Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
Until the recent wave of EndSARS protests that swept across the various states in Nigeria, leading to the disbandment of the Special Anti Robbery Squad, SARS, by the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, the Awkuzu SARS , Anambra State unarguably used to be the most dreaded anti-robbery outfit in the country.
Located at kilometer 38, Enugu-Onitsha expressway, near Awkuzu junction, SARS Anambra Command, operated from the Central Police Station, Agu Awka in the early stages of its formation before occupying a permanent location at the old Party House building, Awkuzu.
Set up during the time of Adannaya Gaya as the Commissioner of Police, Anambra State in about two decades ago to handle cases of armed robbery and other violent crimes, Awkuzu SARS also had annex offices in Okpoko, Onitsha, Ogidi, Neni, Ekwulobia, Nnewi and Umunze.
But with time, the Awkuzu SARS headquarters graduated into a dreaded chamber where all manner of human rights violations and unethical practices went on unabated while the citizens cried in muffled voices.
The place was always busy that on a very good day, various cars dotted the frontage of the facility as lawyers, families, friends and human rights groups visit the place to sort out matters involving clients and relations detained there.
In some cases, the visitors are denied access into the facility. In some other cases, enquiries over missing persons suspected to have been detained there end up in deadlock when those making the enquiries are told in coded language that such persons have been taken to Abuja, an euphemism used to describe those who have been murdered in the facility without going to court for prosecution.
Various police officers have held sway as Officers-in-Charge at Awkuzu SARS, but the most dreaded of them all was James Oshin Nwafor, who served as OC between 2012 and 2016 before retirement as a Chief Superintendent of Police in April 2018.
During the hey days of the Awkuzu SARS, the mere thought of spending an hour inside the cell evoked horrible feelings. Policemen serving in the unit allegedly emboldened by their O/C in the course of performing their duties sometimes veer off from catching kidnappers and armed robbers to indiscriminate arrest of citizens for high bail fees and alleged killing if the person couldn’t ‘settle’.
The Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, in one of its petitions to the Inspector General of Police in 2009 over Awkuzu SARS atrocious acts said: “From their various units in Anambra State and headquarters at Awkuzu, human life is a worthless thing as a chicken is accorded more dignity than a full blooded citizen of Nigeria. Most of the officers are bloodthirsty and delights in inflicting horrendous torture on people. They boldly boast that they can kill and nothing would happen.
“Some of their officers are patrons of various shrines and deadly native doctors where they are fortified and assured of adequate cover incase of petition over their atrocious acts. Surprisingly, such petitions against the bad eggs among them die a natural death as the concerned authorities assigned to discipline them often dilly-dally over the matter and in most cases write a favourable report about them afterwards.
“Most worrisome is their ungodly practice where for the purpose of collecting blood money, the SARS operatives converted offences of affray, criminal assault, theft, pick-pockets, stealing, receiving stolen goods, expiration of vehicle papers and drivers licence to offences of armed robbery. Even purely civil matters such as land disputes, debts and breach of agreement arising from business transactions are turned into armed robbery cases at Awkuzu SARS in order to make illicit money.
“Money (high bail fee) is a determinant factor in respect to the life and death of a detainee in the SARS dungeon. An armed robbery suspect who allegedly pays between N1million to N3 million to the SARS men may no longer be detained, but set free. If a suspect is detained for up to one month, his family members cough out between N100,000 or more as feeding fee which is paid without invoice at designated location within the SARS office premises. Funny enough, such detainee is given poor dietary meal per day while the so called ‘feeding fee’ is collected and pocketed by them.”
Following the disbandment of SARS by the IGP, Awkuzu SARS facility presently looks like a ghost camp. When this reporter visited the place on Monday, the gate was under lock and key. The erstwhile red-eyed armed officers who normally fired probing questions to any intending visitor before ordering such visitor to surrender his phones were missing.
The ever-bubbling restaurants beside the premises where the officers usually unwind and engage in drinking spree after going for operation were also shut.
Angry protesters had sauntered into the premises at the thick of the #EndSARS protests, demanding to inspect the facility for possible exhumation of dead bodies that may have been buried secretly inside their torture chambers.
