The agency insists that it uses reasonable force and does not assault
The officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, AEPB, for a casual observer of activities in the Nigerian capital, are more commonly known for running after street hawkers, seizing their wares and sometimes arresting them.
Based on this perception, it came as a surprise to Ego Muoma, a fashion designer and mother of two, when on Saturday, December 5, officials of the AEPB tried to seize the keys to the car in which she was been chauffeured. The car had stopped under the Berger Bridge in the city centre to drop off a passenger. Ms. Muoma and her friend, the owner of the car, were sitting in the backseat.
Narrating their experience to PREMIUM TIMES, Ms. Muoma said the AEPB officials harassed the driver and asked him to come down. They grabbed the steering wheel and eventually seized the car keys. She said her friend pleaded with the officials to no avail. Soon the two parties – including a police man attached to the AEPB – were embroiled in some sort of struggle which caused an onlooker, Gabriel Obanle, to, out of her concern, caution the car owner.
“He told her to stop struggling with them in case their guns discharge and she was killed by a stray bullet,” Ms. Muoma recounted.
According to her, the AEPB officials descended on the Good Samaritan for daring to interfere and beat him to a pulp. Ms. Muoma’s friend called out to her to record the assault, which she did with her Samsung smart phone. The AEPB officials promptly seized the phone. They then arrested her friend’s driver and Mr. Obanle.
Not being one to be easily cowed, Ms. Muoma jumped into a bus that she assumed belonged to the AEPB in order to recover her phone and find out where her friend’s driver was being taken to. But it was the wrong bus. It belonged to a private citizen who had also been arrested. An EPB official was in the bus with the owner.
“So I asked (the driver) to drop me off so I could go back to my friend’s car. But the AEPB official asked him not to and then started to hit me. The official was sitting in front and I was at the back. He turned in his seat and started to punch me,” she said.
Having been treated shoddily, the harassed woman though her and her brutalized colleagues would get justice at the secretariat of the environment board. But they were in for a shocker.
The AEPB secretariat
The detained bus was driven to the AEPB headquarters at the Central Area District of the Nigerian capital, with Ms. Muoma still in the back seat and, according to her, continuously being assaulted by the AEPB official.
“He aimed for my mouth and told me that he wanted to break my teeth,” she recounted. At some point, she screamed out of the window that she was being kidnapped, with no one coming to her rescue.
With her other phone, she managed to call her husband, Jonathan Elendu, a media consultant, and told him that she was at the AEPB headquarters. However, the officials, on the orders of their coordinator, a Mr. Titus, decided to take the detainees to their office in Area 3.
Ms. Muoma’s brother, Ugo Muoma, a lawyer, having been alerted by her husband, met the group at Area 3. By then Ms. Muoma’s bruises were clear to see. Both her eyes were blackened and there were huge bruises on her left arm.
As her brother sought explanation for the altercation and the subsequent assault, her husband entered and also demanded answers.
“When my husband was asking, ‘What happened? Who did this to my wife?’ not less than twenty of the officials surrounded him and started to beat him. My brother jumped in to try to pull my husband out of the fray but the officials also descended on him and started to beat him too,” the victim said.
She said that when a friend of her husband, who had accompanied him, tried to leave the compound, he was prevented from doing so. All of them – Ms. Muoma, her husband, her brother, her husband’s friend, her friend’s driver and Mr. Obanle – were all locked up in the AEPB cell at Area 3.
A court was soon constituted to try the detainees. According to Ugo, Ms. Muoma’s brother, the magistrate came in at 7 p.m. The whole incident had commenced at around 2 p.m.
“They charged us with insult, assault and obstruction of justice,” Ugo, a lawyer, said. “We, who were assaulted, were being charged with assault.”
A week after the incident and although he did not seem to have any physical injuries, the lawyer still complained of chest pains, especially around his sternum. He also said that he had not been to work since the incident occurred due to the pains.
While further narrating his ordeal, Ugo said that when he was taken to the cell by the AEPB officials, he asked if they were all under arrest, and was informed that they were not. He then asked to be released so he could go and seek treatment for the injuries sustained during the beat down.
“They threatened me that if I left that room that they would actually kill me and that the first beating we received would seem like child’s play if any of us tried to leave there,” Ugo recounted.
