A reflection on police brutality in Nigeria on the anniversary of the death of the ‘Apo Six.’
Elvis Ozor arrived at the market as he had several times in the past, but something was different that morning: there was an unusual crowd. The people spoke in low voices among themselves and threw awkward glances at him. Some of them had puffy faces and moist cheeks. He started to get the sense that something was terribly wrong. At first, nobody said anything, then his friends would summon the courage to tell him what had happened: His older brother and five of his friends had been brutally murdered.
The news of the incident incited a good deal of public outrage. The voices of those who gathered in the location became angrier and angrier. Media platforms across Nigeria reported the gruesome death of “Apo Six,” as people began to refer to the case. However, a few weeks later, everyone—as humans are wont to do when they are not directly affected by an unfortunate event—returned to their lives. But life, as it was, for the loved ones of Chinedu Meniru, Augustina Arebu, Ifeanyi Ozor, Anthony Nwokike, Paulinus Ogbonna and Ekene Isaac Mgbe, would never be the same.
The night of June 7, 2005, was like any other night for this group of six friends driving home. A few hours earlier, five of them left their shops in Apo market where they sold car spare parts. A friend of theirs was in town so they decided to hang out. “Make una come back on time o,” Edwin Meniru, Chinedu’s brother warned as they hopped into a car. But they did not return on time, they did not return at all because, on their way home, they were murdered by a group of policemen led by the then Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Ibrahim Danjuma.
The initial claims that the victims were robbers were dismissed by a judicial panel of inquiry. “The hall was full. People came from everywhere,” said Edwin. And for several weeks after the incident, strangers interrupted their lives. Journalists, reporters, lawyers, policemen, strangers. There was a question on everyone’s mind: What exactly happened that night?
After years of apprenticeship with Edwin and people who had mastered the car spare parts business, these five friends in their early twenties were finally their own bosses. Life was looking good. They had a close-knit relationship, a kind of chosen family in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital. They were Igbo, so they formed a community for themselves in Apo, in a city majorly dominated by northerners. Living hundreds of kilometers from the eastern part of Nigeria where they called home, they were all they had. So when Augustina, Ifeanyi’s girlfriend, arrived in Abuja that evening, they all decided to go have some fun.
Since the dead cannot tell tales, the family members of the six friends were in the dark like everyone else, groping for the truth. There are several theories about what happened that night; precise details are sketchy. It was reported that the friends were returning from a club when Danjuma accosted them because Augustina rejected his sexual advances. “We also read that in the news but we still cannot tell exactly what happened,” according to Elvis.
I was seated on a table with Edwin and Elvis one afternoon as they recounted the events of that night and what has transpired over the years regarding the case. At first, they watched me closely, as though wary of how this might end. Before I came to Abuja, they told me on the phone how uncomfortable they were about this meeting. What exactly did I want? Who sent me? Why was I interested in this story?
Regarding the events of that night, there were also rumors that the car their brothers rode in had accidentally scratched another man’s car. “Ifeanyi did not like intimidation at all. He always stood up for people,” said Elvis about his brother. So after the man slapped Ifeanyi twice, he returned the favor. It was at this point they realized the man was a police officer. Knowing the limits of their power, they apologized profusely and drove away, thinking all was well. It was along Gimbiya Street, before they made a turn to another road, that a car blocked them.
Edwin received a phone call that night from Anthony Nwokike. He couldn’t speak but Edwin heard voices at the other end. The man in the other car ordered the police stationed at the checking point to shoot the friends. Why? The policemen asked, pointing out that they were not informed of any robbery. Shoot, the man repeated. “Then he collected the gun from one of the policemen and shot Ifeanyi,” Edwin said, “that’s what we heard, according to those who testified in court.” The policemen asked Anthony who he called but he refused to respond. Photographs of his remains revealed he was shot in the mouth. “We cannot ascertain what actually happened, even till now. The person that would have told us everything was also killed.”
While Ifeanyi was the first to get murdered, Ekene was the last of the six to die. Though he escaped, despite the bullet wounds to his body, Ekene was found in the early hours of the following day and shot. Anthony Idah, one of the policemen who told Ekene to escape, also died. “He was poisoned because he was going to testify against the DCP, that’s what we heard.”
Elvis was calm and introspective, taking up a posture of containment: back fully settled in the chair, arms on his laps. “When I realized it was really true, in fact, tears dried up immediately,” he said, speaking of that morning in the market after his friends broke the news to him. “I don’t like remembering it what happened,” he said, looking away.
To the public, it was another sad case of extra-judicial killing, but for the loved ones of the victims, the crude reality has been tears and more tears. The night marked the beginning of months-long meetings, court appearances, sicknesses, negligence, helplessness, physical and emotional exhaustion, nightmares, deaths and more deaths.
