Nigeria needs to call time on torture

An artist’s drawing portraying ‘water torture’ Nigeria © Chijioke Ugwu Clement
An artist’s drawing portraying ‘water torture’ Nigeria © Chijioke Ugwu Clement

By Netsanet Belay Amnesty International’s Director for Research and Advocacy in Africa

The next few months will determine whether Chinwe’s life is changed forever. Accused of murder by a corrupt and brutal police force, he faces spending his remaining years behind bars. He is at risk of being convicted by a Nigerian court on the basis of a confession he signed to stop the agony of torture.

Chinwe tells me he was bound and tied to a pole, then suspended from the ceiling by police officers. They left him to hang from it until he passed out from the pain. When he did, police poured cold water over him to make sure he could feel every minute of their abuse.

His story is all too familiar to me. As a former prisoner of conscience, I have lived in jail with people who have been tortured. I have experienced the harsh reality of extremely poor and harsh detention conditions. I have seen the consequences of poor hygiene, overcrowding, abusive treatment and poor medical treatment.

My personal experience was not in Nigeria, but the situation is no different here. Torture is an intrinsic part of police work in this country. It’s a routine tool in the investigative process. The military use it too – en masse against those they accuse of interacting with Boko Haram. Torture is not just accepted by the Nigerian authorities, it’s embraced.

Police stations across Nigeria even have an officer informally in charge of torture. This most abhorrent of human rights violations, outlawed in countries across the globe, is not even classified as a criminal offence here.

For decades, Amnesty International has been at the forefront of the fight against torture worldwide. The pervasive nature of torture and other ill-treatment in Nigeria has not gone unnoticed. We’re now targeting our efforts – with the help of our millions of supporters and partners worldwide – on highlighting the Nigerian government’s flagrant failure to abide by its international obligation to stamp out this egregious human rights violation.

On Thursday we released a new report, “Welcome to hell fire”: Torture and other ill-treatment in Nigeria, which makes clear why Nigeria needs to be a focus of this campaign now more than ever.

The world has watched as the conflict with Boko Haram escalates. There’s no doubt that the group has committed atrocities; grotesque crimes that Amnesty International has wholeheartedly condemned. But instead of protecting human rights and the rule of law, the military increasingly acts as a law unto itself.

And it’s more widespread than that. The police employ torture with impunity as a tool to extort money, extract confessions, or simply as a form of extrajudicial punishment. Both the military and the police are exploiting the positions of power they are trusted with to abuse the very people they are supposed to protect.

Nigeria talks the talk but in practice its inaction is startling. Over the past three decades successive governments have signed up to seven different treaties committing to stop torture. Yet in 2007 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture found that torture had become “institutionalised and routine”. And in 2014, the practice continues unabated, unchecked.

The Nigerian government has had long enough to fulfil its promises. With elections due in February next year, we want a commitment to protect human rights to form the backbone of all parties’ election manifestos.

Chinwe is not the only man whose life hangs in the balance because of a confession extracted by torture. Dodo Odafe also faces a death sentence after a confession extracted through torture was admitted as evidence in his trial.

Accused of robbery, he faced days of unspeakable torture in prison and finally “confessed” when five police officers locked him in a pick-up with two dead bodies and told him he would face the same fate. After considering his torture, one judge ruled his confession inadmissible – only for another judge to take over and allow it to stand. The judiciary in Nigeria has a lot to answer for – their acceptance of forced “confessions” as evidence makes torture a quick and easy way to obtain convictions.

There are too many people like Chinwe and Dodo in Nigeria. We document their cases alongside others in our report, but the reality is that this is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Most of what goes on in prison cells across the country happens behind closed doors.

The promises Nigeria made when it signed up to numerous international covenants against torture now ring hollow. It is high time these promises were fulfilled. Parliament must urgently pass legislation criminalizing torture. The government must ensure independent and impartial investigations of torture allegations and provide detainees with prompt access to their lawyers and family members. Courts must reject all “evidence” obtained by torture. Perpetrators must be prosecuted fairly and punished, victims must be compensated.

This is the response to our report we demand. There can be no more excuses for delay, no more excuses that Nigeria’s leadership don’t know about the crimes committed in their name. They must now make a decision – confront torturers, or stand accused as their accomplices.

Read more:

Nigeria’s torture chambers exposed in new report (News story, 18 September 2014)‘Welcome to hell fire’: Torture and other ill-treatment in Nigeria (Report, 18 September 2014)
Nigeria: Torture by numbers (Facts & Figures, 18 September 2014)