The Police and extra-judicial killings in Nigeria

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What explains the increase in extrajudicial killings and disproportionate use of force by the police in Nigeria? What can be done about it? Beyond disbandment of notorious police units, Oluwafifehan Ogunde provides insight on legal and socio-legal reforms required.


On 31st March 2019, a police team from the anti-cultism unit of the Lagos State police command reportedly killed a man in his 30s, a Mr Kolade Johnson. Unsurprisingly, this incident revived calls by citizens for disbandment of the special anti-robbery squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian police force. In response, the police officer suspected to have shot the man was dismissed from the Nigerian police force – and he now faces criminal charges. 

The killing is just the latest in a series of extrajudicial killings and unlawful actions by members of the Nigerian police force. It is not the first time that police officers have been prosecuted and convicted of unlawful killings. In 2017, two former policemen were sentenced to death for the murder of six young civilians in 2005. Judicial convictions for extra-judicial killings in Nigeria are nevertheless rare and many other cases of human rights violations by law enforcement officers remain largely unpunished. Proposed reform of the SARS unit announced in 2018 by the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo have been regarded as ineffective in curbing the excesses of the unit. While such a conclusion may be premature, the sufficiency of government action remains under intense scrutiny. Without disregarding any other factors, one thing is clear from these cases: the safety and security of Nigerians depends on a proper clarification of the extent of police powers with respect to the use of force

The Nigerian Police Act outlines duties of the Nigerian police force. The duties include ‘protection of life and property, apprehension of offenders, preservation of law and order and the prevention of crime’. The excessive use of force even in performance of lawful duties is covered under the Nigerian Criminal Code pursuant to which any person authorised by law to use force as being criminally responsible for any excess use of force. The Criminal code also considers it unlawful to kill any person unless such killing is authorised or justified at law. This is pursuant to the right to life guarantee under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. On the basis of these laws, the officer who allegedly killed Kolade Johnson was dismissed on the ground of ‘unlawful and unnecessary exercising of authority by using unnecessary violence’.

In light of an increase in extrajudicial killings, calls for reform of the SARS unit of the Nigerian Police Force can no longer be easily disregarded. The police do not necessarily have to be disarmed, as some have suggested, to perform their functions under the Police Act. Securing the lives and property of citizens in Nigeria at this time requires that law enforcement officers be appropriately armed – but also that they be trained on the use of force. This is particularly important in order to deal with some serious cases relating to disruption of public safety e.g terrorist activity, kidnapping and armed robbery. Unfortunately, the Police Act does not provide any guidance on the exercise of these duties and the scope of police powers remains largely ambiguous. Other criminal law statutes such as the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (2015) provide guidance in arrest and search powers but fail to do so  with regard to the use of force. This glaring gap in the law has led to a situation where armed officers are not aware of the scope of the lawful exercise of power and consequently violate constitutional provisions and fundamental human rights of the citizens they are expected to protect pursuant to their law enforcement duties.

It is fundamental that law enforcement officers should not have to live in fear of being criminally prosecuted in the discharge of their official duties, even when performing their duties involves the use of force. Unfortunately, there is very little guidance in the Police Act or other regulations as to the circumstances in which the use of deadly force is permitted. The law needs to provide a suitable framework for any training programmes that may be developed by the administrative authorities. For instance, not every protest or disruption of public order for requires the use of force. Furthermore, there are other non-deadly weapons e.g rubber bullets, teargas that can be used to maintain order in non-dangerous situations.

Developing a legal framework defining the scope of police powers particularly on the use of weapons and firearms also helps the police force in developing a community relationship with the rest of the public. This is particularly necessary for the purpose of gathering intelligence relating to crime prevention and detection. The actions of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit in recent times have eroded this relationship significantly and significant reform of the police force (legally and socio-legally) is necessary in order to prevent further erosion of civilian trust and confidence in the police force. The disbandment of a particular unit of the police force will not solve systemic problems of a lack of proper training and unclear legal regulations relating to the extent of police powers.

Oluwafifehan Ogunde is a research specialist and research consultant 

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