Years after Nigerian Air Force officials killed two innocents, justice remains elusive
Maryam Abdulrahman, 40, was at her home in Sokoto, preparing to perform ablution for the Muslim prayers that Sunday evening of 20 October, 2019 when two strange men ran into the compound, one chasing the other. In horror, Mrs Abdulrahman tried to run into her room but realised that she could not move her legs. A bullet had penetrated her thigh.
The man chasing the other and who had fired the shot from a rifle was dressed in full military khaki. He is a member of the personnel of the Nigerian Airforce (NAF) attached to the 119 Composite Group in Sokoto.
A bullet also hit Suleiman Aliyu, the man chased into Mrs Abdulrahman’s house. He would later notice that he had been hit when he noticed blood gushing from his leg after he got to a safe place.
Soon, the uniformed man who pulled the trigger gave up the pursuit of Mr Aliyu.
As Mrs Abdulrahman lay helplessly in the house, another person was being shot in the community. Abdulsalam Lawan, 20, had just left the mosque when he heard gunshots and noticed a commotion in his street. He joined everyone in scampering for safety. But he was unlucky. A bullet hit him in the back and exited through his stomach as he ran.
At least five other people sustained gunshot injuries in the incident.
The scamper to save a life
Lawan Tijani, Abdulsalam’s elder brother, was away in Kano when his phone rang. His wife was unusually quick on the phone: “Abdulsalam has been shot,” she told him.
In the dazed moment, Mr Tijani thought the best option was to reach his doctor friends in Sokoto to offer Abdulsalam urgent medical attention.
Many doctors converged on the trauma unit of the Sokoto Specialist Hospital that night, but they could not save Abdulsalam. The 20-year-old had lost so much blood. He died.
At the same hospital, Mrs Abdulrahman, who had been shot earlier, was on a stretcher struggling for her life. The doctors were preparing her for surgery to extract the bullets, but she died as they wheeled her into the theatre.
“They first tested her blood type. One of the doctors said the blood available was frozen and it needed to melt before being transfused to her. I held her hands as the doctor searched for a vein to insert the syringe,” Abdulwasiu Abdulrahman, her brother, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“When we pushed the stretcher towards the theatre, the person at the theatre requested approval to open the theatre. I left one of her sons there to go call the doctor. By the time I arrived with the doctor, we found the boy crying. We looked at her and she was dead.”
Tragic Seduction: Calm before the storm
The tragedy had begun innocuously when some young men tried to seduce a young woman at a tea spot, close to the popular Lukuwa mosque. It soon led to a mild argument between the men and the woman whose identity this reporter could not confirm.
Moments after she left, the woman returned with some Nigerian Air Force (NAF) personnel, including one said to be her lover. She identified those who allegedly tried to seduce her and they were asked to kneel and were hit with sticks until they obeyed. But some of the young men decided to fight back, some of them pelting the NAF men who were plain-clothed with stones. Overpowered, the air force men fled. But a truckload of them soon returned.
When a NAF Toyota Hilux truck filled with armed men stormed the tea spot, the young men there sensed danger. Many fled but others were trapped.
Suleiman Aliyu was one of those trapped. He was unaware of what had happened earlier, he told the soldiers. But the NAF personnel would not listen. They hurled him and others into the back of their Hilux truck.
As they launched after those who fled. Mr Aliyu saw an opportunity to escape. He sprinted into a house close by. But one NAF officer chased him until they both landed in Mrs Abdulrahman’s home.
‘Justice will be served
Afew days after the incident, the Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal, accompanied by some of his cabinet members, visited the families of the deceased to condole with them. A NAF delegation led by the Air Officer Commanding Tactical Air Command (AOC TAC), Charles Ohwo, an air vice marshal, also visited the families.
Mr Tambuwal also inaugurated a 10-member committee to investigate the incident. The then Chief of the Air Staff, Sadique Abubakar, an air marshal at the time, also constituted a Board of Inquiry (BOI) led by Mr Ohwo to investigate the incident and bring the culprits to book.
Both the visiting NAF officers and the Sokoto State government assured the victims’ families that justice would be done in the matter. Governor Tambuwal also promised to fund the education of Mrs Abdulrahman’s seven children from the basic to the tertiary level.
The committee concluded investigations in November 2019 and submitted its report to the Deputy Governor, Mannir Dan Iya. However, almost three years later, both the Sokoto State government and Nigeria Air Force have failed to make the committees’ report public.
When approached, two members of the committee set up by the Sokoto State government declined comments, referring this reporter to the government.
A member who did not want to be named because he was not competent to speak to journalists on the report, however, said except for the scholarship to the children of Mrs Abdulrahman, none of the recommendations in the report had been implemented.
He said the committee found both the residents and the NAF personnel that stormed the area culpable in the chain of tragic events.
