Perspectives by Olumide Akpata

Police Brutality, Abuse and Harassment of Lawyers – Are We Still Partners in the Protection of Law and Order?

For the first time in over three months, the biggest news coming out of the West in the past week has not been the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it has been news about the senseless killing of an African-American man, George Floyd, by a callous police officer with the Minneapolis Police, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he groaned and gasped for breath until his death.

It is now common knowledge that police brutality is one of the leading causes of death in many parts of the world. And, as correctly noted by the famous South African comedian, Trevor Noah, while the rest of the world continues to battle with the novel Coronavirus, African Americans also have to contend with racism and police brutality.

Unfortunately, back home here in Nigeria, the story is the same, if not worse. A week ago, some men of the Bariga Division of the Nigeria Police shot and killed 16-year-old Tina Ezekwe at the Iyana Oworo area of Lagos State, while trying to arrest a commercial bus driver for violating the nationwide curfew imposed by the Federal Government to check the spread of the Coronavirus. This is not an isolated case.
Last month, the National Human Rights Commission released a report revealing that during the first two weeks of the COVID-19 induced lockdown alone, there were a total of 105 complaints of human rights violations against security forces in Nigeria including 8 documented incidents of extrajudicial killings leading to 18 deaths in Kaduna, Abia, Niger, Delta, Ebonyi and Katsina States. It is therefore clear that, in addition to contending with COVID-19 pandemic, the generality of Nigerians have come to terms with the sad reality that they must include police brutality into the long list of their travails, notable amongst which are hunger, poverty, and lack of access to basic amenities.
What is more? Nigerian lawyers are not immune to the harsh realities of the times. The last few years have witnessed a wanton abuse and harassment of lawyers by the men and officers of the various security agencies, including the Nigeria Police and the Nigerian Army, with impunity. The result of this is that the respect that lawyers and the legal profession once commanded has become almost eroded. This is unacceptable. In time past, this was simply unthinkable.

One recent example in the shameful wave of abuse of lawyers by security agencies is the mindboggling case of Mr. Emperor Ogbonna, an Aba-based legal practitioner. Reports have it that Mr. Ogbonna was arrested by men of the State Security Services and charged before the Federal High Court, Umuahia with offences bordering on ‘cybercrime,’ arising from a Facebook post from his account on 20 March 2020. After spending 35 days at the Correctional Centre in Umuahia, Mr. Ogbonna was subsequently granted bail which he was in the process of perfecting when he was re-arrested by the State Security Services. To date, there is no credible report regarding the whereabouts of Mr. Ogbonna.
We have also heard of instances where lawyers were reportedly detained by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commissions and other anti-graft agencies for legal opinions that they issued to, or on behalf of, their clients. What about those who have been detained, harassed and embarrassed merely for applying for the bail of their clients at police stations? I am also aware that, in many instances, when a suspect is in custody, and a lawyer appears on behalf of the suspect, the police on seeing a lawyer becomes hostile, and then frustrates the suspect in custody with the aim of ridiculing the lawyer and diminishing the need for his services.

The list of these aberrations is unending.
In every sane society, one key role of the legal profession is to work with the police and other law enforcement agencies in the preservation of law and order, and to ensure due enforcement of laws and regulations. The society thrives better when lawyers and security agencies work closely as partners without rancour and intimidations. But it is rather ironical that those with whom we are supposed to be partners in progress in the protection of law and order and in the criminal justice delivery system have turned against us.

As a profession, lawyers need to take a firm stand on this and to insist that enough is enough as we do not know how far this can get. Our voice must be very loud in condemnation and in appropriate cases, our might must be felt. This is the only way we can retain the clout to defend the rights of others: for if a lawyer cannot defend his own fundamental rights against abuse, how can he defend those of others?

It is in the best interest of all to put an end to this ugly phenomenon. As lawyers, we lose the respect of clients and the society when we allow injustice to happen unchallenged. As a nation, this sends negative signals to prospective investors about the state of the legal and justice delivery system in operation in Nigeria. As ministers in the temple of justice, lawyers have to remain the conscience of the Nigerian society and the bulwark against tyranny and oppression. If we fail to carry out this sacred duty, we would not just have failed our founding fathers, but we would also have dashed the hopes of the millions of our compatriots who look up to us to fight against all forms of oppression and check abuse of power.

The last few weeks have been full of horrifying stories of sexual violence, violation of the dignity of womanhood and other heinous offences against the rights of women. While we were battling with the news of the despicable gang rape of 18-year-old girl, Jennifer, in Kaduna State, we were learnt about the unforgivable rape and murder of Miss Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, who was a student of my alma mater, the University of Benin. We were again confronted by the same rape and murder of Barakat Bello (a student of the Institute of Agriculture, Research and Training, Ibadan); and we have now woken up to the gang rape of 12-year old, Farishina, in Jigawa State.

What has gone wrong with us? We must, as a society, check our behavioral pattern and attitude to women and dignity of human person. Those in authority must do all that they can to not only address these issues, but also to ensure that justice is done and that this ugly trend abates.

Olumide Akpata


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