Funmilayo Odude, Legal Practitioner, Damod Law Practice

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Protection of the rights of criminal suspects is a police reform essential 05 Nov 2020

Last month, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in Nigeria played second fiddle to the protests that roiled the country as mostly young people used the social media hashtag #EndSARS to campaign against police brutality. What started out as another social media trend quickly snowballed into an efficient, passionate and organised physical protest movement, which spread in different cities in the country and across the globe.

For Nigerian citizens that are usually partisan and divided on issues, personal and vicarious experiences of traumatic run-ins with officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) was a unifying factor for the protests. A dramatic turn of events in the protests took place on October 20th when the entire world watched videos posted online as well as live-streamed accounts of officers of the Nigerian army opening fire on unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos State.

This egregious act was quickly followed by violent riots across the city of Lagos, resulting in the destruction of property, looting of stores and attempted attacks on prisons, among other attacks. Riots also broke out in other Nigerian towns and cities, including Oyigbo in Rivers State. While the physical and peaceful #EndSARS protests have since been suspended across the country, the campaign is still ongoing on social media and solidarity with the protesters has triggered a global movement against police brutality and corruption.

Many knowledgeable people have proposed what should constitute police reform and there is a lot of work to be done to reform the Nigerian police. For instance, to achieve genuine police reform, some of the issues that need to be tackled should include reforming the administration of justice in the country; provision of reasonable remuneration and welfare packages for the police; adequate and modern training of members of the police force; and investment to upgrade the security infrastructure.

In this article, however, I would like to concentrate on an aspect of police reform that is quite important but is often overlooked. I am talking about upholding and guarding the rights of the accused person. The excesses of the now-officially-disbanded SARS were as old as the unit itself. For a long time, accusations of extra-judicial killing and torture of suspects were generally rationalised by the public because a lot of people believed the suspects were notorious robbers and other criminals who had it coming.

Some people argued that heightened insecurity in cities as a result of the activities of armed robbers and other criminals made the high-handed tactics of SARS acceptable. Others pointed to the inability of Nigeria's inefficient and broken judicial system to bring these 'criminals' to justice as reasonable justification for SARS' tactics.

As a common saying in human rights activism goes: 'justice for one is justice for all.' But some people usually ignore this saying when it comes to criminal suspects. Videos of police officers slapping, kicking and dragging criminal suspects are commonplace. In fact, anyone – including a criminal defence lawyer – seeking to promote the rights of an accused person is often subjected to public odium.

The Nigerian Constitution states the basic rights of a person accused of a criminal offence. These rights include the right to remain silent or avoid answering a question until consultation with a lawyer or any person of his or her choice; the right to be informed in writing within twenty-four hours, in a language he or she understands, of the grounds and facts of his arrest; the right to be charged to court within twenty-four or forty eight hours depending on the proximity of the nearest court.

Different criminal procedure laws have been derived from these basic rights. For instance, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, which covers offences established by an act of the National Assembly (i.e. federal crimes) and offences punishable in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and the Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Lagos State (for state crimes) include rights that accrue to a criminal suspect. However, some of these rights are unknown to most of the rank and file police officers who carry out arrests.

The criminal procedural laws, for example, provide for when a criminal suspect may be touched, confined, handcuffed or otherwise restrained during an arrest. Cuffing a criminal suspect should not be the standard practice but the exception, particularly when dealing with uncooperative criminal suspects. Given what the law says, slapping or kicking criminal suspects becomes unacceptable.

The laws further provide that unless a criminal suspect is in the course of committing an offence or is pursued immediately after committing an offence or has escaped from lawful custody, the police officer arresting a criminal suspect must inform him or her immediately of the reason for the arrest. The police officer must also inform the suspect of the right to remain silent until consultation with a lawyer in line with the Constitution.

Nigeria's criminal procedural laws also provide that it is the authority that has custody of a suspect that shall have the responsibility of notifying the next of kin or relative of the suspect of the arrest at no cost to the suspect. The law expressly forbids arrest of another person in place of a suspect. Section 8 of the ACJA expressly provides thus: “a suspect shall be accorded humane treatment, having regard to his right to the dignity of his person, and shall not be subjected to any form of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” 'Humane' and 'dignity' are not words one would ordinarily associate with the experience of an average criminal suspect in the custody of the Nigerian police.

Upholding the rights of criminal suspects is not synonymous with encouraging crime or frustrating the work of security agencies. Upholding due process for criminal suspects is about protecting the society. And while we insist on the application of Section 8 of the ACJA for all criminal suspects, we must also remember that the arrest of suspects is only among the first steps of the criminal justice system.

To establish an effective justice system in Nigeria, the courts have to be efficient and up to the task both in the hearing and determination of criminal cases, as well as in hearing fundamental human rights applications, including those against the police and other security agencies. The police also have to respect human rights while prosecuting criminal cases. Thus far, the country has been found wanting on both fronts.

Like all Nigerian patriots, I was deeply saddened by the loss of lives at the Lekki Toll Plaza on October 20th, and the subsequent destruction of property that ensued. I was especially saddened by the burning of the High Court of Lagos State, one of the oldest courts in Nigeria.

I have since wondered if the destruction of the courts was simply a mindless act or a disdain for the institution because of its failures. As we rebuild the physical structures that were vandalised, we must also build the sacredness of, and respect for, human rights of everyone, including criminal suspects.

God bless Nigeria.

A Financial Nigeria columnist, Funmilayo Odude is a Lagos-based legal practitioner, and a public affairs analyst.