MacArthur Awards for Creative & Effective Institutions

Access to Justice

Lagos, Nigeria | 2009 Award Recipient

Defending the rule of law in Nigeria

Access to Justice is committed to ending extra-judicial killings in Nigeria as part of its wider mission to promote the rule of law in Nigeria. Through programs in judicial integrity and independence, legal access, and legal resources, Access to Justice seeks to widen access to the courts, attack corruption, defend human rights, and educate lawyers and the public.

Extra-judicial killings became a feature of life in Nigeria under military rule. The situation grew worse after the return of democracy in 1999. Police brutality, torture in jails, reckless use of firearms by law enforcement officers, and the actions of vigilante groups led to almost 3000 such deaths in 2004 alone.

Few extra-judicial killings are investigated; perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. The Nigeria Police has a history of ignoring the crimes committed by its members and of shielding them from discipline.

In 2005, a notorious incident in Abuja drew widespread attention to the problem. A senior police officer fired on a car in which six young people (the “Apo Six”) were traveling. Two of them were killed, the others taken to a police station. There, the officer responsible for the shootings conspired to have the surviving members of the group murdered so that there would be no witnesses. Public outcry and a failed cover-up led to a Federal Judicial Commission of Inquiry, which called for proper forensic investigation of extra-judicial killings.

The coroner system to investigate suspicious deaths, inherited from the English legal system, exists in the laws of most Nigerian states. But it has fallen into disuse. To revive the coroner system, Access to Justice has conducted consultations and workshops. As a result, Lagos state has passed a new coroners law which is now being implemented, while Rivers, Plateau, Cross Rivers, and Bayelsa states are reviewing their coroner laws and preparing new legislation. To build an effective system nationwide, Access to Justice is preparing a manual of coroner procedures, running training programs and a media advocacy campaign, compiling a database of extrajudicial killings, and providing legal representation for the families of victims and technical advice to government.

Access to Justice will use its $350,000 award to support the development and implementation of a public interest law center in Abuja to conduct research, train lawyers, and litigate public interest cases across Nigeria.


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