Francis Ajinzo runs a fish nursery at Ibeju-Lekki in Lagos.
Early 2019, two months after he sold 2,000 fingerlings, the buyer returned to complain that all the fish had died and to demand either a refund of her money or replacement of the fish.
“I told her there was no way I could pay for her recklessness,” Mr Ajinzo recalled. He had taught the woman how to safely raise the fish, just as he does for all his customers, he says. He realised, however, that the woman had not complied with his instructions.
“Rather than take responsibility, she claimed I had not trained her well.”
A week after the exchange, the police arrested Mr Ajinzo.
“I was manhandled and detained for several days,” he recalls to PREMIUM TIMES.
“The woman came three days later to the Ajiwe police area command that she wanted another fish. One of the officers in the police station told me that if I refused her demand, they would keep me in their custody indefinitely.”
Mr Ajinzo said he was forced to produce new juvenile fish for the customer by the officers who kept him in custody over a civil matter.
Like Mr Ajinzo, many Nigerians have faced police interference in their civil matters such as breach of contract, landlord/tenant disagreement, family dispute, and even disagreement among neighbours.
But Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said security agencies, including the EFCC and ICPC, have no roles in civil disputes.
“Any matter that is civil or contractual or which concerns banking and general relationships with people without criminal elements must not be dabbled into by the police,” he stresses.
“It has been the position of the courts up to the Supreme Court that only matters that are criminal in nature should involve the attention of security agencies because they cannot make or remake a contract for people.”
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) of 2015 excludes the police from civil disputes but the major provisions of the Act are rarely implemented.
According to section 8(2) of the Act, a suspect shall not be arrested merely on a civil wrong or breach of contract.
The Nigerian Police (Establishment) Act 2020 also frowns at officers’ interference in civil disputes, unless on the order of a competent court. Section 32(2) of the Act prohibits officers from arresting anyone based on a civil wrong or breach of contract.
But the police have continued to ignore those restrictions with impunity. They arrest and maltreat Nigerians based on civil offences and adjudicate matters that are exclusive to the courts.
Mr Ajinzo said he was afraid he could lose his business by going to court to challenge the police interference in his case.
“I accepted my fate because the police would not stop disturbing me and I might no longer have the time to take care of my business.”
Violation of human rights
Findings by PREMIUM TIMES show that police officers across Nigeria routinely dabble into debts recovery.
The motive for some of the officers is to get a percentage of the recovered debts from the creditor and to further extort bribes from the debtors to release them on bail.
At the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police in Panti, Lagos State, a woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal, recalled how a microfinance bank used the police to hound her over a debt.
According to the woman, she had taken a loan from the bank in 2018 for her business and was to pay back in monthly instalments over six months. Due to business difficulties she faced, however, she defaulted in the fifth month.
“I was arrested and taken to Panti,” she says. “The officers drew up a schedule of when I should refund the remaining debt and forced me to sign post-dated cheques.
“When I didn’t have sufficient balance in my account on the due date for the cheque, the same police officers turned round to accuse me of issuing a dud cheque. It took the intervention of a top police officer known by my husband. We later settled the matter amicably and I returned the borrowed funds.”
Many Nigerians, including journalists, have also been arrested for comments they made on public issues on social media, as Nigerians increasingly turn to the platforms to tell truth to power.
A recent case involved a journalist, Tom Uhia, and the Minister of State for Power, Goddy Jedy-Agba. Mr Uhia publishes Power Steering, a monthly magazine that covers the power sector.
Mr Jedy-Agba accused Mr Uhia of defaming his character with a report he published in the June 2020 issue of his magazine, which accused the minister of wrongdoing when he was a senior manager with the Nigeria Nigerian Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
Rather than go to court for redress, Mr Jedy-Agba wrote a petition to the police through his lawyer, Obi Nwakor. On October 13, 2020, the Police Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) in Area 10, Abuja, arrested the journalist over the petition and kept him behind bars for about a month.
“Even if treated as a criminal case, Section 35 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution demands that the police should not detain any suspect for longer than 48 hours without a court order,” the FCT Council of the Nigerian Union of Journalists said, in a statement at the time, by its chairperson, Emmanuel Ogbeche, to protest Mr Uhia’s treatment.
So many cases
A human rights lawyer and former chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja branch, Adesina Ogunlana, says cases of police interference in civil matters are commonplace.
He says the police do this to the “extent that when people organise protests, police can say when you are protesting, you conducted yourself in such a way that intimidated others and they will call it (a) conspiracy to intimidate, assault and overawe authority.
“The reality is that when they even interfere illegally, they can detain you for years due to poverty of the mind and poverty of the pocket. So, police officers focus on the tendency to harvest for their pockets rather than to enforce the law. They tend to read more criminality to matters that can easily be settled.
“For example, if somebody takes a loan to finance a project, instead of the bank to take the collateral when he defaults, they will go to the police that what you have done is fraudulent. For you to know that police are not sincere, you will sign undertaking in police station and they will be deducting their own share.
“The police are hardly sincere and they have exaggerated perception about what the law says. Even many of them that are lawyers are worse because they rejoice in having the power of law enforcement and the training of a lawyer.
“Sometimes, the police tell people to rewrite petitions and say some other persons threatened to kill them even when the matters are simple disagreements. The laws are there but the way police interpret the law is heavily slanted for their selfish and unprogressive agenda,” Mr Ogunlana says.
Court rulings on police interference in civil matters
Various courts in Nigeria have said it is illegal for the police to interfere in civil disputes.
In fact, when a person involves a police officer in a civil matter, both the complainant and the officer may be sued for breach of the fundamental human rights of the accused.