It would have been bloody as some armed officers hiding in the rooftop of the facility fired several gunshots in the air as the angry youths scampered for safety in different directions.
Now, the state police command said the facility would be turned to an annex office of the State Criminal Investigation Department, SCID.
Governor Willie Obiano has also visited the place and ensured that no detainee was still left in the facility.
Following the inauguration of a panel to look into the various cases of abuses perpetrated by the SARS operatives in their line of duties and the initial excitement that trailed their disbandment by the IGP, various victims have been sharing their experiences.
One of the victims, Onwuma Ossai, an electrician who spent five months in 2016 at the Awkuzu SARS for climbing an electric pole to reconnect light for an EEDC customer, still lives with the scars four years after.
This reporter who also went to Awkuzu SARS then for Onwuma’s bail was told by the O/C then, Nwafor, that it was only the ‘big man’ who owns EEDC that would authorise for his release.
Onwuma later regained his freedom when the Federal High Court Awka and Magistrate Court Nnewi were approached for the enforcement of his fundamental human rights and the court gave order compelling SARS to bring him to court.
“I was only reconnecting light for somebody who had paid her energy bills”
Recounting his experience to the reporter again in Nnewi last week, Onwuma said that cold shivers always ran through his spine anytime he remembered the traumatic experience he suffered.
“As a certified electrician, we sometimes climb the electric pole to reconnect light to those who have paid their energy bills after disconnection by EEDC officials. This was because when they pay their bills after disconnection , they are normally given their cut off wires to go and reconnect. I’m not a vandal or a cable thief, but I didn’t know that some spies were already commissioned to be looking out for any of us who climbs the pole for anything. That was how I was arrested by the police in Nnewi and detained.
“My people met the DPO then and he requested for N100, 000 bail fees. Before they could raise the money the next day, the DPO said he has discussed with OC SARS Awkuzu and that my people should now pay N400,000 or they should forget it and come for me at Awkuzu because he would transfer me to that place. That was how I found myself inside Awkuzu SARS and ended up spending five months.”
We’re called out to carry dead bodies in the night
Narrating his ordeal, Onwuma told Sunday Sun that when he reached Awkuzu, the OC SARS after interviewing him said that his case was that of Oga EEDC and only him would determine when he would go. He was detained in Cell 1 and he saw firsthand all that was going on in the facility. The worst of them all was that he was co-opted among the emergency undertakers who were always called out to pack dead bodies into police van in the night.
“Different forms of oppression and abominable acts were perpetrated by the SARS men. From my interaction with some of the detainees, some were bundled from beer palour and restaurants into the SARS dungeon for no offence. Huge sums of money were demanded from them ranging from N50,000 and above. The worst is that they may seize your phone and you won’t have any means of communication for weeks to even notify your people of your whereabouts.
“Severally we were called out to carry dead bodies in the night. Most of them carried gunshot wounds while sound of gunshots in the night was also a common routine followed by yelling and sudden silence confirming that they have been killed. We don’t know where they took all the dead bodies to.
“Hanging in the air, tying people’s hands behind their back which they call labour room for child delivery was also common. Some people collapsed in the course of the torture while others who couldn’t endure the pain gave up immediately. Some starve to death in Cell 5 and we were forbidden to talk to them or else you would be counted among them.
“When I regained freedom through the courts after five months, I was like a mad man or a hermit in the cave because I never shaved my hair or beards all through my detention. The judge that handled my case lambasted them for keeping me there for such a long time just because I was caught climbing an electric pole,” he said.
Dr Justin Nwankwo also recounted his “hell fire experience” at Awkuzu SARS
Nwankwo who was a Ph.D student as at the time of his arrest in 2013 was the Manager of Upper Class Hotel, Onitsha. Arrested alongside his boss, Chief Bonaventure Mokwe following the discovery of a human skull and a gun allegedly planted in one of the hotel rooms by Mokwe’s foes that were in a property tussle with him. Both were detained for 81 days at Awkuzu SARS.
