Calls for “root and branch” reform of the security forces
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday strongly condemned the use of excessive and disproportionate force by Nigerian armed forces in Lagos on Tuesday evening. She called on the Nigerian authorities to take urgent steps to deal decisively with the underlying problem of persistent violations committed by the security forces, and make a far stronger effort to bring police and army personnel guilty of crimes against civilians to justice.
“While the number of casualties of yesterday’s shooting at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos is still not clear, there is little doubt that this was a case of excessive use of force, resulting in unlawful killings with live ammunition, by Nigerian armed forces,” Bachelet said. “Reports that CCTV cameras and lighting were deliberately disabled prior to the shooting are even more disturbing as, if confirmed, they suggest this deplorable attack on peaceful protestors was premeditated, planned and coordinated.”
“Nigeria was already at boiling point before this shooting because of the revelations about years of unchecked violence, including alleged killings, rape, extortion and other violations, by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS),” the UN Human Rights Chief continued. “While the authorities have now dissolved SARS and announced a series of inquiries at both Federal and State levels, there have still been few if any charges levelled against its members despite abundant evidence against various members of the squad, as well as members of other security forces and the army.”
Many Nigerians appear not to trust the inquiries and other measures that have been announced by the authorities, and have continued to take to the streets in several cities to protest. “I appreciate that the Government has taken a number of measures to address the protestors’ demands,” Bachelet said. “However, the immediate creation of another elite police SWAT team to replace the SARS — without first addressing some of the root causes of police violence and putting in place sufficient safeguards to prevent future violations — has eroded the public’s trust even further. This latest terrible event in Lagos is like wantonly adding fuel to a fire that was already starting to rage out of control.”
Bachelet said the way to restore trust and bring back peace to the streets of Nigeria is for the authorities to take immediate concrete steps to show they are genuinely committed to tackling impunity, after years of inaction.
“There need to be immediate, independent, transparent and thorough investigations, not just into last night’s killings, but also into all the previous violations committed by security forces,” Bachelet said. “Those appointed to carry out such investigations must not only be independent and impartial but must be widely perceived as such. And, where sufficient evidence already exists to warrant charges, immediate suspension of officers – including senior officers — suspected of committing serious crimes, should take place long before the conclusion of such investigations.”
“After so many years of reported violations that have not been adequately dealt with, there also needs to be a root and branch re-examination of the entire security sector, and of its civilian oversight,” the High Commissioner added. “This should include a full-scale review of rules of engagement and training systems and methods.”
Bachelet also called for immediate investigations into reports of violent and provocative attacks on peaceful protestors by unidentified groups armed with cudgels, cutlasses, sticks or guns, in some cases apparently with the overt backing of police or other security forces.
“Nigerians, like everyone else, have a fundamental right to peaceful assembly and protest,” Bachelet said. “The Government has a responsibility to take positive measures to ensure the realization of this right, including deterring others who intend to prevent them from protesting peacefully. The world’s attention is now focused sharply on how Nigeria’s Government and security forces react over the coming days and weeks.”
The High Commissioner urged the authorities to grant reparations to the victims and to open extensive dialogue with youth leaders, students and other groups who have been prominent among the protestors.
“In a population with such a young median age, it is important to listen to the grievances of the younger generation and make an effort to address the multiple problems they face, which include — but are far from confined to — police brutality and violations.”