Tuesday, 29 January 2008

3 weeks in Obasonjos Jail


Human rights violations against members of self-determination groups

With a population made up of more than 250 different ethnic groups and a strong sense of regional as well as ethnic identity, Nigeria has seen the emergence of numerous self-determination groups. These groups have advocated various forms of autonomy on an ethnic or regional basis, within or outside the current federal structure of the country. Several of them, for example Yoruba groups in the southwest, Igbo groups in the southeast, and Ijaw and other groups in the oil-producing delta in the south, have been very vocal in articulating their demands for autonomy, based on claims of marginalization within the current political system; some but not all have used violence. In the last few years, an umbrella organization for Yoruba self-determination groups, the Coalition of O’odua Self-Determination Groups (COSEG), has not only brought together the various Yoruba organizations, but has also made overtures to self-determination groups of other ethnicities and regions of Nigeria which, while representing different interests, are united in their opposition to the current federal structure, and hence the federal government, of Nigeria.

Yoruba self-determination groups
In February 2003, Human Rights Watch published a report on the O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), one of several Yoruba self-determination groups active in the southwest of Nigeria. The report described cases of extrajudicial killings and other abuses suffered by OPC members at the hands of the police, as well as numerous killings and other acts of violence by the OPC.71 Since the publication of that report, incidents of violence by and against the OPC have decreased, as its leaders appear to have reached a kind of peace or compromise with the federal government. However, there have been cases of extrajudicial killings, arrests and other forms of harassment of members of other self-determination groups.

In May 2003, Kayode Ogundamisi, a well-known activist in Nigeria, president of the O’odua Republic Front (ORF, a more recently-established Yoruba group) and former National Secretary of the OPC, was arrested by members of the SSS and detained for two weeks. He was denied contact with his family and lawyer throughout his detention. After two weeks, he was released without charge. During his detention, he was questioned repeatedly about his political activities and those of his organization, the ORF, and he was told he should join the political mainstream. From the interrogation, it would appear that the arrest may have been linked in part to a newspaper advertisement by the ORF published in the Lagos-based Punch newspaper a month earlier, on April 5, 2003. In the advertisement, the ORF called for a campaign for a sovereign national conference, a referendum on an Oodua republic72 and a campaign for a free southwest. Wale Adedoye, a journalist from The Punch, who was with him at the time of the arrest, was also arrested but released after a few hours.

Kayode Ogundamisi had spent the last few years living in Europe but had returned to Nigeria in time for the elections in April and May 2003. On May 11, 2003, he was arrested at the international airport in Lagos, as he was preparing to board a flight back to the United Kingdom:

When I arrived at the British Airways desk at Lagos airport, about seven SSS men came straight up to me. They had obviously been waiting for me. They told me to go with them. I asked why and they pulled out their guns […] They said they had orders from above not to let me travel. They took my ticket and passport and told me to write a statement. I refused. Then they picked up Wale, in front of his wife and children. They escorted me and Wale out through the back door. They put us in two station wagons, separately. Other armed SSS were waiting outside. At about 2 p.m., they drove us to Shangisha, the Lagos State SSS headquarters. No one had told me why I was arrested.

At Shangisha they put me in a cell. About six or seven hours later, I saw Wale going past; he had been released. […]

The Lagos State director of the SSS came and told me: “You’re giving us problems.” He was very angry […] The next morning, the deputy director said I should write a statement. I refused. They gave me a form of about thirty pages, very detailed, and asked me to fill it in. They had not allowed me to make any phone-calls. I asked if I could call my PA about my luggage [which had been left at the airport]. They said yes but I could only ask one question. They told her to bring the luggage to me.

Before that, they said they wanted to do a search of the hotel where I had stayed. We went together in a station wagon, on Monday at about 10.30; they were all armed. They stopped at Ikeja High Court to get a warrant. The magistrate refused to give the search warrant as he said there was no reason. They drove to another court in Agege. The magistrate there refused too. Eventually they abandoned the idea of searching the hotel. They drove back to Shangisha. My PA was there but they didn’t let me talk to her.

They searched my two bags. They took out the letterhead paper of the ORF, some COSEG campaign materials and the Human Rights Watch report on the OPC. They made me sign a paper that they had taken those materials.

They refused to let me call my lawyer as they kept telling me I would be released very soon, the next day. They said they had told my PA to pick me up on Tuesday. They still hadn’t said anything about why I had been arrested.

At about 6 p.m., I decided to write my statement. I wrote that I was protesting about what had happened and lodged an objection. The director said this was not necessary. He said the orders for the arrest had come from Abuja, not from Lagos.

On Tuesday morning […] they drove me to Abuja. […] We reached Abuja late at night. I was handed over to the SSS there, at their headquarters […] One of the receiving officers pointed at me and said: “This O’odua man!” […] One of them said to another: “Take him to Delta Base”. The other one said: “No, it’s political.” Delta Base is for common criminals. They put me in a vehicle and drove to Delta Base. It is a building in the middle of nowhere, about a 25-minute drive from Abuja. They put me in a very dirty cell. I was alone in the cell. […]

On Tuesday, at about 10 a.m., I was taken back to the HQ and met the officer in charge of the investigation. I insisted on knowing why I was being held. The officer said it was all to do with ORF. He wanted to know about the ORF and talked about an ORF advert in The Punch. He handed me to another officer who asked me why I left the OPC. I explained that the OPC had lost control and was diverting from its original aims, that it was moving towards violence and vigilantism. They asked me why we chose the name ORF and why not O’odua Congress. I explained it was to make it clear what the organization stood for. They told me to write about the leaders of the organization. They wanted to know the details of the seven members who form the Senate of the ORF […] Then they asked for details of members of ORF, OYM [O’odua Youth Movement], COSEG, asking name by name where people lived […]

They asked me to account for what I had done in the last ten years. They took out my passport and went through it country by country […] The questioning lasted about five hours.

