Udora Orizu highlights some of the traumatic experiences of citizens in the hands of operatives of the now defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit of the Nigeria Police Force in Awkuzu, Anambra State
As the #EndSARS protests continues to gather momentum across Nigeria and beyond, so many aggrieved Nigerians took to social media to share their traumatic and harrowing encounters in the hands of SARS operatives, particularly in Awkuzu, Anambra State.
Over the years, SARS operatives in Awkuzu, a town in Oyi local government area of Anambra state have acquired so much notoriety that it has been deemed by majority as the country’s most dreaded specialized police unit.
Those who had an encounter with the operatives of Awkuzu SARS always had sad stories to tell. Allegations of how so many innocent youths were tortured, dehumanized and extra-judicially executed by the rogue operatives abound.
The notoriety was so much that it attracted the attention of the Amnesty International in 2014 and 2016, during which the international human rights organization in its report, following an extensive research described it as the headquarters of human rights violations, particularly as it relates to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and extra judicial executions.
The international body in a report, published on September 21, 2016 said the Nigerian Police unit set up to combat violent crime has instead been systematically torturing detainees in its custody as a means of extracting confessions and lucrative bribes.
It said they were told by former detainees that they had been subjected to horrific torture methods, including hanging, starvation, beatings, shootings and mock executions, at the hands of corrupt officers from the feared Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Damian Ugwu, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher in the report said, ”SARS officers are getting rich through their brutality. Our research has uncovered a pattern of ruthless human rights violations where victims are arrested and tortured until they either make a ‘confession’ or pay officers a bribe to be released.”
Back in January 19, 2013, villagers in Amansea, Awka, Anambra state woke up to find the bodies of over 35 people floating on Ezu River, with no idea who killed them.
However, four years later, a report released by the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, on July 2017, accused the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of Anambra State Police Command of being responsible for the 35 corpses discovered in the Ezu River, Amansea.
The rights group in the report titled, ”The Untold Story Of Ezu River Police SARS Killings, said it decided to revisit the matter following increasing, shocking, saddening and alarming rate of torture and killings of some, if not many of the arrested and detained citizens by the Anambra State Police SARS operatives in the course of their so-called combating of violent crimes of armed robbery and kidnapping in the state.
The report which was signed by the Chairman of Board of Trustees of the group, Emeka Umeagbalasi, and addressed to several authorities, including then acting President Yemi Osinbajo and Amnesty International among others, condemned the use of force, torture and other unapproved ways to extract information from suspects.
The discovery which had attracted the attention of the Federal Government and international bodies led to the institution of a panel of enquiry, which its result was never made open.
Part of the report reads, ”Many of the arrested and detained citizens by the Anambra Police SARS operatives in the course of their so-called combating of violent crimes of armed robbery and kidnapping in the state were butchered like animals. Instead of a drastic reduction in the number of deaths and torture, Anambra Police SARS operatives had become deadlier and more menacing; “consolidating their atrocious practices of custodial torture and killing through their theatre of butchery. The amount of torture and killing going on at Anambra Police SARS headquarters at Awkuzu and its annexes or unit locations in the state is geometrical.”
”Our first reason for issuing this special report is to draw the attention of the world particularly the United Nations and its Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Organization Against Torture, and other rights groups and research bodies and institutions as well as the generality of Nigerians over the raging and untamed unlicensed butcheries and cruel and degrading treatments perpetrated by Anambra Police SARS operatives against detained citizens in their custody.”
Some gory cases of Awkuzu SARS brutality as recorded in Amnesty International’s report include, the story of 23 year-old Miracle, who was arrested in February 2017 and detained at SARS detention centres in Awkuzu and Neni in Anambra State, on the allegation of laptop theft. He told Amnesty International that he was tortured and hardly given any food during his 40 days in detention by SARS, before he was charged and brought before a court.
He said, ”At SARS Awkuzu, their leader directed them to hang me. They took me to the back of the hall and tied me up with ropes. They tied my hands behind me, tied my two legs together and then tied the rope binding my hands with that around my legs behind me, causing my chest to protrude. They had two already prepared iron stands where they hang people.”
”They passed an iron rod through the ropes and then lifted me up by the rod and hung me from the iron stand. Then they started to use all manner of items to beat me, including machetes, sticks, inflicting me with all manner of injuries. When the first officer came to check and saw that I was almost unconscious, he went to call their team leader, who then asked them to bring me down. They dumped me inside the interrogation hall.”
Miracle told Amnesty International that the next day, he was taken from Awkuzu to a SARS detention centre in Neni, where he was detained for 40 days.
