This year made it a decade since dozens of corpses were discovered floating on Ezu River in Amansea, Awka North LGA of Anambra State. (Exact figures regarding the number of bodies found varied; while the villagers said they were able to count 25 the police report put the number at 18). Sadly, apart from a number of articles and commentaries in traditional and social media, nothing meaningful appears being done by way of reactivating the long abandoned inquest into that eerie episode. While the authorities have definitely failed to do their duty, the civil society organisations and individual activists who spoke up strongly for an exhaustive investigation to unravel the root of the development appear to have lost their initial enthusiasm. In fact, we all seem to have given up long ago.
The Ezu River phenomenon is symptomatic of the deep-seated decay that is at the root of all the woes we have continued to suffer in this country. This decay is nothing but our lack of accountability culture. Nobody accounts for anything, hence ours becomes a clime where anything can happen.
In his prison memoir, THE MAN DIED, Wole Soyinka reflects on our culture of near absence of accountability by observing that not even human life is valued enough to be accounted for when it is lost. “The man died, the dog died, it is forgotten,” he writes, implying that human life has become so devalued that it is now ontologically, legally and morally equated to a dog’s life. Soyinka rightly observes that this accountability void is the spirit that gives life to dictatorship; it is the soul of dictatorship. Can Nigeria then be said to be truly democratic when her accountability credentials are so pathetically poor?
For the benefit of those who may have forgotten, the discovery on Ezu River of floating bodies of unidentified young men in January 2013 was one chilling incident that provoked so much national outrage. The authorities including the Nigeria Police Headquarters and the Anambra State Government waded in, vowing to get to the root of the matter. The Senate sent two of its standing committees down to Anambra State; the Committee on Police Affairs and the Committee on Security and Intelligence. The two bodies organised a public hearing in the Anambra State government house where various stakeholders came to testify.
While nobody could with certainty verify the identity of the floating bodies, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) claimed the dead were its members arrested by the police and detained at the facilities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) at Awkuzu and Neni. In other words, the separatist organization was alleging that their members were extra-judicially killed and dumped into a river. This allegation resonates with other allegations of human right violations (typically including unlawful detention, torture and murder) against Anambra SARS then headed by one CSP James Nwafor. Instructively, after a postmortem was conducted on three of the corpses, the Anambra State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Lawrence Ikeako, declared that some “startling revelations” were made, noting that further autopsies would therefore be done on more of the corpses to gain more insight into the development. Consequently, some more of the bodies were exhumed and a postmortem conducted on them.
However, nothing has been heard of the results of the autopsies 10 years after. What is really happening? Commissioner Ikeako has yet to further clarify to the Nigerian public what actually were the “startling revelations” emanating from the postmortem done a decade ago. CP Bala Nasarawa and his boss IGP Mohammed Dikko Abubakar under whose auspices the autopsies were carried out are yet to let the world know the outcome of their investigations despite the police then vowing to get to the root of the matter. Governor Peter Obi whose administration was involved in the investigation of the episode which occurred within its territorial jurisdiction has remained mute since the time. His successors have also not seen any reasons to pursue the unraveling of the events behind the “mystery corpses” despite the issue resurfacing in the public domain from time to time. In fact, the entire conduct of the Anambra State Government regarding this development cannot give one enough reasons to believe that the authorities were transparent about the issue. Soon after Peter Obi left power, an editor in a newspaper I was working with made a formal request to the Ministry of Health asking to be provided with information on the findings of the autopsies conducted on the floating corpses. This request was flatly turned down on the excuse that the postmortem results were not for public consumption! What a country with no iota of accountability even where what is involved is the lives of her citizens!
The then SARS commander, the notorious CSP Nwafor, has not answered all the questions hovering over his head regarding that incident. This is more so when the issue of Ezu River corpses resurfaced during the #EndSARS protests in which physical and online protesters loudly called out the man who has been christened “the butcher of Awkuzu” for what is seen as his serial acts of torture and murder of detainees. But then it appears those nationwide protests and the very serious issues raised therein have all gone the “Nigerian way” once again! The best we have got from the various panels set up to investigate allegations of police brutality in the aftermath of the protests have been order for monetary compensation of victims (especially as contained in the report of the panel set up by Lagos State Government). Otherwise the authorities have all gone silent. We have not heard of or seen any attempt to prosecute or otherwise discipline any erring police officer. Back home, nothing appears to be coming from Anambra State Government (and its panel) even with mountains of allegations against its erstwhile partner-in-crime-fighting, CSP Nwafor. (Long before the #EndSARS episode Nwafor had been a notorious target of damning allegations of crime against humanity including from a world body, the Amnesty International). Instructively, it was only during the 2020 protests that Governor Obiano hurriedly removed him as his Special Adviser on Security; before then the “butcher of Awkuzu” had been courted by the state government, first under Obi then under his successor Obiano.