[…] From Wednesday to Sunday, I didn’t see anybody. They refused to allow me to walk in the yard outside at all. They said they had instructions to keep me locked up […]

On Tuesday, they took me back to the HQ for interrogation. There was a team of six people. They said to me: “Where did you keep the arms? We know you have three container loads shipped into the country.” They said I should show them where the arms were. I said I didn’t have any and we don’t believe in using arms. He said: “You’re finished” and “The ORF won’t see the light of day.” I gave them my lawyer’s number but they refused to call him.

On Wednesday I said I wanted to write a protest letter to the director and that they should charge me or let me go. I asked if they could at least let me call my family. They refused and said they had to seek approval from above.

On Thursday they questioned me about the advert in The Punch. They asked me why we made extreme demands and what we meant by Yoruba should campaign for an independent nation […] That was the last interrogation until I was released on the evening Monday 26 May.

On Monday morning, they came to get me from my cell […] I was taken to the national director of the SSS for the first time […] He had a big file with my name on it: “Kayode Ogundamisi, leader ORF.” He said: “Forget it, the case is over. What you’ve done is not illegal but it could destabilise the country and it could provoke northerners. I’ve told them to release you. Stop these articles you’re writing. Watch what you say against this government. Obasanjo is a Yoruba man. You should be cooperative with the government.” He never apologized. It was as if my release was a favour.

[…] Six days before my departure, they returned my passport to me. The director said: “If you mess up, you’re on a 24 hour watchlist and you won’t be allowed to travel out of Nigeria.”

While I was in detention, my lawyer went many times to the SSS to ask to see me. They refused him access. He sent people to Abuja twice. At first, the SSS even denied arresting me.73

Several other members of the ORF were questioned and had their houses searched around the same period. Two days after Kayode Ogundamisi’s release, Obe Tajudeen, a local ORF leader in the Mushin area of Lagos, was arrested by the SSS. The SSS asked him for information on Kayode Ogundamisi and other leaders of the ORF; they asked him who Ogundamisi had been seeing and what he had been doing. He was released after one day. During the period of Kayode Ogundamisi’s detention, the SSS also searched the house of Jibril Ogundimu, another ORF leader. On around June 21, armed police searched the house of Oluwatoyin Jimoh, another ORF leader, in Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State; they subsequently apologized, claiming they had mistaken the house for someone else’s.74

Many members of the Igbo organization Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), based in the southeast of Nigeria, have been arrested, detained and killed by the police since the organization was created in 1999. MASSOB advocates a separate state of Biafra for the Igbo, the dominant ethnic group in the southeast, based on the ideals of those who fought in Nigeria’s bloody civil war in 1967-1970.75

MASSOB claims to be a non-violent movement, although the police and some other sources claim otherwise. Although the organization denies having any interest or involvement in politics, MASSOB had been agitating for an Igbo president for Nigeria and had threatened that there would be no elections in the southeast in 2003. However, they subsequently withdrew from that position and are not known to have disrupted the elections when they eventually took place.76

Although MASSOB does not appear to enjoy the kind of massive popular support which would represent a serious political threat to the government, MASSOB members have been persistently harassed by the police, acting on orders from the federal government. The clashes between MASSOB and the police are reminiscent of those between the OPC and the police,77 with the police raiding MASSOB premises and its leader Ralph Uwazuruike’s house on several occasions in 2000 and 2001.

MASSOB have claimed that scores of their members have been extrajudicially killed by the police, particularly during 2000 and 2001. One of the most serious recent incidents occurred on March 29, 2003, just before the elections, when MASSOB members clashed with the police. The police reportedly stopped a large convoy of MASSOB members at Umulolo, near Okigwe, in Imo State, attempted to disperse them, then shot and killed several of them. According to their leader Ralph Uwazuruike, who was with the convoy at the time, those who were shot had been trying to run away from the tear-gas. The number of dead has not been confirmed by independent sources, and numbers quoted have ranged from seven to more than fifty. While the police stated that seven were shot dead on the spot,78 MASSOB put the figure much higher: “The police carried away about ten bodies and later my members recovered about fifty other bodies.”79 There was speculation that attempts by the police to block the MASSOB convoy may have been prompted by rumours that they were planning to disrupt the election campaign of Achike Udenwa, the Imo state governor—an allegation which MASSOB have denied.80

A newspaper article reported that on June 16, 2003, seventeen MASSOB members were killed and eleven injured during a police raid on their secretariat at Nkpor, near the town of Onitsha, Anambra State. 81 Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm this incident. The police denied any incident involving MASSOB, claiming that the incident which occurred on that day was an armed robbery, which led to a shoot-out between the robbers and the police.82

Hundreds of MASSOB members have been arrested since 1999 and many have been detained without trial, and sometimes without charge, for prolonged periods. Ralph Uwazuruike himself, who has been arrested several times over the last three years, was arrested again on March 29, 2003, the day of the clash with the police described above; around forty other MASSOB members were also arrested the same day. Ralph Uwazuruike was detained for just over two months, first in Owerri, capital of Imo State, then in the federal capital Abuja. He and four other MASSOB members were charged with conspiracy, unlawful assembly and misdemeanor. They were released on bail on June 6, 2003, having remained in detention throughout the election period.83

By mid 2003, an unknown number of MASSOB members remained in detention, in various locations in the southeast, as well as in other parts of the country. For example, at least seven MASSOB members who had been arrested during a meeting in Abuja were detained in Asokoro police station in Abuja for around three months in 2003; they were later released on bail.84