Nonso Akuka, a young man of post-teenage age, sent insulting text messages to his mummy’s sister (aunt) in the midst of a mild intra-family beef; the next thing he saw was men of the dreaded but highly despised Anti-Robbery Special Squad (SARS) who whisked him off to their Port Harcourt operational base where he passed through unprintable hell. He left the next two days with broken legs. He is still recuperating in a village in a bone-setter’s home. He has nobody to cry out to for help, even as his aunt is said to be flaunting her ability to have contacts with SARS.
This is why the fear of SARS in Rivers State seems to be the beginning of wisdom. With such awareness of the powers of life and death, the SARS men who sometimes operate in unmarked buses and dish out hell to ‘suspects’ in domestic matters took on a boy whose mother fries ‘akara’ (bean cake) in a neighbourhood. Kofi Bartels, a popular On-Air-Personality (OAP) with Nig Info FM Station in Port Harcourt was passing and felt for the poor lad who was allegedly screaming his innocence along with his mother. The lad was being violently forced into a bus by the SARS men. Such victims hardly make it back, and Bartels knew this much.
The popular radio personality and compère tried to intervene but thought better, and pulled out his camera to capture the moment the lad was being stuffed into a waiting unmarked bus. This was how he bought trouble on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. According his outcry, the SARS men descended on him with merciless kicking and smashing. When they realised who he was, the matter grew worse; “Oh, those journalists who always condemn SARS on radio every day?”
He said they now took him to their headquarters where he was summarily tried and found guilty of being a newsman, of meddling into matters, and other offences such as recording with his phone. The beating took a hellish turn, he stated. Bartels said he never believed he would come out of it alive. One said if he was one of those who arrested him, he would have wasted him. Others threatened to throw him into a cell full of gay suspects so they would deal with his anus. He now realised such cells exist that are full of different vampires that could do nasty things to persons thrown to them at will like Daniel to lions.
Bartel said his matter got to a former SARS Commander who pressed on the men to free him, else, he would have joined the growing number of persons disappearing in the Garden City. This was not without warning him to “watch your back”, something he understood to be that his file is not closed yet. For this he cried thus: “I’m taking their threats to my life seriously and will be putting authorities on notice. But please be aware, if anything happens to me or my family and friends, you know who to suspect.”
Bartels was carried back home with his leg broken, his body like a pulp. He said his body was red. Soon, his outcry hit the airwaves and the national and international media community took it from there, full of rage and fury. Nigerians (especially Rivers people) remembered their agonies in the hands of SARS operatives and recalled that the Inspector General of Police claimed to have reformed SARS and had prohibited them from domestic matters, debt collection, and matters outside armed robbery and violent crimes, none of which Bartels or Nonso came close to.
The body of journalists in Rivers State was livid with anger and sent a definite statement to the Rivers State Commissioner of Police, Usman Belel, demanding apology, action, etc. Other organisations took strong positions, too. The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Rivers State Council, described the torture that Bartels went through as barbaric and an act of cowardice.
The NUJ, in a statement signed by its Secretary, Ike Wigodo, on Thursday, condemned in strong terms Bartel’s handcuffing and the threat to ‘waste’ the life of the young man, and regretted that a security agency paid to protect lives and property could turn itself into a monster terrorising innocent citizens in the country.
The NUJ, therefore, demanded an unreserved apology from the Rivers State Police Command within 14 days for the assault against Mr. Bartels or risk its activities boycotted by journalists in the state.
Many groups continued the outcry. The Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (IHRHL) said it received the news with utter consternation, saying was more shocking the anger of the SA men was more inflamed upon recognition of their victim as one of the journalists that had been giving them sleepless nights, using his expertise on radio, by way of speech. “His capital offence was speech”.
The statement signed by its acting director, Nwennenda C. King, went on; “This is happening less than two days that Mr. President of the Federal Republic in response to a recent report by the National Human Rights Commission, openly vowed that the rights of citizens must be respected and protected under the rule of law. IHRHL will continue to speak for a policy position that gives hope to the helpless in society, even if all other voices turn silent.”
The IGP however, acted swiftly to stem the tension. He ordered the arrest of those involved and soon, five operatives were said to have been arrested. The IGP also sent a delegation led by the newly posted SARS officer, Jovina Iwuh, and the Rivers State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Nnamdi Omoni, to Bartels employers and colleagues at Coolwazobiainfo on Thursday.
On this note, a notable citizen and friend of the media, Dakuku Peterside, commended the IGP Muhammed Adamu, for standing against brutalisation of the ‘Port Harcourt journalist’. Peterside, the director general of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), who expressed shock over the inhuman treatment of the journalist, said the action of the Inspector-General would send a strong signal to the bad eggs in the squad and the Nigeria Police Force, in general, that the Police Chief is ready to tackle cases of human rights violations committed against innocent Nigerians by some cops.
While sympathising with Bartels over the harrowing experience he suffered in the hands of the cops, Peterside, who said that journalists should not be gagged from performing their professional duty, which includes being watchdog of society, pledged to stand by the broadcast journalist. The top marine administrator stated that journalists play a pivotal role in the development of every society, and should be counted as such and not as enemies.
While praying for Bartels’ quick recovery from the injuries inflicted on him, Peterside commended journalists in Rivers State for exercising restraint in the face of provocation even as he noted that such indiscretion as exhibited by the FSARS operatives could have generated violent response from the gentlemen of press. “Our journalists deserve respect and should be so accorded. Kofi Bartels has been a neutral umpire who uses the medium of radio to propagate fair, equitable and justiciable Rivers society. He has maintained the strictest principles of balanced reportage even as he motivates robust dialogues in all his live radio programmes. The treatment handed to him is condemnable and does not represent what he deserves,” he declared.
He praised the Rivers State chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) for standing with Bartels, saying their action has proved that the Union caters for its members and is ever ready to share in their burden of grief.
More citizens are calling for immediate prosecution of the SARS operatives and adequate compensation to Bartels.