He said he was denied food and water by SARS during the course of his detention, and only managed to stay alive with the help of inmates who smuggled sachets of water into his cell at midnight.
He alleged that eight of his co-detainees died of starvation during the period of his detention. Miracle was taken to court on March 25, 2017 and charged for armed robbery, but was discharged for lack of evidence. A lawyer, who took up the case of Miracle told Amnesty International that he wrote the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in May 2017 asking for an investigation, but failed to get any response from the IGP.
Another, is the case of a 27 year-old trader, who was tortured at SARS Awkuzu office. He told Amnesty International, they said he should ensure that nobody hears about what happened, that if they get information that he discussed his ordeal with anybody, they would come back and execute him.
Another testimony, is by a 33 year-old fuel attendant who was detained for two weeks in SARS Awkuzu, in January 2015.
He was released on bail after two weeks of detention when a high court in Onitsha, Anambra state ordered for his release.
He said, ”They brought a plain sheet and asked me to sign. When I signed it, they told me I have signed my death warrant. There were two policemen in the hall. They asked me if I knew how many people died there. They said that if I die, my blood will never be on their hands. They took me to the back of the building and tied my hands to the back. They also connected the rope to my legs, leaving me hanging on a suspended iron rod. They put the iron rod in the middle between my hands and the leg with my head facing the ground. My body ceased to function. I went limp. The IPO (Investigating Police Officer) came at intervals and told me to speak the truth. I lost consciousness. When I was about to die they took me down and poured water on me to revive me. They brought people from the cell to carry me inside the cell. I was detained for two weeks.”
A twitter user Chijioke Eruchalu, with the handle @mrcjayerus, also penned down a harrowing experience his friend Bonaventure Chokwebundu Mokwe, had with the operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, in Anambra State.
Chijioke known professionally as an Environmental Biologist, wrote: “We started from the last floor of the hotel, room after room and most of the rooms were occupied by guests that are mostly traders from Cameroon. We finally got to the first floor but before then, one of the officers had demanded that we show them room 102.”
”When we got to room 102, the door was locked and I turned and asked Dr Nwankwo Justin whether a guest paid for the room the day before and he said yes. I asked about the manifest of the hotel lodging and he said that he had submitted the police copy to SCIB at the Central Police station Onitsha which every hotel is obligated to do before 7A.M. every day.”
”I instructed him to bring our own copy which he hurriedly did and we showed it to the police. The guest gave his name as John Obi. The officers insisted on breaking the door and I pleaded with them to wait for the guest for some time. The customers of Upper Class Hotel are predominantly traders from Cameroon and Niger Republic and that they carry a lot of cash with them. That has been the case since 1974 the hotel was built because of its nearness to main market Onitsha.”
”Before I could finish, they broke the door and entered the room. We saw black polyethylene bags (waterproof) all over the room with an open suitcase. The officers then opened the wardrobe and brought out a bag. Inside the bag was two human skulls with sand all over them and two rusted and unservicable AK47 guns.
”I was promptly leg chained on both legs and Dr Justin Nwankwo was handcuffed. I was taken to the outside corridor of the hotel and made to kneel down while holding the exhibits and they took pictures. At that point, from the faces I saw amongst the crowd with axes and matchet, I then knew where the whole incident came from, hazzard of land business along with motor park duel.
”By the time I was led downstairs, practically most of the police officers had all headed back to the station with the exception of the ones that accompanied me. The crowd were surging to clearly mob me. Luckily for me, I came to the office with my Q56 Infinity SUV and the leg chain gave me some space to drive. As I entered my SUV and started the engine and pushed down the vehicle auxiliary, I turned around to the police officers and told them that I already know what happened and that if the crowd rushes at me, I will fill up the mortuary at the general hospital Onitsha including myself.
”As I surged on, one of the police officers opened the vehicle door and started firing rapidly in the air. That pretty well saved me and some of those people. From the Area command Onitsha, we headed to Awkuzu SARS with the team and the leader. Dr Justin Nwankwo and the staff were packed in one vehicle while I myself and four SARS officers were in another vehicle. When we got to the present Road Safety office along the Enugu/Onitsha Road before you get to Awkuzu SARS, the team leader turned around and said to me ‘You will never see that hotel again.”
