Imo State used to be one of the peaceful states in Nigeria, with many Nigerians from other states and cities often making a beeline to the state for weekend relaxation, vacations, and retreats. Politicians go there for brainstorming sessions and journalists get excited over heading to Imo State for training and many corporate organisations use it as the ideal state for retreats. There have been arguments that the state has more hotels than any other state in Nigeria, snowballing the socio-economic life of the state.
The Imo State, back then, was secure and peaceful. Today, however, such security and peace have disappeared, while insecurity, chaos and anarchy has taken over the state. Although insecurity has taken hold of all the eastern states, Imo State appears to be most affected, with rapists, kidnappers, separatist groups, killers, among others, running amok. The growing insecurity has given rise to human rights violations, with security agencies and agents accused of being among those carrying out such abuses.
It was in this same Imo State that Glory Okorie was arrested and accused of being a spy for proscribed nationalist separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). She was arrested and the police did not alert her family of her arrest, plunging them into untold worries.
The lady ended up spending 160 days in police custody before she was eventually arraigned. The lawlessness in the state was part of the issues that the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and other human rights activists gathered on December 19, 2022, in Gowon Estate, Lagos State, to discuss. The Executive Director of RULAAC, Mr Okechukwu Nwanguma, while making a presentation of major human rights and security issues that shaped the Year 2022, Nwanguma said that RULAAC received several information concerning arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, extortion, and extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by the police in Imo State.
He added: “Young people have become endangered species in Imo State because of the predatory activities of unscrupulous police officers. Imo State is unarguably the centre of the most coordinated attacks by sundry criminal groups, ‘unknown gunmen’ and other criminal gangs masquerading as separatist groups.
They mainly target the police, other security agencies, and offices of INEC. The police should be empowered to defend themselves and others under any form of threat. But the response of law enforcement agencies to attacks by criminal gangs has been mainly predatory, vindictive, and indiscriminate, targeting, and victimizing innocent and law-abiding citizens.”
Nwanguma, who noted that such actions were unacceptable, added: “RULAAC condemned the barbaric and dehumanizing treatment, torture and butchering of a military couple in Imo State simply because they were military personnel. RULAAC also condemned the unfortunate attack by gunmen on the convoy of the Assistant Inspector General of Police, Zone 12, headquartered in Bauchi State AIG Audu Madaki, which left him with gunshot injuries, and hospitalization and the killing of his orderly.
Reports indicate that the AIG was on his way to Abuja from Bauchi when the suspected terrorists ambushed and attacked him. This was totally condemned, and sympathies conveyed to the NPF and to the families of the injured and killed officers.”
Nwanguma explained that in spite of the challenges posed by security agencies in the state, police in Imo State must be commended for engaging and ‘neutralising’ some of the gunmen and arresting others who, last week, attacked the Imo State headquarters of INEC in Owerri, for the umpteenth time.
“However, there were many cases and reports of security agencies attacking a whole community burning down houses, shops and vehicles and killing some community members in retaliation for attacks or killing of police officers in the community. In some cases, it was merely on account of a wanted suspect being a member of that community.
“Burning of houses by security agencies cannot be a civilised approach to policing or law enforcement in this modern age. Security agencies cannot fight crime by also committing crime. If a house is suspected to have been used to commit crimes or inhabited by people believed to have committed a crime, such as holding kidnapped persons hostage, the government can take over the property following the prescribed legal process,” said Nwanguma.
He also said that there were several incidents of predatory targeting of innocent citizens by the Anti-kidnapping Unit of Imo State Police Command. He alleged that the unit is notorious for arresting young people, detaining them incommunicado without trial, torturing them to self- incriminate, and extorting money from their family members when they eventually manage to trace them to the facility.
He also stated that the Unit hide under the guise of combating IPOB and kidnapping to abuse the human rights of citizens. Nwanguma said: “The case of Gloria Okorie was well publicized. Many other cases have also been documented by RULAAC. We call on the Nigeria Police to comply with the Court Order to pay Gloria monetary compensation for the violation of her rights.”
He also mentioned that the activities of Ebubeagu in Ebonyi and Imo states were horrific. He noted that in Ebonyi, many political opponents of the governor had been arrested, detained, tortured, and threatened. Similarly in Imo State, members of Ebubeagu were accused of mass atrocities, killings, vandalism, abductions, and rape.
