How I was Brutalized by the Police and Guaranty Trust Bank Employees – Journalist
By Seyi Oduyela
Published: December 29, 2009
How I was Brutalized by the Police and Guaranty Trust Bank Employees -
Few days after the amnesty report indicted the Nigeria Police of extra judicial killings and brutality, a journalist with The NEWS Magazine; DESMOND UTOMWEN is assaulted to stupor by a combined team of staff of Guaranty Trust Bank, GTB and Policemen. In this interview, Utomwen, who is a senior correspondent in the Abuja Bureau office, narrates his ordeal to….. Excerpts:
Could you recount your experience with the police and how you got brutalised?
On Friday, 11th, December 2009 at about 11a.m, I came across a peaceful protest around the premises of the Area III, Garki Branch of Guaranty Trust Bank, GTB, in Abuja. As a journalist, it was instinctual for me to stop and find out what was happening, which I did. On getting there, I realised that the people were protesting some fraudulent withdrawals from the account of one of the customers of the bank amounting to about N490, 000. Controversially, this fraudulent withdrawal was done in one night with an ATM card, which is in contrast with N60, 000 daily withdrawal limit of the Bank. The protesters opined that there must have been insider collusion to aide such colossal withdrawal in one night.. As required of a journalist, taking some photograph of the protesters alongside their comments, I made effort to balance the report by attempting to speak with the Bank Manager or whoever was competent enough to speak on the issue, but I was denied access to the bank. At this point, I decided to leave for my office. I was on my way back to my car when a combined team of some of the bank official and policemen on patrol came after me. They asked me to stop and I did. The bank official who got to me first requested that I give them my camera, which I refused. I told them that I did not know them and it was not proper for me to just give them my camera as it is my working tool. The attempted to forcefully take it and I resisted. It was at this point the police swooped on me and started rough handling me, panel beating my face. They seriously assaulted me massively, and inflicted bodily injuries on me until I fell down and became unconscious. They later bundled me into their van and took me to their station in Garki village. While the beating was going on, they held the gun against me and threatened to shoot to kill me if I uttered any word and nobody will do anything about it. At that point they confiscated my phones and they denied me the opportunity to make or receive calls from my boss, colleagues and relatives. It was at the station they later gave me the phones.
When they came for you, did you resist arrest or act rudely to provoke their anger?
No. I wish I was even given the opportunity to resist arrest. One, they did not invite me to go with them to the station let alone refusing them. They didn’t even ask me who I was or what I was doing at the scene. The only question I got from them was: “where is the camera, who did you give the camera to?” They came with the wrong assumption planted inside of them by the GTBank officials that I may have given my camera to somebody else whereas the camera was with me at that time. And before I could say a word, they started punching me as if I was wrongly matched in a boxing bout against the Klitschko Brothers until I became unconscious and fell down. Even at that, they didn’t stop. They bundled me into their car and ferried me to their station. They eventually forcefully took the camera from me after so much beating. They also took my digital recording device and I could not find my official working ID. Card and some of the money I had in my pockets before the beating. As a matter of fact I had no reason to resist arrest. Apart from the feeling of innocence, I am also an accredited police and crime correspondent with police accreditation tag issued from the Force Headquarters. If they had asked for my identity, I would have given them.
Why didn’t you release the camera to them?
I couldn’t have just release my camera to anybody in that chaotic atmosphere. Besides, I have some private photographs and some shots from other assignments which I haven’t downloaded into my laptop. Some of these photographs are definitely not for their consumption. Perhaps, if the police officers have used their authority not power to invite me to the station, I would have quietly followed them to the station and give them utmost co-operation. But they didn’t. They opted for brute force.
With your experience, what is your perception of the Nigerian police?
While one may not want to dispute the fact that there are still some refine gentleman officers at the top hierarchy of the force, the experience without mincing words again calls to mind the widely held opinion that the Police force is crowded and infested with a bunch of callous, inhuman personnel with animalistic and murderous instinct among the rank and file and the earlier the government takes steps to sieve these bad eggs from the force, the better it would be for everybody especially at a time like this when the country claims to be rebranding. Otherwise, how do you explain a situation whereby police are called to troubled scene and without asking questions and properly identifying offenders, they just descended on innocent and defenceless citizens and beat him to stupor? Even if you have to confiscate the camera of a bona fide journalist, you don’t have to assault and brutalise him and reduce him to the state of a common criminal. Just imagine the scenario, when the patrol team came, they descended on innocent journalists who were only doing their job and rightly or wrongly they did not even do anything about the protesters themselves just because the GTBank officials asked them to come after us. For God sake we are not living in the jungle and this is not the era of Mongo Park. Even in a war situation, there are rules for engagement.
But why would the bank officials ask the police to come after you and not the protesters?
Like I said earlier, they were after my camera and to them my crime was that I innocently took photographs of the demonstrations. I think they were not comfortable with the inscriptions that were on the placards the protesters were carrying and felt that publishing that would affect their image negatively. So their major aim was to confiscate the camera and ensure the photographs taken never get to the eyes of the public, especially their customers. To them, the only option opened to them was to forcefully and callously take the camera away from me. While the Police may have the statutory responsibility to intervene in crises situation, I simply do not think they have any right to forcefully and criminally take away the private property of a harmless individual like they did.. That was barbaric to say the least.
The Police claimed you had no right to take photographs of the Bank premises. What is your take?
I don’t know where they got that notion from. I don’t know if it is a written or unwritten law or code. And if it is, then it is myopic. Their reasons as I was made to understand is that the Banks are keenly protected and that such protest could provide a cover for hoodlums to carry out some nefarious activities. Let assume the situation had actually deteriorated to that level, shouldn’t the police also think that the photographs of the protest and the entire crises taken by the journalist would have eventually offered a good support for their investigation by first providing a basis for identifying the supposed culprits. And to clarify it, I didn’t just go taking photographs of the Bank premises. I took that of the protesters. So the focus was not on the Bank.
What about the protesting woman, do you know her?
Not until that day. I met them protesting and I decided to do my job as a journalist driven by the instinct of work. I understand the police later decided to arrest and detain them after the incident.