Human Rights Abuses, Corruption By Security Operatives Amid COVID-19 In Akwa Ibom

Several incidence about brutality by security operatives have been reported since the novel coronavirus reached the shore of Nigeria. In fact, available data indicates that well over 1000 of human rights infractions on the part of security agents. Deaths through extrajudicial means reportedly outstripped deaths from the pandemic across the country. Some states equally used the COVID-19 outbreak to pass laws which criminalize giving false information and journalists were being intimidated because of their reporting on COVID-19.

In Akwa Ibom State, an oil rich state in Southern Nigeria,  people on essential duties especially professional heath workers, media practitioners and traders have had raw deals in the hands of overzealous security operatives during the lockdown despite the fact that they were among those exempted from the restriction order in the state.

A medical doctor, Daniel Edet, who is a surgeon with the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital, was on his way to work on a fateful Friday in March when he was stopped by a police sergeant, Edidiong Alexander, who was on duty to enforce the stay-at-home order of the Akwa Ibom government because of the Covid 19.

Both men were said to have had an altercation which led to the police officer assaulting the doctor and fracturing his hand even as his working tools were damaged in the process. This ugly incident triggered off public outcry and provoked the Nigerian Medical Association in the state which threatened to down tools over the incident.

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Akwa Ibom State, said in a statement that “most of their members could not go to work because of the development.”

To save its battered image, the Police authorities announced the demotion of the erring policeman attached to Safer Highway for violating the rights of the doctor while on duty.

According to a statement signed by Police Public Relations Officer, Fredrick N-Nudam, a chief superintendent of police, the erring police officer was reduced to a Corporal after being subjected to orderly room trial in line with the police Act and Regulations

Few days after the incident, the State Officers Committee led by the Chairman, Dr Nsikak Nyoyoko while on official duty to the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital (UUTH) to distribute PPEs was denied passage along Udo Udoma Avenue by Aka road round about by the Police purportedly on orders from ‘above’,” the NMA said in the statement signed by its state chairman, Mr. Nyoyoko.

Journalists too were not spared by the state actors as they were harassed and their movements restricted in the states in course of discharging their constitutional duties of information gathering and dissemination. The most celebrated case of harassment and abuse being one involving Kufre Carter. who was apprehended by the Directorate of State Security on April 27 and kept in their facility in Uyo for seven days without trial for allegedly complaining about the poor handling of the management of the disease by the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Dominic Ukpong commissioner in the state.

The Sport journalist with a local radio station was later arraigned on a three-count charge at a magistrate court in Uyo for making defamatory remarks against the Commissioner.

One of the charges against Carter reads, “That you Kufre Carter Akpan and another now at large sometimes in the month of April, 2020, in Uyo Local Government Area, within the Uyo Magisterial District did record defamatory words against Dr. Dominic Ukpong, the Hon. Commissioner for Health, Akwa Ibom State, while castigating him on the fight against Covid-19 in the state which recording you caused to go viral and be played on social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp and other places with the intent to injure his reputation by exposing him to ridicule, hatred and contempt knowing same to be false and thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 382(1) and punishable under Section 388 of the Criminal Code, Cap 38, Vol. 2 Laws of Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria”.

Beyond the human rights abuses and harassment, cases of extortion, embezzlement, and other corrupt practices which completely undermined the fundamental human rights of the citizens, have also been reportedly established.

On a daily basis, drivers of taxis, minibuses, and motorcycles, traders as well as private motorists were subjected to routine extortion under threat of arrest by these state actors.

At the popular Itam Motor Park it was an open secret that commuter buses were ferrying passengers to different cities in the country especially the South-South and South-East States and Lagos, despite the ban on interstate movement. This happened under the watchful eyes of the Police whose security vans were stationed at the entrance to the park.

This obviously explained how the  police and other security officials were cashing in on the ban to extort from Nigerians desperate to travel from one state to the other, a trend many have described as an indictment on the nation’s internal security system.

However, matter got to the head when on June 12, 2020, Commissioner for Information, Sir Charles Udoh, raised the alarm over the alleged involvement of security operatives in the violation of the ban on interstate travel aimed at halting the spread of coronavirus.

“The attention of the Akwa Ibom State Government has been drawn to a disturbing trend whereby security operatives indulge in the illegal use of their personal cars, and in some cases official vehicles, to transport passengers through our entry points into the state,” Mr Udoh said in a statement on Monday.

“This act is highly condemnable and unprofessional, especially against the backdrop of the current nationwide ban on interstate travel occasioned by the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Henceforth, all vehicles coming into the state; including security vehicles and those driven or owned by security personnel, will be subjected the prescribed COVID-19 entry points protocols. All service commanders in the state have been duly informed of this emerging trend,” Mr Udoh had said in a statement.

But police spokesman, Fredricks N-Nudam,  a chief superintendent of police, was quick to deny police involvement in shoddy deals at the borders, describing such allegations as unfounded, as according to him, police officers who travel from Akwa Ibom to other states are on essential duty.

“the police as a very responsible organization would never in any way circumvent the ban on movement of persons outside or into the state, people who are not on essential duty.’’

Although the commissioner did not mention any specific security agency in his statement but such weighty accusations coming from the state government was like opening a can of worm of the under hand deals the security agents were cutting at the borders and other locations in the middle of the pandemic to better their lots.

(This story was contributed by Harris Emanuel with support by Policy Alert as part of its SCRAP-C project)