By Sanyaolu Juwon and Manthan Pathak
Since 8 October 2020, ordinary Nigerians have been taking to the streets, peacefully demanding an end to police brutality, extrajudicial executions and extortion by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian police tasked with fighting violent crimes. They have been met with excessive, brutal use of force by the army and police forces. On 20th October, an unreported number of peaceful protesters, thought to be in the hundreds, were reportedly shot dead when the army opened fire on thousands of protesters calling for an end to police brutality as part of the #EndSARS movement. What follows is the experience of Sanyaolu Juwon, a 29-year-old political activist with the group Revolution Now.
As though coming to battle notorious terrorists and bandits, they came at us with three loaded vehicles convening heavily armed men whose mean demeanour smacked of lustful desperation for violence and blood. The only arms we had were the ones that acted as support to our revolutionary fists as they pointed to the direction of the cold air with full determination. The rest of our ‘arms’ and ‘battle artillery’ were placards, banners and our facemasks.
On the night of December 31st, 2020, at about 11pm, we had gathered at Lokogoma junction and then proceeded to Gudu, Abuja for a protest with demands for good governance, respect for citizenship, end to police brutality, environmental justice and a permanent end to the turmoil and bloodletting in the country. As of this time, similar actions were ongoing in other parts of Nigeria including certain areas of Lagos, Ondo, Osun, Ogun, Kano, Kaduna, Adamawa, and Edo.
Our action at Gudu had been peaceful and without incident until about 1am when we were about to leave for our various homes. The government deployed three trucks of anti-riot police, armed to the teeth with apparent resolve to leave behind an ugly scene of death and destruction. Seeing them in the violent manner with which they invaded our peaceful assembly, many protesters instinctively ran for their lives. I and a few others like Michael Adenola who had seen them from afar chose to stand our ground as we were not prepared to surrender our country to the rule of tyranny and lawlessness. Like a pack of hungry wolves, they descended on us violently, hitting us repeatedly with their guns even as torrents of heavy punches continuously landed on different parts of our bodies. We were bundled to the trunk of one of their trucks and chained to the vehicle like hardened criminals.
The horrifying sight of our dehumanizing brutalization caught the attention of Omoyele Sowore, Nigeria’s foremost revolutionary and investigative journalist who currently faces the charge of a treasonable felony for protesting the tyranny, corruption, and maladministration of the regime. Throughout the evening Sowore had been filming our action and made way to his vehicle when it was apparent that we were rounding up. He stepped down from his vehicle to challenge the police operatives. Seeing him, he was also descended upon with such fury that made it apparent they had a score to settle with him. They broke his nose and hurled him into the truck with us. As if that was not enough, they sprayed on our eyes and faces, a very peppery chemical substance that made even breathing almost impossible. When I managed to challenge this unruly wickedness despite being chained down, one of the officers held me and the other started spraying this substance directly into my eyes and did not stop despite seeing how I struggled to gasp for breath. The pain was so intense that I could barely open my eyes for about two hours and my entire body felt unbearably hot for more than four days.
The Buhari regime is infamous for its lack of respect for civil rights and rule of law. His notoriety and propensity for human rights violations was such that Punch Newspaper, a foremost Nigerian paper resolved in December 2019 to henceforth regard Buhari as Major General Buhari instead of President Buhari in all its publications. Despite his track record, many of us had hoped the President was at least going to make the first of January an exception, to at least indulge Nigerians in the freedom he had denied and violently attacked over the past 365 days. And as it turned out, we expected too much from a regime that has consciously expunged the language of democracy from his dictionary of governance.
From Gudu, we were moved to the detention facility of the Special Antirobbery Squad (SARS) at a police station called Abattoir – a detention facility notorious for torturing and killing its victims. Upon our arrival, the station officer, a SARS operative, led his junior colleagues to unleash on us more beatings and we were dragged into the cell. The only warm reception we received was from other inmates who accorded us great regard and couldn’t stop talking about how greatly they appreciate our relentless struggles for the soul of our country. They went out of their way to get us mats and blankets with which to relax and rest our weakened joints. A number of these inmates were kept illegally in custody without being charged to court. For the next 3 days we were caged like animals in a cell within the cell and this was to be our home until Monday when we were moved to court.
We were in the first instance denied access to our lawyers, families and friends. Upon granting us access to our lawyers after mass uproar, we had to declare a hunger strike in detention before they were pressured into allowing us access to our books. According to our lawyer, Abubakar Mashal, reports of our hunger strike caught the attention of the public and the uproar that followed forced the police commissioner into calling our lawyer at the early hour of 4am. The commissioner appealed to Marshal to come to our detention facility and avail us our reading material which they had initially denied us.