”He said he will kill me whether I am innocent or not and that if I am innocent, may my blood be on him and his children. When we then entered Awkuzu proper, Dr Justin Nwankwo was kept in their torture hall while I was taken behind the torture hall where they mostly do their killing. Behind the very torture hall , I was chained to a local weight lifting device. After some period the leader came back with some officers and his deputy. The deputy inspected the exhibits for some time and asked me the following questions. Where the exhibits recovered in my office and I said no, it was recovered in a guest room.
”Do we have hotel manifest and I answered yes that we submitted the police copy early in the morning but that my manager has a duplicate copy.
“He inspected the exhibits yet again and said that the skulls looks old and that the guns have not been in use for a long time; why all in one bag he asked while the rest looked on. As a turned to leave, he muttered; this looks like ‘mago mago’.
”His observation did not stop the leader. Not long after that, one of the officers came back with an already written statement and I was asked to sign. I refused saying that I am quite capable of writing my own statement. My torture commenced immediately. I was overpowered and my shirt was removed from me.”
”They then wrapped my neck with the shirt and then followed it will a green rope and they started pulling from both ends. Gentlemen, I was gone. They then appended my thumbprint on the prepared statement that substantiated the allegations against me. Meanwhile Dr Justin Nwankwo was seeing hell in the torture hall.
”When I eventually regained consciousness, I found myself in their death chamber called Cell 5. It is the cell that is reserved for those they will kill. Congested and extremely dirty. Food is not allowed in the very Cell unless periodic loafs of bread which is shared in slices. One bucket of water every day for drinking. The shock of my life happened on the second or the third day of being in the very Cell 5. There is this small boy of between the age of 19 and 22, a second year Engineering student of FUTO.
”He calls me Uncle. He told me that he is an only son of the mother and that his supremely rich uncle, based in lagos wanted to annex his own father’s portion of family land and that his father is late.
His resistance against the uncle landed him at SARS as a kidnapper and armed robber. Then, it was either in the second or third night of my staying in the condemned cell, the door of the cell opened late one night. What I saw was a touch light. Names were being called one after the other; 17 names in all including the small boy and they were ordered out and the door closed back.”
”It did not take more than 15 minutes, gunshots filled the air, ‘nne moh nne moh’ (my mother my mother) is all I could hear. The 17 young men were slaughtered in cold blood. I lost it that night. My system just shut down. It was either the 4th or 5th day that the door opened one morning and it was the same deputy that called my name and told me to come out.”
”No energy was left in me because I had not eaten real food except periodic slices of bread. He bought me something to eat along with a malt drink.
As time went on, I discovered that the case has hanged. I was subsequently transferred to Cell 1. After some days, I was called into the leader’s office to see my wife and my lawyer Professor Umenweke Nnama Meshach. I tried to get Dr. Justin Nwankwo to join me but they refused.”
”Even the leader voiced out some frustration when he said the hotel demolition was too fast. This is the same person that told me that I will never see the hotel again. He became unusually friendly towards me, but I knew it was a damage control. The latitude then allowed me to study what truly obtains at the Awkuzu SARS.
”I witnessed some of the tortures and I became aware of some that their cases along with what really happens in the place. I witnessed an incident when a young trading apprentice was arrested by SARS on behalf of the master over a missing N250,000 or thereabout.
”He broke his spinal cord and died when he was subjected to what they call hanging torture. He was written off as an armed robber. I witnessed an incident during what they call verification excise or something like that. All the inmates will be brought out in the open yard and all will be seated on the ground.
”When your name is called, you will stand up and answer some questions. There is this boy that was called up and the leader asked him; Are you from Ogidi before the boy could finish saying no, the leader shot him with a silver coloured pistol which is always with him. The boy bled to death right there. I also witnessed the practice of shifting inmates in the middle of the night to Neni for the purposes of dodging official inspection of the place. Neni SARS annex is another abattoir. Starvation of inmates and outright shooting is the rule there. If the government undertakes the excavation of the perimeter of the Neni annex, the Ezu River will be a joke compared to what will be discovered. I saw other killings at the very place. Every morning, the inmates of Cell 1 will be called to carry a dead body or two behind the torture hall. Any individual that has been detained by SARS for an extended period of time will tell you exactly that.
“Let me clarify an issue here, the leader does not release proven kidnappers or armed robbers, he kills them. But, with a negotiated huge amount of money, he will at most charge the person to court. Outright release of the person is off as far as I know. What I also know is that, he can be bought to do a particular job, death inclusive, if the price is right.
”Let me stop here but there are more details. If the government of the day is desirous of appeasing the victims of SARS, the government should offer immunity to some officers that served under this leader and they will lead investigators to the exact location of corpse dump in the vicinity of Neni. Some of the SARS victims can at least recover the body of their loved ones for burial.”
