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Threats, detentions and frozen assets: Nigeria's protesters depict pattern of intimidation

By Libby George and Paul Carsten
·8-min read

(This November 30 story corrects name to Adewunmi Emoruwa from Enoruwa in paragraphs 39 and 42)

By Libby George and Paul Carsten

LAGOS (Reuters) - At 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Onomene Adene received a call from a man whose voice she did not recognise.

The man said he knew her from church and asked for help getting a package to their pastor. She agreed to meet him at a bank near her home in the Nigerian city of Lagos.

But shortly after she arrived, according to Adene, three trucks pulled up filled with police armed with rifles and tear gas demanding that she take them to her brother. Terrified, she complied.

"It was like they were coming for war," Adene, 34, recounted days after the Nov. 7 incident, her hands shaking and her eyes welling with tears.

Police detained 27-year old Eromosele Adene that morning at his home, according to his sister and a bail application. Adene said her brother took part in nationwide protests last month against police brutality in the West African nation but hadn’t committed a crime.

Eromosele Adene is one of hundreds of demonstrators who have been detained since the protests began in early October. A group of lawyers providing legal aid to protesters said it has logged more than 300 detentions nationwide of people they believe to be innocent but that they expect the total to be higher. It added that many of those individuals have been released. Lagos State - home to sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous city - said on Nov. 8 that it had released 253 people.

The roughly two weeks of demonstrations, which called for abolishing a controversial police unit that has long been accused of violent harassment, drew thousands into the streets across Nigeria and grabbed world headlines in one of the largest movements of popular resistance to face Africa’s most populous country in years.

The Nigerian government swiftly announced it would disband the police unit, known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or SARS, and ordered each state to set up judicial panels to investigate police abuse accusations.

But interviews with 18 activists, lawyers representing protesters and human rights advocates depict a pattern of intimidation of those who took part in the protests. In addition to detentions and the freezing of assets by the Central Bank, those interviewed by Reuters said some protesters had received threats or been subject to other harassment. They said further that they suspect the authorities are responsible because they bear the hallmarks of tactics used by authorities in the past. Reuters was unable to confirm who was behind the threats.

The extent of the detentions of peaceful protesters and intimidation tactics used have not previously been reported.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a military ruler in the 1980s before being elected president in 2015, has appealed for patience as the government attempts to meet protestors' demands. Spokesmen for the president referred questions about the protests to the military and the police.

Army spokesman Sagir Musa dismissed activists’ fears that they were being investigated, tracked or blocked from leaving the country as "fake news."

A spokesman for Nigeria’s federal police did not return requests for comment. Police have said the protests resulted in violence such as looting, arson, attacks and killings of - including of policemen - and that they will deploy the “full weight of the law and legitimate force (if necessary) in preventing a reoccurrence.”

Police in early November said they had arrested more than 1,500 people. Protesters and government officials have said that the people doing the looting and vandalism are not for the most part the same people who mobilised against police brutality.

Lawyers for police said in court that Eromosele Adene would be charged with criminal incitement, cyber stalking and provoking a breach of public peace, but haven’t filed charges. Adene’s lawyer said his client is innocent. Adene was released on bail after more than 10 days of detention; he is due to appear in court on Dec. 7.

DETENTIONS

Some people who participated in the protests - a movement dominated by young people who came of age after the nation’s transition to democracy in 1999 - said they have been taken aback by what they considered to be the repressive tactics of the authorities. But some observers said the crackdown against people associated with the demonstrations is reminiscent of the violent repression and state surveillance that characterized the country’s decades of military rule.

"The government has basically served a notice that everyone and anyone is fair game," said Ikemesit Effiong of Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM Intelligence. "It’s something Buhari did in the 80s when he was the military head of state, and we are just seeing that playbook being reprised in 2020.”

The protests - organized under the name #EndSARS - broke out in early October after a video circulated allegedly showing members of the SARS police unit shooting dead a man in Delta state. The protests evolved to encompass discontent with corruption, a floundering economy and double-digit inflation that has stretched the ability of some families to even feed themselves without taking on debt.

It began as a largely peaceful movement, drawing the backing of business leaders and celebrities including musicians Kanye West and Beyonce. But the protests turned violent. On Oct. 20 police and soldiers killed at least 12 people in two Lagos neighbourhoods, including in the upmarket district of Lekki, according to witnesses and rights group Amnesty International. The army and police deny shooting protesters.

In the following days, angry crowds set fire to police stations and government offices. Looters raided shopping malls and government food warehouses.

The lawyers providing legal aid and activists said some of the protesters who have been detained have been released without charge, while others face charges such as looting, arson or disturbing the peace - allegations the lawyers contest.

Oluwatosin Adeniji, a 28-year-old journalist, said she was documenting a protest on Nov. 6 in Abuja when police, firing tear gas and live rounds, detained her along with five protesters. Adeniji - who was released on bail and hasn’t been formally charged - had been engaged in journalism and did not do anything wrong, according to her and her lawyer.

The police didn’t respond to a request for comment on Adeniji’s detention.

A prominent lawyer who provided legal aid to protesters had her passport seized at the airport when she tried to leave the country on Nov. 1, but it was later returned. The lawyer said when her passport was taken she was told her she was under military investigation.

Spokesmen for the Nigerian Immigration Service, the Interior Ministry, the military, the president’s office and security services declined to comment about whether she was under investigation.

THREATENING MESSAGES

Ten activists Reuters interviewed said they were aware of protesters receiving threatening phone calls and messages or being followed. Seven of them said they had personally received threats, and one of those said they also believed they had been under surveillance.

One text message reviewed by Reuters said the recipient would “lose your life” if they did not post a message on social media that the Lekki shooting did not happen, but would get 10 million naira (or about $26,000) if they did. The message came from a number the recipient didn’t recognize.

Reuters was unable to verify the other individual accounts.

Amnesty International also said it had heard from protesters, activists and even their own staff of similar messages, typically threatening punishment for what people have said or done and visits by people believed to be working for security services.

“We are aware of these things happening,” said Isa Sanusi, spokesman for Amnesty International.

Amnesty’s Sanusi and activists said the efforts were having a chilling effect, forcing people into hiding or to leave the country. Four of the activists Reuters interviewed said they were in hiding and at least two others had left the country.

One of those who had left the country said he went to the United States after friends in government warned him on Oct. 20 that security agents were tracking him for his involvement in the protests.

“If you’re a witness in a case against the government, you cannot sleep in your house,” said the man, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Akin.

"WE ARE VERY AFRAID"

Nigeria’s Central Bank has said it froze the accounts of 20 people involved in the demonstrations. According to an Oct. 20 court filing, the central bank wanted the assets frozen while it investigated whether there were links to terrorism financing.

Five of those who have had their accounts frozen denied involvement in terrorism financing when contacted by Reuters.

Adewunmi Emoruwa, 30, who helped crowdfund journalists investigating police violence, said the account of his company - a public relations firm called Gatefield - was frozen on Oct. 15 – more than two weeks before the central bank obtained a court order to do so on Nov. 4. He showed Reuters a letter from Access Bank dated Oct. 26 citing a Central Bank directive as the reason his account was frozen.

He said he vets donations and has no links with people or organizations that could be considered terrorists.

The Central Bank and Access Bank did not respond to requests for comment. Access Bank has publicly apologized to some customers impacted by the freeze and said it was compelled to comply with regulatory directives.

"We are very afraid," said Emoruwa.

(Reporting by Libby George in Lagos and Paul Carsten in Abuja; Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja and Temilade Adelaja in Lagos; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low and Alexis Akwagyiram)