For many years torture has remained a subject of concern in Nigeria. It remains a tool commonly utilised by security and law enforcement agencies for the interrogation, coercion, intimidation and punishment of crime suspects and detainees.
Torture is the intentional infliction of severe mental and physical pain or suffering by or with the approval of state agents. It breaks body and mind, rips apart communities and destroys democratic institutions and the rule of law.
A radical lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), said during a webinar recently that rape is torture. Torture manifests in different ways - beating, electric shock, deprivation of food and water while in custody, sticking of objects like needles into genitals, sexual assault and rape, denial of medical treatment, among a host of others.
Access to Justice, the Sterling Centre for Law and Development, Avocats Sans Frontieres (Lawyers Without Borders) and the National Committee Against Torture, along with 30 other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), are of the view that torture is never and will never be okay. According to them, torture punishes innocence since it is often used against the weak. They add that the right not to be tortured or mistreated is not expendable even in difficult times, but is worth defending by every society.
According to the Director of Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh, the persistent use of torture by law enforcement agencies has been a cause for concern and a focal point of advocacy for reforms.
Otteh said, "Our efforts have been hampered by the complicity of government institutions in the use of torture for the interrogation and coercion of confessional statements from suspects."
The Federal Government had publicised reforms of units notorious for the use of torture such as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). For instance, in August, 2018, the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo(who was then acting president), in a statement signed by his spokesperson, stated that he had "directed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to, with immediate effect, overhaul the management and activities of SARS and ensure that any unit that will emerge from the process will be intelligence-driven and restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping and apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences, and nothing more."
Following this, some measures were announced by the IGP which were said to be aimed at repositioning SARS. However, these efforts, according to Otteh, have proven to be half-hearted and fall short of impacting the practice procedures adopted by law enforcement and security agencies, as police investigations continue to be marred by the use of various forms of torture and extra-judicial killing of detainees and the level of accountability for these vices remain appalling.
Otteh said the systemic use of torture and the failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the abuse of human rights by security officials have not gone unnoticed on the international scene.
Amnesty International recently released a report which analysed the continued use of torture by the police, particularly the SARS, in defiance of the constitution, the Anti-Torture Act (ATA) 2017 and the failure of the Nigerian authorities to prosecute culpable officers.
Daily Trust investigations reveal that in a number of criminal cases nationwide, the trial judge often has to deal with the contentious issue of whether or not the purported confessional statement obtained from the suspect during interrogation was free and voluntary.
Hence it is common for the accused person to claim that he was tortured and raise objection to the admissibility of such statement for reason that the statement was not freely and voluntarily made by him to the police.
In justifying as "proper and needful" the use of torture to fight crime and insecurity by many members of our law enforcement and security units, they often rely on Section 27 of the Evidence Act 2011 which provides that evidence obtained improperly or in contravention of the law shall be admissible.
In such situation, it behooves on the trial judge to temporarily suspend the main trial and conduct what is technically known as "trial within trial". In some cases, the court would rule in favour of the confessional statement.
Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman Punishments. However, despite this commitment, the use of torture persists within our national systems. And the problem was that, until recently, although the use of torture was prohibited under the constitution, torture was not a criminal offence in Nigeria. This means that torture could hardly be prosecuted.
It would be recalled that in December, 2017, the ground shifted and Nigeria substantiated its commitment under the UN Convention against Torture. On that day, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Anti-Torture Act (ATA) of 2017.
Today, as Nigeria battles a host of deadly crimes - insurgency, terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, etc., public anxiety and the desire for retribution or deterrence may instigate harsh and brutal actions against those perceived as enemies of the state or criminals. But that temptation must be vigorously resisted.
On the occasion of the 2020 International Day for Support to Victims of Torture, the CSOs, led by Access to Justice, applauded President Buhari's government for taking the bold step of domesticating the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment.
Otteh, however, said given how entrenched the use of torture had become in Nigeria and how in fact, it was used was justified as "proper and needful" to fight crime and insecurity by many members of our law enforcement and security units, then the struggle to end torture in Nigeria had only just begun.
He further said, "We realise the anti-torture struggle will be long and arduous, but we must collectively, resolve to win it no matter how daunting it is. That is why we need the partnership of all Nigerians, particularly the media, civil society, heads of law enforcement and security forces, faith communities, national and international humanitarian organisations to join us in this campaign. Some of the messages we have developed to enlighten Nigerians about ATA 2017 and the Violence against Persons 2015 will be shared with you."
This he said would move the society beyond the atrocities of the past and present to a new future; a future that respected the dignity of human life.
The CSOs mentioned that the preventive mechanisms set out in ATA such as regular monitoring of detention facilities, effective oversight and speedy justice delivery have not been fully deployed to facilitate the prevention of torture.