Opposition politicians have escalated their demands for the government to end a controversial police squad involved in brutalizing and often raping teenagers and girls, according to an Amnesty International report released Tuesday.
At least seven police officers were arrested last year, and Human Rights Watch said at least 55 other members of the joint special security operatives are now wanted by authorities.
“Nigerians want their government to stop sending these officers to torture and rape their fellow citizens,” said Samira Kawu, Amnesty International’s senior Nigeria researcher. “Meanwhile, members of the police force are set to get significant pay rises.”
The abuses occurred in nine states in northern Nigeria. Images of young teenagers in rubber rings and with bruises and torn pants — evidence that they were forced to have sex with a man they were forced to kiss — became a symbol of nationwide protest against years of police impunity.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military general who came to power in 2015, has faced intense pressure from activists and religious leaders to reform the police force.
In addition to the uniformed officers, about 20,000 lesser-ranking members of the police force are also involved in “extradition to other parts of the country, often in large-scale operations that lead to the rape and torture of men, women and children,” the Amnesty report said. In one case, a driver was forced to drive to a densely forested area for three days where his captors lined him up and made him rape a woman while male officers watched.
“Police officers are not just enforcing the law, they are oppressing the rule of law,” John Prendergast, co-founder of the think tank the Enough Project and a co-founder of the Open Society Foundations, said at a news conference Tuesday.
With Buhari, a former military ruler, expected to run for a second term in 2019, the police force is expected to be a key campaign issue. Police scandals in the past have cut deep into the approval ratings of former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida, both Christian Muslims, who ruled Nigeria from 1999 to 2007 and 1999 to 2007, respectively.
Government officials on Tuesday rejected criticism of the police’s brutality and said the force is committed to stopping abuses. “We know we have a problem, and it’s going to end. We are going to put things into motion and turn things around,” Nigeria’s junior minister for federal affairs, Shehu Sani, said at the news conference Tuesday.
But opposition parties and religious leaders said Nigerian police are making extraordinary efforts to save face after several years of scandal. Even now, they said, some police officers claim to be members of the security force but actually hold a rank above that of “lieutenant conscript” because of government corruption.
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