In an editorial on Tuesday, August 23, 2016, titled “The death of Citizen Nunugwo,” Thisday newspaper took on an issue which is not being talked about as strongly or as often as it should – the deaths of Nigerians while in the custody of security agencies.
“The recent death in the custody of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of Mr. Desmond Nunugwo, Chief Protocol Officer to the Minister of State for Defence, has once again brought to the fore the issue of the rights of the accused under the Nigerian law. Nunugwo reportedly died within six hours after his arrest by operatives of the EFCC last June. His wife, Susanne, said the EFCC called her to come and bail her husband ‘while he was already in the mortuary’. Nothing could be more callous,” the paper wrote.
Nunugwo was an aide to the minister of state for defence, who was accused of fraud to the tune of N91 million. He was arrested by the commission and kept incommunicado until he died. The EFCC however said it asked his family to come bail him. The lawyer to the family has also complained that the EFCC has stopped them from conducting an autopsy on the corpse.
Two very important paragraphs in the Thisday editorial said that “…far too many people are dying in detention. Just recently, two suspects reportedly died in EFCC custody and up till today, there is no information about the cause of their death. A few months ago, a young man was also alleged to have been tortured to death by the Directorate of State Security (DSS) at their Shangisha detention facility in Lagos. At about the same period, the Sokoto State Command of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) set up a committee to unravel the “mystery” behind the death in its custody of a 38-year-old suspect, Jamilu Abdullahi. The report of that committee is yet to be made public.
“In particular, armed robbery and kidnap suspects are arrested and paraded at crowded press conferences addressed by police commissioners. After the “media trial”, there were reports that some of these suspects are extra-judicially executed and secretly buried in mass graves. Such suspects are usually reported to have died during shoot-out with the police anti-robbery squads or while attempting to escape from custody. But the unofficial justification is usually that if the suspects were charged to court they may be released and then turn round to kill the police personnel who arrested them!”
These are no small allegations. Thisday recommended that investigations into Nunugwo’s case and all the other deaths should be done and “the result of such investigations, including autopsies, must be placed in the public domain. In addition, government should take concrete steps to overhaul the country’s criminal justice and prison system. It is time to ensure that persons taken into custody do not necessarily end up in the mortuary. And the best way to begin is to ascertain the circumstances under which Nunugwo died after spending only six hours with the EFCC.”
The EFCC is however pushing back, saying that it has come clean on the matter and will welcome investigation by any agency as it has nothing to hide. It should start by allowing for an autopsy to be done.
The anti-graft agency said in a statement signed by Wilson Uwujaren, its spokesman, that the reason why the “Nunugwo matter” is being so reported is because sections of the media want to use the case to “settle some unstated scores” with it. How ridiculous! As though human beings can only point out irregularities surrounding the death of a fellow citizen when they have scores to settle. The lack of empathy by the commission is grating.
The EFCC said the motive of the Thisday piece was to tar the commission as a lawless agency. It also denied that two other people died in its custody.
“The Commission is challenging Thisday newspaper to name the two suspects they say died in the EFCC custody, for which information on the causes of deaths have not been provided,” it said. “Where it is unable to do so, Thisday must tender an unreserved apology to the EFCC, failing which the Commission would have no other option than to explore all available means to recover its professional integrity and sterling image in the comity of law enforcement agencies, where the EFCC is indeed held in very high esteem.”