#EndSARS protest that left Imo communities desolate and traumatised
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Umuocha is located in Mbaitoli Local government area of Imo state in Nigeria. Residents of the community would not forget in a hurry the incident occasioned by the EndSARS protest that took place in October 2020, which led to the fracas and the attendant tragedy that still plague the land as at the time of this report. When this reporter visited the community, there was somberness and strange quietness except for the occasional sound of moving vehicles and few persons sighted outside their homes. Also, there was a heavy presence of the army in strategic locations within the community. In this REPORT, OLANDREWAJU OYEDEJI examines the alleged cases of human rights abuse and crimes that characterised the EndSARS protest and the military attack against the people of Umuocha, Awo-Mbieri and Orlu communities.
How the fracas started
Last October, the media was awash with stories of how youths protesting police brutality in the country set ablaze the Nwaorieubi Police Divisional Headquarters in Mbaitoli Local Government Area of Imo state, freed inmates and killed two soldiers in the process. When this reporter visited the scene of the incident three months after to report the root cause of the crisis, the ruins of the police station burnt by the mob remained visible, yet the police officers are there occupying the preserved part of the building.
According to an eye-witness who pleaded for anonymity for his safety, the problem started when a group of youths visited the Nwaorieubi police station chanting “EndSARS, EndSARS’, and demanded the release of prisoners whom they said were innocent. The agitation continued until the divisional police officer was compelled to order for the cells to be opened.
“The divisional police officer was scared because protesters were taking over the station, so he ordered that cell be opened. When they opened the cell, one of the police officers shot out of fear. And the mob asked immediately that the police should identify the officer that shot but none was produced,” the eye-witness who owns a business close to the vicinity narrated.
This angered the protesters and they began to burn down the police station. And many prisoners escaped (the number cannot be ascertained as at the time of this report). When the matter got out of hand, police officers also abandoned the building and ran for their lives.
Corroborating this, another resident who identified himself as Alex recounted: “The only thing heard in the community before the incident of burning down of the station was EndSARS, EndSARS which we did not expect to become very fatal, I went out afterwards but came home with luck that my family escaped”.
The Nigerian Army to the rescue
After burning down the station, the youths who allegedly were armed with guns attempted to leave the vicinity through the Army check-point at Umuocha but were denied passage, leading to a confrontation with personnel of the Nigerian Army.
“The soldiers stood their ground and refused to allow them passage, the boys said they were not there for the army, they had already completed their mission. One of the Army officers then shot at the hoodlums, it was at this point that the exchange started and we all started running helter-skelter, they killed two soldiers and one Army officers with an axe when bullet did not penetrate him, one of the soldiers escaped,” a resident identified as Fidelis told our reporter.
Speaking further, he said: “They burnt both the vehicle and the Army check-point because after the death of the personnel, others ran away leaving behind their equipment. In another 30 or 45 minutes, we saw Army Hilux in their numbers in our community, they started shooting sporadically and it was at this time that we started picking race. My mum and dad had to lie down on the floor; I was the one that told them to do so. We believed that young men maybe the target but old persons may still be respected by the soldiers on the rampage”.
Fidelis lamented that the Nigerian Army personnel in revenge for the death of their colleagues attacked the community close to their check-point despite knowing that the youths were not from the community – “My unhappiness or that of this community is that the Nigerian Army attacked this community leading to loss of lives despite knowing that the hoodlums cannot and are not from this community. As you can see, this place is now a shadow of itself,” he noted.
Another source confirmed to The ICIR that the soldiers attacked some communities in Umuocha, believing that most persons staying there are indigenes and they should know those who attacked their men. Multiple sources also confirmed Army’s attack on Umuocha, and the death of indigenes.
That same day, angry soldiers reportedly stormed Nwaorieubi where the police station had been razed down and started shooting sporadically leading to several deaths. This newspaper was able to identify at least seven persons who lost their lives that day from the shooting and has decided to use only their first names as sources requested.
This investigation confirms that a 38-year old man, Onyinyechi Oliver, was killed by stray bullet which pierced his heart at a T-junction within the community. He was later framed up as a “bad guy”.
“When the family attempted to hold a burial ceremony for him, the soldiers refused to allow that to happen, they claimed that Oliver was a ‘bad guy’ before his death. His wife has been left distraught by the incident,” a source told our reporter
Onyiyechi’s house was deserted when we visited. His grave was covered with sand while the poster made by his family for his burial event which was refused by the Nigerian Army still lay on the wall of his building (picture below).
Another victim, Benedict Dioku, said to be in his late forties was also killed in Nwaorieubi. He ran all the way from Umuocha to his untimely death according to an eyewitness.
