Editorial: What Manner of Justice for Apo killings?

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Twelve long years after six innocent Nigerians - five men and a lady were shot and killed by police officers in Abuja on June 7, 2005, the emotions now trailing acquittal the other day, of Danjuma Ibrahim, Nicholas Zakariah and Sadiq Salami; three of the six police officers arraigned over the murder have again shown that the scars are not only still deep, they have been dug further open. Although two other officers - Emmanuel Baba and Ezekiel Acheneje – were sentenced to death, the other three are free, the victims are dead, and their families are nursing the scars. With the sixth accused, Othman Abdulsalam, then Divisional Police Officer in Apo, still at large, Nigeria still bleeds from the assault of the Apo killings. In place of a closure on that gruesome event, the nation now deals with an open and nagging reminder. And for many, the nightmare not only continues, the nation is trapped in bondage to a ghastly memory.  

The judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja by Justice Ishaq Bello, has once again; put the judiciary in an uncomfortable controversy. Not only did the court discharge and acquit Danjuma Ibrahim in the most controversial manner, it also somehow discounted evidence from eight other police witnesses who had testified that Ibrahim, the senior police officer among the accused officers, had ordered the killings. This testimony was corroborated by a judicial panel of inquiry set up by the Obasanjo administration to investigate the issue following public outcry, over what was perceived as extra-judicial killings.

The panel said the victims were at a nightclub located at Gimbiya Street, Area 11 in Abuja on the night of the incident. The panel further said that a face-off had ensued between Ibrahim and the group when the female victim allegedly turned down Ibrahim’s love advances at the club. Although the police claimed they were armed robbers who opened fire first, the judicial panel of inquiry eventually dismissed the police’s claim. The government then apologized on behalf of the police for their killings, compensated the family of each of the victims and recommended for the implicated officers a criminal trial that took 12 long years to arrive at what is now a travesty of justice.

There is a lot to take away from the judgment. In the first instance it brings to the fore the too many ills besetting the Nigerian criminal justice system which deserves a complete overhaul. Most bizarre is the inordinate delay which cases suffer in court. An average case takes three or more years to resolve in violation of the constitution that “whenever any person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time by a court or tribunal.” It is even worse and perhaps orchestrated in criminal trials involving high profile persons as witnessed in the Apo killings involving police officers. Some of the trials of corrupt public officers and former governors have been in court since 2003, without an end in sight. Nigerians are bewildered as to whether there would ever be an end to the trials. High hopes enkindled by such arraignments have become forlorn by the indeterminable delay. Any criminal justice system that drags for so long makes itself vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and external or extraneous manipulation potent enough to asphyxiate or pollute justice.

Secondly, the judgment raises the question of whether Nigerian courts are actually courts of justice as they are called, or mere courts of law. For a court of justice according to the law, the Federal High Court came across in this case as no more than a court of law determined to espouse the principles of law to arrive at a destination. Its consideration of the law was to set acquit some of the accused officers with or without justification. It capitulated pathetically to the strong wind of sentiment, arguing that the prosecution did not prove the command responsibility of Ibrahim beyond reasonable doubt. What operated in the mind of the court in assessing the quality of the police witnesses’ statements? Weren’t the relevant testimonies that Ibrahim as the most senior of the officers ordered the killings after his amorous advances were rebuffed by the female victim corroborated as far as could be tested? Were the testimonies by eight other police witnesses not consistent with other facts which were ascertained?

Against this background, can it be honestly contended that there was not enough corroborative evidence of the facts to convict Ibrahim? Were the circumstances and events surrounding the Apo killings not exactly as painted by the witnesses? It is out of place to assert without fear of contradiction that the junior officers couldn’t have acted without the expressed authority of their boss? It’s surprising and an irony of great significance that the Court did not see all of these, which other Nigerians saw, and instead, chose to reprimand the junior officers who were obviously merely following instructions. As it is, the judgment leaves Nigerians with more puzzles and untrimmed edges; and because this flies in the face of common sense, it has been described as a miscarriage of justice and difficult to swallow.

Basically therefore, it is safe to conclude that by discharging and acquitting Ibrahim and the two other officers; the Federal High Court took its stand on a banana skin. It is unlikely to survive the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. What this suggests is that the judgment should be appealed for posterity sake. And so trapped within the vortex of widespread insecurity, recurrent extra-judicial killings, and the absence of diligent prosecution and the rule of law, Nigerians have learnt not to trust any law enforcement officer with a gun. In all, what the judgment has done is to authenticate impunity. Since memory seldom fails the traumatized, this unjustified killing of innocent Nigerians in their prime who, to the best of knowledge, displayed no provocation is a sad reminder that reinforces the conviction that here in Nigeria; only the small man pays for his crimes.  

Above all, it means that all those behind the dastardly acts and litany of woes freely dispensed by people in authority positions can get away, literally with murder, in a manner that calls to question the essence of government or its readiness to discharge its basic responsibility of protecting lives and property, and enforcing law and order. The greatest tragedy is that this judgment has, once again, defeated the expectation of Nigerians. The accused may have been freed by the court, but Nigeria remains shackled to the memory of the traumatizing event. With justice put off and the killers now free, the cleansing Nigeria needs remains elusive. And the blood of the victims, still raw on the pavement of the hearts of Nigerians, cry out ever more loudly for justice.