Nigerian lawyers fight back against police brutality, graft

Citizens' Gavel associate lawyer Isaac Aghi checks a Podus app on a computer at the Gavel office in Lagos, Nigeria

When Divine Umukoro refused to pay police a bribe after breaking Lagos state’s night-time curfew, she says they slapped her, slashed her car tyres and threatened violence.

A video of the incident went viral on Nigerian blogging sites, and Citizens’ Gavel, a non-profit organisation that fights against police misconduct, stepped in, helping her to recover her seized car within three days.

The police have declined to comment on the incident.

“When the whole thing started with the hitting, with the slapping of my face, pushing my friend – I felt so angry,” Umukoro, 25, said of the July 11 incident, when she acknowledged she was out past a 10 pm curfew instituted to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Citizens’ Gavel, founded in 2017, and the Headfort Foundation, founded last year, aim to help marginalised Nigerians get fair treatment from the police and the courts.

The two NGOs have handled nearly 400 cases in total so far.

International organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long accused Nigerian police of extortion, physical attacks and other abuses, charges they deny.

Lagos police spokesman Bala Elkana said police were already accountable, pointing to a dedicated unit that investigates brutality accusations. He said 10 officers had been dismissed and more than 70 punished this year alone.

But Oluyemi Orija, chief executive of the Headfort Foundation, said that without help, poor clients can spend months in jail for offences such as driving without a licence because they cannot afford to pay bail or bribe the police. They can also be coerced to confess to crimes they did not commit.

“Things can land poor people in jail for months, but a rich person will walk into the police station, pay them and get away with it,” said Orija, a lawyer. “It is so unfortunate that young people don’t even know their rights.”

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