“Benedict was caught in the sporadic shooting by the soldiers from Umuocha, so he ran all the way from Umuocha to Nwaorieubi. Even-though he could escape shooting at Umuocha, he could not escape being gunned down at Nwaorieubi. The Army personnel shot him upon sighting him from where they were shooting; we could not do anything” a resident who witnessed the incident recounted the helplessness of the community.
The reporter visited Benedict’s house where his brother narrated how life has been hard since his demise. He noted that it took the intervention of the court before Benedict’s body could be released.
“We had to go to the court to fight for release of his body, the survival of his family is a big issue now, I am the one fending for the family and it is not easy” he said. Benedict’s father did not utter a statement throughout the interview.
Benedict had six children before his death; the eldest is 14 years old. To make ends meet, his wife started a food vendor business as a means to sponsor her children to school after the sudden death of their breadwinner.
Chisom worked as a plumber at Awo-Mbieri. He too fell from a bullet that day while trying to rescue a wounded young man who also was gunned down. Chisom attempted to save the fallen 20-year old man but was hit by a stray bullet, as everybody else ran away in the frenzy. Neither of them survived the bullet wound. Chisom, according to sources, left behind a pregnant wife who has now put to bed. His neighbors described him as good-hearted whose kindness cost him his life.
A medical expert, who examined the boy after his death told this reporter that the bullet hit him in the heart.
“I examined him and saw that the bullet hit his heart” he said.
Another resident told our reporter that the incident had forced his family to move out of the community, “What they did was unprecedented and they have moved out of this area ever after that, we have not heard about them again,” he said.
Other victims recount experiences
Alex, a pharmacist at Nwaorieubi shared his family experience during the incident, he told this reporter that his children still suffer psychological trauma as a result of the clash.
“My family was here at the time of the incident, I was not around when the Army came because they came after over three hours of the police station being burnt. Many persons were brought down by bullets. My family ran into the shop, in this shop, there is no window, I have little children. My kids were suffocating in the shop, even my daughter who was barely three weeks as at that time was not spared.
My daughter was three weeks old as at that time and my other three children were aged 2, 5 and 7 years respectively. My son whenever he hears a sound or police will start crying. It really affected us and even my business is affected as you can see that
everyone is scared,” he lamented.
Another resident, identified as Chidi Eze who used to work as a mechanic was said to have been arrested by the police for allegedly stealing items from the police station while it was on fire. He has been in prison ever since, and even though his pregnant wife was delivered of twins, he has not been able to see his children, nobody also knows the state of the case nor his own state.
“There was a crowd invasion of the station during the burning down, everyone was scared and then ran to the police station to salvage things but the police came to arrest Chidi days after, they accused him of theft, we have yet to hear from him soon after. His wife was pregnant when he was arrested but she has now delivered a twin babies but we do not know of the state of their father” a friend of Chidi told this reporter.
A Chief in Nwaruebi, (name withheld) who resides at Mbaitoli but visited his hometown when the shooting occurred was lucky to escape with his life wearing only his briefs and a polo shirt. A relative of Charles told our reporter that “He had to abandon his car and run for his life. He was lucky to escape before the shooting spread to the village where he stayed. He is from Mbaitoli and only went home as an indigene of the village. We saw him and felt bad, he did not return to Nwaruebi till he left, I had to pick up his car days after the incident as he could not even go there himself,”
How Orlu crisis degenerated
The reporter later visited Okporo community in Orlu. Obioma, a resident of the community, where the incident reportedly started recounted his experience. He noted that the situation got heated when men dressed in black tops, black and red caps stormed Amawusa, a market in the area demanding that everyone in the area should evacuate the place.
“On a Friday in January, there in Okporo and Umu-town, we heard reports that two soldiers were shot by unknown gunmen in the town, they were killed, leaving the bodies of the soldiers. On Saturday, we also heard that about four hilux vans went to that area, they took the bodies of the dead soldiers and shot bullet in the air,” Obioma said.
“People were scared. Some people lost their properties, in the instance of a man I know who lost his tricycle to the soldiers’, his Tricycle was burnt. They set-up blockages soon after this. On the following Monday, some men on black at around 10am came to Amawusa and set the place ablaze, they asked occupants of the market to leave and then burnt it down. They went to the police station close to the market and damaged it partially. The shops were also looted,” he explained.
The ICIR learnt that there is a place called Ogbosisi where building materials are sold, the attackers met army personnel at the area and they shot at them. A resident of the area said two soldiers were killed and one injured, adding that the attackers also burnt down an amy Hilux van and went away with the bodies of the slain soldiers.
