By Chris O.O. Biose
First published in The Observer , Monday, 3 June, 1991 Page 13
THE gruesome killing of Dr. Nwogu Okere at a Lagos petrol Station on May 15, as widely reported in the press raises a crucial issue in our criminal justice system. If the police should commit a crime, which they subsequently disavow, is it fair and just to rely on the same police to investigate their own crime? Will this not lead to cover-ups?
The question we must address is this? Who will investigate police crimes? The presumption that the police never commit a crime is rebutted by daily experience. By police crime, I do not refer to private or individual offences by citizens who happen to be policemen. I refer to acts forbidden by the law and which are punishable under the criminal law intrinsically committed in the course of official duties of serving police officers. The most rampant of these is unlawful collection of money from drivers and road users under duress while fully armed, both at road blocks and in their offices. The most serious is harassment, torture, and outright murder.
The issue here goes beyond simple fault finding. It has to do with a serious structural gap in our criminal justice system. If we are talking of isolated cases, the social conscience might not be seriously shaken. But these ugly happening have become too frequent, either accidental discharge, mistaken identity, or the all too ready excuse of saying that the dead man was an armed robber, knowing full well that the victim of the police crime is not there to state his own side of the case.
Granted that at times, the police might have access to information which the public do not have and which they (the police) might not readily release to the public, in most cases, people can read between the lines and know where the truth lies.
The Dr. Okere case is I think, one of those glaring instances. Thank goodness that in this particular case, the police finally admitted their grievous error.
A decision made on the spur of the moment, in a trying or critical situation, turns out to be disastrous in its Consequences. Such a matter calls for sobriety and truth. This is the honorable path To my mind, the real crime in such cases is not merely the mistaken acts, done in all honesty but subsequent efforts to hide the truth – the unwillingness of culprits to confess when they discover later that their original impressions were wrong and the inability of the criminal justice system to right such severe wrongs against innocent citizens.
Police are human beings they are liable to human errors of judgment. But where it is found in some cases that these errors of judgment are extremely costly, like where it involves human life, rather than face up to the truth, they are tempted, like other men, to hide the truth. But unlike other men, their action are often in full public glare and scrutiny. This is where a new determination to bring courage into the job becomes pertinent.
We must sympathise with the police. They have to contend with the menace of armed robbers who are daring and ruthless. They have to contend with public apathy and distrust about their moral and technical competence. Most of them are ill-trained and out of touch with social and ethical demands of their job. Police have to put up with logistic inadequacies and corrupt influence within the force itself. Often we cannot rule out improper motives among officers such as collaboration with criminals group as was evidence in Bendel State during the Anini and Iyamu saga.
Partly due to these weighty problems, the police remains one of the most maligned and misunderstood occupational groups in Nigeria today. In spite of the indispensability of their duties, of fighting crime and maintaining law and order, the working personality of the police continues to evoke tension and distrust among people.
When it comes to dealing with certain social groups such as students, academicians and organized trade unions, the police are often subjected to contradictory pressures from those who pay the piper, and from various over-demanding and unappreciative publics. When they have to perform unpleasant assignments, their professional ethnics demand that they bear the brunt of public criticism rather than reveal the subterranean forces which propel them.
Despite these shortcomings, the fact that Nigerians love their police is not in doubt. The public protested vehemently when the police were given uniform that made them look miserable. And they congratulated warmly when the police now present a befitting new look. Now the people want police performance and image to match this improved physical appearance. It has been pointed out to the authorities times without number that the police need good pay. They need adequate motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic. They need modern equipment and perhaps most importantly, they need training and retraining. The same public that steadfastly advocated police welfare legitimately complain ceaselessly about corruption among policemen and frequent harassment of innocent citizens. It is not that people do not know that the Nigerian social system of today is rotten and indeed productive of crimes which like an epidemic, has infested all occupational groups. Enlightened commentators are aware of the corrupting influence of the entire socio-economic environment. So they do not really expect an island of angels and saints called the “The Nigerian Police Force”.
People also understand that the police need to protect their men from widespread public condemnation so as not to deprive them of the necessary initiative at critical moments. But when the need to protect exercise of discretion by officers runs counter to the primary social and legal duty of protecting life and property of citizens, and the need for justice in each individual case, then we have a dilemma. Though naturally difficult to resolve, there is a need to ensure that this dilemma is resolved in favour of the dictates of justice.
Public complaints and protests against shoddy treatment and unwarranted brutality by the police tend to reinforce the ‘we versus they’ mentality of the police. Police espirit de-corps which is functional in combat situation turns out to be dysfunctional when it is improperly exercised to hide the truth and defeat the demands of justice and fairplay.
For the above reasons and in the light of our social experience in Nigeria, I strongly suggest that the police should not be charged with the investigation of police crimes. They may naturally be allowed to carry out their own internal investigation into such matters. But other bodies such as the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) or accredited private investigators should be licensed to carry out investigations into police crimes. As in the case of Habeas Corpus, the aggrieved party, his wife, family, friends or any interested party can initiate such private investigations with an accredited private investigator. In this regard, we need a body of law to facilitate the job of private investigators and private prosecutors.
The futile legal battle by Gani Fawehinmi to institute private prosecution against those at the corridors of power whom he suspected to be responsible for the murder of Dele Giwa should convince us that as at now, the law does not meet the demands of justice.
This issue is serious bearing in mind the crucial role of the police as gatekeepers of our criminal justice system. Nothing can pass for a crime and no criminal wrong can be righted until it has been investigated by the police and considered worthy of being brought before the courts. If the police fail to investigate it or if they come up with the conclusion that prosecution is uncalled for, there is very little that anybody can do. And when the police themselves or government agents are involved in the crime, the ministry of justice seems impotent. Even if other groups decided to prosecute, without police cooperation at the time of giving evidence in the courts, the case is most likely to fail.
The task of fighting crime and dispensing justice in a complex, heterogenous and urbanizing but underdeveloped society such as ours is enormous beyond words. it requires leaders who are reasonably free from ethic, class, religious and cultic bias and who can honestly say with Aristotle: Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is Truth. And I think that from all indications so far, we have such men, though extremely few, at the helm of affairs today, under our present Inspector General of Police, Mr. Aliyu Attah and this is probably one of the reasons why the truth came out more readily in the Dr. Okere episode. I am appealing to the Inspector General Police that as much as humanly possible, no citizen should be allowed to die from police bullets without trial in the courts. And if human errors should occur, let us have the courage to face the truth and help promote a culture of honour, integrity and fair-play in the service.
I also call on the erudite Justice Minister to be well advised to bring into actually, the necessary legal framework for private investigators and prosecutors. Given the lukewarm approach with which the police handle cases between individuals and the authorities due to understandable factors beyond their control, putting private investigators and prosecutors in place could prove to be one of the lasting legacies to the administration of justice in this country for which Ajibola could be remembered for good.
It must be borne in mind that members of the Nigeria police are Nigerians. The private investigators as well as the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation are Nigerians. SAnd the victims of police crimes are also Nigerians. What this boils down to is that we are really talking of adequate protection of Nigerian life and liberty without discrimination by Nigerians themselves.
A chain is not stronger than its weakest link. In case of stress, it easily gives way in its point of weak link; so also organizations and states. When we prefer to play the ostrich, oblivious to these weak spots in our system of justice, we unwittingly expose the system to severe condemnation, loss of faith and probable collapse. This calamity could be avoided by honest and equitable exercise of our native sense of what is good and fair. No man should be a judge in his own case. It is most likely to lead to injustice. Police should therefore not have exclusive right or power to investigate police crimes.