•No, we have no problem with them, says naval commander
Jeff Amaechi Agbodo
Sand dealers in Onitsha, Anambra State, are demanding compensation from the Nigerian Navy over the alleged damage they suffered when military men raided their business premises recently.
They also want government to intervene in the matter.
The sand dealers staged a demonstration against the Nigerian Navy, alleging attack, harassment, intimidation and closure of their business for no reason.
The sand dealers protested peacefully in their numbers carrying various placards with inscriptions such as: “We say no to intimidation;” “Enough is enough;” “Sand business is legal business;” “What have sand dealers done to warrant Navy invasion, attacks?” and “Navy, why close down our source of income for no just cause?”
Members of the group, who claimed that that they were not criminals, urged the Navy to stop harassing them, just as they tasked the authorities to call their officers in Onitsha to order.
The protesters, who swarmed around their business area at Onitsha Waterway, alleged that a naval patrol team recently stormed their business area and forced everybody to shut down because of an alleged misunderstanding between a tipper driver and a naval officer a week earlier. This, according to them, had nothing to do with the sand dealers.
The state vice president of Sand Dealers Association, Mr. Ikechukwu Obidimma, said one of the sand dealers was beaten up by a naval officer, adding that other members were still missing since the attack. He called on the state government and naval authorities to wade into the matter.
Obidimma alleged that his members lost millions of naira during the days the Navy forced them to close down their business, adding that Anambra State government too lost millions of naira in revenue. He regretted that some of the boats that brought sand were sunk because the officers disallowed the boats from berthing and offloading their cargo. He also claimed that, since boats carrying sand could not be left in the waters for long, they capsized in the river. He expressed regrets that the development had further unleashed hardship on the boat owners and the entire sand dealers.
“Some of our workers were wounded in the process. The Navy used their rifles to hit one of our members while they were beating him. They stopped our businesses and chased away all our customers. Right now, the whole of our business premises has been deserted for long. Over 99 per cent of our workers are living on their daily incomes. From the time they closed this place, the workers have not been able to take care of their families. They have not been able to tell exactly why we are being pursued.
“When we picked up courage and approached them to find out what happened, we were surprised to hear what they were saying. They said a tipper driver had a problem with one of their men, maybe some time last week, and instead of addressing the problem they probably had with the tipper driver, they turned to us. Do we have anything in common with tipper drivers?
“They said that a tipper driver hit one of their officers and they are looking for money to take care of him. I don’t know what happened but I’m more concerned about why they are coming to this place to attack us.”
Obidimma noted that, after the said driver was arrested, the naval officers drove him to the police and detained him there.
“Instead of them to continue with the case from there, they turned to us and said that we must stop our business. They began to attack our men and chase them away. We are not happy with this development.
“We have lost millions of naira within the period; even the state government is losing millions of naira, which should have accrued to it as revenue. If we should estimate what the sand dealers have lost within the period, we will find out that it has amounted to hundreds of millions of naira.
“We are not happy with what is happening to our business. From time to time, we have been bearing insults, harassments, intimidation and extortion from so many security agents in the state, particularly the Navy. We are not happy with this development and we want an end to be put to it.
“We learnt that at about 2.30pm on the said day, some naval officers stormed this place in their numbers, chased away all our workers, some into the river. Those of them that jumped into the river, their fate is unknown. We are still looking for them.
“We are using this opportunity to call on the Chief of Naval Staff, the Chief of Defence Staff and the Inspector-General of Police to look into this matter. We want them to call the naval personnel that carried out that operation to order. They should be asked not only to stop doing what they did but to pay for the damage they have caused us. If they fail to do that, on our part, we will use take every legal means to press for our rights. All these things they are doing to us are being documented. Enough is enough; we don’t want the matter to continue to repeat itself every now and then,” Obidimma said.
However, in his reaction, the commander at the Naval Outpost, Onitsha, NIN Sata Owugha, denied all the allegations, insisting that the Navy and the sand dealers had no problems whatsoever. Owugha said that the Navy only had problems with a tipper driver whose vehicle hit an officer on duty.
“We don’t have any issues with the sand dealers; we only have issues with tipper drivers, one of whom hit our man on the road. But we have resolved the matter and the vehicle has been released to the tipper driver.
“If their members jumped into the river and their boats capsized, they should have informed us so that we help them to look for them. We did not attack anybody. I’m not aware of anything like that. They should provide evidence that we attacked them and closed their businesses. The protesters may be the wrong sand dealers because I met with some of them where we resolved everything,” Owugha said.
But other sand dealers said the naval commander was being economical with the truth.
The worker that was allegedly injured, Mr. Uzonna Ndukuba, narrated what he described as his ordeal in the hands of the naval officers. He said: “I was in the office when I saw people running for safety. When I came out to find out what was happening, I saw some naval officers who ordered me to run away from the place. I asked them what the problem was, but they only demanded that everybody should close their businesses immediately. I kept begging them to allow the boat at the bank of the river to offload so that it would not sink due to the load it carried, but they refused. They pounced on me and started beating me; they were hitting me with the butt of their rifles, inflicting injuries on my head and hands.
“Not done with me, they marched me into their patrol van. They told me that they wanted to go and treat me. They took me to one chemist shop and dumped me there and disappeared. They later came around to find out if we were still working and whether the boat had been offloaded. Eventually, the boat sank because it couldn’t stay overnight due to the weight it carried.”
The owner of the capsized boat, Mr. Desmond Onyekpu, lamented that he lost N15 million as a result of the incident. He said the boat carried between eight and nine truckloads of sand.
He lamented that when he arrived at the spot in the morning of the next day, the boat had sunk to the bottom of the River Niger, noting that it had two engines and two water pumps. He called on government to intervene and compel the Navy to pay compensation for the damage it caused the sand dealers.