During their arraignment, all the detainees pleaded not guilty, where given a bail of N50, 000 each and the case adjourned to December 10.
In the line of duty
The AEPB was established in 1989. According to its Head of Information and Outreach Programme, Joe Ukairo, the AEPB Act No 10 of 1997 empowered the agency as a regulatory agency and charged it with the responsibility of protection and management of the Abuja environment.
When PREMIUM TIMES pointed out that Ms. Muoma’s driver was originally stopped for a parking violation, which, going by its primary duties, seemingly had nothing to do with the AEPB, Mr. Ukairo produced a copy of the Act.
According to Section 31 (1) the agency has the power to arrest any person who (a) drives or parks on any drainage slab, walkway or landscape area and (i) keeps, deposits or leaves on any street, highway or public way any vehicle whether serviceable or broken down (…).
Although, Mr. Ukairo refused to comment on Ms. Muoma’s case as it was still in court, he, however, hinted that her friend’s driver might have parked on a ‘No Parking’ zone.
The spokesperson also claimed the fashion designer might have instigated her own assault. He alleged that she might have violated Section 36 of the AEPB Act, which states that “any person who insults, assaults or manhandles any member of staff of the Board in the course of his duties or obstructs, misleads or does anything likely to obstruct such member of staff or person from carrying to any effect any of the provisions of this decree is guilty of an offence or liable on conviction to a fine of N5, 000 or imprisonment for a term of six months or both.”
Not an isolated case
Ms. Muoma and her siblings’ apparent assault by the law enforcement officials is not an isolated one.
Other offenders were arraigned alongside Ms. Muoma and her family that Saturday. Some of the detainees’ family lamented the brutal treatment their sons or fathers had received at the hands of the AEPB.
A woman narrated how her husband had his penis twisted until he collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital where he was at the time.
Another narrated how her son was arrested when he tried to secure the release of her husband. After initially expressing agreeing to be quoted, the families, when contacted again, asked that their names not be mentioned in this article as they would like to forget their ordeal and move on with their lives.
Mr. Ukairo defended the actions of his officials saying that they were allowed to use reasonable force when offenders resist arrest.
“How can you just see a human being and start beating (him)? How do you believe that? I did not tell you stop doing this thing and you refused. I did not tell you come to the office and you refused. Nobody beats anybody but when you try to resist arrest, even under the Penal Code, the law says (law enforcement agents) should apply reasonable force. Reasonable force is not assault,” he explained.
He insisted that no AEPB staff assaulted anybody; rather it was the enforcement agents that were often assaulted.
“We are at the receiving the end. I have staffs that have been injured, struck with machete- I have a staff that lost six teeth. We have windshields broken by so-called civilised members of the society that ask us to train our staff,” he said.
The spokesperson stated that AEPB staff were well trained and it was members of the public that needed training. He suggested that PREMIUM TIMES go to the streets and ask the average hawker why they disobey the law and then complain about being beaten when caught.
“This law is an act of parliament. There is no sentiment or pity that can right the wrong or what is described as wrong in this case, apart from another act of the parliament. Anywhere I go, I tell people – if you think this is inhuman and want this place to be turned to a market, go to the National Assembly,” he said.
Mr. Ukairo especially complained about indiscipline among the elite and educated members of the society.
“Where you see no parking, you should not park there. People claim that they school abroad but when they are over there, they do the needful. But when they come to our own society, disorder is the order of the day,” he said.
Ugo, the lawyer, however insisted that he and his sister did not disobeyed any law. He said his sister had been taken in, assaulted and her phone seized in the course of trying to record an injustice being perpetrated on a private citizen, who himself had only stopped to show concern for the owner of the vehicle seized.
He stated that he had petitioned the Commissioner of Police, Olufemi Ogunbayode, asking him to investigate and charge officials of the AEPB for the multiple assaults. He said that during their detention, he had asked, several times, that their case be referred to the police.
“I spoke to the police officers that were there and asked them to arrest us and take us to a police station where the AEPB can file a formal charge of assault against us. I also wanted to file my own complaint of assault,” he said.
On December 10, before the Magistrate Court at AEPB Area 3, Ugo sought an adjournment of the case until his petition to the police had been looked in. The case was adjourned to the second week in January 2014.
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