He said there were reports of communities in different parts of Imo State, especially in the Orlu axis, invaded by security operatives, setting houses on fire and opening fire on family members, young and old as well as people going about their businesses. He also noted that many of the burnt houses were family houses not inhabited only by the persons being accused or sought for by security operatives.
Youths of many of the affected communities have abandoned their communities and fled for fear of being arrested or murdered. Nwanguma said: “RULAAC and other civil society organisations issued joint statements calling on Governor Hope Uzodinma to investigate the excesses of Ebubeagu, bring perpetrators to account and guarantee the safety of people living in communities.
The governor has not ordered any investigation into these numerous allegations of human rights violations committed by members of Ebubeagu who report to him, with a view to bringing perpetrators to account. Arbitrary arrests, detention and torture contravene sections 33 and 34 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, which guarantee the right to life and the right to dignity of human person, respectively, as well as sections 35 and 36, which provide for the right to personal liberty and the right to fair hearing. Nigeria is a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Human Rights Commission
It is not only RULAAC that is perturbed by the tragic situation in Imo State. The Principal Investigation Officer, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Mr Ohams Chinedu, expressed his displeasure, giving instances where human rights abuses were perpetrated.
He, however, specifically mentioned that over the months of monitoring human rights abuses in the state, he noticed that abuses were mostly perpetrated by the Anti-kidnapping Unit in Imo State, otherwise known as Tiger Base. Chinedu, who has worked in Imo State for seven years, explained that in spite of his being out of the state, many victims of security agencies abuse still call on him. Chinedu said: “The issue in Imo State has been troubling. Although I’m no longer in Imo State, activists and victims give me information on human rights violations.
The Anti-kidnapping Unit, under a Superintendent of Police called Odeyeyiwa Oladimeji has been neck deep in corruption. In fact, since SP Oladimeji took over as the Officer in Charge of the Unit, corruption has snowballed. I have drawn the attention of the Imo State Commissioner of Police, Ahmed Barde, to the atrocious acts going on there, but mum has been the word.” According to Chinedu, he could reel out over 10 cases of human rights abuses that had occurred within months, adding that there was a rot in the system. He further said: “Officers working under SP Oladimeji are corrupt.
They arrest people on the roads and take them to their stations; they’ll tell another sus-pect to point at the new suspect as one of their gang members, thus implicating the new suspect. There was a particular case where they arrested someone at a POS point. They asked him for money, he said no.
They took him to their bases and saw a mark on his body; they called a suspect who has been in their custody, who claimed that the mark on the new suspect’s body was a sign that he is their member. “The mother of the victim did a video, where she showed the same mark on her body, but the police did not listen to her because of what they wanted to get from the family. We intervened, but they told the family tell NHRC to back off. At the end of the day, the family paid half a million naira to get their son out of Anti-kidnapping Unit’s custody.”
Chinedu recalled another instance where the unit arrested a man and then asked him to pay half a million naira for bail. According to him, the policemen forced the man to sign a statement written by them, claiming that he was a cultist “He signed the statement at gunpoint.
The family paid N100, 000 for his bail. The police compelled the family to tell NHRC to back off. You can be picked anywhere in Imo State and made to pay money,” said Chinedu. A human rights lawyer, who is also a journalist, Jude Igbanoi, said that from the human rights abuses being witnessed in different parts of Nigeria, it was clear that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was still very much alive.
He said: “The police hierarchy just made it to look like they did something. I know there are many complaints, and the level of impunity is very high. Police continue to pick people on the streets, and they have a fixation for yahoo boys and young men on dreadlocks. Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture, yet you can’t convince me that torture is not going on in the Nigeria Police Force.”
He said that he had received cases of policemen writing statements and then forcing suspects to sign it, which he stated was worrisome. He said most times, they subject a suspect to psychological torture before making to sign their written statement. He explained: “They will bring a suspect and torture him in the presence of a new suspect. After which they’ll write the statement and asked the new suspect to sign it if he didn’t want to be tortured like the other guy. Most times, these suspects were made to read the statement while being video recorded, which would then be used in a court of law.
Whatever good laws come up, police have a way of circumventing it. We’re not making progress in terms of adherence to human rights. There’s nobody in Nigeria that the police these days cannot harassed or assault. If they can harass and assault lawyers and magistrates, who are the other Nigerians that they cannot assault or harass?”