In the case of McLaren v. Jennings, the Court of Appeal held in 2003 that “it was unlawful for the police to arrest and detain the Appellant with regard to the collection of a debt; this is as under the Law, the Police is not a debt collection agency.”
In addition, in the case of NWADIUGWU v. IGP & ORS (2015) LPELR-26027(CA), the appellate court held that the “police are neither debt collectors nor Arbitrators and Section 24 of the Police Act 2004 does not list settlement of disputes or collection of debts amongst the duties of the Police.”
The court said the “police, in that (by interfering in civil matters), muzzled the rights and freedom of Nigerians even where cases are clearly outside their jurisdiction, power or corridor. If this is not curbed, everybody, including the judicial officers, will suffer always from floodgates of civil matters being hijacked by the police and transmuted into crimes. If this is not tackled, everybody would have suffered in the merciless hand of the police who has (have) become a law unto itself in this country.”
Why we interfere in civil disputes – Police
PREMIUM TIMES reached out to the police authorities on the issue.
The spokesperson of the police, Frank MBA, did not respond to our correspondent calls and text messages. But his counterparts at the state level say many complaints are sometimes difficult to isolate as civil.
The police spokesperson in Ekiti State, Sunday Abutu, says the police authorities had always warned officers to be professional when dealing with “complicated matters.”
“Sometimes, civil matters have (led to) assault and even threat to life. It may start from a mere land dispute before it would later degenerate to threat and assault,” he says.
“The police authorities have always admonished those working within divisions and those handling such cases to be professional and ensure that they handle the criminal aspect alone.
“I don’t expect any police officer to dabble into civil matters. When (the) police come into civil matters, it is basically based on the petitions and what is being reported to us. If you report that you gave money to somebody and when you requested your money back, he started assaulting you, the police cannot sit down and look.”
The police spokesperson in Ogun State, Abimbola Oyeyemi, said police officers interfere in civil matters because many Nigerians do not know the difference between civil and criminal issues.
“It is not right for the police to interfere in civil matters. But the question is how do we determine civil matters? For example, a landlord comes to the police station to report that his tenant is not paying his rent. It is not police business to recover his tenancy fee from his tenant. But there are matters people present to the public as civil but in the real sense, they are criminal in nature.
“If you give money to somebody to keep and he converted the money to his use without your consent, he stole by conversion. But when such a person is arrested, he won’t say he stole the money. In some instances, people will say they have judgment over land matter, and take thugs to the land. Can court judgment be enforced by thugs?
“Anybody can report either civil or criminal issues to the police and it is now the duty of the police, after listening to both parties, to determine which is civil because many people did not know that some cases are not meant to be brought to the police,” Mr Oyeyemi says.
A lawyer, Ademola Owolabi, agreed the powers of the police do not extend to civil relationships.
“But we live in a nation where human interactions bring a lot of friction, and the police are often one of the first ports of call and the police will tell them how to criminalise the offence of the offender in their petition.
“This is not to say that police cannot be legally involved in assault allegations, even when the matter is civil. But one of the reasons why we have sad incidents, like illegal interference of police, is because the court system is not robust enough such that a simple matter between tenant and landlord could take years. So, when people know that they may not quickly get justice in the court, they go to the police and the officers take advantage of that.”
Mr Ozekhome said people who have their rights denied by the police may challenge that in court.
“I think the more Nigerians begin to assert their rights, the more their rights and liberties would be respected,” he said.
A lawyer and author, Dele Farotimi, said the issue indicates that “the law does not rule in Nigeria.
“We are living in the jungle. Police interfere because impunity governs Nigeria. That is the evil tree, by the time you cut the trees, all the madness we are always debating will disappear. Let’s talk about the system.
“It is not just about the police whom I call uniformed armed robbers. They are not different from the ones who are not carrying guns called civil servants. Even me, I am a victim. The reality is that we have become lost as a people,” Mr Farotimi said.
Mr Owolabi advised the police to keep off matters that have no criminal elements.
“The police must wash their hands off matters that have no criminal elements and for the populace, anytime they feel harassed, the law is not handicapped. The fundamental human rights abuse law is robust enough to get justice for victims.
“A lot of Nigerians suffer in silence because they don’t understand their rights. I have handled a matrimonial matter that the police sent to the anti-cultism unit. These are not (the) proper use of the police,” he says.
“Lawyers should also take time to engage the police on their proper duties. When an allegation is made, police must investigate before (making) arrests. It is always good to investigate the angle of the complainant first before an arrest is carried out. It is not right to arrest before investigating. The proper thing is investigation before an arrest,” the Lagos lawyer said.
Mr Ogunlana, on his part, called for a change in the attitude of those in control of the police – from the commissioners of police, the minister of police affairs and those at the police service commission.
“The Nigerian police are not the people’s police. They see themselves as serving those in government than serving the people. Even when we talk of reform, it deals with humans and particularly those at the helm of affairs. The citizens must be radically ready to perfect leadership change.”
For the Director of Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), Okechukwu Nwanguma, “in performance of their duties, the police should adhere to various human rights protection protocols.”
Common examples of civil matters
To guide our readers on their fundamental human rights and help them to understand matters that are civil, PREMIUM TIMES lists some examples of civil matters below:
1 Dispute between landlords and tenants.
2 Dispute over land sales.
3 Non-delivery of purchased goods and services
4 Complaints against a city or government
5 Property dispute
6 Loan recovery
7 Disagreement over child or other matrimonial issues.
All of the above are purely civil matters except when there are recorded events of assault, battery or a threat to life.
This report was funded by the Civic Media Lab, under its Criminal Justice Reporting Fellowship, with support from MacArthur Foundation.