COVID-19 protocols: Police, prisons’ breach endangers accused, suspects’ lives (I)

The second wave of COVID-19 has been adjudged by experts to be deadlier, but shockingly the police in Lagos State are flouting the Coronavirus protocols, to endanger their lives and those of the detainees. In this report, JULIANA FRANCIS looks at how police and the Nigeria Correctional Service breach COVID-19 guidelines with arbitrary arrests and frivolous demands for tests

In the beginning

Nigeria had its COVID-19 index case on February 27, 2020. The virus was viewed as the mother of all public health crises, grounding socio-economic activities. The pandemic challenged not just health workers, but also personnel of the Nigeria Police Force.

To curtail the spread of the virus and save lives, the World Health Organisation (WHO) argued that personal hygiene, social and physical distancing, and wearing of face masks should be embraced. The social distancing regulation requires two persons or more should be at least two metres apart. In March 2020, the Inspector-General of Police (IG), Mohammed Adamu, rolled out directives, ordering police personnel to avoid unnecessary arrests and detentions to curtail the spread of the virus. As part of the prevention of the spread of the virus, the IG instructed that confinement of suspects in police cells must be lessened and only those with felonious crimes, such as armed robbery, rape, kidnapping and murder should be charged to court.

But police personnel have continued to ignore the directives. The recent arrest and detention of three boys at the Orile area of Lagos State underscored police personnel lackadaisical attitude toward the directives. The three boys were sleeping in an apartment at Orile area of Lagos, when they heard loud knocks.

The day was January 22, 2021 and the time was 2am. The knocks scared them as they thought men of the underworld had come to visit them. The petrified boys croaked out a question from throats parched with fear. Who is it? The knockers said they were policemen.

One of the boys is Sunday Akindutire, a secondary schoolboy in SS2. Sunday used to live with his elder brother but the man got married and had to relocate to another part of Lagos. Sunday, who was schooling in that area, had to stay with friends of his brother, who had become like brothers to him.

Every day after returning from school, Sunday goes to a mechanic workshop, where he’s an apprentice. After the youth opened the door, the policemen demanded to know the person called Sunday among them. The boy stepped forward. He and his two mates were promptly arrested and taken to the Lagos State Police headquarters, Ikeja.

The team was from the Commissioner of Police’s Squad (CP’s Squad). It was only after the boys reached the police headquarters that they were told their alleged crime. Police said the youth were arrested for being in possession of a gun and for belonging to a cult group.

The boys were stunned. The boys initially thought this was a bad joke, but they would later spend two weeks and four days locked up in one of the six cells at the former Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit. Sunday recalled: “They showed me a guy, who stays in our community, but we are not friends.

The police claimed the guy mentioned my name as a member of their gang. But right in my presence, the guy told them I was not the person, but they wouldn’t listen. The guy said it was Tiro he mentioned, but the police said they had to arrest us when they couldn’t locate Tiro, because they didn’t want to waste petrol driving down to our community.”

Sunday also got to hear how the boy, whose name he didn’t know till he was granted bail, was arrested. According to him, policemen from Orile Police Station went to raid a community at Orile, where they saw young boys smoking Indian hemp. When the boys sighted the policemen, they scampered in different directions. People in the community alleged that young boys in that community were used to police raids and were always at alert. So, on that fateful day, many escaped, but the police caught one. The boy who was caught mentioned Tiro as his friend. The police came to look for Tiro, but didn’t find him.

The police also claimed that they found a gun at the spot where the boys were smoking. Sunday said till he left police custody, nobody showed him the gun. He was bailed with N70,000, while his two mates paid N50,000 each. Asked about the condition of the cell, where he was detained and if COVID-19 protocols were observed, he sniggered.

He said: “Some days, in our cell, we would be about 72 or more. We didn’t even bathe for those days we were locked up. Those of us in our cell were lucky, because there was a cell that had over 102 detainees. Nobody checked anyone’s temperature to know if the detainees had COVID-19 symptoms or not.”

