Some civil society groups have lashed out at Governor Rochas Okorocha over his “inhumane” decision to demolish the largest market in Owerri metropolis when the people are battling to exit an economic recession.
The groups called on the National Human Rights Commission to launch an independent investigation into the deaths that resulted from the market demolition.
The state government rolled in bulldozers and back hoes into the popular Eke Ukwu Owerri Market, last Saturday, and proceeded to reduce it to a rubble. The government said it had given the traders notice of relocation to a new site just outside the state capital.
The traders, who had arrived for the day’s business, unable to bear the sight of their demolished shops as well as looted goods took to the streets to protest the injustice.
Heavily armed soldiers and police, stationed at the market to quell any uprisings by the traders, opened fire killing at least, three people, including a ten-year-old boy who was shot in the head, and three others injured.
“Spaces for Change strongly condemns the sudden invasion of the market on Saturday morning and the extreme use of force that characterised the demolition exercise, leading to loss of human lives, injury and riots in parts of the city,” Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, Executive Director, Spaces for Change, said in a statement on Monday.
“Particularly distasteful is Imo State government’s spiteful media campaign denying the deaths, the injuries and playing down the scale of human suffering resulting from the forced evictions and demolitions executed without compensation, without meaningful consultation with local traders and without relocation plans.”
The Imo State government had announced plans to relocate the market, located along the busy Douglas Road, to a new site at Ohi as part of its urban renewal programme.
But the traders said shops at the new location are still under construction and are sold at exorbitant rates.
Last Saturday’s demolition had been greeted with condemnations and criticisms by several groups including the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party who demanded an investigation into the deadly violence that ensued.
The state government had issued a statement saying the demolition of the market was peaceful and done “amid jubilation” by residents.
“The government has taken this noble action to equally recover Douglas Road that connects the state with other neighbouring states which has remained a refuse dump for the traders in the market and to deal with once and for all the prevalent criminal activities in the area like robbery, cultism and kidnapping,” Sam Onwuemeodo, Mr. Okorocha’s Chief Press Secretary, has said in the statement.
‘Disdain for court order’
Spaces for Change knocked the government’s urban renewal programme saying the string of demolitions it had attracted had left agony and human suffering in its trail.
“At present, the demolitions – from Wetheral to Douglas Road, to Ikenegbu, to Aladinma, to Orji Road, to Amakohia, to Akwakuma, and many other locations – have affected businesses, residential buildings, schools, churches and other private enterprises,” said Mrs. Ibezim-Ohaeri.
“Most affected persons, groups and communities were not served appropriate notices nor consulted by the state government’s physical and urban planning authorities prior to the demolitions.”
Mrs. Ibezim-Ohaeri also said a majority of the demolitions in the state occurred in defiance of court orders as well as pending litigation before the courts.
In September 2016, the Eke Ukwu Market traders approached an Imo State High Court for in an attempt to stop the government and the court issued a ruling restraining the state government from destroying, relocating or tampering with the market.
Mrs. Ibezim-Ohaeri said the governor went ahead to demolish the market in “total disdain for the court order.”
Earlier in July, Governor Okorocha had demolished the Shell Camp Quarters, inhabited by serving and retired lecturers of Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education, despite a subsisting court order.
“Not only are court orders brazenly flouted, there is substantial evidence that the cleared land are not used for any development purposes, but rather, reallocated to family members and political cronies,” Mrs. Ibezim-Ohaeri said.
“Spaces for Change is urging the Imo State government to halt all forced evictions and demolitions of markets, people’s homes, churches, schools and businesses without recourse to due process and the rule of law.
“We particularly demand the Imo State government to pay compensation to owners of properties already destroyed and provide relief in the form of alternative housing and/or fair compensation to all residents previously evicted or whose homes or real properties have been demolished.”
On Sunday, the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, NOPRIN, petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari, urging him to order a “prompt, impartial and exhaustive” investigation into the deployment of military and armed thugs by Governor Okorocha, the use of lethal force and weapons against the citizens, and the demolition of their market.
According to NOPRIN, Mr. Okorocha had deployed a combined force of the Nigerian Army from the 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze; operatives of the Nigerian Air Force; State Security Services; the Nigeria Police Force; Civil Defence; Imo Security Network; and hundreds of armed thugs as security cover for the demolition.
“The deployment of soldiers is unlawful and unwarranted since it was purely a civil dispute,” said Okechukwu Nwanguma, NOPRIN’s National Coordinator.
“We call for an investigation to determine whether the deployment of the military to aid the governor in his atrocious and lawless act received the approval of the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
“NOPRIN calls on the president to order and ensure an end to acts which degrade the institutional and professional integrity of the military such as the reckless and unnecessary deployment of its personnel during internal security situations which the police can effectively deal with.
“Since it is well known that the military are trained to kill, anybody who deploys them at will in needless and unjustifiable situations such as the case under reference can only be viewed to have premeditated to commit extrajudicial killing.”
NOPRIN said the governor’s action had the capability of raising the level of crime and insecurity in the state, adding that his “characteristic resort to barbaric and brute force” should be checked.
“NOPRIN calls on President Buhari to take necessary actions to put an end to the excesses of Governor Okorocha who is a member of his All Progressives Congress,” the group said.
“His unconstitutional and undemocratic behaviours – including his frequent illegal deployment of military officers from the 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze, and Air Force personnel must be checked. The role of the Commanders in those military formations should also be investigated.
“As we write, the Eke Ukwu Owerri stretch of Douglas Road in the Imo State capital is flooded with military personnel and this has imposed fear and undue restrictions to people’s freedom of movement. Residents now live in fear, and this state of fear and uncertainty cannot be allowed to stand.”