Nigerian Police Brutality Continues Despite Human Rights Aspirations

In mid-July, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari gave a speech to the International Criminal Court outlining the importance of human rights and accountability for those who breach them. Meanwhile, as reported by the Premium Times in Nigeria, members of The Network for Police Reform were preparing to lodge a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission. This came after an alleged incident where local DJs were detained and assaulted by members of the military after one of the servicemen accused them of stealing his phone. Aided by police, they were taken to a local station and extorted for a significant sum of money.


This is not the first instance of alleged police brutality occurring within Nigeria. Reuters reported in 2017 that there was much demand for action by the population of Nigeria after videos and images of brutality against youth committed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a division of the Nigerian Police Force, emerged on social media. Buhari, a former Major General in Nigeria’s army, famously cracked down on journalists and any others who were seen as threatening the security of the country during his time as the country’s military Head of State in the mid-1980s. In 1999, following the transition to a civilian government after decades of military rule, Nigeria introduced a constitution that outlines many human rights. Despite this and the efforts from Buhari to enforce the rule of law in respect to human rights, human rights abuses have been sustained.


Former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell wrote in a recent book that Nigeria’s human rights are “stuck between aspiration and reality”. When The Organization for World Peace asked him why these sort of human rights abuses occur, he stated that police are “poorly trained and poorly paid”, to the extent that “the only way they can survive is through shakedown schemes”, such as those reported by Premium Times. The “quite violent” techniques such as operating checkpoints and beating have been passed down through the history of the nation. Mr. Campbell put forth a commonly held view that Nigeria is still operates like a colonial state, only “the British have left and have been replaced by local elites”. Knowing Buhari personally, Campbell believes that he is genuine in his commitment to democracy and human rights, highlighting a speech he gave at Chatham House in 2015 outlining his “conversion” to this form of governance in “convincing terms”.


Those groups in Nigeria such as the Network for Police Reform must continue to hold Buhari accountable to his responsibility to improve conditions. This involves cooperating with organisations such as Amnesty International to bring more international attention to their cause. Buhari himself, if truly committed to his pledge to abide by the rule of law, must do more to seek out and remove institutional corruption within the police and military.


With Dr Onwuazombe writing in the 2017 Annual Survey of International and Comparative Law that “the human rights records of the Nigerian state has been consistently poor” and Ambassador Campbell saying that these issues are “deep seeded” within the state, it is hard to be optimistic about the future in regards to human rights in Nigeria. Whilst Campbell believes that reform can be made under Buhari, he did express concerns that “a successor… who is not a convinced democrat may behave quite differently.” He followed up by comparing Europe’s shift to democracy to the current situation in Nigeria in that “it’s going to take a long time” to transition from their aspirational human rights goals to reality.