IG’s Directives and Guidelines on COVID-19

Since 2020 till date, police personnel have continued to breach these COVID-19 protocols and no punitive action has been taken against them. They continue to arrest wrong people and detain many for civil matters and misdemeanours. According to our investigation, not only do police arrest people over minor and imagined crimes; they also detain suspects for days, leading to overcrowding in prison cells, thereby aiding the spread of the virus.

In fact, added to the challenge of overcrowding in many police cells is the instruction from the Nigeria Correctional Service that before any accused is brought to their detention facilities; such a person must have done a mandatory COVID-19 test, to avoid infecting inmates. Thus, accused, who are supposed to be on remand in correctional centres, are returned to police cells to await the COVID-19 tests and results. The government itself seemed not to be too keen about the safety of those in police cells.

Sunday and his two friends were crammed into an overcrowded cell and detained for two weeks, over allegations that couldn’t be substantiated. The actions of the police were flagrant breaches of the IG’s directives and the Nigeria Police Force’s Guidelines for Law Enforcement Agencies on COVID-19, issued last year in the heat of the ravaging virus.

The policemen did not only endanger the lives of Sunday and his friends; they also endangered the lives of other detainees and of themselves as well. A n o t h e r classical example of how police continue to breach the COVID-19 g u i d e l i n e s was the arrest and detention of 20-year-old Sofia Elijah, a filling station attendant at the Ijanikin area of Lagos State. Sofia and a male colleague were arrested on January 28 over the alleged theft of N270,000 and detained for two days.

The police again erred when they decided to lock up Sofia and her colleague, rather than to grant them bail, since theft is a minor offence. By detaining them for two days, the police endangered not just the lives of Sofia, but her entire family. Also, detainees in the cell Sofia was kept could be asymptomatic. Again, Sofia could be a potential vehicle for COVID-19.

But the policemen didn’t take this into consideration. Mr. Victor Ogbonna also has a story to tell. He was detained for five days in a cell said to be 6 x 8 in size. Victor lives in Lagos, but was arrested by policemen from the Anti-Kidnapping Unit in Abia State and taken to the Central Police Station in the state. His offence?

The police wanted him to pay his late brother’s debt, but he refused. It was a civil matter and didn’t need police involvement. Victor narrated: “I was detained for five days, over a civil matter. At that Central Police Station, Umuahia, there are three cells. Cell 1 had 29 detainees; Cell 2 had 28, while Cell 3, where I was detained, had 10 of us. The three cells were all crowded. But the suspects in Cell 3 with me were kidnappers and armed robbers. Police detained me with criminals! The suspects told me they were armed robbers and kidnappers. Some of them said they had been in that cell since November last year.

The policemen refused to allow me access to my medicine.” These breaches by the police have been going on in Lagos State since 2020, but this year’s contraventions are worsening and now worrisome, taking into account that the second wave of the virus is said to be deadlier. Last year, following the IG’s instructions on COVID-19, the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy (RULAAC), a non-profit, independent, national human rights advocacy organisation, in partnership with Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), embarked on a project tagged: “Monitoring law enforcement action within the framework of COVID-19 lockdown and curfew enforcement.”

The monitoring focused on six selected states, including Lagos and FCT. The Executive Director of RULAAC, Mr. Okechukwu Nwanguma, headed the project. One of the Lagos State monitors, who incidentally is this reporter, on June 24, 2020, spoke with a man, Mr. Martin Bajogu, on the arrest and detention of his brother, Kingsley Bajogu, a driver of Toyota Camry, marked SMK 126 CZ. Kingsley was allegedly arrested by policemen from the Lagos State Task Force for driving against traffic at the Oyingbo area of the Lagos metropolis. He was taken to their office at Oshodi, where he was detained in an overcrowded cell. Again, his detention contravenes the IG’s COVID-19 prevention directive. Again, his offence shouldn’t warrant detention.

