By: Augustine Udoh, Esq
Friday, August 13, 2021, was one of those unique days in one’s life. It was a relaxed atmosphere, at his Uyo residence, where we gathered to debrief him on a mission we undertook largely on account of his intervention.
On Thursday, October 8, 2020, the anger of the Nigerian youths had gotten to a boiling point against the brutality of a section of the Nigeria police, called SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad). Youths from various parts of the country poured into the streets in massive nationwide protests. It would take about two weeks and following a subsequent hijack by some miscreants for government to quell the ensuing breakdown of order. Initial security response, especially in Lagos was most unfortunate as according to Amnesty International, at least 12 people were killed at the Alausa and Lekki toll gates in Lagos.
But something good came out of it with governments, including the Akwa Ibom State government, setting up a panel to listen to the complaints of those citizens who have suffered some brutality at the hands of members of SARS, and the Police Force. This was the right thing to do, and we must commend Governor Udom Emmanuel for his immediate response in this regard. The judicial panel was enough to evoke confidence, especially being chaired by a fearless and erudite retired judge of the state high court, Justice Ifiok Ukana. It also had credible and independent-minded individuals such as Manti Umoh and Harry Udoh to represent the Civil Society Organizations.
The unprecedented civil unrest provoked diverse reactions from various segments of the country, with some Nigerians openly giving tacit support and lending their voices to the collective opprobrium cast on the SARS operators. Diaspora funds also found their way in support and when these channels of remittance were later blocked, cryptocurrency came to the rescue of the youths. The youths were smart and seemingly well-coordinated.
However, by some ironic twist, while the government’s reaction was applauded, especially with the setting up of the judicial panel of investigation, there appeared to be a lack of understanding of what role the citizenry should play to finally exterminate what has been a source of complaint by a majority, except a few privileged individuals. I must confess, this was also the situation I found myself in. So, it seemed like being jolted out of a reverie when a lawyer colleague put a call to me, inviting me, and I got to know the same invitation was extended to others, to a meeting. During that interaction, I came to understand that a respected son of the state and senior professional colleague had thought out the need for lawyers of like minds, to extend pro bono legal services to some victims of police brutality who were willing to use the platform provided by the government, to tell their stories and secure justice.
In all, the Lawyers’ Coalition for Justice, made up of 17 lawyers, was led by the astute Etim Offiong, Esq and we represented clients in about 30 petitions which were filed before the Panel. It will not be out of place to summarize two of such cases, the justification of which is to arouse our collective empathies to think of the ways we can alleviate the physical and emotional pain that some of us still carry around.
In a petition filed by Mrs. Inemesit Okon against S.P Timothy, a widow, and mother of 4 was a trader who would travel to some parts of Northern Nigeria to purchase assorted fruits for sale. On a fateful day, after a grueling 10-hour journey, she was close home at Eket when she was accosted at about 9.30 pm by policemen on patrol duty. Upon the request for settlement, she pleaded that she be allowed home as she’d been through a lot of stress due to the distance travelled and had no money on her to spare. Her driver joined in pleading to be allowed passage. These pleas fell on deaf ears, as this woman was beaten and brutalized on an expressway just a few minutes from her home. Pictures tendered as evidence showed severe injuries including a completely lacerated femur, a clear result of the elderly woman having been beaten and pushed to the drainage edge of a newly asphalted road. Fearing for her life she wailed as loudly as possible whilst running, until a sympathetic Nigerian, stopped his Hilux Pickup and helped her to the hospital. Meanwhile, the policemen (4 in number) had bolted, perhaps thinking she wouldn’t make it due to severe loss of blood.The police unit, which was identified, in the most tragic of circumstances, refused to take responsibility for her predicament or even support her medical treatment. She was abandoned to her fate.
Another case happened somewhere in Etinan Local Government Area. Mr. Mathew Etim Udo was the only male in a family and as such had the most responsibility for the burial of his deceased Father. He had a nephew who had hitherto lived with him but later joined the Police Force. As is customary, contributions in kind and cash were received from family members to ensure a successful burial ceremony. But there was an altercation between him and his nephew which led to his being attacked by the nephew with a machete. His hand was cut off instantly. He not only lost his hand, but his means of livelihood as he had hitherto depended on his driving business to feed himself and his family. He filed a complaint with the nephew’s superiors, but no compensation has ever been paid and no form of justice had been meted to the offending policeman till this day. I will spare you further details but there are several egregious incidences of police brutality emanating from brothers and sisters living amongst us, that we were able to hear.
Meeting Mr. Udom Inoyo who inspired the idea of the Lawyers coalition was an opportunity for me to fully understand this man whose name has inundated the news in Akwa Ibom state in recent times. I wanted to retest what he had already communicated when the coalition was set up. And so, in the relaxed setting which his home offered, and the simple and amiable disposition which my first interaction with him revealed, I decided to ask what inspired his call for the setting up of a coalition of lawyers to advocate ‘pro bono’.
Mr. Inoyo’s response was simple but somewhat philosophical. He started with the need for us to understand the psychology of an oppressed and poor person which often leads to self-help, giving up, a mistrust of members of the society. The result is that oftentimes, despite the government’s good intentions, the level of cynicism remains profound just as the anger in the land is persistent. Since we must realize that most people need a helping hand and a dose of hope, it is, therefore, important for those who are advantaged to assure the aggrieved that “they will not walk alone”. It is not just about money! A practical way of demonstrating that empathy was to assemble lawyers who would take up their cases free of charge and give them justice.
In what lawyers technically refer to as an obiter, our host also delved into his life’s journey, especially his family and religious pedigree. By the time he was done, we were offered a window to his worldview, the basis of his empathy for the downtrodden, and his repertoire of ideas on what can be done now to make progress as a people. He concluded by stating emphatically, that everyone has a role to play and thanked the lawyers who were committed to the cause.
The Work of the Coalition of lawyers began in December 2020. The painstaking approach of the Panel’s Chairman and his very competent team gives much hope that justice, at least for some of these victims can still be found. As directed by the Federal Government, the government of Akwa Ibom State has already transmitted the panel’s report to the National Economic Council and one hopes this will not be another abandoned project.
However, Governor Udom Emmanuel can stand out and win the hearts of the Akwa Ibom people and Nigerians by lessening the burdens of these victims either by monetary compensation or otherwise. There are many shades to justice, may our Governor’s benevolence expand the frontiers and soothe the pains of at least some of the victims who have come out to tell their stories.
Now that the panel has completed its work, justice is in appreciating them, our Governor who set up the panel expeditiously, Mr. Inoyo who inspired our collective ideals, and the dedicated lawyers who joined me in re-igniting hope for the most vulnerable and emasculated members of our community.
(Augustine Enefiok Udoh, Esq is Principal Partner, Crown Law Partners 148 Oron Road, Uyo)