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Of Wadume, restorative justice and the society

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The ridiculously lenient sentence recently slapped on Hamisu Bala, also known as Wadume, a broad-spectrum gangster whose specialty is kidnapping for ransom, is a travesty of justice on a grand scale. No question. A measly seven-year jail term courtesy of a federal court in Abuja for a desensitised criminal whose atrocious exploits in one single night led to the cold-blooded murder of four persons, including three policemen, by a band of soldiers who had been han–in glove with him in sowing sorrow in Taraba State and the surrounding areas, must be another disturbing entry in the logbook of judicial charity.

As lawyers are wont to say, justice is a three-way traffic: justice for the accused, justice for the state and justice for the society. However, given the shock and horror that have trailed this judgment since its delivery by Justice Binta Nyako, it is doubtful whether it satisfies this doctrine of trinity with regard to some of the demands of definitive justice.

A background to this disheartening judicatory finale is necessary for a proper understanding of the emotive reaction of the people to a punishment considered to be a slap on the wrist, and a deliberate, suitably devised scheme that led to this painful outcome.

On the night of 6 August 2019, a crack team of policemen from the intelligence response unit in Abuja, led by Assistant Superintendent of Police Felix Aidolije traced Wadume to Ibi, an administrative town in the south bank of River Benue in Taraba State, and arrested him. And then as he was being ferried back in a bus back to the state police command headquarters in Jalingo, the state capital, for onward dispatch to Abuja, soldiers from the 93 Battalion in Takum manning the check points along Ibi-Wukari highway gave a hot chase and started firing at the bus. The soldiers were led by Captain Tijjani Balarebe.

Even after the bus was finally forced to stop following a barrage of fire from the soldiers’ guns and the policemen promptly showed sufficient evidence of who they were and their mission, three of them and one civilian were instantly shot dead, while five others sustained serious injuries. Among the dead were Inspector Mark Ediale, Sergeants Usman DanAzumi and Dahiru Musa, and one Jibrin, a civilian said to be working with the police.

By the time the gun smoke considerably cleared, the soldiers had seized Wadume, who had been indicted for several high-profile kidnapping cases in the state had been removed from the bus and spirited away to the army barracks where the soldiers smashed the handcuffs and freed him to escape.

The soldiers’ mindless killing of fellow security personnel in the line of duty triggered instant outrage across the country. Amid the widespread anger, the police and the army squabbled over who was right and who was wrong in the unfortunate encounter. While the police, through its spokesman, Deputy Commissioner of Police Frank Mba, accused the army of knowing full well that Wadume was a wanted criminal and that its men had purposely attacked the police operatives to ensure the suspect’s freedom, the army, through Colonel Sagir Musa countered that its soldiers merely responded to a distress call from locals who alerted them to the presence of kidnappers moving around in a white bus in the area.

Musa said the soldiers never knew that they were policemen who had just arrested a kidnapper, and that the bus had in fact been flagged to stop at the checkpoints but had refused to do so, fuelling suspicion that the occupants were indeed kidnappers. And so the soldiers gave chase and only returned fire when they were being shot at from the bus. The police charged back, saying the army lied and expressing significant fury at its description of policemen performing a legal duty as “suspected kidnappers”.

The army never admitted that its men did anything wrong, much less arresting its men involved in a criminally disgraceful behaviour that resulted in the loss of lives. As the embarrassing back-and-forth went on between the two security arms, President Mohammadu Buhari stepped in to calm frayed temper by directing the Defence Headquarters to investigate the incident. The seven-man panel, which included police and the Directorate of Security Services, headed by Rear Admiral Ibikunle Olaiya, began work immediately. But as is often the case in this environment where vested interest often trampled on truth, the panel’s insincere report blamed both parties for the incident and called for further investigation of Wadume and Balarabe. Meanwhile, Balarabe had reportedly confessed before the panel that he destroyed the handcuffs the police put on Wadume and let him off.

Two weeks after the incident, the police re-arrested Wadume in his hideout in Kano. The army turned down police request for the 10 soldiers to be handed over for interrogation. And not even a letter by human rights lawyer Femi Falana SAN to the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mallam Abubakar Malami, asking him to compel the army to release the soldiers to the police would change the situation. At that point, it became clear that justice was not going to be served in the matter.

But the reality of bias and dishonesty did not hit home until the police charged the case to court and listed the soldiers as defendants. At the first hearing, the soldiers were absent, but the trial judge ordered that the army bring them to court at the next adjourned date. Rather than direct the army to obey the order of court, it was the AGF that instead used his statutory power to seize the case from the police and strike off the names of the soldiers from the charge sheet, thus effectively shielding from prosecution soldiers, who were not only working with criminal elements in the society but had also killed in the process.

And that abuse of prosecutorial power was the beginning of the end for the police, families of the victims and the society. Malami’s perversion of the extremely critical procedural justice laid the foundation for the light sentence the court handed down to Wadume, an inveterate kidnapper and killer who ought to be clamped behind bars for life.

Expectedly, in the absence of procedural justice, clearly missing in the judgment is one of its natural consequences – restorative justice. This means that the judgment offers no healing of the wounds of families of the dead, who were likely breadwinners of their families. This judgment denies the families a much-desired closure, and denies the police and society, too, but clearly in a less severe way.

The police described the officers who lost their lives in such cruel manner as the best in the intelligence response unit.

As for Wadume, he will see this as justice. And Balarabe has since moved on normally in the army as though nothing happened. He must have risen above his captainship now and may even rise to become the army chief someday.

If there’s anyone persistently loud in his demand that the police officers must not die in vain, it was Falana. Now, what will he say?

Onyeacholem works in the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy

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