by Nelson Egware
Many days ago, the world was greeted by a civil protest across Nigeria and parts of the world by young persons demanding an end to a unit of the Nigeria Police Force known as Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The protesters amongst other demands made it clear that Nigerian youths were tired of SARS and police brutality generally.
First, was a protest in August by a group of boys alleged to be “Yahoo Boys” at Ozoro, the headquarters of Isoko North Local Government in Delta State.The youths, a group of young boys suspected to be Internet fraudsters went on rampage, protesting alleged brutality and extortion by the police in the area. When the dust settled, a 23-year old boy identified as Collins Aki, was confirmed dead after he was hit by a stray bullet from a gunshot.
The protesters took to the streets of the town, displaying placards which bore various inscriptions, including “Police stop extorting money from us” and ”Police leave us alone.”
The youths specifically complained about the police searching their phones on the highways and asking them to pay huge amounts of money to bail themselves on the spot otherwise they would be taken to the station. Others complained that the police willfully invaded their houses without search warrants. In the process of trying to dispel the protesters, a stray bullet hit the lad who died instantly.
The Isoko National Youth Assembly, INYA, in a statement by the then President, Comrade Ovie Umuakpo, called on the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu, to order a thorough investigation into the role of the police in the killing of Collins Aki and bring the culprits to book.
INYA said: “This regrettable but avoidable incident again underscores and brings to the fore, the need for a more civil police-citizens relations. We believe firmly that there are professional ways to quell civil protests and engage protesters without resort to arms and gunshots. The action of men of the Nigeria Police, the Eagle Net Squad, in the incident is to say the least, unprofessional and it is strongly condemned.”
As if the Ozoro incident was not enough signal to the police on the impending resentment and imminent protest against their excesses, youths in Ughelli suspected also to be “Yahoo Boys” again took to the streets to protest same police harassment, brutality and extortion over a rumoured killing of a young man. Although it was later reported that the victim did not die, but sustained injuries and was being treated at a Warri hospital at the time of the report, youths took advantage of the rumour, mobilised themselves and proceeded on a protest march against police harassment and brutality and in the process, a serving police man was killed and his service rifle stolen.
Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta, a man of peace and bridge-builder, promptly called on the protesters to remain calm and law-abiding while government waded into the situation.
In a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr Olisa Ifeajika, in Asaba, Okowa acknowledged that citizens had the right to protest against any case of perceived wrong in society, but cautioned that such right must be exercised within the ambit of the law.
He said that the reported killing of a policeman and injuring of another officer of the Police Force during the #ENDSARS protests in Ughelli area of the State were disheartening, and advised that citizens should avoid taking laws into their hands.
The governor sued for calm and urged the police authorities to carry out a thorough investigation into the issues. He commiserated with the Commissioner of Police, the Delta State Police Command and the family of the deceased officer on behalf of the government and people of the State.
Similarly, he urged the Inspector-General of Police to embark on a reform of the tactical squads of the Police Force in the best interest of the country.
As the Ughelli protest was going on, a nationwide protest was also looming, which eventually commenced penultimate week, with the protesters demanding for the disbandment of SARS nationwide. In response to the protesters, the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced a nationwide disbandment of the FSARS and other Tactical Units of the Police Force while pledging to reform the unit in response to the yearnings of Nigerians.
While commending the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force, Governor Okowa noted in a statement he personally signed in Asaba, that the disbandment of SARS was a decisive and prompt way by the IGP in responding to the legitimate concerns of Nigerians.
According to him, the #ENDSARS protest by youths across the country had become a national and international movement. Describing the disbandment of the squad as a“welcome development’’, he said “the Nigerian youth can take pride in the fact that they have won a major victory for the right to free movement and association without let or hindrance.
The Governor commended the Police for not suppressing the protests, adding that the disbandment of SARS is a visible demonstration of how government agencies should respond to the grievances of our people and their agitations for justice and good governance in a democracy.