Narrating his chilling experience which he titled: “Crossing the threshold of death and welcome to hell fire Awkuzu SARS”, he described Awkuzu SARS as a human “abattoir.”
“I arrived Awkuzu SARS on the 1st day of August, 2013 with my boss, Chief Bonaventure Mokwe-Dikeh, in a weakened body after 6hrs lock up in the Black Maria with 12 other staff of Upper Class Hotel. I have kept my mind alert refusing to faint or collapse in the van. Yet upon arrival, I could read the bold inscriptions on the wall of that abattoir camp which reads “Welcome to hell fire” and I quickly told myself that we are in for the worst. I have heard tales of this place and I always thought and believed it was absolutely reserved for hardened criminals until I arrived. I was mistaken! It was a centre for butchering both the innocent and the guilty!
“Marshaled straight by the almighty O.C SARS to an open rickety hall upon our arrival : all other victims were separated, each to his or her own fate. Standing by one end was a police officer with two suspects who were chained together and tempo of the interrogation was getting higher. Momentarily forgetting my own ordeal, I kept a gaze on all corners of the hall abandoned with an ominous look of a second world war torture camp.
“Ropes were streaming down from ceiling tops, bags of sand were elevated on perimeter wall fence of the hall and all types of rod and metal varying in shape, length and size were starring at you while you hear shouts of people from the back of the hall screaming the name of their late great grandmothers to come and intercede on their behalf.
“Buckets of water were on standby in case one faints or opts to die before appending signature to already written statements. I was still taking the mien of the entire facility when I was jolted back to reality by the sound of a rapid military rifle…tem tem tem!!!!!.
“You no wan talk…you wan follow am go, you wan travel? Were the words resonating from the other end of the hall. I tried looking but slaps from my I.P.O…Investigating Police Officer, reminded me that I was not in this camp for excursion or tourism. …That guy don travel oooo ..said my IPO. So make you tell me the truth otherwise I go travel you were the words from the officer.
“Meanwhile, the O.C SARS, the 2IC (2nd in command) and about four other police officers started asking me questions ranging from personal to family to academic background questions . When I got to the level that I was a PhD student, the questions ceased and the O.C shouted …Mr. Tell us what happened or I shoot your two legs. I started my story of what happened, but that was not what they wanted to hear. The questions were already made and I must be categorical in my answers. …Your director kills people…No Sir, I retorted! And the torture started properly… Make him talk (ordered the OC ) before he went to supervise the torture of Chief Bonaventure Mokwe at the back of the hall.
“Ropes were tied by my two hands…by the two legs, then both leg and hand bent and tied together with a rod passing through in between them and then elevated to a perimeter wall. In fact, if you have watched a goat prepared for barbecue of suya then you are close to the picture.
“At the turn of each question and non-compliance, a bag of sand is added at my back to add extra pain. Cries upon wails until you pass out. Ooh you want to die…common Justin death is far removed! A cold bucket of water quickly spoils your trance and brings you back to reality.
“From minutes to hours, the torture lasted on top of the beam. In the cell, we call it ‘Hanging,’ the boss of the cell will always differentiate ‘ndi agbara’ hanging with others because you will be laid flat at the cell for at least three days before your joints start to heal. The ‘hanging’ never stops until finally you start saying that you killed Babangida so that you can be brought down meanwhile Babangida is alive.
“From hanging on the beam, tying of rope in a strangulation mode around the neck, inserting of pin and rope inside the penis to shooting of bullets in a circular fashion around increasing the tempo of the questions at each turn, one is immersed into a theatre of pain and your pre-written statements, a product of individual pain threshold. In the midst of my torture, I opted to set forth at dawn…dragging myself to crossover the thresholds of deaths, but they were Anthills in the Savannah.”
“On his part, Bonaventure Mokwe was undergoing his own routine hanging and strangulation and his shouts of nne mooo, nne moooo, nne moooo was re-vibrating from the back of the hall!
“I will kill you and nothing will happen…were consistently echoing from the OC SARS. But at this point, everybody was carrying his own cross… nothing I could do to help the old man, but to soak my own pain without giving up the ghosts!. Around 8:00p.m that night, I was unconsciously taken into Cell 5. I came to know the real essence of that cell days later.
