Udom Uko Inoyo…Torch bearer for social justice
Sometime in September 2021, Nigeria was thrown into yet another political crisis, this time caused by the various acts of infractions perpetrated against hapless citizens by some members of the police force, especially the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) Division.
It started as a series of demonstrations strewn across various Nigerian cities, to voice out the violence, rights violations, and recurring vicissitudes visited on its people by a much vilified police apparatus.
In the course of that quick turn of events, many citizens were willing to accept that the pervasive tension was fated to die down in as much the same way as the plethora of crises before it. The various Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) stand offs, the June 12 crisis and its aftermath, the various installments of oil subsidy and fuel price protests, and the muted groans of the majority of Nigerians always ebbed as suddenly as they began.
But the elongated period of spontaneous mobilisation of a cross-section of the youth meant that, unlike any mass resistance before it, the #EndSARS debacle couldn’t just be wished away. As the number of youth pouring into Nigerian streets increased, coupled with the simultaneous hijack of the noble protest by miscreants and street urchins, objective onlookers of the process began to assimilate the magnitude of the problem and the collective pent-up frustrations, which the people were finally willing to vent.
The #EndSARS crisis was a reaction to years of injustice, massive economic distortions, and the gross abuse of citizens’ rights by those who were meant to protect them in the first place. The Nigeria Police Force may have been the symbol of this collective bashing, but the citizens’ revolt was as much a demand for accountability from the judicial system, an often power-drunk armed forces, dysfunctional institutions of state, and an ineffectual leadership structure evidenced across all levels of governance.
It was in these tense circumstances that politicians began abandoning government houses and official residences in order to avoid the outpouring of mass hysteria across various Nigerian cities. The uprising was organic, taking a life of its own and readying to consume anything on its path. With private houses torched, properties vandalised, and unrestrained lootings playing out, the situation called for some moral appeal and pontification to calm frayed nerves and tamper an already escalating situation.
From Benin to Jos, and its epicenter in Lagos, the crisis was as widespread as they come; the peaceful town of Uyo was not spared the palpable and pervasive tension. The crisis knew no political party or ethnic divide; it was a national problem of unprecedented dimension.
The clarion call to tame this raging fire was answered at various levels and in multiple ways by individuals and groups. And so when the voice of political rabble-rousers could barely be heard when light bulbs coming from glass homes suddenly dimmed, trailblasers like Udom Inoyo rose to the occasion and acted the statesman, providing leadership and organisation in a period of utter despondency.
Quickly harnessing his legal background, and the immense influence it could wield in such circumstances, the retired oil industry executive was able to inspire and coordinate the resources of eminent Nigerian lawyers under the aegis of “Coalition for Justice” to provide pro bono legal services to indigent Akwa Ibom victims of police brutality.
These were men and women who were eager to vent their grievances but were often hindered by limited resources in engaging the services of legal practitioners. And so, when it mattered most, about 16 legal practitioners of repute, jointly handling an aggregate of about 12 petitions, offered their services to victims of rights violations who were eager to have their voices heard at the Judicial Panel of Inquiry Into Incidences of Police Brutality.
The Akwa Ibom Panel, set up as the state’s official response to the nationwide emergency was headed by no less a jurist than the Hon. Justice Ukana (rtd). The six-member panel paraded respected civil society egg-heads, the clergy, security administrators as well as officials of government ministries.
The combination of the legal mastery of the learned jurist and the industry of the professionals who worked with him on the panel exposed the yawning need for the services of private legal practitioners, whom the panel recognised were in short supply at the beginning of its sittings. These professionals were needed especially to guide and give voice to the cries of brutalised Nigerians, such as Mrs. Inemesit Okon Akpan.
Mrs. Akpan was a trader in assorted fruits. Her line of business involved the purchase of fruits from Benue and other northern states and having them ferried to Akwa Ibom State for sale. She was almost home in the course of returning from one such business trip on July 2, 2020, when she encountered a team of policemen at the Atabong Head Bridge, in Eket.
As usual, money was demanded from Mrs. Akpan and her co-travellers (The truck driver and her assistant). Strenuous explanations that they had no money left, having spent a lot on the repairs of the vehicle in the course of the two-day journey, fell on deaf ears. The travellers were detained at about 11 p.m. and subjected to intense physical and mental assault. Mrs. Akpan, a widow and mother of four was not only flogged, but pushed around, resulting in a fall, which caused severe laceration to her leg, the result of a landing on a sharp concrete edge of a roadside drainage. Her injuries were severe, revealing a deep gash on her left femur.
She was left to languish in the hospital alone, financed by only by her meagre savings. Several petitions to the police to take responsibility for her significant medical bills resulting from the injury and the desire to mete out appropriate sanctions to its personnel yielded no response. Mrs. Akpan, her helpless driver, and her assistant were left to bear the deep psychological and physical injuries meted out to them.
Mrs. Akpan’s case is not an isolated one. Being devoid of most of the technicalities of conventional trials, the petitions entertained by the panel revealed such gory details that even lawyers, who are accustomed to hearing gruesome occurrences in criminal matters, cringed at the extent of atrocities committed in the course of ‘community policing’. Need we mention the case of the choir director who was dealt a slap in his home upon suspicion that he was dating a senior policeman’s girlfriend? The deathly “slap” subsequently caused permanent blindness to the promising young man, effectively ending all hopes of his lofty dreams; and for a baseless accusation! No sanctions were ever meted to the responsible party, instead he ‘earned’ his normal promotions and had an honourable discharge!
The opportunity of a public hearing offered hope to many who had given up. It was for such opportunity as this that the Inoyos of this world took a stand to ensure that muted groanings were heard and hidden wounds revealed in a society that has swept a lot of injustice under the carpet of corruption, brutality, hatred, and unmitigated high handedness. The effort of this distinguished Nigerian, especially in assembling a coterie of fine lawyers to pursue the noble task of fighting for the downtrodden is worthy of emulation by other well-placed individuals.
He could easily have advised and moved on, but his effort is reminiscent of a quote by Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
The EndSARS debacle may have come and gone and as had been expected, many Nigerians have forgotten its immediate and remote causes, its continued impacts on many families and institutions and will care less about the indices which if left unchecked, may precipitate a similar crisis.
The deafening silence regarding the implementation of the panel’s report and the highly anticipated compensation/punishment for proven infractions is testimony to the fact that nothing has changed. Archiving reports of panels of investigation without more isn’t new to Nigerian political and judicial operations. But whilst governments oftentimes drop the ball in their avowed obligations, we must not forget patriotic efforts by individuals. A society can only make significant progress by acknowledging, where necessary, the contributions of its finest to continually tap from its reservoir of knowledge.
In this season of the celebration of his birth anniversary, we wish the former Vice Chairman of ExxonMobil Companies in Nigeria many more years of impactful contributions to the development of Nigeria and his beloved Akwa Ibom State. And in his honour may we always remember those we oft leave behind.
Bassey, LLM (London), BL Abuja.
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