One of the most horrifying of all was the disappearance of a young man named Chijioke Iloanya, who was allegedly arrested by CSP James Nwafor and his men back in 2012. Eight years later, the Iloanyas are yet to get closure on the whereabouts of their son and brother.
A woman, Obianuju Iloanya, has explained how her older brother, Chijioke, was last seen in 2012 when he attended a child dedication at Ajali, Orumba North Local Government Area of Anambra State.
She accused the Anambra office of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad which was headed then by a recently sacked aide of the Anambra governor, James Nwafor, of being behind the mysterious disappearance.
Nwafor, in 2012, was the Officer-in-Charge SARS, Awkwuzu, Anambra, where protesters calling for police reforms recently stormed. He was appointed in 2018 by the Anambra governor after he retired.
She said, ”I was only 17 when Mr Nwafor told my parents that he had killed my brother. He looked my dad in the face and told my dad, he could not do anything. On November 29, 2012, “Chijioke insisted he would go for his friend’s child dedication in Ajali even when their mum asked him not to. It was at this child dedication that officers from Ajali police station rounded up everyone who was at the celebration including Chijioke, from where they were transferred to the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) Awkwuzu,” she said.
”The last time any member of the family saw Chijioke was the day her parents went to SARS office in Awkwuzu. Our mum saw her son in their premises, (but) the officer in charge, James Nwafor, denied he was there. Some officers said he was bluffing and told my parents he wanted them to bring money.”
She said her parents could not afford to make any offers because they had no money.
”We went to Mr. Bala Nasarawa who was Anambra State’s Commissioner of Police at the time, who called Mr Nwafor to ask if my brother was at the station. Mr Nwafor claimed they had a shootout with armed robbers and my brother was likely one of them and so he was not in their custody. The commissioner turned back to us, saying his hands were tied and he could not do anything.”
She narrated how traumatic it was for her parents to go in search of her brother at the Ezu River when it was rumoured that SARS had dumped some bodies.
”When we heard that SARS had dumped some bodies at Ezu River, my dad went to search for my brother but he was not there, it was such a hard time for us. The governor sacking him is not enough, I want him prosecuted, he has to be brought to book. I want answers.”
At the candle night demonstration for fallen heroes of the #EndSARS protest in Abuja last week, a lady again recounted same story of how he (Chijioke) was arrested by Awkuzu SARS.
”This is the impunity of which officers have treated us. They came to Abuja to seek justice. The State CID told them they will have to pay money to transport others down to the state where it happened. We have no system. We cannot get tired,” she lamented
Following demands of #ENDSARS protesters, the Governor of Anambra State had last week sacked his security aide and former OC, Awkuzu SARS, CSP James Nwafor.
Also part of his promise to release, those illegally arrested by the operatives of Special Anti-Robbery Squad, Obiano again on Saturday visited the Awkuzu SARS station and bailed three detainees.
Those whom he granted bail were said to have committed minor offences, but have stayed longer than expected. Offices located at Neni, Ekwulobia and Awkuzu were equally visited by the Governor. He was said to have seized the opportunity to inspect the facilities in the various stations. He also personally promised to do everything within his power to bring justice to victims of police brutality in the state.
But as the protest enters its second week with demands on the table of the Federal Government to deal with, it’s clear that the disbandment of SARS and the swift creation of a new unit known as the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) has left many doubts in the minds of many Nigerians who are uncertain as to what will happen next if they cave in to this new unit. The youths don’t want the ongoing protests to stop at #EndSARS but a complete overhaul of the entire police system.
Both the federal and state governments need to heed to citizens #EndSARS protest demands, it’s high time the SARS menace is brought to a total end. Chijioke and all other victims and survivors of police brutality deserve justice. Government needs to act fast if they truly care about the citizens. The Inspector-General of Police Mohammed Adamu should as a matter of urgency create reforms to curb excesses of security personnels. Disbanding SARS is only the first step, a lot needs to be done, not just a comprehensive reform of the Nigeria Police Force, but also ensuring that all the culprits of police brutality are arrested and brought to book.
Those who had an encounter with the operatives of Awkuzu SARS always had sad stories to tell. Allegations of how so many innocent youths were tortured, dehumanized and extra-judicially executed by the rogue operatives abound. The notoriety was so much that it attracted the attention of the Amnesty International in 2014 and 2016, during which the international human rights organization in its report, following an extensive research described it as the headquarters of human rights violations, particularly as it relates to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and extra judicial executions.