Yet cops kill hundreds of suspects

LAGOS - Men carrying AK-47s leap from late-model Mercedes Benz sedans and burst into a restaurant, training their weapons on tables crowded with foreign workers, greasy pans, Corona beer bottles and ashtrays.

LAGOS - Men carrying AK-47s leap from late-model Mercedes Benz sedans and burst into a restaurant, training their weapons on tables crowded with foreign workers, greasy pans, Corona beer bottles and ashtrays.

"On the ground, you white monkeys!" one bearded robber shouted at customers scrambling to the floor, as another rifle-butted the skull of a man trying to instigate a diners' revolt.

"Everyone empty your pockets!"

Nigerians say crime has flourished since the end of military rule in 1999.

Debate on how the latest civilian administration is responding reached new levels in recent weeks after police announced they had killed hundreds of suspected armed robbers.

In the three-month period after President Umaru Yar'Adua's May 29 inauguration marked the first-ever hand-over of power between civilian government, 785 armed robbery suspects died in gunfights with police, while 1857 were arrested, said police's inspector-general, Mike Okiro.

Okiro's announcement on the front pages of newspapers countrywide drew ire from human rights organisations, commentators, and ordinary Nigerians.

They fear the focus on casualties over arrests means the brute force methods pioneered by the military and mastered by criminals had been passed along through successive civilian regimes.

"It's stunning that the police killed half as many 'armed robbery suspects' as they managed to arrest during Okiro's first 90 days," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"And it's scandalous that police seem to regard the routine killing of Nigerian citizens - criminal suspects or not - as a point of pride." While firm nationwide crime rates and killings involving police weren't available, Human Rights Watch cited fragmentary figures provided by authorities showing more than 8000 people had been shot and killed by the police since 2000.

Before the end of their rule in 1999, Nigeria's military juntas placed troops in major cities, where they patrolled streets and kept a lid on crime, along with political dissent and other freedoms. When they went back to their barracks, that left only the police. Few Nigerians pine for the military days, but they say civilian governments haven't trained honest, civic-minded police to fill the security vacuum left when troops abandoned the streets.

"Under the military regime, we had less crime. When we saw the army, we were fearful," said Michael Padonu, a 57-year old school administrator.

"Now there's less security. People don't respect the police. They're not trustworthy."

In Lagos, about two-thirds said crime was worsening in the city, according to a survey last year by a Nigerian think tank focused on justice issues, Cleen Foundation - Sapa-AP

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