When we were being moved to court on Monday morning, we were prepared for all the possible theatrics the government had cooked up to keep us in detention for as long as possible. We were prepared for the worst. So much so we were not at all surprised when the magistrate court, sitting at Wuse 2, Abuja, denied us bail, remanded us at Kuje Prison and pronounced that our lawyer instead filed a written bail application. Prior to the pronouncement of our remand in prison, the police refused us phones to speak to our lawyers, instead arranging their own team of five lawyers posing as human rights lawyers to represent us.
The plan was to have those lawyers hoodwink us into taking up our defense in the absence of our lawyer and then use these so-called human rights lawyers to keep us in detention for as long as possible. When they approached us in court, we immediately refused their representation. Without the presence of our own lawyer, the court session commenced and the prosecuting team announced appearances. When the magistrate, Mabel Segun Bello, called for appearance of the defense, the arranged lawyers who we had already refused attempted to announce appearance on our behalf but were immediately interrupted by Sowore, who informed the court that the lawyers had no permission to represent us and lamented how we were denied access to our lawyers when we were being brought down to the court. The exchange between Sowore and the prosecuting team continued until the magistrate decided to adjourn for 10mins. By the time the magistrate returned to her seat, our lawyer was now in court. The disappointment in the face of the police prosecutors was palpable. In any case, the arrival of our lawyer did not stop them from achieving their devious aim of keeping us in detention. However, it was certain that they would have been able to keep us far longer if their game of imposing lawyers on us had worked. With our lawyers in court, we were able to take a plea on trumped up charges of ‘unlawful assembly’, ’incitement’ and ‘criminal conspiracy’.
The road to Kuje was terribly bad and extremely tiring. The roads were so bad and highly discomforting to the extent that the police who were taking us to the prison complained very bitterly and relentlessly too. I had to immediately remind them how they would have shot at protesters if residents of Kuje had come out to protest bad roads. In fairness however to most of the junior officers in the police, it was clear to us that a number of them sympathised with our struggles but lacked the courage to turn their guns against the real oppressors of our people.
When we arrived at Kuje Prison, the prison officials professionally told the police delegation that brought us that they had stopped accepting inmates due to COVID-19 and that their isolation facility was equally unavailable at the moment. Desperate to keep us in prison, they furiously began making phonecalls. From the police commissioner to the IG to numerous power brokers at the higher-ups until a phone directive came to the Prison Controller who had to drive all the way from his home down to the prison. During the waiting period Sowore told the police delegation that ‘’if the Police Commissioner was so desperate about keeping us in detention, he can as well keep us in his house where he will volunteer as a teacher to his children and lecture his wards how not to be a lawless public officer like their father’’.
We were at last admitted into the prison and each of us dumped in solitary confinement. The prison confinement we were dumped into looked like the ones reserved for persons on death row, but the prison warders called it a ‘’COVID-19 19 isolation facility’’. We were denied access to doctors, food and our books throughout the night of our stay in prison. The following morning, 5th of January, when we were to be processed and returned to court for a bail application hearing, information of our presence, especially that of Sowore, had become popular amongst prison inmates such as the the Niger Delta activists among them were seen struggling to come towards us but were sternly repelled by the prison wardens.
We were handcuffed and hurled into the back of the prison vehicle that would be convening us to court. Stepping out of the police van with cuffs on our hands infuriated the mass of Nigerians who had come to court to show us solidarity. Our lawyers did not take it easy either as they immediately demanded the removal of the cuffs. As the court session began anew, the Magistrate, Mabel failed again to grant our prayers for bail after our application met vehement opposition from the police prosecutors. The magistrate then ordered that we should be remanded at the Police Force Criminal Investigation Department (Force CID) until Friday, 8th of January when she would then give a ruling on our bail application. In her ruling, she included a caveat allowing us access to medical attention, our books and upon Sowore’s request, made a special order to avail Adenola Michael, a level 3 law student, internet facility with which to participate in his classes which had commenced online on 4th of January. But of course, the police had no internet facility, neither did they have any decent hospital or detention facility.
