By Azu Ishiekwene
The Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, would like to close the case of the suspicious death of Sylvester Omoroni Jr., and simply move on to something else. He’s surprised there's pushback and can’t understand why.
Odumosu said the state Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had advised that the evidence provided was insufficient to charge the suspects for murder. Why hang suspects merely on public sentiments when five weeks of police investigations, arrests and detention of the suspects, and autopsies in two different states have not established a prima facie case against them?
On the face of it, Odumosu appears to have a point. Suspicion cannot replace evidence.
The circumstances surrounding the death of 12-year-old Sylvester, a boarding student of Dowen College, Lagos, in November were so tragic and painful that public outrage entertained no possibilities other than that the boy had been tortured, neglected and brutally murdered.
The viral video was hard to watch. Seeing Sylvester blistered, anguished and struggling in tears as he narrated his ordeal at the hands of his alleged abusers, and then to hear he had died a few days later, is a parent’s nightmare. The memory of that video and of his family defiantly sharing a cake on his 12th posthumous birthday, still haunts me. Sylvester’s dream of becoming a pilot died in his second year in secondary school.
The school’s explanations that he had been injured in a football game seemed shabby and incredulous for a private school where parents pay N3 million, or a hundred times the national minimum wage, as fees. From the housemaster to teachers and nurses, no one seemed to care in spite of warning signs that Sylvester had complained, just weeks earlier, of being tormented and bullied.
And beyond the school, questions were also asked about what Sylvester’s parents did when he complained to them of being taunted with off-colour jokes about his older sister in the same school, who had been withdrawn on suspicion of bullying.
Dowen is not an isolated case. Four months before Dowen, 14-year-old Karen-Happuch Akagher of Premier Academy, Abuja, was retrieved sick from school only for her mother to say three days later, after Karen died, that a condom was stuffed in her private part. Although the school denied, this tragic incident raised concerns that what in the past may have been low grade, underreported cruelty may have festered over time and transformed into travesties of the worst kind.
One year before Premier Academy, a parent in Deeper Life High School, Uyo, southern Nigeria, shared the grief of her 11-year-old son’s abuse on social media, with pictures of how the boy had been sexually molested and brutalised by his schoolmates for bed wetting.
While a 2019 study by the US National Centre for Education Statistics showed that one out of five children of ages 12 to 18 is prone to bullying, a similar study in Nigeria in 2007 by Elizabeth Egbochukwu in the Journal of Social Sciences showed that four out of five children are at risk from this epidemic.
The video of Sylvester dying, his distraught family by his bedside, riveted the country in a fit of outrage. The public is still too shocked and too disgusted to accept that anything less than hanging the suspects on the next pole makes sense.
But there are also deeper reasons than anger and emotional bandwagon to explain why the authorities can't easily get the closure they so desperately need. Lawyer to Sylvester’s parents and a senior advocate, Femi Falana, has accused the police of improvising a no-prima-facie advisory from a non-existent officer.
According to him, on January 7 when Odumosu said the DPP advised that there was insufficient evidence from the police investigations to file any charges, never mind a charge for murder, there was, in fact, no DPP in Lagos. On what basis and on whose advice did the police decide not to file, if there was no DPP as alleged?
Nigeria’s police force is notoriously overworked and underpaid, but in recent times, it appears to be adding self-destruction to its list of woes.
That is not to suggest that the police should invent evidence to prosecute suspects (which they do, anyway) or that public outrage should be gratified irrespective of the facts. But the so-called advice of the DPP does not help to repair the feeling of suspicion of a cover up.
A DPP typically does one of three things with police investigations of this nature: advise that evidence is sufficient to sustain the charges; request that more investigation should be done where necessary to sustain the charges; or advise that the charges should be dropped where the results of the investigations are insufficient.
In this particular case, we’re told that the DPP has advised the police to use the third option. That would be acceptable if it was any crime other than suspicious death. What the law in Lagos provides in the case of suspicious death - as is Sylvester’s case - is that the DPP should refer the matter to a coroner for an inquest. It is the job of the coroner to invite all the parties and, with the benefit of the evidence and testimonies, determine the cause of death.
It’s unacceptable and clearly prejudicial for the so-called DPP to assume the role of a judge in her own case. That is a matter for the coroner. If the police/DPP care about being believed, they can’t swindle the coroner’s job. Until the facts are established in court, it is just as futile to believe that Sylvester could have died from injuries sustained at a football game as it is to believe that he may have died from bullying or the substances that he said he was forced to drink.
The room for doubt is so much that it is disgraceful for the police to say on the one hand that the toxicology report, one of the useful elements in the search for a cause, is not ready, and yet on the other, rush head-on to close the case file.
Two autopsies have been conducted - one by the parents in a private hospital in Warri, Delta State, after Sylvester’s death; and the second in Lagos, at which even though his parents were not present the pathologist from Delta - four pathologists representing four of the five suspects and a pathologist representing the Lagos state government - were all present.
If the authorities have gone to this length to demonstrate a commitment to justice and transparency, why is it difficult now to follow through the requirement of the law by subjecting available evidence to a coroner, as is required for all suspicious deaths? And if the police/DPP failed to do what the law provided and left the family’s counsel with no option but to call for the inquest, why the hurried and contemptuous press conference by the police?
The shabby handling of this matter, especially since that press conference, has further damaged public confidence, and reinforced the suspicion that the authorities would take sides with the top dogs and the well-connected wherever the evidence may lead.
This is neither good for the authorities nor for the school whose reputation is at stake. The academic plans of hundreds of innocent students have also been disrupted, parents left confused and the suspects scarred. It’s in the interest of all parties to have a fair and transparent closure to this matter.
There is still a window of redemption, which the prosecuting authorities must use. They should pursue the completion of the toxicology and turn in the report, along with other available forensic evidence, to the coroner to do its job. Only when the cause of death has been determined by an open, transparent process, can healing and closure begin.
The police are probably banking on fatigue, believing that in a country where as a result of cultural and religious factors people are largely uninterested or reluctant to disclose the cause of death, the matter will fade away, sooner than later. Maybe it will. But it would also further erode the depleted confidence in the force, while the vicious cycle returns sooner than later.
Perhaps the only thing worse than Sylvester’s death is for justice to be taken hostage, either by public sentiments or by police incompetence and complicity. We can’t walk away from this crime scene.
...Azubuike Ishiekwene is a renowned journalist, Senior Vice Chairman and the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP Newspaper Group. NNL.