A new documentary by BBC Africa Eye evidences the widespread use of a torture technique called “Tabay” by police and security forces in Nigeria, three years after the practice was officially outlawed. This includes children who have been tortured during interrogation and as punishment.
Tabay involves tying the victim’s arms, and in some cases feet, behind their back in a way that cuts off blood flow and forces limbs into angles that become increasingly agonising over a number of hours. Sometimes the victim is also hung above a fire or weighed down with a concrete or wooden block to intensify the pain.
Evidence from antiquity suggests Tabay has been used to torture captives in North Africa for millennia, but its recent spread through the rest of the continent provides a grim if fascinating map of military and rebel allegiances over the past few decades. Some Nigerian soldiers told BBC Africa Eye that they first encountered Tabay during peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, where it was used by rebel groups to extract information from captives, including soldiers.
The Nigerian troops appear to have adopted these same torture methods when interrogating Sierra Leonean and Liberian rebels and suspects, and then continued the practice back home in Nigeria, where it spread throughout the security services. The rebels, in turn, say they learned Tabay in training camps run by Colonel Gaddafi. The Libyan revolutionary leader turned dictator, who was killed during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, also trained rebel soldiers in Chad and Eritrea – who have, too, since been discovered to have used the torture technique.
Pushed too far, Tabay can be lethal; in 2014, a senior police officer who is still serving in the country’s notoriously vicious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was implicated in the death of Hassan Alfa, a 24 year man who was tortured in custody and later died of his injuries. Even after Alfa’s family brought a successful civil case against SARS, the officer, Yusuf Kolo, received no punishment and was instead promoted, twice.
Also in 2014, Amnesty International reported that the Nigerian government’s Joint Task Force, which encompassed personnel from the army and police and other security services, were exploiting the State of Emergency declared in response to Boko Haram attacks to arrest and torture suspects without charge or access to legal counsel. Amnesty found evidence of torture as a war crime on both sides of this armed conflict, with some detainees having died in detention during or after their ordeal.
Nigeria’s 2017 Anti-Torture Act banned torture in all its forms, but eyewitness accounts and a slew of photographic and video evidence suggests that Tabay is still used frequently, and sometimes fatally, by the authorities. Despite this, human rights lawyer Justus Ijeoma told BBC News Africa that, more than two years on, the anti-torture laws have never been used.
Indeed, justice for victims of torture is scarce. Even in rare cases where authority figures are called to account and convicted, punishments have been mild. Four members of the Joint Task Force who were filmed torturing two young boys in 2019 were charged with “causing harm”, leading to prison time of just three months; had they been tried under the Anti-Torture Act, this could have seen them sentenced to up to 25 years. The boys, meanwhile, say that the physical and psychological damage of their ordeal prevents them living a normal life or attending school.
Responding to the BBC Documentary, Acting Director of Defence Information, Brigadier-General Onyema Nwachuku said that the Nigerian army had endeavoured to improve pre-deployment training of security personnel and does “not condone unprofessional conduct,” but implied that most torture cases were actually carried out by Boko Haram “terrorists” posing as Nigerian soldiers in order to turn public sentiment against the army.
Lead photo by Colby Ray