Upon our arrival at the Force CID, we were immediately processed and hauled into our cell. Just like Abattoir, our first detention centre, we were locked up in a ‘’cage within a cage’’. The police officers before our arrival had warned all other inmates to steer clear of our cell and not to make any contact with us. This was apparently to prevent us from radicalizing the rest of the inmates. And just like we had it at our previous detention centres, we also had great support from the other cell mates. Despite being threatened, a number of them still took turns in confiding in us several injustices they have had to endure in detention, including how poorly they are fed and how a number of them have been denied access to lawyers and their families. Of all the numerous cases in there, one caught our attention. It was the case of one Solomon Akuma, a pharmacist who has been remanded since April, 2020, for anti-Buhar Twitter comments. The Pharmacist faces charges of treasonable felony, amongst many other charges. And while in detention, the government had done all they could to demoralise him. He was tortured into making a self-incriminating “confessional statement with the police’’, denied access to a lawyer, and his family. Despite this, Akuma Solomon remains unbroken.
On the morning of Friday, 8th January, 2021, at about 8am, the police PPRO had come to our cell to inform us about our movement to court by 9am as ordered by the magistrate. Seconds became minutes, and minutes became hours, until about 10am, we were still in our cell and it wasn’t looking as though the police were prepared to comply with the orders of the court. Out of nowhere, one of the police officers stationed to our cell showed up. He said to Sowore, ‘’Leader, your attention is needed. Once Sowore stepped out, I had asked our comrades to also get ready in the hope that Sowore’s invitation was about our movement to the court. Once Sowore got back, I laughed uncontrollably when I realised the persons who sought Sowore’s attention were not officers but comrades who had helped bring us food, water and other necessities. By not delivering us to court at the ordered time the government once again proved its disregard for the law.
It should be noted that prior to our detention the Buhari Junta had already similarly violated over 40 court orders. One of such ordes is one that granted bail to the Shiite leader, Sheik El ZakZaky and despite several court orders ordering his release, Buhari has illegally held the Sheik since 2015. The police however weren’t the only culprits of this episode. Upon realising the wretched game the police were playing, our lawyer went to court with the hope that the magistrate was going to sit as ordered. In fact not only did the court fail to sit, the magistrate told our lawyer she wouldn’t sit unless we were produced in court. Meanwhile, the magistrate could have still ensured the court seats as ordered and at least made a pronouncement on bail. It was also within the constitutional powers of the magistrate to move the court to the police headquarters where we were detained and still make a pronouncement that must force the police into immediate compliance. She failed to do any of this and deliberately assisted the police to violate the orders of her own court.
Failing to produce us in court on Friday, we were forced to spend another next three days in the mosquito-infested and shitty detention facility. We used this time certain new inmates who had been transferred from Abattoir, our first detention centre before Kuje Prison. They informed us of how the Abattoir police had immediately freed over 40 inmates who had been illegally detained after we had been moved from there. According to them, the police feared we may expose this illegality on their part once we get out.
On Sunday, one of the inmates informed us that we will definitely leave detention on Monday and that he learnt that people were coming to protest at the Force CID. We became very certain that the police, fearing protest, had furnished the inmate closest to us with this information with the certainty that he would inform us, in the hope that somehow we would be able to communicate with ‘our people’ on the outside not to protest. Hence, it was only fear of a protest that influenced their decision to take us to court on Monday. We arrived at the court to the cheer of a mass of highly resilient Nigerians who had begun staging protests in front of the court building.
Entering into Magistrate Mabel’s court, the session as usual started with the prosecution and defense announcing appearances before the magistrate went into a long read of very verbose and deceitful ruling. Her ruling announced bail conditions that were no doubt not only vindictive and stringent but also made clear that the court had preempted guilt before trial. One of the bail conditions ordered our restrictment to Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. Aside from the general bail conditions, Sowore was also ordered by the court to henceforth make a registered presence at the office of the registrar of the FCT high court every Monday and Friday.
It was clear to us that the purpose of our brutalisation, arrest and 11-day detention at three different prison and detention facilities respectively was to discourage and punish our resolve to mobilise Nigerians in the pursuit of social revolution that places public wealth into the hands and control of ordinary people. However, they ought to know that we have long surpassed the stage of fear into the realm of determination and courage, heading to the destination of freedom.
And like the words of Leon Trotsky, the late Russian Revolutionary, ‘’We will not concede this Revolutionary banner to the masters of oppression and falsehood! If our generation happens to be too weak to establish a Revolution, we will hand the spotless banner down to the next generation. The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions, and parties. It is the struggle for the future of our country. It will be severe. It will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm, let him step aside. Neither threats, nor persecutions, nor violations can stop us! Be it even over our bleaching bones, the truth will triumph! We will blaze the trail for it. It will conquer! Under all the severe blows of fate, I shall be happy, as in the best days of my youth! Because, friends, the highest human happiness is not the exploitation of the present but the preparation of the future.
Sanyaolu Juwon and 4 others are due in court to face charges of unlawful assembly, incitement and criminal conspiracy in Abuja on Friday, 5th February.