“Around 1 pm, 20 Hilux vans from Obinze came to Banana junction area. People were outside thinking everything was calm already. This sudden attack from the army took everybody by surprise and people started running. There used to be a woman who sells food here, along a village nearby, she was hit by a bullet and died instantly. There is a woman in Amawusa who was also hit by bullet, you would think this place is a war zone as over 300 soldiers took over this location, they were shooting sporadically,” an eye-witness told this reporter.
Another eyewitness who simply identified herself as Amarachi and owns a tailoring shop few metres from the Amawusa market, gave her account of the incident: “I was in the shop with my boy when we saw these boys shooting in the air. I had to run with my small kid. It was a very painful experience, as you can see my situation. Life has not been the same after this, especially for business. This area has been abandoned by many, I just came back myself as I did not want to return due to the clash”
Orlu residents’ clash with soldiers
Orlu witnessed a clash between soldiers and armed men identified to be members of the Eastern Security Network (ESN) in January. Not only have they being faced with pains of such occurrence since then, Okporo, in Amaifeke, Orlu has remained a shadow of itself with shops closed, heavy police presence and destruction visible in the area. While the destruction that occurred remained visible, Policemen were scattered in different areas of Okporo, Imo state with many roadblocks and locked up buildings, with very few vehicular movements.
“By 5pm, the streets would be deserted already, you would rarely see anyone on the road because no one knows what will happen next. For instance some days ago, members of the ESN were reported to have passed through Orlu again and the next day the Nigerian Army helicopter numbering about four started flying in the air, this was after the clash,” a resident told this reporter.
Following the protests and killings, life for residents of Umuocha, Nwaorieubi and Orlu has not remained the same. While many who fled are yet to return, those who had nowhere to go are living in perpertual fear and business owners are yet to recover from their losses, as patronage for their products and services is still low. Parents are also reluctant to send their wards to school due to the uncertainty that hovers around these communities, despite the heavy presence of security personnels deployed to the area.
“We have been doing business in fear ever since the incident, although I personally rely on God but I have my colleagues who have failed to return to the area,” a furniture business owner at Nwaorieubi who identified himself as Emmanuel told this reporter. Another business owner said it has not been the same since the incident. “I lost many things during the attack, I abandoned my shop and could only salvage few things, since then although we see it as the past, my stock has not remained the same again, even here, you can see the mood,” he said.
An education administrator who spoke under anonymity revealed that student presence in schools has drastically reduced: “Parents are scared of bringing their wards to school, the few we have here had to be convinced to come especially given the presence of police men. However, we have been hit hard by the situation. Students no longer want to come to school, although we have kept reassuring them of their safety. It would have been worse if many students were in school that day and that has been the fear of parents who refused to allow their children back to school”.
Clash with police continues In Imo
Clashes between hoodlums in the state and police formations have continued unabated as at the time of this report. This is coming as the police headquarters at Aboh Mbaise was attacked leading to injury of one female police officer. At Obowo in Imo state, two police officers were killed by hoodlums during an attack.
The attack on Police formations in Imo state has been strengthened since the EndSARS protest incident.
The station which was said to be renovated after being set ablaze during the protest was burnt down again. It would be recalled that in 2019, protesting youths set ablaze a police station at Otowo, Obowo local government area of Imo state.
It was reported that on sighting the youths, the Divisional Police Officer of the station alongside his men scampered for safety.
While the state says it would investigate the crisis, the police say it would not give in to cheap blackmail of the attackers.
According to the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project of the Council on foreign relations that tracks violence that is both casual and symptomatic of Nigeria’s political instability and citizen alienation, over Eleven thousand deaths (11,872) have been caused by state actors. This is according to the most recent information by the tracker. The data started from May 29, 2011.
Police, Army, Imo Government reacts as Ohaneze calls for caution
Speaking on the incidents, the Nigerian Army Spokesman, Brigadier General Mohammed Yerima denied any Human Rights abuse. “There was nothing of such, we have stated this and we will continue to restate it, there was no human rights abuse by our officials, we even released a statement on it,” he told our reporter.
Speaking under anonymity, an official close to the Nigerian Army who is also familiar with the issue said that hoodlums attacked the officials of Nigerian Army killing two, and took over communities.
“Our duty is to protect the country which we would do rigorously. What happened is that some hoodlums attacked the Nigerian Army killing two officers in the process; they also sacked the communities which warranted our intervention. We went there because it is
our duty to ensure that security operatives are not overwhelmed, we however did not shoot at anyone,” the source said.
