By Vincent Ujumadu & Peter Okutu
Justin Nwankwo, the former manager of Upper Class Hotel, Onitsha, demolished in 2013 over alleged use of the hotel for kidnapping activities, relived his harrowing experience in the hands of the operatives of the dreaded Awkuzu SARS yesterday, saying that he was detained for 81days during which the policemen hit his scrotum intermittently to extract information from him.
Nwankwo, who is claiming N50 million as damages for the property lost as a result of the demolition of the hotel, is currently a senior lecturer at the Federal Polytechnic, Oko.
After appearing yesterday before the judicial panel of inquiry set up by Governor Willie Obiano to look into police brutality in the state, which led to #endSARS protests, the former manager said that at the time of his arrest and detention, he was pursuing his PhD programme.
According to him, most of the people who lodged in the hotel on the day of the demolition were traders who also brought their articles of trade into their rooms, adding that they also had terrible stories to tell about their experience in the hands of the police.
While denying that there were incidences of kidnapping at Upper Class Hotel, he, however observed that the owner of the hotel was a very big land agent in Onitsha, adding that what happened to the hotel on that 1st August, 2013 could be the effect of envious business transaction.
He said: “The torture I went through at Awkuzu SARS was horrible. The painful thing was that they took an innocent man to a detention camp without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. After the demolition of the hotel and our detention, some newspapers had screaming headlines with the title, ‘Otokoto in Onitsha’, which was even enough torture to me, a PhD student at the time.
“They packed us into a police van to a torture camp. They wanted me to join as a prosecution witness against the owner of the hotel and because I refused to do that, my own torture was the most severe. They tried to force me to say that there were activities of kidnapping in the hotel, which was not true.
“So when you hear that my scrotum was damaged and that I was hanged and my hairs were pulled, it was to force me, the second in command in the hotel, to admit what was not true so that I could be joined in the matter.
“Apart from the torture, the 81 days of incarceration was something one would not want to remember. I was in the black cell of Awkuzu SARS for 81 days and it is a miracle that I am still breathing because nobody stays in Awkuzu SARS for that number of days and survives.
“They were hitting my scrotum to extract information from me by force. They even forced me to thumbprint on a statement I did not write. Imagine a near illiterate forcing a PhD student to thumbprint in a comatose condition, a statement he did not generate.
“At the time they forced my finger on the paper, I was unconscious and they poured three buckets of water on me to revive me to enable them use my thumbprint. This happened on the day of the arrest after they took us around many police stations in Onitsha in a black van and eventually arrived Awkuzu SARS around 3 pm and the torture began. We were in the torture hall till around 8pm.
“We were eventually released after 81 days and the police said their hands were tied and that there was nothing else they could do than to wait for further instructions.
“At the end of the day, they manufactured a case and took us to court because there were pressures from human right organizations, coupled with the fact that government wanted a safe landing.”
Nwankwo said he believed that the owner of the hotel was set up by his adversaries who were looking for avenues to get at him over land and motor park businesses he was involved in.
“The demolition of his hotel was one way they could get at him. We, the staff, were not part of those deals, but we suffered man’s inhumanity to man.
“The hotel was demolished on the same day we were arrested. The police started its investigation the same day and ended it the same day, culminating in the demolition of the hotel the same day.
“It marvelled us at the speed the hotel was demolished. The government did not come up with any security report on why the hotel should be demolished.
“When they arrested us, they should have investigated the hotel before demolishing it. They should have got a court order before doing anything. When we were arrested and taken to Awkuzu SARS, the news filtered in immediately that the hotel had been demolished and there was no opportunity for anybody to pick up any personal belonging,” he said amid sobs.
Security situation normalizes in Ebonyi
Meantime, after the tension and panic that erupted as a result of the #EndSARS protests in Ebonyi State, normalcy is said to have returned to the state capital as the security situation within the metropolis has since normalized.
Both vehicular and human movements have normalised without any reported case of Police harassment and intimidation by suspected hoodlums on citizens of the state.
The security situation has improved in Abakaliki after some hoodlums hijacked the #EndSARS protest and unleashed diverse attacks on police stations and security agents.
When Vanguard went round the capital city, Police barricades and road blocks kept at strategic places in the wake of the violent attacks had all been removed apart from the ones leading to the State Correctional Service along Ministry of Finance road.
Following the violent attack, all roads and streets leading to the High Court Complex, Government House, National Correctional Service, Police Headquarters and International Conference Centre all in Abakaliki were blocked to members of the public.
This resulted in the diversion of traffic to interior streets, a situation that caused congestion, loss of manpower and heightened tension among citizens of the state.
To some residents of the state, the dismantling of the barricades was a welcome development as it would calm frayed nerves and boost economic activities.
The State Commissioner for Internal Security, Mr Stanley Okoroemegha explained that the removal of the barricades followed improvement in the security situation, noting that the state government had stepped up the training of Neighbourhood Watch group to complement the effort of the police.
“Before now, there have been issues of security challenges during the EndSARS (protest). Normalcy is gradually returning. We have enough of security personnel to protect the international market, the government and others. Generally, there is normalcy in the state. We are going round to make sure that all the blocked roads are opened. Everybody is free to go about his or her businesses.”
The Special Assistant to the governor on Security Matters, Mr Chidiebere Egwu said the government had embarked on youth re-orientation to enable them shun violent protests.
“Actually, the situation is getting better compared to how it was some weeks ago. We arrested those who stole rods and destroyed valuables at Peace Mass Transit. The internal security and security agents are ready to do their job. The rate of crime have reduced drastically.
“We will not spare anybody. We have addressed the youths on the need for them to secure their future by doing what is right. Those who graduated should find something meaningful to do. They should learn trade that will enable them to become self reliant.”
The Commissioner of Police in the state, CP Philip Maku said despite the unfortunate incident, officers and men of the Nigeria police were committed to their duties and commended the state government for reconstructing the burnt police stations.
“The security measures that we have taken, like restrictions of movements to checkmate all those things have been dismantled and police have given assurance to the members of the public to go about their businesses.
“The governor promised that he was going to rebuild the burnt police stations and I think we are starting with the B-Division. If you go there, you will see the foundation they have already laid and work is going on. This gesture will equally go to other divisions.
“The governor also promise that he will build a standard police station and for the A-Division (CPS), he equally promised he is going to do something and he also said he is going to do it in stages.”
Vanguard visited a project site for one of the affected police stations adjacent Saint Patrick School Kpirikpiri where work was seen to be on going.