On March 31, 2019, Liverpool hosted Tottenham at Anfield, defeating the Pochettino led side by two goals to one. As the reds celebrated in England, the family of Kolade Johnson mourned in Nigeria. The circumstance leading to Kolade’s death is akin to something from a poorly directed movie.
A young media practitioner, Folorunso Ismail, living on Baba Ponmile Street, Mangoro/Onipetesi community of Lagos State, was being kidnapped by unidentified men into a bus without a number plate.
Worried by the sight, people in the area moved in to investigate. That was when a witness saw a marked police force vest on one of the assailants. “We discovered that it could be SARS,” the witness said.
It was later revealed to be operatives of the Special Anti-Cultism Unit (SACS). When the witnesses moved closer to the bus, one of the operatives opened fire.
Kolade Johnson had just stepped out of the viewing centre with Nana Samuel, an inhabitant of the community. They were both standing a few feet away from the commotion, observing without engaging. As the bus conveying the operatives set out to leave, one of them brought out his gun and faced Nana and Kolade.
Nana said, “I was like God what is going to happen next? The next thing I heard were two gunshots.” After firing, the operative jumped into the bus, commando-style, and the bus sped off. But the bullets had hit a target on Baba Ponmile Street.
“Not up to a minute, Kolade said ‘ah, I don die’ ”, Nana narrated.
Kolade’s body had become a home for the bullets, he added.
Persons in the vicinity tried to get him to a hospital but no cab driver was willing to take them for fear of police brutality. By the time someone offered to help, Kolade had lost a lot of blood. He died that afternoon.
Folorunso Ismail would mention later that the reason for his kidnap was because of his dreadlocks. He said he saw the officer fire, heard the sound, but did not know it hit anybody.
Folorunso himself was being beaten in the bus by another officer. Folorunso had committed no crime, neither did Kolade. But both men were brutalised by operatives of Nigeria Police Force suspected to be SARS operatives.
The government promised justice, but justice is yet to come. Meanwhile, the guns of injustice have not stopped shooting and kidnapping across Nigeria.
I spoke to Makinde* on his experience with members of the dreaded SARS unit. Makinde said, “we were the lucky ones.”
When asked why, Makinde said two of his childhood friends who came back from the UK were summarily executed at Ojuelegba, Lagos, by SARS operatives.
The officers accused the teenagers of armed robbery. “Their bodies were found a month later,” Makinde said.
But that was not the end of tragedy for the families. One of the fathers died when he saw his son’s body and the other had a stroke when his wife died a month later. The father who had a stroke died a year later, as their second son committed suicide. Makinde’s personal experiences are limited to harassment.
Anthony* said he spent three nights in police detention for settling a fight between two people. At the cell, Anthony recalled how some of his cell-mates were randomly picked up at different spots, robbed of their personal belongings and dumped in the cell.
On the categories of people he shared the cell with, Anthony* said: “fathers who came to Lagos to see their children, fathers who were picked up in front of their homes with towels on their body, people coming back from parties, people picked up in buses on their way back from work.”
He said some detainees had spent three to five years in detention for offences they knew nothing about. They were neither bailed nor charged. They were just abandoned in the cells to rot.
Anthony’s saving grace was when a commissioner of police visited the station, and one of the arrested persons wouldn’t stop wailing loudly. The commissioner decided to ask what was wrong and allowed some of the inmates to narrate their experiences.
The commissioner gave them a chance to reach out to their families.
“Those of us who didn’t have telephone numbers to call wrote addresses for him,” Anthony said, adding that he could have spent the rest of his life in detention for settling a fight.
Several Nigerians continue to languish in various cells across police stations in the country. Unlawful arrests and detention in Nigeria are easy because the police are often armed with assault rifles. In cases like that of Kolade, when citizens try to intervene, the police shoot at will and without consequences.
The Nigerian Police Force is organised in such a chaotic manner that the personnel do not know how to stop a conflict without guns. The officers lack adequate training, know very little about non-violent policing, have poor gun management, go through an academy that punishes them rather than teach them, and are unleashed on Nigerians with Ak-47 assault riffles This institution is not armed to protect; it is armed to kill without consequences.
Oftentimes, offending police officers are suspended or dismissed to allow the buzz around a case die down but such officers do not face the law.
The unit responsible for Kolade’s death is still in operation but the operative who shot him, Ogunyemi Olalekan, has been dismissed.
Despite several pictures and video evidence of these brutalities, many offending police personnel are not only allowed to return to work, they are also returned to tactical teams, given guns and returned to the streets.
Knowing that they can do as they please, the personnel go back more vicious and courageous than before. Several Nigerians who have had near-death experiences with the police would have heard, “I will kill you, and nothing will happen,” and its other variants used by the police.
As Nigerians continue to clamour that the deadly SARS unit should be erased from the police structure, it is also essential that the country undertake a structural reform of the Nigerian Police Force. If this does not happen, the Nigerian policeman will not stop shooting, and we have several Kolade Johnsons waiting to happen.
*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the victim.