“Cursed with five cells at that Bay…some are better than the others. Cell 5 is the worst because it is tagged ‘Condemned cell’. If you happen to be there, then you are not in Awkuzu SARS because that cell for them does not exist. High profile criminals caught with military rifles are kept there awaiting execution and because our case had the entire above element…I smelled the cell for 6hrs and was transferred out in the morning of next day while the director remained there till the 5th of August. From Cell 5 I moved to Cell1 and to Cell 4 where I rotted away without taking bath or brushing my teeth, defecating in nylon polythene and not seeing the light of day for 81days!
“Cell 4 and Cell 3 in Awkuzu SARS are dark cells! No light, no ventilation and no windows! Completely dark from morning to evening! People who are tortured return back with ambulance services performed by inmates since you can neither walk, move nor shift any part of your body, the demand for water is the case consistently, but no one gives you. Cell mates die from suffocations, torture effect, gunshot wounds unattended and trauma.
“Cell mates are summarily pulled out and executed in the middle of the night! Akwuzu SARS was a theater of death, an abattoir!
“Dying in the cell is a normal occurrence and the ambulance duty each morning is to take them to the back yard for the diabolic looking doctor to confirm. Cell 4 and 3 were total black out cells filled with the stench of inmates purportedly caught with locally and kidnapping cases. A room of not more than 2 Square size packed up by 29 to 31 suspect. Heat kills, hunger kills, mental switch on and off kills and police bullet does the rest. Who will be the next to fire?
“At the abattoir, talks of going to court are freedom itself and remanding one in prison custody was answering of prayers from God. Every day we waited for our turn, singing to the Almighty God, Abraham Blessings are mine! He delivered Paul and Silas and He eventually delivered us after 81 days,” he said.
There is urgent need for police reform –Okechukwu Nwanguma
Nwanguma who worked as National Coordinator, Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) said that he wrote several petitions about SARS to police authorities at the Force Headquarters and to state Command Commissioner of Police, as well as the Police Service Commission and National Human Rights Commission, seeking investigation of allegations of arbitrary arrest, unlawful detentions, torture, extortion, extrajudicial killing or forced disappearance of victims with a view to ensuring accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.
He said that there is an urgent need to amend the Constitution and restore operational control of the police to the IGP, guarantee him security of tenure and operational autonomy so that he can act without being afraid to offend the Presidency or other influential actors who can manipulate the government.
Their mindset wired to kill –Intersociety
Chairman, Board of Trustees, International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, Intersociety, Emeka Umeagbalasi, said that the history of SARS atrocities could be traced to the systemic failure of government to embrace modern policing methods.
“SARS and various police commands and units consider diligent prosecution of their suspects particularly those accused of kidnapping, armed robbery and murder as time wasting. To them, any suspect accused of any of the three violent crimes, which attract capital punishment is entitled to jungle justice by death.
“Other than torture toolkits, building structures housing the deadly outfit are like ancient prisons or civil war bunkers. There are no crime laboratory, data and records. Most of its operatives lack modern requisite knowledge in crime detection and investigation technology including information technology. Many, if not most of them, lack in-service training and experience, including internal and external affair concept of human relationship. Government has a lot to do if it is sincere in carrying out holistic reforms,” he said.
The dark era is gone says Abang, CP Anambra
In an encounter with the Commissioner of Police, Anambra State Command, Mr. John Abang, he said that all that SARS did are in the past since the IGP has disbanded the unit.
He, therefore, said that any further comment on SARS and its affairs should be directed to Abuja since the IGP is in a better stead to address such.
Abang who noted that most of the reports against SARS happened before he came on board as the Commissioner of Police in Anambra, said that his door has always been open to address any complaints against any officer or police unit in the command .
He lamented that Nigerians are dwelling only on the negative side of SARS and the police without considering that the police has been working very hard and also recorded several milestones in crime fighting and restoring public order and safety. He said his preoccupation now is building a new order in Anambra, noting that the state would continue to remain safe and secured no matter the present challenges in Nigeria.