After it came to light that one of its operatives in Plateau State had killed a 20-year-old boy early in May, the Nigerian Army declared the next day that the soldier only fired because he had mistaken the victim for a fleeing crime suspect.
Multiple accounts later received from witnesses, however, show that it could only have been cold-blooded murder — especially as no attempt was made to save the youth’s life for close to an hour.
News of Rinji Peter Bala’s death broke out on Wednesday, May 13, sparking outrage on social media and among civil society actors.
The previous evening he was shot by a member of Operation Safe Haven (OPSH), a task force comprising members of various security agencies and set up to maintain peace in the Plateau and some other states neighbouring it.
Before the killing, Rinji was tortured by other members of the task force alongside six other young men from his neighbourhood.
In its statement, the Nigerian Army labelled the youths “suspected armed robbers, cultists, and criminals” who took advantage of the lockdown to perpetrate crimes.
It claimed to have received information about their operation “at about 10 p.m.”— although witnesses said it was nearly three hours earlier before the curfew started.
The military also said officials of the OPSH Sector 1 patrol troop took the youths to their headquarters for “preliminary investigation” after which some were cleared and asked to leave the premises.
The investigation the military referred to, HumAngle learnt from witnesses, involved mindless torture even after the young men’s innocence had been established.
Gyang Emmanuel, Rinji’s childhood friend who was lucky to have escaped death the same day, narrated what happened in detail — and, as he said, for the first time.
Suspected armed robbers?
While the Nigerian Army said it thought Rinji and his friends were cultists and armed robbers based on reports, facts available contradict the position.
The youths — Rinji, Gyang, Henry, Enoch, and Chinedu — had gathered at Rinji’s house in Jos South Local Government Area and decided to go out for an evening stroll. The time was between 6.40 p.m. and 6.50 p.m.
They soon got to the pedestrian bridge on Makurdi-Jos Road and saw people gathered. Some of them could be heard complaining about recent robberies in the area.
According to reports, hoodlums often assault people at night, causing residents to retaliate against any strange young men who passed by.
“Barawo! (Thief!)” Gyang could recall them shouting.
The youths started to run but Gyang waited to pick his phone that dropped to the ground and then decided to stop running and defend himself against the allegation.
“I told them I was not a thief. When they got closer, the first thing they did was to throw a stone at me. They started to beat me with sticks. I think they were going to set me on fire,” he said.
There is a guest house where soldiers lodge at a nearby junction close to the National Library on 18th Street. Rinji had turned back to support his friend while others hurried home to get help.
The soldiers noticed what was going on and intervened. They took the two young men and asked them to empty their pockets and sit on the ground.
“We explained everything. They met the community people and asked them if we had stolen before or they caught us red-handed with any exhibits or anybody brought a claim against us, they said, no.
“Our innocence had been established at that point. But the soldiers still went ahead to call, in quote, the authorities,” Gyang narrated.
Guang said he assumed that the worst that could happen was that they would be handed over to the police and put in a cell till their parents came to bail them the following day. But he was mistaken.
Some youths from their neighbourhood soon arrived in an attempt to secure their release but the soldiers attacked and captured five of them.
“They were told to lie down next to us. They removed their shirts and shoes and started to beat them. That was when I realised how wild the situation was,” Gyang said.
“I was not even panicking because we were innocent and in a normal place the truth would set you free, but —” he relied on the reporter to fill in the gap.
Tortured ‘like terrorists
“The authorities” called by the military personnel were not policemen or a vigilante group as anticipated. Another set of soldiers arrived in a Hilux vehicle as though prepared for war.
“You would think they were about to stop a robbery,” Gyang said, adding: “They came to us immediately, cuffed me to Rinji, and tied the hands of the others elbow-to-elbow.”
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