The joy of Christmas for many Nigerians was short-lived after media reports and social media posts about how a police officer attached to the Ajiwe Police State in Ajah, Lagos State, rammed the venom of a bullet into the body of a woman who was pregnant with two babies.
The victim, Omobolanle Raheem, a Lagos-based lawyer in her 30s, was out for a Christmas Day church service with her sister and four children.
On their way home in their car, around Ajah Bridge, while trying to make a U-turn, the officer shot into the vehicle, and the bullet met the innocent woman. It is still unclear why the officer shot at the car. Raheem was confirmed dead in a nearby hospital hours later.
Decades of police killings
For more than two decades, police killings have been on the rise in Nigeria. Since 2000, members of the Nigeria Police Force have shot and killed more than 8,000 civilians, either intentionally or mistakenly, according to Human Rights Watch.
The huge figure seems to mean that the police have continually resorted to the illegal use of lethal force in their routine operations. Thus, the World Internal Security and Police Index (WISPI) ranked Nigeria’s security operatives as the “worst’’ in a 2016 evaluation. Despite this black tag, the unfortunate history still repeats itself today.
In 2020 alone, the police were responsible for the untimely death of about 92 civilians, a survey by the Council of Foreign Relations says.
That year, the killings sparked what became the #EndSARS movement, the largest ever youth-led protest demanding police reforms and the disbandment of the Special Anti Robbery Squad or SARS, a police unit known for human rights violations.
During one of the protest gatherings at Lekki Tollgate in Lagos, soldiers believed to be acting under the instruction of the state, federal and military authorities released live bullets on unarmed and peaceful protesters, killing scores.
The soldiers who shot protesters have not been brought to justice to this day, confirming the belief that their action was endorsed by the powers that be. Today, youth across Nigeria mark every October 20 as #EnSARS Memorial Day in honour of those who died in the fight against police brutality.
As in the handling of the killers of #EndSARS protesters, police officers and other force personnel who kill innocent civilians are hardly brought to book. Most of the time, their identity is hidden. The authorities would promise to investigate, but that would be the last time a thing is heard about the purported investigation.
Where the identity of the offending officer is known, police authorities would mostly merely transfer him to another area of operation with no serious disciplinary action.
It took more than 48 hours after the December 25 shooting of Mrs Raheem, for the Lagos State police command to reveal the identity of the trigger-happy officer as Drambi Vandi, an assistant superintendent of police now said to be under detention. As usual, the police merely promised to investigate the circumstances surrounding the unwarranted shooting.
Meanwhile, a new press release today, December 28, by the police says the Inspector General of Police, Usman Alkali Baba, has recommended the suspension of superintendent Vandi while legal procedures against him begin. But the release also carries a line that makes many wonder if the force is truly committed to serving justice.
The line reads: “The suspension is without prejudice to the constitutional presumption of innocence in favour of the officer.” It remains to be seen if justice will be served in Raheem’s case.
“When these police officers are not punished anytime they misbehave like this, how do you want others to see it as a deterrent?” asks Ridwan Oke, a social justice advocate, rhetorically. “Police killings will not stop until the authorities start to check the excesses of their officers; most of them are not even evaluated before [being granted] unchallenged access to holding weapons.”
He said the rise in police killings recently was because the Nigerian government acts as a shield for the perpetrators, making them “believe that nothing will happen and that they can always get away freely”.
While police authorities often rely on statements like “accidental discharge” to excuse offenders from being held to account in meaningful ways, bribery, corruption, and the connection of the erring officers to powerful people in power remain the hidden reasons justice is hardly served.
“Nigerians deserve a police force they can trust with their lives and properties, not the impostors on our roads. They can’t continue to gaslight us, hence the need by the government to address this germane issue,” Oke said.
The police force in Nigeria needs adequate training on the use of lethal weapons and proper monitoring, adds Kelechukwu Uzoka, a Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist.
“Some police officers would just be carrying assault rifles around; and this instigates fear in civilians. Others would be drunk while on duty. Alcohol will only exacerbate innate but brutal behaviours,” he said.
“The cover the government gives them by calling cases like this an ‘accidental discharge’ also heightens the repugnant custom by the gun-wielding officers.”