The National Human Rights Commission on Monday said security agents who carried out an operation in an uncompleted building in the Apo district of Abuja on September 20, 2013, did not kill eight squatters in self-defence, as claimed by the State Security Service and the Nigerian Army.
The Commission ordered the Federal Government to pay a total sum of N135m as compensation to the victims – including N10m for each of the deceased persons, as well as N5m to each of 11 injured survivors.
The NHRC disclosed these in the report of a public hearing it conducted over the incident.
Eight squatters in the uncompleted building died during the early morning operation, which troops comprising operatives of the SSS and the army undertook in an unsuccessful bid to arrest an alleged Boko Haram leader, Suleiman R-Kelly, who was said to have buried arms in the Apo cemetery.
According to the SSS, the fatalities were recorded after suspected Boko Haram members in the building opened fire on the troops, who retaliated.
But, in the wake of contradictory reports that the victims were operators of commercial tricycles, popularly known as Keke NAPEP, the NHRC decided to conduct a public hearing into the development, in line with its constitutional mandate.
A panel of the NHRC, including the Chairman of the Governing Council, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, and the Executive Secretary, Prof. Bem Angwe, took submissions from parties involved in the affair, particularly the three major actors – the SSS, the army and the National Association of Commercial Tricycle and Motorcycle Owners and Riders Association.
While the SSS and the army insisted that they acted in self-defence, and that the victims were members of the Boko Haram sect, NATOMORAS maintained that the attack was unprovoked, and that the victims were its members.
But the NHRC, in its report which was released about three months after the conclusion of the public hearing, held that the SSS and the army lied in blaming the death of the eight squatters and serious injury to eleven others, on a provoked attack.
Announcing the Commission’s decision and orders, Angwe said, “Having investigated this complaint, heard all the parties and examined the relevant laws, the NHRC, exercising its powers under sections 5 and 6 of the National Human Rights Commission Act, 2010, (as amended), hereby determines and declares that the defence of self-defence asserted by the respondents (Federal Government, SSS, army) is not supported by the facts or evidence.”
And, in response to official claims that the victims are members of the Boko Haram sect, the report stated, “There is no credible evidence to suggest or show that the victims in this case were members of Jama’atu ahlus sunnah lid da-awati wal jihad (Boko Haram) or involved in direct participation in hostilities.
“They were, therefore, protected, civilian non-combatants.”
The NHRC added that “Taking account of all the circumstances in this case, the application of lethal force was disproportionate and the killings of the eight deceased as well as injuries to the eleven survivors were unlawful.”
Some other squatters, who were arrested during the operation, were eventually released and banished from the Federal Capital Territory, a development which was equally condemned by the NHRC report.
“There is no basis in law for confining detainees freed by the respondents to internal banishment,” the report said.
The report noted that although there was an armed conflict between the armed forces and the Boko Haram sect in parts of the North, which extended to the FCT, the rules of international humanitarian law, particularly Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, are applicable to all the parties in the conflict.
In consequence of the findings, the NHRC ordered the award of “the sum of ten million Naira as compensation for each of the deceased or N80 million in respect of the eight deceased persons, to be paid by the Federal Government.”
Also, the government was ordered to pay each of the eleven injured survivors the sum of N5m.
“The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice is to ensure that evidence of payment is lodged with the Registry of the National Human Rights Commission within 30 days of the present decision,” the report added.
The Federal Government and the SSS were also restrained from the use of administrative banishment against any of the survivors.
The NHRC in the same vein ordered a review and harmonisation of the Rules of Engagement governing the operations of security agencies to bring them into compliance with the applicable rules of international humanitarian law governing non-international armed conflicts.
The Federal Government, the SSS and the army were also ordered to file a certified text of the harmonized and updated Rules of Engagement with the secretariat of the NHRC within two months of the decision.
In accordance with section 22 (1) of the National Human Rights Commission Act (as amended), Angwe said the Commission will register the report and decision for enforcement with the Federal High Court in the FCT.
However, there are indications that the DSS and the army will appeal the NHRC decision.
Shortly after the presentation of the report, Col. Godwin Anyalemechi, an assistant director, legal services, in the Nigerian Army, informed journalists that the report is likely to be challenged.
He stressed that only a forensic investigation could determine who actually killed the eight squatters.
“It has not been established that the bullet of the Nigerian Army killed the squatters – only a forensic investigation can ascertain that and until a forensic investigation is carried out the report is neither here nor there.
“So it is a report that is likely to be challenged,” he said.
On his part, the lawyer of the Keke NAPEP union, Nkereuwem Akpan, dared the respondents to challenge the decision.
“There is nothing wrong with challenging the decision; let us see how far they will go,” he told journalists.
It would be recalled that the SSS had opposed the payment of any form of compensation to the victims.
Stating its position on the matter during the public hearing, the SSS maintained that the victims can only be compensated after it was determined that they are innocent persons, and not members of the Boko Haram group.
The security agency insisted that it was necessary to first of all, ascertain who was killed and who did the killing, and whether the victims fell under the fire of the security agents or that of the alleged Boko Haram members in the uncompleted building.