posed a global concern to the world at large; as it cuts across all sectors of life and livelihood of human beings as this fundamental right posits the freedom of persons to live in peace and health.  The right to dignity and personal liberty states that all persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity and in no situation shall there be any deprivation or restriction of the liberty of a person by imprisonment, arrest, extradition or otherwise except in line with the provisions of the law. Justice Oputa in his paper defined personal liberty – “implies freedom from external coercion in the use of one’s good or faculties. It is the status of not being the property or chattel of another”.[2] Lord Denning also observed that the right to personal liberty means: “the freedom of every law-abiding citizen to think what he will, to say what he will on his lawful occasions, without let or hindrance from any other person.”[3]

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The father of rule of law, A.V. Dicey, posited that personal liberty is “the right not to be subject to imprisonment, arrest and any other physical coercion in any manner that does not admit of legal justification.”[4] Flowing from the above, the importance of the strict observance of this fundamental Human Right can not be overemphasized.

The crux of this body of work is to assess the relationship between the executive arm of government and its agents and the observance of this particular right. Using the local perspective of Nigeria as the central focus, we will be exploring the interpretation of this right, its limits and the issues surrounding the exercise of this right as a citizen.

The right to personal liberty and dignity is not in its entirety absolute. It can be restricted in certain circumstances as provided for by any law in accordance with the constitution. In Egenokwu v. A.G. Federation & Anor, where the applicant sought a declaration that his arrest and detention by the 2nd respondent’s officers for a total period of four [4] days at Karimu Police Station, Police Command Area 11 and Police force CID Area 10 is unreasonable, unconstitutional and a grave violation of the applicant’s Fundamental Right to Liberty as guaranteed under Sections 35 of the 1999 Constitution and Article 6 African Charter on Human & Peoples Right [Ratification & Enforcement] act Cap 10 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990. The court held that:

“the arrest and detention of the applicant by the 2nd respondent’s officers for a total period of four days at Karimu police station and later at police command area 11, Abuja is unreasonable, unconstitutional and a grave violation of the applicant’s fundamental right of right to liberty as guaranteed under Section 35 of The 1999 Constitution And Article 6 against the law. Such a police officer should in addition to liability in civil action, be punished by the police authority.”

However, Law enforcement agencies when performing their constitutional roles utilize excessive force and unconstitutional methods in exercising their lawful function which have over the years impeded on the right to personal liberty and dignity. When this unlawful force is being exerted on citizens, it leads to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. These unlawful acts are tagged as police brutality which leads to violation of several fundamental human rights. Nigeria is a state where incidences of several human rights violations by law enforcement agencies have been heavily recorded over the years.[5]

Several researches and studies shows that the police rely heavily on the use of torture to extract “confessions” from arrested suspects. Former detainees reported experiences that included being bound and suspended mid-air in painful positions, kicked and beaten with machetes, gun butts, boots, fists, electrical wires, animal hides, and other instruments. The lack of capacity to conduct proper criminal investigation is responsible for the reliance of the police on torture-induced confessions.[6] This is due to the large powers they have granted by the law in preventing the commission of crimes in which they are allowed the use of reasonable force in exercising their constitutional function. The use of reasonable force not being properly spelt out or defined has led to the advent of unlawful acts which violates several human rights such as extra-judicial killing, accidental discharge and other unlawful acts which affects innocent citizens of the country. The police force being a recipient of  immunity granted by the law has total disregard for procedural rules, thereby involving themselves in abuses, bribery and extortion of money and money’s worth from Nigerian citizens.

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An arm of the police force was created in 1992 for the purpose of combating armed robbery and other serious crimes known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Its mandate included arrest, investigation and prosecution of suspected armed robbers, murderers, kidnappers and other suspected violent criminals.[7] Over the years, this police unit and other units got involved in other unconstitutional acts such as setting up roadblocks, arresting, extorting money from citizens such as the youths under the guise of sieving out those who engage in cyber crime and then demanding excessive bail fees.

Stereotyping and profiling due to appearance and possession of certain technological gadgets owned by Nigerian youths became the order of the day.[8] Members of this police unit appear in plain clothes but carry firearms in the public. In 2016, Amnesty International documented its own visit to one of the SARS detention centres in Abuja, situated in a disused abattoir. There, it found 130 detainees living in overcrowded cells and being regularly subjected to methods of torture including hanging, starvations, beatings, shootings and mock executions. [9]

All of these was a build up which led to Nigerians petitioning for the disbandment of this particular police unit which started originally in 2017 as a form of online protest across different social media platforms. The campaign grew in nationwide street protests in 2020 after a SARS officer allegedly shot a young man in Delta State. Both the nationwide protest and online campaign under the hashtag – #EndSARS garnered global attention as the demands were also refined to include police reform in the country since mere disbandment of the unit was not the solution to the ongoing issues bugging the Nigerian police force.[10] Although the demonstrations on the streets by the Nigerian populace was peaceful, it was met with brutality by the law enforcement agencies deployed to quell the protests.

