Human RightsNews

‘Once Arrested, Just Forget It’: Anambra Residents Recount Bitter Experiences Of SARS Brutality

The detention facility at Awkuzu, many have disappeared without explanation after their arrest and detention. The facility is described as “burial ground for many unlucky youths” in Anambra State.

Eight years ago, Iloanya Chijioke John attended a child dedication service organised by one of his friends in Ajali, Anambra State. Operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) from Awkuzu Police Station raided the venue and arrested all the young men present.

Immediately the news reached them, Chijioke’s parents visited the detention facility and spoke with their son, but could not secure his release.

Since that arrest on November 29, 2012, Chijioke has not returned home. According to his parents, CSP James Nwafor, the officer in-charge of the unit at the time, later denied arresting or knowing the young man.

“His parents are still praying and hoping for his return,” Savn Daniel, who shared the story, tweeted on Thursday. “All attempts to see or know the whereabouts of Chijoke, dead or alive, have proved abortive.”

Nwafor’s profile on Facebook states that he is the former commander of SARS in Anambra and current Senior Special Adviser to the Anambra Governor on Security. Calls placed to his line by HumAngle were not answered nor has he replied enquiries sent via text to two of his phone numbers.

Daniel said, after tweeting Chijioke’s story, he received calls from many other victims of SARS brutality, one of them describing Nwafor as a “deranged blood thirsty killer”.

He added that the reports he got suggested that until his retirement, the CSP was known for unlawful killings, disappearances, conversion of suspects’ properties to personal use, and demand of “outrageous bail bums in exchange for people’s freedom”.

“Victims who narrowly escaped being killed at Awkuzu SARS unit are saying they were forced to drink their urine in order to survive on a daily basis,” Daniel said.

The lawyer’s tweets triggered reactions from many Nigerians who, or whose friends, have had a close shave with the operatives, causing SARS Awkuzu to trend on the microblogging platform.

“In September, 2012, I went for a burial in Nnewi. On my way back to Awka I was arrested in Abagana by Awkuzu SARS,” one Anambra resident tweeted.

“These evil men swapped me with someone, obviously a criminal, I was paraded as the supposed suspect for days in Anambra state.”

Describing the detention as inhuman, he added that he would have been killed but for the help of a police officer who established his innocence.

Another young Nigerian wrote that when he was in Nigeria, he was detained at the Awkuzu for three months for a crime he did not commit.

“Every morning at 5a.m., they’ll wake us up to carry the corpses they killed the night before. They refer to the corpse as meat,” he tweeted.

There is no indication that the human rights abuses at the station have ceased.

Ebube said she lost a friend to the brutality of the SARS officers in 2018.

“Once Awkuzu SARS carry you, just forget about it,” she tweeted on Thursday. “Once had a friend that was unjustly locked up. The day we went to visit him I felt like crying.”

She continued, “They had tortured the daylights out of him; something we call ‘odi ndu onwu ka mma’. He said his manhood is tied with a rope and he is kept upside down and then they will drag his manhood so he will confess to a crime he didn’t commit.

“He stopped seeing clearly with one of his eyes due to the torturing. He was just a young boy with struggling parents so he couldn’t pay the amount they requested. Last we heard of him, they said he had been transferred to another place. Till today, no news about him.

“Guy was legit crying saying he didn’t do anything; you know that moment when you feel like your end is near. He said early mornings, they call some prison inmates out and you won’t see or hear about them again.”

Banti, one of the six students of Madonna University arrested in January, 2019 and detained for six months for speaking against the management, also narrated his experience.

“Akwuzu was a hell of a place. They don’t allow anyone to visit us. Even if your parents bring food for you, they will eat it. I almost died there,” he wrote.

“I only ate 5 ukpa and drunk about five pure water [sachets] for the one week I spent there before we went to prison. Where we sleep, we urinate there, we eat there, and we bathe there. The whole floor was sticky because of blood that had dried up, and we slept on that same floor.”

He added that the “booze”, who is the longest-serving member of a cell, occasionally bought ukpa for all the cellmates.

“I was in cell 2 then and our booze had spent 5 years there,” he said.

Akpi Okafor said one time in 2012, SARS operatives mounted a roadblock by 10p.m. and arrested young boys who were returning from a viewing centre. He was lucky to have tripped inside road drainage.

“The three guys I know that they caught didn’t make it back home till today,” he tweeted. “Once you enter Awkuzu SARS, it will take a miracle for you to make it out alive.”

Amnesty International recalled on Friday that it had written to the Inspector-General of Police on three occasions since November, 2018 about the need to investigate allegations against the Awkuzu detention facility “but received no response”.

The international NGO had released a report in June documenting cases of torture, ill-treatment, and extrajudicial killing committed by operatives of the special police unit across Nigeria, including Awkuzu.

“The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or to bring any SARS officer to justice is shocking and unacceptable. Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity,” Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, had said.

“The systemic use of torture and other ill-treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigeria Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”

Here are other tweets from the conversation:

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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