The Nigerian Human Rights Community has taken a dim view of the ongoing security situation in the South-Eastern part of the country, declaring its readiness to monitor the conduct. The community also said the Police, not the Nigerian Army, have the duty to maintain security anywhere in the country. The position of the community was expressed in a communique issued at the end of its meeting held in Owerri, capital of Imo State. The communique was jointly signed by Ndidi Anike, Femi Amele Barbara Maigari and Okechukwu Nwanguma.

The meeting, attended by over 100 representatives of human rights organizations, was essentially in response to the human rights emergency in Imo State as represented by the demolition of the Ekwe Uku Market in Owerri and the forceful eviction of traders from the facility by the administration of Mr. Rochas Okorocha, governor of Imo State.

Operation Python Dance ii

It, however, coincided with the deployment by the Nigerian Army’s Operation Python Dance II in the five states of the South-East. While the human rights bodies agree with the objective of the operation, which is the maintenance of security, they, however, stated that such objective is the responsibility of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF).

According to the communique, participants’ attention was drawn to instances of un-redressed extra-judicial killings and harassment by soldiers deployed to the South-East zone, saying such warranted valid suspicions of something sinister.

“Many participants in the Human Rights Community expressed grave fears about the methods and means envisioned in the exercise. Attention was called to the expressed design for the exercise to ‘transit into real time operations, thereby fulfilling both training and operational objective.’ Questions were raised as to how this dovetails with the primary responsibility of the Nigeria Police Force for law enforcement,” the document stated.

It added that participants recommended that the Nigerian Army should issue and immediately publish for wide dissemination, the operational rules of engagement (RoE) for Exercise Python Dance II. This, they said, is required to provide guarantees for the respect of human life and dignity during the operations. The rights organizations also offered to establish liaison mechanisms with the Nigerian Army for the purpose of joint monitoring of the operations and to assure amicable
community relations.

“Pending progress on these proposals, the Human Rights Community resolved to put in place mechanisms to monitor the operations and activities of Operation Python Dance II and to document instances of violation for possible actions, including reporting such cases for appropriate action. Individual officers will be held responsible for the abuse of firearms, disproportionate use of force or any abusive of civic communities,” said the rights activists.

The meeting was also attended by members of community and advocacy groups, including representatives of Keke NAPEP Riders, organized labor, pensioners, retired permanent secretaries, members of the Owerri Community, Nigerian Bar
Association (NBA), Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Amnesty International and pressure groups such as ‘OurMumuDonDo’ movement and the media. Equally in attendance were representatives of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Imo State Ministry in an observer capacity.

It received presentations from representatives of affected organizations, interests and communities. In addition, representatives of the conveners also met separately with senior members of the security sector in the state.
The conveners, led by Professor Chidi Odinkalu, Chair, Governing Council of the Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) of the NBA, inspected the demolished Ekwe Uku Market and visited the family of Somtochukwu Ibeanusi, the 10-year old boy reportedly killed during the eviction.

They also visited the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) in Owerri, where some of the injured are being treated. According to the communique, the deliberations focused on four principal issues. These were the intimation of arbitrary demolitions and forced evictions in Imo State, impoverishment of pensioners and expropriation of their accrued rights, arbitrary disrespect of court orders by the state government and the security situation in the South-East zone. 

On arbitrary demolitions and forceful evictions, the Human Rights Community said the government of Mr. Okorocha has been responsible for a spate of demolitions and the forced eviction of families in the last five years in its alleged “urban renewal” program.

 “These included houses and historical sites such as the Mbari Cultural Centre, Shell Camp Residence of retired and serving Alvan Ikoku College of Education (AICE) lecturers and the Imo State Library, which the governor demolished and on which he chose to build a chapel,” the activists noted.

The equally noted that most of the demolitions have been carried out despite pending court proceedings and, in many cases, in disregard of existing court orders. They pointed that the Ekwe Uku Market demolition took place despite a restraining
judicial order against the government. They similarly pointed out that the Old Stadium and shopping plaza in front of it were recently demolished. They disclosed that other markets in local communities far away from Owerri have been earmarked for demolition. These, the Human Rights Community said, include Amaraku and Eke Ata markets.

“In both cases, there are court injunctions restraining demolition, but many fear the state government could disregard these injunctions as it has done repeatedly in the past. Amaraku and Atta are not within the capital territory and are also
outside the jurisdiction of the state government, as the markets are the responsibilities of local governments,” said the community.

It pointed out that the pattern of disregard for court orders has aroused suspicions that the government’s motives are dishonorable, as affected persons and communities disclosed that they have received no compensation from the government, a situation contrary to the law.

The rights activists criticized the timing of the demolitions, which have come at a time of deep economic hardship and forced relocation of many people from other parts of the country, following the quit notice issued to Igbo by Northern irredentist groups.

“These demolitions and forced evictions have adverse effects on livelihoods. In all cases, no adequate arrangements have been made to relocate those affected. Alternative sites, where designated, have neither been built equipped nor allocated.

Testimonies of the use of disproportionate force in the evictions appeared credible. Reports of discharge of live bullets during the demolitions were also credible.

The deployment of assets from the Armed Forces appeared unwarranted except for the purpose of intimidating affected communities,” said the community.

It disagreed with the official spiel for the demolition of Ekw Uku Market, saying the demolition has a huge potential to cause a jump in crime rates rather than stem the tide, as the government said. 

On impoverishment of pensioners, the Human Rights Community said the Okorocha administration defaulted on its obligations. In 2016, it said, the government instituted measures to address this, two of which were very controversial.

“First, pensioners in the state were required to undergo verification. The problem was that Imo State last published or issued a master-list of its public service establishment in 1985. Without a master-list, the verification exercise lacked credibility. The process became the subject of serious allegations of corrupt practice; allegations that the state government and its cronies smuggled ghost pensioners onto the list were never credibly refuted. The process of verification took
place under inhumane conditions, requiring old and infirm pensioners to queue for long periods without attention. Some pensioners lost their lives while undergoing verification,” said the rights groups.

It added that the government asked pensioners, in writing, to surrender significant proportions of their entitlements, in some cases as high as 60 per cent, to receive any payments.

“Some of the pensioners with no other means of livelihood complied under duress but received nothing even after signing away most of their entitlements. With the assistance of the NBA, the pensioners challenged this measure in the High Court of Imo State, which adjudged it unlawful and restrained the state government from continuing with policies that impoverish pensioners in the state,” the groups recalled.

They observed that despite funding supplements from the Federal Government, the state government continues to violate the human rights of pensioners, many of whom have been affected by the recent demolitions and forced evictions.

The Human Rights Community affirms that the allegations of corrupt practices in the state’s pension administration are credible and merit an independent probe. 

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