Augustina’s grandmother’s heart, unable to bear the burden of the loss, stopped beating shortly after the incident. Thirteen years later, Ifeanyi’s mother’s health has been deteriorating. Edwin lost his father some months after the killings because “he could not take it.” His father developed a stroke and died. Every time Edwin travels home during the festive season, his mother always talks about Chinedu and how both of them would have come together and should all be eating on the same table as a family, were he still alive. “She has not been herself since then. I had to hide Chinedu’s pictures under the rug, where I know she won’t find them.”
After the shootings, the process of getting back their bodies evolved into a disheartening affair. The police already dug graves in Apo cemetery and were ready to bury them early hours of the following morning. “Our people across the road saw them with the corpses.” In no time, many people got involved. Outraged, they went to Apo Police Station. To dispel the stampede, the police fired shots which allegedly caused the death of two other people. Despite the involvement of the public at this point, their bodies were still not released. They were later taken to Utako cemetery and buried.
It was more than three months before they were laid to rest by the family members, following exhumation of their remains. “And that was all,” said Edwin. “Apart from the token they gave us for the funeral, nothing else.” All they have since been asking for is that the government memorialize them by naming some streets in Abuja after them, and to also compensate the families. “We are not asking for too much. The most painful part is that they did not even get back to us. They should have at least said, ‘Look, we cannot do that, but we can do this.’ But they have not said anything. Nothing about our appeal concerning the judgement that was passed to execute two policemen and free others. They are not even speaking to us. The Attorney General is not talking about it. No one is saying anything. If we don’t approach them, they won’t say anything to us. It’s not fair.”
In a country with an alarming rate of insecurity, where Boko Haram insurgency keeps threatening the peace of the citizens, the police force ought to be a haven. But years of records and personal accounts by Nigerians have shown that members of the force should not be quickly regarded as friends.
Not only are the poor and marginalized groups the target of all kinds of horror, there are countless instances where the authorities did not make effort in easing their grievances. “Our ethnic issue in this country is a major problem. The other time in this same Abuja, some northerners were killed by some members of the DSS (Department of State Services) in a building they believed some Boko Haram men were hiding. They compensated them all. But look at us. It’s because we are Igbos.” Following the Biafra War, some Igbos believe their claim on the country is precarious, leading to agitation in recent years for restructuring. “I know that if we were Hausas, the government would have answered us.”
In mid-2017, at the height of the “take a knee” protest in which Black National Football League (NFL) players adopted the gesture of taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against African-Americans in the US, Nigerians watched via the internet. Social media has become a great tool for successful demonstrations and debates, having people join their voices from different locations all over the world to discuss issues of global importance. This method has recorded a level of success. A few months later, catalyzed by activist Segun Awosanya, the campaigns to scrap the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria police force and reform the police structure began, leading to the viral #EndSARS and #ReformPoliceNG hashtags.
The campaigns recorded an immense engagement on social media, especially Twitter where thousands of tweets chronicled the massive rate of assault Nigerians have been subjected to in the hands of the police. Personal experiences of assault, deaths of loved ones, bodies that were found bloodied and splayed, the ones that were never found, relatives who never returned home, those still rotting away in prison. The debate is moral as it is political, central to the country’s identity of violence and miscarriage of justice. Rallies were also organized in specific locations in the country, but just as the “take a knee” protest was met by oppositions, so was the EndSARS movement—an anti-group sprung up, campaigning that the unit should not be scrapped.
Throughout history, there has been systemic oppression against the lower class citizens and minority groups. There is a growing sense that the people can no longer afford to do nothing as many tragedies often thrive on the decay in the justice system. Police brutality is a global issue and there seems to be a universal consensus that something must be done to curb it.
Mrs. Arebu was going about her business selling clothes that morning in Lagos when she received a call from a family member. Her daughter had been killed. When I first called her on the phone to arrange a meet, she still couldn’t believe the DCP was reinstated. Twelve years after the incident, the FCT High Court presiding judge, Ishaq Bello passed a judgment: Two of the accused policemen were to be executed but there was no evidence to convict Danjuma. In November 2017, it was pronounced that Danjuma would be reinstated and paid the backlog of his salary dating back to June 2005. In March 2018, he was acquitted and made the Assistant Inspector General of Police (AIG).
“Hold on,” Mrs. Arebu suddenly stopped speaking, like someone who realized they had been caught off-guard. “Who are you again?” I re-introduced myself, reminded her that Elvis already informed her that I’d call. “Yes, yes,” she said. “I just wanted to be sure.”
Her reaction felt familiar. A few days earlier, I was with Elvis and Edwin when I dialed the number of one of the deceased’s relative.
“I’m out of town,” he said, after I introduced myself and explained my purpose. “I’ll call you back.”
“He’s most likely in Abuja,” said Elvis. “It’s because they are afraid. They don’t attend meetings. They don’t want to be involved. They are afraid.”
“Sorry for the way I kept asking you questions the other time, I just wanted to be sure about you,” he said, referring to our phone conversations before we met. Coming here partly felt like an intrusion. When the attempts at finding the family members finally yielded fruit, there was yet another challenge: approaching them. Why should they be willing to unearth details of a painful past to a stranger?
