The Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), a 49-member civil society coalition, has called on President Muhammadu Buhari to order a probe into the use of lethal force ordered by Mr. Rochas Okorocha, governor of Imo State, to evict traders from Owerri’s Ekeukwu Market on Saturday as a prelude to demolition of the market. The call was contained in an open letter signed by Mr. Okechukwu Nwagunma, National Coordinator of NOPRIN.
The incident resulted in the death of at least three persons, one of whom was Somtochukwu Ibeanusi, a 10-year-old boy helping his parents to evacuate goods trapped in their shop. Three others sustained injuries, while scores lost their means of livelihood.
The statement noted that Mr. Okorocha ordered a combined force of the Nigerian Army from the 34 Artillery Brigade Obinze, Owerri; operatives of the Nigerian Air Force, State Security Services, the Police, National Security and Civil Defence Corps, Imo Security Network and a platoon of armed thugs to be used as security cover for the eviction of traders from and demolition of the market. It equally noted that the demolition and eviction were executed despite a court order restraining the governor from taking the action pending the determination of the substantive matter before the court.
“The deployment of soldiers is unlawful and unwarranted since it was purely a civil dispute. We call for an investigation to determine whether the deployment of the military to aid the governor in his atrocious and lawless act received the approval of the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces,” NOPRIN demanded.
The coalition stated that Mr. Okorocha’s decision to invite soldiers, who are trained to kill, is tantamount to premeditated extrajudicial killing. It accused Mr. Okorocha of having a predilection for violence, disregard for the rule of law and public opinion.
“Brazen display of executive lawlessness and impunity has become the hallmark of the Okorocha administration. This is not the first time that the governor of Imo State would unleash savage violence on the people he ought to be governing, targeting, especially critics and political opponents over disputes which are subjects of pending judicial proceedings,” NOPRIN stated.
The coalition pointed out that Mr. Okorocha, displaying total insensitivity to the current economic situation in the country, decided to relocate the Owerri Main Market, known traditionally as Ekeukwu Owerri, from the Owerri Municipal Council to Egbeada in Ubomiri, Mbaitoli Local Government Area. NOPRIN equally pointed out that the stalls and structures in the market were built by private estate developers contracted by the old Owerri Local Government Area and latter Owerri Municipal Council to build and operate the market for 99 years to enable them to recoup their investments.
The eviction and demolition, NOPRIN explained, have put the developers at a huge risk of losing their life investments. Mr. Okorocha's insensitivity, said NOPRIN, saw him ignore a protest by over 1,000 Owerri women, dressed in black, and written appeal by traders in the market.
NOPRIN recalled that Mr. Okorocha, in 2013, developed the idea of relocating the market after building his mini-Government House on a land he forcefully acquired from indigenes of Orji and Mbieri at a place called Spibart Road. The governor, it added, has an acquisitive nature, which found expression in his use of the Land Use Act to remove mechanics from the Orji and Nekede mechanic villages they occupied.
"The mechanics protested, informing the governor that the two mechanic villages were so captured and designated in the Owerri Development master plan by Owerri Capital Development Authority (OCDA). They further informed him that they have expended huge sums of money building up and developing their mechanic sheds, installing some High-Tech machines, some of which were burrowed underground and which could get damaged should they be removed," stated the coalition.
The mechanics also informed the government that they obtained valid approval from the Owerri Capital Development Authority (OCDA) to build their sheds and residences, where many resided with their families, telling the governor that they valid Certificates of Occupancy, which had not been revoked.
They followed these up with pleas to the governor to reconsider his position and let them remain in their workshops, especially given that the alleged proposed site for their relocation in Avu had not been developed and till date. Mr. Okorocha ignored the mechanics, notably because his aim was to acquire the lands for personal use.
According to NOPRIN, on 14 July 2016, Mr. Okorocha held a meeting with the mechanics, numbering about 5,000. The agitated artisans, seeing that the governor, was not going to change is mind, volubly expressed their opposition to being relocated.
"Information in the public domain and from the accounts of some of the mechanics, who were eye witnesses, had it that the governor was so enraged that he physically assaulted one of the mechanics who appeared stubborn to him. At this juncture, the mechanics scampered for safety with everybody running for his dear life," stated NOPRIN.
The incident provided Mr. Okorocha the pretext to invite a demolition team to demolish the Orji Mechanic Village, leaving no structure standing. None of the mechanics was able to remove anything from his shop. In addition, about 20 mechanics were arrested and detained, without any offense, by the Imo State Police Command on Mr. Okorocha's orders.
Those who escaped fled into hiding.
"These mechanics and other persons whose structures, shops, business establishments had been destroyed by the governor without compensation and without the likelihood of being compensated are now crying for justice. They are crying to the Federal Government, especially the President, to call Mr. Okorocha to order," NOPRIN said, adding that they have joined the ranks of internally displaced persons.
The coalition called on the President to to put an end to the excesses of Mr. Okorocha and order a probe into the roles of each agency involved in the illegal eviction of traders and demolition of the market.
"NOPRIN calls for an investigation of the extreme and disproportionate use of force and abuse of firearms by the military and other security agencies. All those found to be responsible for the reckless shootings, killing and injuring of the victims should be identified and prosecuted.The rights of the victims to timely and adequate compensation and remedies should be guaranteed," the coalition demanded.
It warned that the governor’s latest action could increase the level of crime and insecurity in the state, adding that the continued presence of the military in the market area has inflicted panic on the public.