When contacted, the spokesperson of Mr Dan Iya, Aminu Abdullahi, said the deputy governor had no knowledge of the contents of the report as he only received it on behalf of the governor, Mr Tambuwal.
The spokesperson of Mr Tambuwal, Muhammad Bello, promised to find out the details of the report and get back to the reporter. But two weeks later and after multiple reminders, he failed to respond, ignoring calls and text messages sent to him.
The NAF spokesperson, Edward Gabkwet, an air commodore, told PREMIUM TIMES that he was not aware of the case as it happened before he became the force’s spokesperson. He, however, promised to get back to the reporter after making enquiries.
“I am sure you are aware I took over last year. And I’m not even aware of this alleged shooting that you are talking about,” he said. “I will have to do some research, ask questions and find out some things. I will call Air Vice Marshal Daramola (former Airforce spokesperson) to find out.”
Attempt to cover up
The Nigerian Airforce appears to be trying to cover up the issue. Over 650 kilometres away from Sokoto, the then NAF spokesperson, Ibikunle Daramola, released a statement in Abuja presenting the incident in a totally strange light.
“There has been an allegation of the unfortunate killing of two persons at Mabera area of Sokoto as a result of a fracas between NAF personnel and suspected Islamic Movement of Nigeria youths within the community,” he wrote. “However, details regarding the unfortunate incident, which also led to some NAF personnel sustaining serious injuries, are still sketchy,” Mr Daramola said in the statement.
The NAF, aware of the prejudice against the minority Shiites in the community, attempted to leverage it to divert attention from the truth.
It partially worked at the time, as it was a time the Shiites frequently clashed with security agencies whenever they carried out street protests demanding the release of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Elzakzaky, who was then being detained against court orders.
But the IMN in Sokoto quickly denied the NAF’s statement, saying that none of its members was involved in the fracas. The IMN leader in Sokoto, Sidi Maniru, told PREMIUM TIMES that he was unaware of the Nigerian Air Force withdrawing the false statement.
“They only lied to protect themselves. We didn’t wait for them to withdraw the statement because both residents of the area and the committee set up by the state government are witnesses. None of our members resides around that side where Malam Lukuwa’s mosque is located. All residents there are Salafis,” Mr Maniru said in a telephone conversation.
Although NAF promised to investigate and prosecute the officials involved in the extrajudicial killings, it has not been done.
A human rights lawyer, Mansur Aliyu, wrote to the 119 Composite Group of the Nigerian Air Force in Sokoto and asked them to ensure that justice was served to the victims.
He also wrote to the Commissioner of Police to take over the investigation from the Nigerian Air Force but he never got a response.
“We urge you, Sir, to order for a discreet investigation into the matter and do justice to our clients (Both Mrs Abdulrahman and Abdulsalam),” he wrote in the letter, a copy of which was made available to this reporter.
Mr Aliyu, who facilitated meetings between the NAF officials and the victims, said the officials who took part in the attack were identified, but there have been no words regarding prosecution.
“About six of them who operated (attacked) at the time were identified. But they (NAF) were trying to identify who fired the shots. I don’t know whether, in the end, they succeeded in pointing. But from the evidence, they should because all those who testified described him as someone who was fat. I don’t know if he was sanctioned, punished or anything.”
One killing too many
Allegations of extra-judicial killings dog Nigerian security agencies. For reasons from law enforcement to vengeance and sheer display of power, security agents killed at least 13,241 Nigerians between 2011 and 2021, according to the ‘Democracy Watch Report’, a report by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).
Nigerians believe that the lack of prosecution of offenders emboldens security agents to carry out even more brutal attacks against civilians.
For Ibrahim Adamu, a Sokoto-based civil rights activist, the refusal to make the activities of the committee public already established fears that the case would be covered up.
He said: “In a situation whereby you make a finding and you do not make it known to the public – both the findings and also the recommendations. That (making it public) is the only way we can know whether you implement the recommendations or not. But we are in the picture and we know that nothing happened.”
Justice is all we want – Victim’s families
The families of the victims told this reporter that they were given N1 million each by the state government. The Nigerian Air Force also donated a bag of rice to the family of Mrs Abdulrahman.
“All these were done after we told a press conference that the promises made to us have not been fulfilled,” said Mr Abdulwasiu.”Since then, no one has reached out to us on anything regarding the incident.”
The promises of the scholarship for the children have also been largely unfulfilled. He said the children are now being cared for by him and other family members.
“At this point; all we are requesting from both the Sokoto State government and the federal government is justice. Justice should be done. The problem is, if you raise the issue, they will say you are after money from the government. And that’s why I am careful about this.
“We simply want justice. Fish out the people that committed the act and charge them to court for a ruling. Her children need to know that their mother got justice. That way, we would know there is justice in Nigeria.
“When we went to their (NAF) office at the time, they showed us the NAF personnel who they claimed shot her. If he is innocent, he should be pronounced innocent. But if he’s guilty, he should be tried and sentenced.”