These Corpses Must Speak Their Names

Collective forgetting  otherwise known as mass amnesia  is one way Nigerians cope with their scandal-marred, misshapen lives. In a country where scandals come at the rate of a dozen a day, it is hardly surprising that people will make every effort to forget. It means consigning yesterday’s scandals to oblivion, because there are more than enough today  each day  to contend with.

On January 19, the people of Amansea in Anambra State went to the banks of the Ezu River to swim, wash, and draw water. Instead, they found a sight that jangled their spines and made them recoil in horror. Bobbing along in the river were numerous corpses. As to the exact number, we were soon treated to the typical fogginess. According to the police, there were eighteen or nineteen corpses. But some members of the community insisted there were many more: perhaps more than fifty.

In one sense, the number doesn’t matter. One unidentified corpse in a river would be one too many. Yet, in a different sense, it makes all the difference. Each life is sacred and important. And each of those corpses deserves to have its story told. How did so many corpses end up in a river that’s central to the lives of thousands of people?

My fear is that, unless enlightened citizens speak up and insist on answers, one of Nigeria’s most horrendous recent scandals will slowly, surely float out of public attention. That would be tragic. A nation that cannot offer a straight, credible narrative about the gory harvest of corpses in a much trafficked river is, well, a hopeless and frightening nation. These corpses, after all, did not rain down from the sky. Each was somebody’s son, husband, father, or brother.

The silence of President Goodluck Jonathan on the matter is outrageous. A government’s first duty is to guarantee the security of lives and property. A leader worthy of the name would have set up a special crack team to uncover what happened to these hapless, forlorn corpses. To remain aloof is to abdicate the most fundamental responsibility of a leader.

Governor Peter Obi of Anambra offered N5 million for information about the corpses. I don’t believe anybody has come forward to solve the mystery and claim the cash. One doesn’t think it’s because the cash reward is paltry. Even if the governor quadrupled the offer, I don’t see anything changing. It all testifies to a society where human lives are so terribly discounted, where people are frequently accounted no more important than cattle.

And here’s what most troubling about this ghoulish affair: many believe that the bloated bodies belonged to detainees callously shot by the police and then dumped into the river. Several witnesses said as much to a Senate committee that recently visited Anambra and Enugu states. They accused the Anambra State Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), based in Awkuzu, of routinely engaging in extrajudicial executions. In fact, an official of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) told the senators that SARS swept up and detained several MASSOB members at the group’s rally last year. MASSOB asserts that the detainees have neither being seen since nor prosecuted.

Last week, the Anambra State Police Commissioner, Bala Nassarawa, denied the allegation. But it was a most inelegant, uninspiring  and even disturbing denial. He emphasized that MASSOB was a proscribed organization, and threatened to vigorously prosecute anybody who committed crimes whilst hiding under the MASSOB name. Prosecution is fair enough. But does membership of MASSOB or any other separatist group justify state-authorized murder? Surely, the commissioner knew there was a simple, unimpeachable way to dispel MASSOB’s allegation: he should have presented the MASSOB detainees to reporters and the public. In other words, he should have offered full documentation of all the men arrested, together with evidence of their location and court dates.

His failure to do so can only fuel suspicion of police complicity in homicidal hanky-panky. That Mr. Nassarawa chose to split rhetorical hairs, instead, is far from comforting for those who suspect that the police were responsible for the dastardly act of killing innocents and dumping their bodies in a river.

One has used the word innocents advisedly. Even if some of the dead were crime suspects, they deserved the presumption of innocence until their guilt was established by a court. There’s no legal principle that confers on the police the prerogative of acting as accuser, judge and executioner.

In any decent society, the notion  or even the mere suspicion  that the police engaged in extrajudicial killing would raise alarms. In Nigeria, it’s an open secret that the police frequently murder suspects, and even those arrested for no reason save for the whims of some officer.

I wrote about this scandal in a November, 2007 piece titled “Murder Incorporated”. In it, I stated: “The Nigerian police have long had a reputation for needless highhandedness and unjustified bloodlust. So embedded is this fearsome reputation in the popular imagination that Nigerians have taken to describing mobile police officers as ‘kill-and-go.’ The picture is of officers quick to draw their guns, take aim at (usually) innocent citizens, and let out a deadly report. Nigerians know that the fear of the police is the beginning  and often the end  of wisdom.”

The immediate provocation for that piece was a statement by then Inspector-General of Police, Mike Okiro, that, in a three-month period, the police had killed 785 suspected armed robbers and arrested 1,628 suspects. Human Rights Watch suggested a gorier reality. It argued that “the true number of people killed by the police since 2000 may exceed 10,000.”Peter Takirambudde, the agency’s Africa director, noted: “It’s stunning that the police killed half as many ‘armed robbery suspects’ as they managed to arrest during Okiro’s first 90 days.” Then he added: “And it’s scandalous that leading police officials seem to regard the routine killing of Nigerian citizens  criminal suspects or not  as a point of pride.”

In that 2007 column, I wrote that the police “had become a mindless and unrestrained killing machine…a human slaughtering enterprise.” Then I proposed that the Nigerian police could be tagged “a business whose corporate name might as well be Murder Incorporated.”

The absence of a professionally sound police force and the collapse of the machinery of criminal prosecution are symptoms of Nigeria’s broader systemic failure. In a country where institutions have become terribly frayed, where the idea of accountability has little or no purchase, where many (if not the majority of) public officials receive rewards for what should be reckoned as grave crimes, where the police and the military are easily commandeered for illicit purposes, including the treasonous rigging of elections  in such a country, it’s both attractive and easy for the police to kill and get away  literally  with murder.

There’s no question that the Nigerian police are professionally degraded. And one doesn’t simply mean the lower ranks who mount ubiquitous roadblocks to extort innocent commuters. A few years ago, a police commissioner in Ilorin, Kwara State made international waves when he arrested a goat as a robbery suspect. He told the press that the police were about to grab a member of a car-stealing gang when the man turned into a goat! Ridiculed by the local and international media, the officer neither flinched nor retreated from his bizarre narrative. Nor was he fired. More recently, television cameras brought us shocking images of the squalid conditions at a police academy where police recruits receive their training. The officers that are dehumanized in these academies go forth onto our streets to dehumanize the rest of us. For many of them, the taking of a human life is as easy as ABC.

At minimum, the corpses in Ezu River pose a challenge to all sectors of enlightened Nigerians. That challenge is to get to the root of the horror in Amansea. Those corpses don’t deserve to remain unknown, anonymous. Though dead and mute, all decent Nigerians should seek to give the final honor of having their names known, their stories spoken.

If it turns out that they were killed and dumped by the police, we must have the courage to expose that fact, punish those involved, and use the tragic occasion to rethink who we are, how we must conduct the business of law enforcement, and how to reorient police officers with a different, professional and ethical vision.

For a start, Mr. Jonathan, the Inspector-General of Police, the National Assembly, the Nigerian Bar Association as well as other civic organizations and Nigeria’s clergy should demand that the police in Anambra and Enugu states account for the detainees in their custody, including MASSOB members. Only if  and after  the police clear their names can they earn the credibility to continue leading the search for answers to the puzzle of the floating corpses.###

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