The fact that the three detention facilities at the task force’s offices were all filled with suspects also goes contrary to the IG’s directives. Speaking on his brother’s arrest and detention, Martin said: “He took a path he was not supposed to take and the policemen attached to the task force arrested him. In the process of trying to arrest him, a policeman was injured. They held him because of the injured policeman. The police said they would have allowed me to bail him, but because of the injured policeman.

They insisted I should go and see the injured policeman. I don’t know what the truth is. My brother has been in detention since yesterday. I saw my brother inside the cell. There were three cells and all were filled with suspects. During the day that I was there, as people were being bailed, other people were being brought in.

There should be more than 20 suspects in each cell.” Similarly, the Imo State monitor spoke with a detainee, who didn’t want his name mentioned, fearful that the police might come after him. The detainee revealed that he was detained at the Imo State Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Department (SCIID) in Cell 3, where detainees were up to 20 in a 14 x 10 cell. He said the cell was dirty and stank of urine; conditions that could have caused infections. Martin said he could not eat for the period of the four days he was detained due to the unhygienic condition of the cell.

He added: “There was no water, so I could not take my bath for those four days I spent there. Cell 3 is even better, compared to others. Cell 1 is dark even during the day. Some inmates go blind after sometime in that cell. One suspect who told me he was initially in Cell 1 said he developed a serious skin disease before he was transferred to Cell 3. Some of the suspects had spent as long as six months there. Eight others were brought into the cell after we were brought in, including three who looked underage, not more than 15 years.” In order to pursue this argument that policemen, especially in Lagos State continued to breach the IG’s directives and guidelines, our reporter hired a law enforcement officer to visit some police cells.

Finding on police cells

The former detention facilities belonging to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have been taken over by the CP’s Squad. In the unit alone, there are six cells; Cells 1 to 5, and then an open cell. Cells 1 and 2 are for suspects with minor cases, while Cell 3 is for new suspects, who have just been transferred from other divisions and still need to be debriefed and investigated. Also, Cell 4 is for women, while Cell 5 is for suspected armed robbers, murderers and kidnappers. The open cell is for suspects with injuries.

They are kept there so that natural air will aid the healing of their injuries. In the same police headquarters, there is another section belonging to the State Investigation Bureau (SIB); it has three cells and an open cell. It can take over 300 suspects.

It is for detaining policemen who erred and suspects of detectives working in the SIB Unit. As at February 12, 2021, former SARS cells, now being used by CP’s Squad, had over 310 detainees. The open cell at Area F Command had “too many detainees.” There have been countless accusations of overcrowding of Police Task Force cells by suspects and human rights activists.

Our fixer said counting to know the actual number of detainees was futile because of overcrowding. The Executive Director, Human Rights Advocacy and Monitoring Group (HURAMG), Comrade Adewale Ojo, said police do not follow the COVID-19 prevention protocols. He said: “I was among those arrested during the #RevolutionNow protest in Lagos.

I can tell you categorically that we were packed in a police van like fish, even the so-called policemen didn’t use face masks. It was the intervention of some lawyers that got us freed after like eight hours at Area F Police Division. If you can be opportune to get to Lagos Task Force Cell this morning, I can assure you, you’ll see how policemen aid the spread of the virus.”

The fixer also visited Ijanikin Police Station, which is described as “market square,” with the premises flooded with seized motorcycles. Most of the detainees were victims of police raids. At Ojo Police Station, the cell was not crowded. Federal SARS (FSARS), Adeniji-Adele, had just five suspects.

The State Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Department (SCIID), Panti, Yaba, had overcrowded cells. The women cell at Panti had just a few detainees. At Area F Festac, there is a cell for the area command and division. The area command cell had just five detainees, while the division had 17 detainees. Among the 17 were two females. One was detained over rent related issues, the second for fighting and causing injury. These women shouldn’t be in detention. The cell of the Rapid Response Squad (RSS) did not have many detainees. At SIB, there were many police personnel and civilians detained.