The police shot tear gas, water cannons and live rounds at protesters across the country. Armed men have also disrupted rallies and attacked protesters, forcing the organisers to hire private security to repel the attacks. Several persons were killed during the peaceful demonstrations by the Nigerian police force. The government’s response to the demands of the protesters was to disband the unit and replace it with a new unit called the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. The protesters refused the new innovation as the government would only be changing the name of the unit and not properly addressing the issues. The protest continued until October 20th, 2020 when the government issued a curfew all over the states in the country including Lagos which was the center of the demonstrations. The Nigerian Army was deployed to quell down the protest by shooting out the protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate. 45 persons were said to have allegedly died.[11]

This paper is primarily centered on police brutality and how it has affected the observance of certain human rights with the view of providing well meaning solutions that can be utilized to stop this fast growing cancer. All of the instances stated above show that there is a need for the Nigerian government to develop a formidable system that will protect fundamental human rights for its citizens. The Nigerian government has the obligation to ensure that everyone can enjoy the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, including through protests as there are clear international conventions which outline police conduct during protests. The Nigerian police force has been attributed to being inefficient, insensitive, brutal and violent, corrupt and lacking adequate facilities and equipment.  The police force requires adequate monitoring, training and orientation as this will repair the relationship and partnership between the public and the police force.

Legislative initiatives should also be employed to promote accountability in the system such  reviewing the police regulations in conformity with international conventions, creating a committee or a board to address complaints of police violence and also creating a public fund to make compensations available to victims of police violence. Incentives should also be provided for police officers who have acted gallantly in the performance of their duties as this will serve as a means of promoting proper and good conduct amongst police officers. It is only reasonable that future policies of the Nigerian government reflect effective human rights protection to address the many dissatisfaction the public has expressed over the years.

Akinwande Bisola is a Fifth year Law student of Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko who holds interest in Alternative Dispute Resolution and Intellectual Property Law.
LinkedIn profile link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bisola-akinwande-b9a09b1b4

[1] Blackstone [1765–69, vol. 1, p. 133; vol. 4, p. 432].

[2] In a paper titled: “Human Rights in the Legal and Political Culture of Nigeria” delivered at the 2nd Idigbe Memorial Lecture at the University of Benin on 28th November, 1986

[3] Freedom under the Law [1949] p.5

[4] cited in Oba Gabriel Orogie v. A.G.Ondo State [1982], 3 NCLR, 349 per Justice Orojo

[5] See Criminal force: Torture, abuse, and extrajudicial killings by the Nigerian Police Force, Open Society Justice Initiative (2010), https://www.justiceinitiative.org/uploads/8063279c-2fe8-48d4-8a17-54be8ee90c9d/criminalforce-20100519.pdf; ‘You have signed your death warrant’: Torture and other ill treatment by Nigeria’s SARS, Amnesty International (2016), https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AFR4448682016ENGLISH.PDF 6 Open Society Justice Initiative, supra note 5.

[6] Systematic Brutality, Torture and Abuse of Human Rightsby  the  Nigerian  Police: Narratives of Inmates in OgunState Prisons – Richard A. Aborisade & Abolaji Adewale Obileye


[8] Peace Hyde, Forbes Africa, Nigeria dissolves SARS but the youth demand justice (Oct. 13, 2020) https://www.forbesafrica.com/current-affairs/2020/10/13/nigeria-dissolves-sars-but-the-youth-demand-justice/.

[9] You have signed your death warrant’: Torture and other ill treatment by Nigeria’s SARS, Amnesty

International (2016), https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AFR4448682016ENGLISH.PDF.

[10] Chris Ogunmodede, World Politics Review, How the #EndSars movement upended politics as usual in

Nigeria (Oct. 28, 2020) https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29170/how-the-endsars-movementupended-nigerian-politics.

[11] Punch Newspaper, Black Tuesday: 49 killed as protests turn bloody (Oct.21, 2020) https://punchng.com/blacktuesday-49-killed-as-protests-turn-bloody/.

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