On the part of the federal government, nothing has been heard except vigorous denials of the Lekki Tollgate killings and relentless rhetoric aimed at delegitimising the #EndSARS phenomenon. The urgent need to address outrageous human rights abuses and reform the police does not appear to bother it. The result? We continue to put up with a police force that knows no rules of conduct so much so that its personnel have continued in unlawful arrests, detentions, and of course the perennial broad daylight extortion of motorists.
Compare our situation to the Hillsborough Disaster in the UK where 96 fans of Liverpool Football Club died in a human crush that ensued during the FA Cup match between the club and Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989. This was not a case of extrajudicial killing or any malicious intent for that matter, but a case of pure accident as a result of shoddy crowd management at a particular part of the stadium. However, over the three decades that followed, the nation never rested, it was haunted by the ghosts of the dead until justice was finally served on those responsible for the costly omission. That underscores the difference between a country that has instituted a culture of accountability and one where impunity reigns supreme. From time to time, fans kept that ugly episode on the front burner; chants and placards got stadiums charged with call for justice. The football fans could accept nothing less than an exhaustive inquiry and justice over the deaths – they’ve got used to a culture where accountability is non-negotiable.
But in Nigeria, citizens have endlessly been treated to episodes where our nation mindlessly displays her contempt for accountability. We blow every opportunity to take a censuring look at the past and undo previous wrongs in order to chart a better course for our future. The famous Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (Oputa panel) is a very good example. After hundreds of hours of sittings, outrageous revelations by witnesses and large volumes of final report from the commission, we did not get to see any efforts to act on the reports which would have included prosecuting the offenders. Not even serious conversations on the panel and its reports have been witnessed either in the media or the academia. A member of the panel, Bishop Matthew Kukah, has painfully made this point. Can we then be surprised by the fact that human rights violation remains an ingrained culture in our polity?
Truth is that such a censuring look at a people’s past – as represented by the inquests conducted by Oputa Panel – is critical for determining the pattern of social memory created for such a people. Social scientists have copiously studied the role of collective memory in instituting norms, moulding sentiments and motivating social actions among a people. Our collective memory is such that is replete with episodes of impunity. A mob would run wild in the streets of northern Nigeria killing their fellow citizens and ripping the wombs of pregnant women to extract and kill their fetuses and not a single suspect was arrested talk more of prosecuted. A group of fanatics would cut off and hoist the head of an Akaluka or stone to death and burn the body of a Deborah while making videos to boast of their murderous exploits yet no one has been brought to book. Police officers and other security agents would unlawfully arrest, detain, torture and kill helpless citizens still without facing any punitive action. Security agencies would, on daily basis and in broad daylight, extort motorists of their hard-earned money without fearing any consequences. A certain CSP James Nwafor would be accused of iniquitous atrocities yet would over all these years never faced even the mildest of questioning sessions let alone a judicial procedure. A certain CP Abba Kyari would be accused of all manner of atrocities as the commander of SARS in Lagos and only to be transferred to Abuja to head a new and even more powerful police unit to continue his atrocities. A Ganduje would be caught on camera stuffing dollar notes (from contractors) into his babaringa yet nothing else happened save for his being rewarded with a second tenure as a state governor.
Episodes like the above – too many and too recurring to be taken account of – constitute the pattern of events that fill up our memory as a people. Such pattern of events has permeated our individual and collective psyche so much so that we cannot imagine a scenario different from it. It has become for us the unassailable way of life. Hence, we do not expect so much in terms of accountability; we are ready to accept anything and any situation. We lack both the conviction and energy to persistently demand account from those who should render it.
Another way to state this is that impunity has become so normalised in our clime that unlike the English football fans who would persistently demand for accountability in regard to the Hillsborough Disaster, we have become so complacent that everything, including one as serious as the Ezu River episode, is easily allowed to be swept under the carpet. In other words, while the English football fans were driven by a collective memory replete with instances where individuals and institutions had unfailingly been summoned to answer for whatever wrongs they might have done (ranging from the slightest of errors to the most serious of deeds and omissions), our citizens, on the contrary, have had to live with a past where no one answers for anything. And this is why ours is a clime where everything goes.
TO BE CONTINUED
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.