Illegal Deaths: Saving Gunshot Victims in Nigeria

A popular social critic, Ayo Sogunro, has argued that “Everything in Nigeria is going to kill you”. Whereas we can debate whether this statement is valid, it is clear to me that many events that are routinely managed in saner climes are effectively death sentences in Nigeria. People die due to preventable causes, such as accident victims or gunshot victims, where speedy transfer to a hospital and immediate start of resuscitation can be the difference between a refurbished body and a formaldehyde-preserved one.

On Friday, 15 January 2021, a budding Nigerian, David Ntekim Rex lost his life in saddening circumstances. Although it is clear that the root cause of his death were the bullets of some mindless robbers, there is dispute as to the role of the Nigerian Police and healthcare facilities in facilitating David’s death. Regardless of whether some police officers refused to help David, or some hospitals denied him care, reading about his death made me realise that anyone in Nigeria could have been David. You go about your business trying to earn an honest keep; unfortunately, you find yourself at the other end of a gun barrel, and your staying alive suddenly depends on whether hospitals would agree to treat you. Why should this be so?

For several decades, many Nigerians lost their lives to gunshot injuries. Thanks to the feared propensity of police officers to ignore the concept of “right to life”, most healthcare facilities refused to treat gunshot victims except a police report was presented. Just think about your sibling bleeding outside a hospital while you run to the nearest police station to get a report from a police officer who may not be on seat, or may not have paper to print, or may not even have electricity to draft a report. You finally get a report authorised after a few hours and run back to the hospital to learn your sibling is dead. Gruesomely murdered not by the gun but by a dysfunctional system that could not care about his life and dreams.

To fix this anomaly, in 2017, the “Compulsory Treatment and Care for Victims of Gunshots Act” was passed by the National Assembly and assented by President Muhammadu Buhari. The very first section in this Act clearly stipulates that:

“As from the commencement of this Act, every hospital in Nigeria whether public or private shall accept or receive, for immediate and adequate treatment with or without police clearance, any person with a gunshot wound.”

Section 11 of the Act, if truly enforced, would have made this article unnecessary. It states that:

“Any Person or authority including any police officer, other security agent or hospital who stands by and fails to perform his duty under this Act which results in the unnecessary [illegal!] death of any person with gunshot wounds commits and offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of ₦500,000.00 or imprisonment for a term of five years or both.”

In my view, there are three reasons why after three years we still have gunshot victims being denied care. Firstly, there is ignorance by the police, healthcare personnel, and the general public. Many persons are unaware that there is actually a law banning any demand for police reports before treatment. Secondly, there is fear among healthcare personnel that they could be harassed by unruly police officers if they were to treat gunshot victims, or they may fall foul of the Act’s requirement to inform “the nearest police station within two hours of commencement of treatment”. Thirdly, there is unenforcement of the Act by the police establishment. If there had been any reports of police officers or hospitals being prosecuted and convicted for illegally killing a gunshot victim, maybe the status quo would have changed.

Lest we become the next David, there are two corrective measures that I believe would make the 2017 Act more relevant for preserving lives in Nigeria. The first measure is to revamp the Act, especially Section 3(1) that requires hospitals to report gunshot cases to the police within two hours. Unless otherwise stated, if we are dealing with a government institution in Nigeria, two hours is too small. Half of that time might even be spent in traffic. I would rather have that timeline increased to something like five hours, with a provision for more time in cases where the entire five hours are spent trying to stabilise a victim. Still on this section, rather than have a hospital try to find a police station, why not have the police setup a toll-free dedicated line (nationwide coverage) that can be reached via text message? A hospital that receives a gunshot victim would only need to send a text message stating that it has a gunshot victim in its facility; then it becomes the duty of the police establishment to identify the nearest police station and dispatch its officers if required. This way, hospitals can focus on what they are actually established for – saving lives!

The second measure concerns the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC). I deem these two agencies responsible for public ignorance regarding the 2017 Act, and therefore guilty of facilitating the deaths of all who could have been saved from gunshot injuries since December 2017. While there is a place for well-meaning individuals and non-governmental organisations to help, if NOA and FCCPC are properly funded and do their jobs correctly, every Nigerian should be aware that police reports are not required before a gunshot victim is treated. This would also give the public confidence to approach hospitals for treatment, especially in cases where the gunshot victim has not committed any crime, and is therefore free of any fear that involving hospitals could lead to future arrest after treatment. The same way we have public campaigns via diverse media for polio eradication and COVID-19 response, there should be nothing keeping NOA and FCCPC from a grassroots drive to get every police officer, healthcare personnel, and the general public aware that hospitals can and should treat gunshot victims without any encumbrances whatsoever.

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