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Innocent people are criminalised everyday in Nigeria ~ By Okechukwu Nwanguma

Some years back (in 2006/2007), when Donald Iroham was the Commissioner of Police (CP) Imo State Police Command, I had gone to Imo State, my home state, from Anambra State where I went on a field research on the Patterns And Prevalence of Police Abuse in Nigeria under the auspices of Network on Police Reform in Nigeria NOPRIN.

I had called CP Donald Iroham and reported to him the notorious extortionist conduct of a particular divisional police officer in a division in the state. I documented about seven different cases of people in a rural community – young and old, men and women – arrested and detained for several days and required to pay huge amounts of money for bail. Many were over minor civil disputes. The CP asked me to see him in his office. When I arrived at the headquarters, I was told he was not in the office. I called him and he asked me to come to his official residence. I was driven to his residence by a friend of mine who was then a local government councillor in one of the local government areas in the state. We arrived as he was about to be driven out, with his security details already on standby for him to enter his official vehicle back to the office.

As we drove in, his security details wanted to turn us back but he asked them to let us in. We entered and had a brief discussion in his sitting room over my complaint against the DPO. He said he had received information about the activities of that particular DPO but needed a formal documented complaint with evidence. My petition contained specific cases of arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention and exploitation of poor rural people. To cut the story short, he acted on my petition and redeployed that DPO. That DPO knew I wrote the petition that removed him because prior to my calling the CP, I had called him over some of the corrupt activities going on in his station and I did warn him that I was going to report him to the CP. And of course, he was confronted with my petition. The next DPO who replaced him called me when he resumed and sought my cooperation.

This was my first encounter with CP Donald Iroham.

I have recalled this story just to illustrate how intolerant CP Donald Iroham was of oppressive and exploitative conduct by Police officers under his command as CP Imo and how open he was to receiving public complaints against police misconduct.

This was how I established a relationship with him.

Few weeks after my meeting with CP Iroham, I was watching AIT news back in Lagos and one of the news items I saw was about a group of arrested persons paraded by the Imo State Police Command for various alleged offences from cultism, to being members of MASSOB, among others.

One Donald Onukogu was among some students also paraded on that day as student cultists from Imo State University. I was shocked to see Donald paraded as a cultist. I strongly doubted that he was.

I returned to Lagos from Owerri the previous day and had met Donald in the law chambers of late Uche Wisdom Durueke Esq the day before I returned to Lagos. Durueke’s law office was a convergent point and mecca of some sort for activists including young students Union leaders and activists. Durueke, until he died in 2020 was a foremost human rights lawyer and activist in Owerri and legal adviser to many trade unions and a mentor to upcoming young activists in the east and imo in particular. So I had visited Durueke and met Donald Onukogu who was then a student at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri,Imo State and the NANS Deputy Senate President for the Southeast.

That period, the leadership of the Students Union of Imo State University was embroiled in a dispute with their University authorities over an issue affecting the students. I can’t remember exactly what it was about now but it either bordered around students welfare or tuition. Donald, as the NANS official representing the southeast had to lead a delegation of other NANS officials to mobilise the students of IMSU for a peaceful action to press home their demands.

In response, the Imo State University authorities arranged and got the police to arrest the students leaders- including Donald Onukogu – and they were taken to the headquarters and detained and later paraded among others as cultists.

So when I watched the same young man I met and had conversations with the previous day among students being paraded as cultists, I knew that this was one of the antics employed by the police to silence students union leaders. I was one and I understand the gambit.

I first called Donald’s number to ascertain that he was indeed the person I saw on the screen. His number was switched off. I called Durueke and it turned out he didn’t watch the news and therefore, didn’t know about the development. Then I called CP Donald Iroham and narrated to him the story of my meeting with Donald Onukogu the day before in Owerri and told him I would be surprised if indeed he’s a cultist as alleged by his men who paraded him and I requested him to personally invite and interrogate Donald. He assured me he would and he did immediately and by the next morning, Donald Onukogu was released because he was wrongfully labelled. Donald later told me how dialogue between students representatives and the university authorities broke down and the authorities resorted to using the police to silence them by framing them with cultism. Of course, the CP didn’t know what happened. But when the travesty was brought to his attention, he dealt with it professionally.

This is just one example of numerous instances of wrong people being arrested by the police, falsely labelled and paraded for offences they did not commit.

The five young men whom the police said they arrested around the vicinity where the gun men had operated and disappeared and who were paraded in Owerri accused – without any evidence- to be among the gun men that carried out the operation in Orji are to be considered lucky. As in similar circumstances in the past, they could have been shot dead and their dead bodies displayed as bodies of gun men killed during exchange of fire with gallant officers.

The case of the 107 persons randomly arrested from different locations in imo State and arraigned for the ridiculous charge of attempt to overthrow Buhari and Hope Uzodinma at a hearing conducted in a Police car park and at the Imo CP’s conference room and presided over by some Magistrates and remanded in prison could not be different from the case of the five Owerri ‘scape goats’ and numerous similar cases in the past.

Many innocent persons have been arrested on false allegations, tortured to confess and killed. It’s a daily occurrence in many police stations across Nigeria- even after EndSARS.

Parading suspect in the media is no more than an attempt by the police to advertise their effectiveness. But it’s prejudicial to fair trial. It’s usually a prelude to extrajudicial killing. When an innocent person is paraded and he’s eventually found to be innocent, he does not have the chance to be cleared of the false label and the public odium. Police must stop parading suspects. They should charge them to court and present evidence.

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