The reason these policemen continue to disregard all COVID-19 protocols is not farfetched. A policeman working at the command had scoffed: “There’s nothing like COVID-19! If it truly exists, we would have contracted it. Do you know the number of people we arrest every day and those detained?” True, some policemen do not believe in the reality of the virus. Tragically, however, many of the policemen have weaponised coronavirus as a tool for vendetta, harassment and extortion.

Before the #EndSARS drama last year, officials of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) went to the Lagos State Police Command, Headquarters, Ikeja, to carry out the COVID-19 test on detainees and at least 65 were positive.

A policeman, who was part of those who monitored the proceeding, said: “The NCDC officials never returned to separate the infected people from those who were not negative. On that day, we gave them the officials’ seats and they took saliva and inserted cotton wool into the nostrils of our suspects.”

The IG ordered last year that signals be sent out, stressing that suspects in any police detention facilities shouldn’t be more than 10. However, most cells do not have any known or standard holding capacity like the correctional centres.

A Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) said the holding capacity for police cells “depends on how big and secured the cells are. It differs from station to station.” The greatest breach of the COVID-19 protocol was witnessed after the #End- SARS protest.

The protest, which was spearheaded by youths, was against police brutality, extra-judicial killings, harassment and extortion in Nigeria. Several arrests were made by the police, who wanted to clamp down on those who burnt police stations, killed policemen and destroyed governments’ infrastructure. The IG said that over 1,590 suspects were arrested across the country, but in Lagos State, over 520 were arrested and detained. “People arrested were too many. SARS cells couldn’t contain them. All the cells were full. There were others in SIB, but they were still too many. The whole compound was full of suspects. There was no space. Some of the suspects had to be taken to SCIID, Panti, Yaba and Area F Police cells,” a police source said.

NCS demands for COVID-19 tests

The unyielding demand of officials of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) for accused to carry out a COVID-19 screening has become one of the biggest factors and contributors to overcrowding in police cells. At Okokomaiko Police Station, a man, identified simply as Chukwudi, was in police detention for three months because of COVID-19 test.

He was arrested for selling a motorcycle given to him on hire purchase. He was arraigned at Ojo Magistrates’ Court and pleaded not guilty. He was supposed to be remanded at Badagry Correctional Centre, but the officials refused to accept him, insisting police should come with Chukwudi’s COVID-19 test result.

There’s also the case of Mr. Bright Chilaka, who has been in police custody since December. His brother, Mr. Chibunna Chilaka, said Bright was framed up in his work place. He said: “He was taken to court and the charge was read to him. He pleaded not guilty. The case was adjourned till February 1, 2021. He was taken to Ikoyi Prisons, but the prison staff said he needed to do the COVID-19 test and return with the result before he would be accepted. He was returned to the cell of the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID), Alagbon.” Apart from flouting all COVID-19 protocols, the police refused to accept fault for their actions.

They blamed correctional centres for the overcrowding of police cells. But the Lagos State NCS Public Relations Officer, Mr. Rotimi Oladokun (a barrister), said his command was just following orders, and also needed to protect prisoners under their care.

He said: “Due to the advent of the COVID- 19, especially with Lagos State being an epicentre of the outbreak, stakeholders in the administration of criminal justice jointly agreed on the need to protect critical infrastructure like the custodial centres, formerly designated as prisons, from the impact of the virus, especially as these inmates were in a secure and isolated environment.

These stakeholders developed a COVID-19 safety protocol for the criminal justice sector, whereby any defendant remanded in any custodial centre in the state must first be subjected to a COVID-19 test and be admitted in these centres only with a negative COVID-19 test result.”

It was agreed that the test would be done by the state government through the coordination of the state Ministry of Justice. “This has been the position in the state, especially after the outbreak of the second wave of the pandemic. There is a need to protect the inmates in custody from any exposure to coronavirus,” Oladokun said. •This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Free to Share project


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