Languages
Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Nigeria police: Issuing corpses and denials

By Caroline Duffield
BBC News, Lagos

Some of the dead bodies in the morgue
The police are facing criticism over the deaths

"It really overwhelms our capacity to store bodies," says Dr Anthony Mbah, chief medical director at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital.

His mortuary is overflowing - with corpses brought in by the police.

"We have between 70 and 80 bodies right now... and about three weeks ago, there was a mass burial of some other corpses," he says.

"We are now getting ready to get these ones buried."

Inside the mortuary in the south-eastern city of Enugu, two rooms are set aside for the remains of the young men.

In the first room, they are stacked, naked, one on top of the other. In places the piles are four or five deep.

Faces peer out amongst a forest of legs. Heads loll into groins. Limbs are flung around torsos. Some almost seem to embrace. The smell - and the flies - make it impossible to get close.

It is a scene beyond belief.

Fathers' pain

The mortuary is in a state of chaos. No-one working here can put a precise number on the corpses. Many of the bodies have no names. Mortuary records simply say "suspected armed robber" or "unknown thief".

Dennis Onovo
As they killed him, they killed me, my life is over
Dennis Onovo
Father of victim

The register says police left 75 bodies between the beginning of June and 26 November this year.

But the records are imperfect - staff correct mistakes as they go along, one page appears to be missing.

It is uncertain how many of these bodies really are those of armed robbers.

The father of one victim of a police shooting has no doubt about the innocence of his son.

"A child is a gift from the Gods. They have taken him from me," Chief Dennis Onovo murmurs.

The morning that Mr Onovo's 22-year-old son, Matthew, died he had been walking to a computer class. Police were searching for an armed man in the area - and shot him dead.

"I always hoped my son will one day be governor of this state, or even head of state - but all my effort is in vain," says Mr Onovo.

For two days, the community stood still as people came out in peaceful demonstration.

The police told Matthew's parents he was suspected of armed robbery.

"This boy was not an armed robber. He was never a thief, much less an armed robber," says Mr Onovo.

"As they killed him, they killed me, my life is over."

Emmanuel Egbo
Emmanuel Egbo's parents say he was a keen student, not a criminal

A few miles away, another father echoes his words.

Chief Mark Ngena trembles, remembering.

"He was playing with his fellow children," he says of his 13-year-old son Emmanuel.

"Suddenly policemen, three of them, came in. They shot and killed this boy. Murdered him in cold blood."

It was later claimed that Emmanuel too was an armed robber.

His family have never recovered his body.

Lawyers and relatives point to a pattern - of unlawful killings by police, followed by claims the deceased was an armed robber.

It is an easy way to cover dirty tracks, they say.

Police 'are victims too'

Enugu State Police Commissioner Mohamed Zarewa looks at the photograph of piled up bodies in the mortuary and covers them with his hand.

Police Commissioner Mohamed Zarewa
Why are you not asking about the policemen who died?
Mohamed Zarewa
Enugu State police commissioner

"I am not aware of that number you are talking. I am not aware, I am not aware," he says.

He mutters it five or six times.

Officers in his force do not carry out unlawful or arbitrary killings, he insists.

He says the young men were all killed in gun battles, fighting the police.

"Not just to go and kill somebody, we don't do that, it's unconstitutional. We are in a democracy," he says.

"You are asking about the young men, why are you not asking about the policemen who died? We people, we lose our lives."

It is true that police work in Nigeria is a difficult job - often deadly.

An encounter between a police officer and a real armed robber is a matter of life or death.

Police officers' wages are low. Corruption in the force is endemic. Poorly trained and ill-equipped policemen are sent to face armed gangs.

But it is also true that many people are killed in police custody.

Punishment without trial

In the Brought in Dead book, seven names are of particular interest.

Brought in Dead book
The Brought in Dead book revealed names of interest

Kennis Victor Okonkwo, Adolphus Odumegwu, Sunday Okoye, Hussein Yusuf, Ugochukwu Ogbonnaya, Amichi Nnamdi, and Ifeani Eze Leonard.

They were arrested, accused of a kidnapping in early September.

On 11 September they were paraded by the inspector-general of Police.

Photos of them alive appeared in local newspapers.

But they never reached court.

By 15 September six of them were dead. The body of the last was delivered to the mortuary the following day.

By each name is written SARS, Special Anti-Robbery Squad - a feared police unit.

When asked for an explanation, Police Commissioner Zarewa said he was too busy.

'Equivalent to hell'

"They told me they have transferred my brother to Abuja," says Charles, a shy 22-year-old.

His older brother was in trouble with the police, accused of robbery.

map

Charles took a food flask for his brother, and travelled for two days to reach the police station.

On arrival he was arrested, accused of armed robbery, and held for three months.

"Inside there was equivalent to hell," he says.

He says he was taken out of his cell, hung by the knees and beaten. But he feels lucky as it happened only a couple of times.

A man held with him suffered a similar punishment, but his joints were smashed. He screamed as he crawled back into the cell.

Briefly, Charles was held opposite his own brother and the two had the chance to talk.

After that, Charles never saw him again.

"It is the slang they use," he says quietly.

"They are not going to tell you openly your brother is killed. They just tell you they have transferred his case to Abuja."



Print Sponsor



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific