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Nigeria’s Unlawful Detention Of Terrorism Suspects Is Promoting Human Rights Abuse

There have been various issues threatening Nigeria since the return to democratic rule in 1999. One is the lack of respect for human rights.

The past eight years have been difficult for the family of Aliyu Isa, who has been detained by the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s secret police. 

Isa was a third-year student at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Kaduna, when soldiers arrested him on suspicions of terrorism on Nov. 26, 2014. After days of military detention in Zaria, he was handed over to the SSS and his relatives have since then not set their eyes on him. A relative who spoke under anonymity because they “have been threatened repeatedly” said efforts to get him released have not been successful.

“We have been traumatised since he was arrested because he is innocent. He has nothing to do with terrorism and has never been a terrorist,” the relative said. 

To secure Isa’s release, his family approached a Kaduna Federal High Court in 2016. On May 7, the following year, the court ruled that the arrest and torture of Isa violated the country’s constitution and directed the security agency to release him. The court also awarded a ₦1 million ($2,401) fine against the SSS. 

Though the court judgement is five years old, the SSS has failed to comply. HumAngle learnt that several intervention letters have also been written to the federal legislative house over the case, but there has been no response. 

SSS spokesperson Peter Afunanya did not respond to enquiries seeking comment on the agency’s refusal to release Isa to his relatives.

Festus Ogun, a lawyer and rights activist, argued that aside from undermining the fight against human rights abuse, the repeated disobedience of court orders weakens judicial authority and endangers democracy.  

“By virtue of our laws, including the principle of democracy, court orders must be respected by all authorities and persons. Unfortunately, when orders of courts are not respected, it means there is no separation of power and the last hope of the common man becomes the lost hope of the common man,” he said. 

“The government cannot run to court to obtain detention orders or other favourable decisions only for it to turn around to ignore the orders of the same court when citizens are asked to regain their freedom. If the last of the common man is disrespected, then there is no democracy.”

Meanwhile, the directive to release Isa was made at a time when Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari reiterated his commitment to ensuring compliance with the rule of law by all agencies under his administration. He promised his respect for the constitution, which empowers courts to decide cases before them, including those involving arms of the government. 

But there has been a pattern of failure to comply with court judgements, a development that lawyers and human rights activists say amounts to a mockery of the law. Many Nigerians like Isa are detained wrongfully in various security jails and prisons because they are faintly suspected to have affiliations with the terror group.  

One of such is the illegal detention and torture of Adamu Musa, a mechanic arrested by military personnel searching for Boko Haram members at the Gomari airport area of Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, in Nov. 2013.

While Musa was quite lucky to be released a month later because of efforts made by his father, a retired soldier, Alhaji Bana, who was arrested with him, died in detention and the soldiers allegedly buried him without informing his relatives. The slain civilian was a medical doctor accused by the military of treating Boko Haram members. 

HumAngle has written several reports on the plights of citizens who survived torture in different military barracks and the Borno Maximum Security Prison. They were detained alongside terror suspects without concrete evidence. Many have also reportedly lost their lives in illegal detention due to hunger, thirst, torture, asphyxiation, and disease.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has warned that the trial of terrorism offences in Nigeria exposes how the country’s criminal justice system is marred with weak investigations, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and the absence of evidence.

“This is bad not just for counter-terrorism in the region and in Africa, but also for Nigeria’s ability to deliver justice for other offences generally,” the institute noted. 

Also, as Nigeria battles with congestion of prisons due to an overwhelming number of awaiting trial inmates, those accused of terrorism without sufficient evidence or existing court process are in limbo.

“Authorities must end serious human rights violations in their quest to identify and prosecute suspected terrorists. These abuses are both unlawful under Nigeria and international law and counterproductive in the fight against terrorism,” observed Timothy Avele, a security expert at Armourcop G. Security Systems Ltd.

With less than a year to vacate the office as president, rights defenders urge Buhari to intervene and bring an end to rights violations by law enforcement and security agencies. “President Buhari is the chief enforcer of laws of the land and he has a few months left to normalise human rights acts in Nigeria,” said Boladale Titilayo, a rights activist.

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Adejumo Kabir

Kabir works at HumAngle as the Editor of Southern Operations. He is interested in community development reporting, human rights, social justice, and press freedom. He was a finalist in the student category of the African Fact-checking Award in 2018, a 2019 recipient of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence, and a 2020 recipient of the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award. He was also nominated in the journalism category of The Future Awards Africa in 2020. He has been selected for various fellowships, including the 2020 Civic Media Lab Criminal Justice Reporting Fellowship and 2022 International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) 'In The Name of Religion' Fellowship.

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