“Augustina was so beautiful,” said Mrs. Arebu. She was dressed in matching blue dress and earrings. She brought along some pages of The Nation Newspapers dated March 10, 2017. The headline was “Apo Six: Two policemen to die over 2005 killings.” Beyond her words, her eyes told the story. “I still cried this morning when I thought about her,” she said, trying to blink back the pool of tears in her eyes. “She was so kind and gentle. I cry every time I think about her. I just want something to be done. Please, help us. Help us.” The tears fell now, and I noticed the wrinkles around her eyes. One has to look closely to see them. “That morning, they told me to come to Abuja. I didn’t know it was that type of killing.” Augustina was the only one in the group who was strangled to death. “It’s so painful that Danjuma was freed,” she continued, her hands overlapped on her laps. I placed my right hand on her hands, trying to find words. What do you say to someone whose child was violently murdered?
One of the many things the EndSARS and ReformPoliceNG campaigns have shown is that countless acts of police brutality are undocumented as victims just go home, grateful they did not end their day in prison, or worse, dead. The rate of police violence has become so high it could flatten the deaths of a dozen human beings to just another random incident. People become more aware of all these happenings on the internet. They see images of bodies battered with gunshots, arousing a sense of poignancy which is unfortunately temporary.
The protests have also raised series of questions: How reliable is the justice system? What reformation measures can be taken? In the Philippines for instance, where there is high rate of police violence, the dismissal of policemen involved in assaulting citizens led to drastic decrease in police violence. Here, victims are still consumed with fear that, in the process of seeking justice, they might be in danger.
“I see Danjuma sometimes,” said Edwin. “The last time I did, he looked away. Maybe he didn’t recognize me.” “Of course he recognized you,” interjected Elvis. “He must have. Killing our brothers is the worst they can do. And they’ve already done that.” They were distraught when they learnt that the DCP was freed, “as if they killed chickens,” Edwin said, shaking his head.
To commemorate them this year, they hope that there will be an event. They have started making plans, however, funding might pose a major challenge. In 2017, Elvis organized the people who turned up at Gimbiya Street for the memorial. “We lit candles here,” he said pointing to the sidewalk when we visited the site of the shooting. There were trees and tiny stones, oblivious of what happened thirteen years ago.
“What I have in mind now is for us to have a foundation. An organization where those who have suffered similar cases of injustice can get support. I want it to be a voice for the voiceless. That’s all. I just want something to be done in their name.”
Elvis took me to another part of the city to meet with Pauline Ozochukwu, Ekene Isaac Mgbe’s aunt. She spoke little, her face a mask of despair. She saw her nephew the day before the incident. “A very industrious boy. He was the breadwinner of his family.” She was unhappy the government refused to take responsibility. “The family should be compensated,” she said, in response to my question about her idea of closure. “They wasted that boy’s life.”
Recently, I happened upon a thread on Twitter about the injustice surrounding the Apo Six case. Another Twitter user replied, “You mean those robbers that got killed?” Of course, the claim that they were robbers was long dismissed, but the comment called to mind the age-old argument of who deserves the public’s sympathy. There have been instances where victims were portrayed in manners that made it appear as though they had it coming, hence unworthy of any form of outcry. Are there people who deserve to be brutally murdered without a trial? After all, history has revealed, time and time again, that even innocent citizens walking on the road, or sitting at their balcony, or returning from a party, can wind up murdered.
I told Edwin and Elvis how, according to the posts I read on the internet, members of SARS have ended the lives of regular people going about their daily activities, and have even gone to the extent of knocking on people’s doors to extort and assault them. Edwin is skeptical about the campaign to get rid of the unit, maintaining things could get a lot worse if that is done. “I don’t think they should scrap SARS, I think they should be reformed. They should remove the bad eggs. The whole system should be reformed.” Elvis is not happy about their activities. “They have generated a bad name for themselves. You cannot be protecting us and at the same time be taking advantage of us. You can’t say you’re protecting us and still be killing us.”
At some point, for a brief moment, it was as if they had forgotten I was there. I watched as their conversation changed from business, to their favorite brand of beer. They talked and laughed, their discussion heading back to how they must keep pushing. The death of their brothers must not be in vain.
Edwin still had photographs of their bullet-battered bodies on his phone. “My brother was a strong-willed person,” Elvis said as he, on my request, retrieved a passport photograph of Ifeanyi from his wallet. The brothers bear a remarkable resemblance. I looked at the picture closely—young, eyes full of promise, straight-faced, in the way most of us look in passport photographs. Elvis’ words returned to me: Ifeanyi did not like intimidation. If he noticed someone else was a victim, he would speak up for them.
I have an enduring image of Mrs. Arebu’s hands on her laps. And it seems to me that in all the waiting and hoping, fighting and crying, hiding and running, they are collectively saying the same thing: Remember us. We don’t mean to be so invisible. We didn’t mean for our loved ones to get killed. Please, see us. Fight for us. Remember us. Remember us all.