Ajegunle is a poor neighborhood in Lagos. It has a thriving culture with many more having come to the area from all over Nigeria and in fact West Africa in an effort to be in Nigeria's growing commercial metropolis, Lagos. However, the fact that many of Ajegunle's residents are poor, nameless and thus, faceless, makes its residents subject to discrimination and limits their access to justice. As a consequence, when a group of young men chose to exercise their right to protest, 4 of them ended up dead. They were shot to death by police officers on April 1st, 2010.
These four deaths stemmed from an earlier extrajudicial killing in Ajegunle. Charles Okorafor was shot dead while watching a Liverpool match at a public viewing center in Ajegunle. An eyewitness claimed that police officers came into the center to harass and rob the customers, asking them to lie face down on the ground and empty out their pockets. Okorafor refused to comply with the demands of the officers and eventually wound up shot in the head, according to other young men caught up in the incident.
On April 3rd, angry youths protested Okorafor's murder and the result was that 4 additional men were shot dead with at least 25 others wounded. One of the deceased is Tunde Olotu, whose brother Solomon Olotu explained that in order to prevent his brother's death from being concealed by the police, his family hid the body from authorities. According to Solomon,
“On April 3, at about 1.30 pm at Babani Street, near Ajeromi Police Station, my brother was receiving a call when a bullet hit him on the head and he fell.” Mr. Olotu said that his body was hurriedly hidden to avoid the police from seizing it.A HISTORY OF RIGHTS ABUSE
“We rushed and buried him at the Amukoko Health Centre because the police wanted to collect the body from us,”
A human rights group, Labour And Civil Society Coalition (LASCO), wants an independent panel to look into the alleged killings. However, getting justice for individuals abused at the hands of men in uniform in Nigeria is typically a difficult task. One need only recall the Apo Six who were killed by police officers in a matter yet to be resolved. It is only when there is evidence of extrajudicial killings at the hands of Nigerian servicemen that the Nigerian government will react. This was the case with the recent airing of police officers killing alleged Boko Haram militants in Bauchi State on international media outlet Al Jazeera. The international embarassment forced members of Nigeria's national Assembly to finally discuss the matter even though it was common knowledge and admitted to by the Nigerian military that extrajudicial killings did take place during the violent Boko Haram incident that left hundreds dead.
In fact, there is only one time, in recent history, that a Nigerian got justice after being ruthlessly attacked by men in uniform. Uzoma Okere's merciless attack by naval ratings was met with national and international outcry mostly because it was caught on film and shared on the internet by an anonymous observer. She received the support of Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, and the state's legal department which represented her against the military and eventually won a judgment to the tune of N100 million in damages. Had her assault not received the attention it did, and had she simply been a poor and disadvantaged individual, instead of the daughter of the well respected Sergeant At Arms of the National Assembly, it is possible that Okere might never have lived to take her assaulters to court.
Shortly after his declaration as the Acting President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan was also made the Chairman of ECOWAS, the West African economic organization. At that time, he said the following,
"Let it be stated ... that no place exists in this sub-region for ... [the] rape [of] the rights and indeed dignity of our people."
Given this public commitment to the protection of civil and human rights, it is only fair to expect Goodluck Jonathan to use the weight of his office as Commander in Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to ensure that the alleged murder of 5 young Ajegunle residents by the police is investigated. However, it is not enough to merely order a probe as is often the knee-jerk reaction of most Nigerian politicians. This matter of murdered Ajegunle protesters provides an excellent opportunity for Jonathan to prove to the majority of Nigerians who are poor and lack access to many opportunities that he indeed will follow through on his promises. This is particularly the case as a key local activist was arrested days after the protest. As such, any such investigation must be transparent, with the results shared with the nation immediately. Any individuals accused of wrong doing must be allowed the opportunity to defend themselves either in a court of law, or within any judicial structures reserved for the police. However, the families of the murdered victims and the wounded must be treated with respect and their concerns must not be swept under the wrong. Doing so, would only compound the recurring injustice of the underprivileged who, as shown in this horrible incident, are the victims of abuse and theft by those charged with serving their security needs.
Responsibility does not rest on Jonathan alone to address this Ajegunle incident. Nigeria's state governor has fashioned himself as a forward thinking politician focused on preparing the city and its residents for the challenges of a fast growing West African hub. For consistency sake, there must be a reaction from his office and a Lagos State program to address the concerns of residents who consistently complain of abuse at the hands of uniformed, and sometimes plain clothed, officers. It is no secret that police officers and other officials ride public transportation for free, demand a percentage of bus driver's earnings, demand bribes and far too often flee the scenes of violence instead of fighting off robbers. While it is clear that the police are generally underpaid (despite their large allocation in the national budget) and not controlled by state governors, Lagos State must find a creative way to identify and isolate those cause more problems than good while in their uniforms. In fact, given that there is little indication that states will receive control of police officers within their territories, it is imperative for governor's to find ways of addressing the lapses of the police force.
There are additional implications that must not be ignored. According to results, the 4 deaths were tied to protests that sprung up in reaction to Charkes Okorafor's death. The fact that people would be killed during a protest serves to discourage the very democratic tradition of peaceful protest. This tradition is one to be encouraged and not dampened especially in a nation like Nigeria that has witnessed years of military suppression that lead to exile for some, incarceration for many and death for others. If Nigeria is to truly shed its repressive past and indeed achieve the democracy its people seek and its leaders assert will benefit the country, unexplained murders of protesters, extrajudicial killings of individuals, even murderers, unfounded arrests and unlawful detentions must not be allowed to remain the norm. Especially not for the majority of Nigerians who are unfortunately poor despite living in a nation afforded abundant natural wealth. Therefore, it is imperative for Jonathan and other leaders be they in the public or private sector to support free speech and the human and civil rights of all Nigerians irregardless of class, tribe, religion, sex or orientation.
This is particularly important now that young Nigerians are becoming more vocal about the state of Nigeria and the path the country is on. During the political vacuum caused by President Yar'Adua's long absence, young Nigerians from across the country marched in unison to the National Assembly to make demands and there are plans to continue to use peaceful protest as a means of galvanizing the masses and forcing representatives to interact with constituents. Those protests were well organized, advertised well in advance and received international attention on various social media networks and media outlets. The fact that these young men did not have the technological savvy and connections that other larger groups had in no way means that their opinions are less relevant. And, unfortunately, the murder of these poor Ajegunle men sends the message that democratic protest is only meant for a certain category and class of Nigerians.
There is a lot resting on the shoulders of Nigeria's acting President, as there would be for anyone charged with handling the many issues and challenges Nigeria faces. Despite this, it is unconscionable and would be a betrayal of justice if this administration does not actively support the respect of human life regardless of who the human beings are. The murder of 5 young Ajegunle men must not go unnoticed and unaddressed.