While blaming IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) for the fracas, the officer denied the allegation of human rights abuse or indiscriminate shooting: “We did not shoot or kill anyone, what we did is to ensure that we restore order into the community. It is impossible that we decide to kill civilians at will; however, we cannot allow someone to issue orders from out of the country, instigating people to violence. The only case of any soldier shooting civilians would be a case of self-defence, if the civilians are attempting to attack such soldier. We went to secure the community, not kill,” he maintained.
similarly, the Imo state Police command Public Relations Officer (PRO), Ikeokwu Orlando, who spoke to our reporter during an interview denied knowledge of any human rights abuse or killing in Umuocha, Nwaorieubi, Imo state. He also denied the escape of prisoners during the EndSARS protest in Nwaorieubi, adding that the Police remained committed to securing Imo state.
“There was nothing like that, there was no kind of protest within that area. Protests were only recorded in Owerri metropolis and all the protests were peaceful. At a time I was detailed by the Commissioner of Police then to address the protesters and I was always around to address them,” he said, blaming the social media for escalation of the protests.
“Then until when the protest was hijacked from other commands, you know what happened had to do with influence of Social media especially issues that had to do with issues of palliatives, when people see that the protests went violent in other states, they want to do same here and when they saw that they had started burning down police station and attacking police stations, they did same. Here we have a very sensitive situation because we are dealing with IPOB, then every state has its own peculiarity. We had an ‘Intel’ that if the protests continued they may cash in on that to cause mayhem and that really happened,” Orlando further explained.
Confirming the killing of security personnel, the PRO for the Force said: “They just took advantage of the situation. Hoodlums moved first to a military check-point, killed Military men, I think two or three, burnt their patrol vehicle and moved to the station and then did the same thing. Even before getting to the police station, they already attacked two policemen, one died, one did not die. Nobody attacked the protesters and nobody shot at them”.
The Police spokesman also denied that the Police or Military attacked communities to revenge the death of their colleagues. “I have not heard of anything like that prior to the EndSARS, during the EndSARS and after the EndSARS protest. The Aftermath of the protest did not witness any soldiers deployment, the only thing that was done was a collaborative show of force,” he said.
“When the burning down happened for two days, on the third day, we thought it was time to occupy the public space and gain public confidence. We shared the convoy into two and we began to do a show of force and that was all. We never stopped anybody or harassed anyone. We went to the Police stations burnt to take stock, we also had an assessment team that evaluated the level of damage so that security can return back to those communities where those things happened,” he explained.
When presented with hard evidence of Policemen found in a video molesting male and female residents, Orlando noted that disciplinary action was ongoing: “The officers have been identified and are going through orderly room trial, so that is the stage we are, the Force do not condone any irresponsibility or abuse of rights. I can assure you that people should not shy away from reporting infractions, if we can confirm such, we will ensure that justice is served,” he said.
When asked to comment on the crisis in Orlu, the Police spokesperson noted that he can only confirm that peace has returned to the area.
Ndigbo Is Not At War With Nigeria- Ohaneze Ndigbo
The Ohaneze Ndigbo has reacted to the crisis stating that the incidences in Orlu for instance are unfortunate, stressing that Ndigbo is not at war with Nigeria and called for calm.
A statement signed by the group’s National Publicity Secretary, Chiedozie Alex Ogbonnia, read in part: “Ohaneze Ndigbo notes with sorrow and agony the recent disturbances inside Orlu Local Government Area of Imo state that resulted to loss of lives and properties plus caused serious hardship on people of Orlu and others… We advise people to remain calm as no goal is worthy of loss of lives of youth and others.”
We Are Not Aware of Any Human Rights Abuse, Securing Imo Is Our Topmost Priority- Imo Government
The Chief Press Secretary to the Imo State governor, Oguwike Nwachukwu, in a chat noted that the governor of the state is not aware of any instance of Human Rights abuse during the incidents occasioned by EndSARS protest or clashes in Orlu.
Nwachukwu said that the governor has enjoyed tremendous support from youths of the state which has ensured that the security situation of the state improves.
“What happened during the EndSARS protest in Imo state is not in the same magnitude with what happened in other states given that the governor enjoys the support of the youth. During that time too, Imo youths came out en-masse to condemn the wanton destruction of properties in Imo state,” he said.
The state’s spokesman also denied that there had been attacks on Imo state residents by Army using helicopters, saying that the surveillance was routine exercises by the military. According to him, allegations of Human Rights abuses by security operatives in the state were politically motivated and the handiwork of mischief-makers.
“Don’t play into the hands of politicians, such news are not factual but untrue. Most of the things we hear are unconfirmed information, there is no insecurity in the state,” he said.