Addressing Enforced Disappearance in Nigeria

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Police officer shoots colleague dead while trying to arrest civilian in Aba

By Damian Ugwu

Joel Nnaemeka Ugwuoke was an aspiring musician and a hip-hop fan. He was respectful and hardworking, and he loved football. He was also a Political Science freshman at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).

On January 12, 2017, three days after his matriculation into the university, a group of local security men, in the company of officers of the Anti-Kidnapping Unit of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), came to his parent’s house at Nsukka looking for him. They told the shocked family that he was an armed robber and a cultist who had bought a stolen phone. The security men took him, alongside three other young men, to Enugu for detention.

Six years later, the whereabouts of Joel remain unknown with no answers forthcoming from government or security officials. The Family’s hope of ever finding him alive has dwindled over time. On several occasions, some police officers demanded and received huge sums of money to help secure Joel’s release, but he has never been released.

Joel is one of thousands of Nigerians who disappear from the custody of Nigerian security agencies each year. This week the world marks the International Day For The Victims Of Enforced Disappearance but as Nigeria joins the rest of the world to celebrate the day, for the family of missing Joel, and thousands of other families in Nigeria, It means nothing.

Like the Ugwuoke family, the families of most of these victims never learn the fate of their loved ones, and no one is ever prosecuted for their disappearance.

Joel Ugwuoke was a victim of enforced disappearance which is defined as the abduction or detention of a person by state authorities or by a person or group of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the person concerned.

Enforced disappearance is a serious crime against humanity. It is a violation of the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to a fair trial. It is also a form of torture.

In the last decade, Nigeria has experienced an upsurge in cases of enforced disappearances due to the deteriorating security situation in the country, a situation that seem to have gone unnoticed in the international arena. Nigerian security forces have constantly been in the spotlight over allegations of a well-calculated policy to deal with suspects and perceived sympathizers of terrorist organizations through the use of extrajudicial methods including enforced disappearances. This practice is in blatant disregard of the state’s human rights obligations under domestic and international law.

Enforced disappearance is often used as a tool of repression and intimidation. It is used to silence dissent, to punish political opponents, and to terrorize communities. Enforced disappearance can also be used to commit other human rights violations, such as torture, extrajudicial killings, and sexual violence. The families of the disappeared are often left in a state of limbo. They do not know where their loved ones are or what has happened to them. This can cause them immense emotional and psychological suffering.

Enforced disappearance is a crime against humanity and a grave violation of human rights. It is a serious threat to the rule of law and society’s fabric. Victims of enforced disappearance, like Joel, are often tortured or killed and also denied their right to a fair trial and to be reunited with their families.

Nigeria is a state party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) which came into effect in 2010. The convention aims to prevent enforced disappearances, uncover the truth when they happen, and ensure survivors and victims’ families receive justice, truth, and reparation.

The ICPPED defines enforced disappearance and sets out a number of obligations for state parties, including the obligation to prevent enforced disappearances, to investigate and prosecute those responsible, and to provide reparation to the victims.

The Convention is one of the strongest human rights treaties ever adopted by the UN. Unlike other crimes under international law, such as torture, enforced disappearances were not prohibited by a universal legally binding instrument before the Convention came into force in 2010.

Enforced disappearances also violate the inherent right to life guaranteed under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United Nations General Assembly in its Resolution on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, noted that enforced disappearances could lead to summary or arbitrary executions. The Assembly reiterated the obligation of states to conduct prompt, exhaustive, and impartial investigations into suspected cases of enforced disappearance while ensuring the right of every person to a fair hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law.

As a signatory to the above conventions, the Nigerian government has a responsibility to prevent enforced disappearances, investigate all allegations of enforced disappearance, and prosecute those responsible. The government must address the culture of impunity among security officials and ensure that victims and their families have access to justice and reparation.

• POSTSCRIPT: August 30, is the International Day of The Victims of Enforced Disappearance.