The horrifying death of Super TV’s chief executive officer, Michael Usifo Ataga, more than one week ago, has raised unprecedented public commentary on the profile of the man, his personal attributes, his family background and his business activities. Unfortunately, all that commentary turned out to be nothing but public chatter about an incident that only a few people are qualified and privileged to hold inside information. And yet the nation has never been so enthralled and engaged in a collective effort to solve the mystery of the man’s final moments.
The death also placed on the front burner critical issues about Nigeria such as the growing prevalence of callous crimes, the baffling strategies adopted by the police to investigate, frame and demonise suspects even before investigations have been concluded, how unprofessional journalists are corralled to believe police accounts of crime without conducting independent investigations of their own and how a gullible society assimilates all that misleading information.
In the attempt by the police to unravel the puzzle over Ataga’s death, certain strange things have occurred, including the public display of the suspect. The decision by the police to parade the suspect has spawned the emergence of all manner of experts in criminal justice system, law and order, as well as specialists in human character assessment. There are also backyard criminologists, motor park forensic analysts, unlettered rookie lawyers, and untrained sociologists. Surprisingly, many people have taken sides based on idle talk circulating on social media.
Regardless of the convoluted analysis of the possible causes of the death of Ataga, the circumstances of his demise and suggestions about how the suspect might plead when the case goes to court, the incident has exposed the unsteady and shocking environment in which many Nigerians exist. So many wild and lousy stories have been disseminated about Ataga’s wife and family, thus adding to the ordeal the family is experiencing as they mourn and search for answers.
At the centre of public conversations are questions about the culture within the police in which suspects are paraded before journalists, long before investigations have been completed. Often, that practice is based on impulsive interviews conducted with a suspect. Unknown to the police, the practice of publicly parading crime suspects might work in favour of accused persons during trial. The duty of the police is to investigate crime in a clinical and professional manner. Part of the investigation is to interview suspects. There is no obligation on the part of the police to parade a crime suspect in public before the conclusion of investigations. That practice diminishes the case for the prosecution and enhances the defence.
When the police said animatedly that the suspect in this case has “confessed,” there are wider implications of that claim. We do not know the condition under which the so-called suspect “confessed,” if indeed the suspect admitted that they committed the crime. Was the “confession” given willingly by the suspect? Was it obtained by the police through coercion? Can that assertion be supported and proven in court?
Even before the so-called “confession,” did the police read to the suspect her rights to remain silent or to speak? Did police investigators inform the suspect that, if she chose to speak, whatever she said might be used as evidence against her during trial? In any case, was the “confession” recorded on video? We have not heard all the sides to this macabre case.
The tradition of the Nigeria Police displaying crime suspects publicly is an odious practice unknown in other jurisdictions and countries. It tags suspects as criminals even before they have been tried in court. That system damages valuable evidence. Once evidence is tainted during interrogation of suspects, that evidence can no longer be used during trial. The police should not tell us that the suspect “confessed” because that claim is unsupported and will be contested vigorously by the defence counsel in court.
Regardless of the spicy tales told on social media by so-called experts, this case will not be decided easily, particularly as the deceased cannot speak for themselves and also as the accounts given by the only suspect were not tendered in writing, were not given under oath, and have not been tested in a court of law.
At a more general level, this incident has exposed the underbelly of our society. It shows the flaws in our marriage institution, infidelity in marriages, lack of good parental upbringing of children, lack of accountability in our society, the collapse of our social values, and waywardness of the young generation. The case says a lot more about the eccentric practices and ways of our people than about the moral character of Ataga’s family and the principal suspect. It also speaks to the way the police collect evidence with which to prosecute suspects.
The police must act professionally, judiciously, and with caution. It must never release to journalists, social media merchants and voyeurs of misinformation, and curious members of the public information that is capable of destroying the uprightness of suspects who are yet to be convicted. Parading one suspect and claiming the suspect has “confessed” is akin to condemning the suspect even before formal trial has started.
Surely, the release, in the public domain, of unverified information from unidentified sources about Usifo Ataga’s character and family background has severely damaged the man’s family, the image and morality of his wife and traumatised other family members, friends, work colleagues and business associates. In rushing to judgment about this complex case, everyone must keep in mind that dead people do not talk. So far, the police have in custody only one suspect. That scenario suggests that we are being fed with information about the death of Ataga based on the explanation given by one source.
As news editors know too well, when journalists speak about objectivity in news, they imply they must aim to be accurate, truthful, fair, balanced, neutral, and they must abstain from making value judgments. All these constitute the canons of journalism.
While the police might invite journalists to the public shaming of suspects (that is exactly what that practice of parading suspects is all about), journalists are under no obligation to report whatever the suspect says and what the police tell them about the suspect. If the police have any evidence that would help to convict the suspect, they should present that proof during court trial.
In some countries, for example, the identity of a murder suspect is never revealed by the police to journalists and the public until the case has been mentioned formally in court. Like every other citizen, anyone accused or suspected of crime is entitled to be deemed innocent until they have been tried and convicted.
Usifo Ataga’s death has raised public concerns about the deteriorating conditions in Nigeria beyond economic hardships. Questions about how we got to this point must consider our past and present practices. Before the breakup of our society, what were those qualities that held us together? What social values were recognised, treasured, appreciated and respected? To what extent have they been abandoned or upheld? Surely, the disintegration of our society must be attributed in part to the speed with which we discarded our values. A society without values is a dysfunctional society. Such a society is like someone sleepwalking.