Okowa urged the IGP not to stop at just disbanding SARS and called on him to carry out a comprehensive reform of the Nigeria Police Force, while noting that such a reform should cover matters relating to recruitment, training and welfare of the rank and file.
Okowa who walked the talk as he personally came out to address the protesting youths on Tuesday at Government House Asaba, said the ongoing nationwide protests for an end to police brutality in the country was a reflection of leadership and family failures over the years. He said that there should not have been need for the protests if leaders were accountable to the people stressing that the protesters as youths of the nation, had every right to organise themselves to protest against societal ills.
As a practical step to address complaints arising from police brutality and extortion in the state, Governor Okowa announced the constitution of a five-member Police Complaints Committee, with two representatives of the youths as members.
He commended the youths for their peaceful conduct and organization, stressing that “On our part as leaders, we acknowledge the gap and that we have failed even as parents. In my own home, when my children spoke concerning this protest, I realised that they were as pained as you and that is the same pain that every Nigerian youth is going through,’’ adding that “as leaders, this protest has also brought to the fore, that we have failed. Your voices have been heard loud and clear; SARS has been banned but I assure you that we are not keeping quiet. When I commended the IGP for disbanding SARS, I did acknowledge that it was not enough; there is a need for further reforms and re-orientation of the entire Police Force.
“The issues of adequate remuneration, training and discipline of the Police Force must be looked into critically in the reform process. It is about reformation of the entire police and it is about ensuring that our nation is peaceful. We do realise that the police have a role to play in ensuring democratic governance, but they must be played in such a manner that is in favour of civil defence. Unfortunately, some of them have put the name of the police in bad light.’’ he added.
He pleaded with the protesters to remain peaceful and calm while government at all levels engaged with the police authorities and other stakeholders to meet their demands.
Speaking during the protest, Spokesman of the protesters, Mr. Emmanuel Udezua, said that youths across the nation were “in pains’’ over brutality of policemen on them. He urged the governor to use his good office to prevail on all stakeholders to end the excesses of police personnel.
“On behalf of the youths of Delta we have come to express our anger and grievances at the incessant molestation of youths by the police nationwide. We want a better Delta and a better Nigeria where youths can go about their normal activities without the brutality of the police. Stop the exploitation and the oppression of youths. Use your power everywhere you can to end this for us, sir,” he said.
It is instructive that in solving the issues of police brutality and extortion, a police complaint committee as being constituted by Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta should be replicated in all the states of the Federation with a view to making it easy for youths to report all issues of police harassment on innocent citizens.
Beyond setting up of the Police Complaints Committee, all Commissioners of Police must as a matter of urgency, carry out a reorientation and retraining of the men of their command. They should summon all Divisional Police Officers to also debrief the men under their divisions on the need to ensure a police that is geared towards civil defence.
And, in compliance with the resolution of National Economic Council meeting presided over by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo which looked into the#EndSARS protest, Okowa last Monday, inaugurated an eight-member Judicial Panel of Enquiry into Police Brutality and other human rights abuses in Delta.
He also announced the establishment of a Victims’ Support Fund for the payment of monetary compensation to deserving victims of police brutality or related extra-judicial killings in the state.
Reacting to Tuesday’s shooting of the protesters at Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos, an obviously shocked Okowa deplored the incident and called on all leaders in the country to rise up and urgently commence the process of correcting all the wrongs in the nation.
He condoled with the youths in a message personality signed by him, and said that it had become obvious that the nation could not suppress the voice of the Nigerian youth.
According to him, the youths have suffered untold pains and expressed their frustrations in the last two weeks.
The governor said the youths were heroes and heroines, but cautioned that they should not allow their well-intentioned protest to take a negative turn.
For all these, Governor Okowa has blazed the trail on the need to combat police brutality and extortion in the country and ensure that our youths can positively use their talents, skills and competence without molestations.