1,000 ways to die

Precious Owolabi of Channels TV

By Wale Bakare

Living in Nigeria is a hazard that comes with risks most other people in the world never have to contend with as part of the terms and conditions for passing through life. You name it, we got it in excess: terrorists, robbers, bandits, kidnappers, lynch-mobs that attack people over rumours of lost genitals, witches, wizards, ancestral spirits, randy clergy, we got them all. Throw in potholes that could swallow your car, dilapidated tankers that could lose their explosive load right in the middle of built-up areas, 40foot containers that could drop off bridges on to vehicles on the road below, overhead power lines that could disconnect during a storm and incinerate dozens of people cowering for shelter at the bus-stop. Faked drugs, faked wines, faked water, faked infant formula, the list is unending. It’s like the TV series I used to watch a while back (from where I got the title for this piece). It was called 1,000 Ways to Die and featured people getting killed in the most unbelievable ways.

The thing though with almost all the above is that they are criminal and should (ordinarily) be dealt with by the police. It is, however, another matter when it is the police that snuff life out of the people. Who do they turn to? The arbitrariness of the Nigerian police is legendary. They are not bound or restricted by any known laws. If there are laws limiting their powers, the police were never informed. The policeman on the streets gets into a needless argument with a citizen (probably because he didn’t feel the citizen greeted him respectfully enough) and it could become terminal for the poor fellow. That is the value our police place on lives. A friend said to me once that if he were ever caught between taking cover with a group of policemen and taking his chances with a gang of robbers, he would have a tough time deciding where to pitch his tent.

Two deaths occurred over the past week that struck a chord in me. Both of the deceased were young, with their entire lives ahead of them. And both, in some way, involved the police. Precious Owolabi was a 23year old cub reporter, serving out his mandatory one-year of national service with Channels Television in Abuja. IMN protesters were on the streets again and Precious volunteered to go with the crew going to cover the protests. It was an assignment from which he never returned. He was killed by ‘a stray bullet’. The jury is still out on who actually killed Precious. The IMN insists it was the police. The police insist it was the IMN. Somewhere in-between is a stray bullet. Will the truth ever be known?

The second one is more bizarre, even as it is more straightforward. Last week, I came upon a video of a young man who had apparently smashed up the windshields of several vehicles within the premises of a police station. In the video, the young man could be seen on the ground, bleeding and in pain, begging to be allowed to speak with his father before he died. One policeman could be heard clearly cursing the father as they milled around him talking and taking pictures while he rolled around on the ground with no one making any attempt to help him. It was later confirmed that the young man died from the gunshot wounds.

Accounts from Punch newspaper suggest he was a musician (with the stage name Zinquest) and one of the problems he had with the police was the body art (tattoos) on him. He had apparently been arrested for what is still not clear. He had ‘flipped’ at some point, got hold of an axe (which the police had left lying around) and gone on a rampage, attacking cars. He was shot and left to bleed to death. This was in a big police station and the police spokesman claims there was no other way to disarm him except by fatally shooting him. While the first video shows no attempt being made to get him to medical help, a second video which subsequently emerged shows him in the back of a pick-up van, still alive and talking. He can be seen making threats to the people around and also making all sorts of claims that put his sanity in doubt. While the chronology of the two videos is not clear, what is clear is that despite the gunshots, Zinquest was not in an immediately life-threatening situation that a quick trip to the hospital could not have saved his life. Instead, he was executed.

Though the circumstances of these two deaths are different, they both involve the police and both could probably have been avoided. Will there be an investigation into how they died? Highly unlikely. I’m not sure about Precious, but unfortunately for Zinquest, he is not the son of a political party chieftain or industrial magnate. His mother does not own oil wells and his brother is not a general in the armed forces. It is thus quite unlikely that an inquiry will be held into his killing. He will end up another statistic, useful only for the human rights activists in compiling records that serve no beneficial purpose for those killed. His parents will wail and might even have an uphill task reclaiming his body for burial as his corpse will probably be detained until they pay for the repairs of the damaged vehicles. Not even receive the hollow platitude of “this is one death too many” will be extended to help relieve the pain of their loss!

There will be no inquest for Zinquest!