Port Harcourt PDP Rally Stampede: Irregular Or Deregulated Police Action?

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

Facial expression reveals that Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s regime is in the right direction. Despite balance of ethno-presidency system, the Nigerian people have accepted gradual economic changes observed ever since he started heading the presidency. The conclusion is derived from Mr. President consistent activities on improving the lot of the people, and again his persistent to attain that course. This mindset attracted many people into his campaign ground on February 12, 2011 at the Liberation Stadium inside Port Harcourt. The occasion was climaxed. . It was the Jonathan/Sambo campaign rally in the South-south zone by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) where Mr. President went on stage to tell Nigerians in this zone what they are up to, if re-elected. Well understood, not until a stampede incident took place on February 12, 2011.The ruling party had called the program to assure Nigerians here inside Mr. President’s home-front that they will deliver.

It was like volcanoes; an excited (drunk) Mobile police group brought along to maintain peace and order in the occasion started shooting sporadically on air. The surging crowds, trekking from one corner of the stadium to the next, cause a stampede. Panic spreads, party-fans jostle to avoid being trampled, and hundreds of deaths can result. The “Harcourtians” (the Port Harcourt people) recounting their experience during the militant overture, gripped panic enticing their “august” visitor who moved in tandem and they collided with one another on the process of taking on their heel. Those who are allergic to gun-shot were many. People have the characteristic of moving without regard to outlet conditions. When restrictions at the outlet limit the discharge rate, a pileup will occur. These incidents are of interest because they are not attributable to crowd behaviour.

The escapees of whom I am one, observed. With “nigeria4betterrule” delegated, we were on our own inside the Port Harcourt Liberation Stadium on that fateful day. Spontaneously, having rehearsed our welcome jingled with the ad hoc participants, I just sat down and people were running over me .People were covered with blood, many injured were crying for help. I heard several blasts and people were just fleeing. Everything was smoke. I couldn’t see anything. People were running. I was so scared I couldn’t move. I just sat down and people were running over me. Most people felt the 50th anniversary bomb incident at Abuja could do the same here.

The crowd moved indiscriminately, injuring severely, among others; at least 40 people were injured as the 12 persons including a PDP Women Leader, Caroline Enyinda., have been reported dead while about 29 other persons were seriously wounded in the stampede, which occurred after a policeman shot sporadically into the air at the Presidential rally sending crowds scampering out of the venue. The stampede was triggered when the exit-gate collapsed on the crowd as people surged forward to escape from shooting arena.

Stampedes at public events are common as large numbers of excited cheerers; in 1971, 66 people were killed and many injured at the Ibrox Park Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland. Fans began to leave the stadium in the last moments of a scoreless match. As the game ended, a goal was scored. The roar of the crowd caused some to attempt reentry, while the mass exited. The resulting conflict caused a pile of bodies “about 10 feet high”. In 1981, 24 Greek soccer fans were killed in the Athens stadium as a capacity crowd of45, 000 attempted to leave shortly before the end of the match. The fans in the front ranks found the exit gates were locked, but those in the rear continued to press forward. In 1982, 340 people were reported killed at a match in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium.

In Nigeria the ruling party-fans, deligates, members, government cabinet and spectators pack into congested stadium. Panic can spread quickly and, with few safety regulations in place, the result is often lethal .Mingling of visitors from many parts of the South-south zone including neighbouring States of the country overflow the Liberation stadium which was accommodated overcrowded citizens. On 27 January 2002; a Lagos armoury explosion caused pandemonium. A stampede took place as a result of panicking people who were making effort to flee from the scene. On Saturday, July 10, 1999, another stampede occurred at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife , Osun State indirectly from students ensuing confusion and hence stampede.

The people of the Niger-Delta, of who Mr. President is one, have pledged never to utter derogatory remarks on Mr. President, Dr. Jonathan reciprocates. Political power was shield-off the South-east and her sister South-south for several decades. We are on the race to overcome this challenge. It is not a taboo but just to define many numbers of Nigerians that support Dr. Jonathan inside his home-Niger Delta. We feel that the image of Nigeria will not suffered in the eye of the international community just because of one bad behaviour. We need to get corrected and behave to restore the image of this nation. We want to make Nigeria; a centre of all good activities. I felt sorry when the opposition lawmakers; Kanti Bello came up with statements that Jonathan could go ahead on 2011 presidency but no Igbo Presidency in 2015…alright, but in the name of one Nigeria. We should not distort historical facts. None should issue provocative statements against one another, if Nigeria will go for better. If the Nigerians refrain from making provocative statements, we assure you that none from the PDP fence-off including the opposition bench will deliver inciting speech.

The February 12, 2011, incident is signaling against the police excesses; police is created to maintain law and orderliness. If a youth-Leader like Njobuenwu Nsirim, Macculay Opewyn and Dr HBM Jack could be beaten by the law enforcers nicknamed the police, these uniformed-men would need re-orientation. Again, on February 12, 2011, during the campaign rally; reckless driving by a Pilot on Mr. President’s convoy, led to a fatal accident, the motorist in collision among others, were wounded and hospitalized. This is sheer barbarism, if not a calculated act or terror to cow down the high-spirited Niger-Deltans in support.

The accusation against the police is that they try to stop the crowd from moving into the muster-point, just to imbibe they believe that they are working. The counter-accusation against the party-fans victimized is that “they have behaviour likely to destabilized law and order in that occasion. They pose a threat to the security of public life and property, causing unrest in the country”. The attendance claimed they were being intimidated. They deserve to have a clear look on Dr. Jonathan. He is their own and from here inside the Niger Delta. Both sides have their own arsenal of arguments, plausible or absurd, solid or tenuous. Difficult as it is to believe, in this day and age, there is indeed a country where, under the law of the land, it is unlawful for members of a persecuted community to call themselves “Niger Deltans”. The members of the region are not allowed into the Presidency until now. A period our son has become the president of the federal republic of Nigeria and the so-called police breach our joy.

But this is not new – this kind of barbarism is common and an old story. It has been happening since the days of our independence. Even before, , the police played the same role as today – falling on the mob with heavy truncheons. The harshness of the police seems to be a legacy of our turbulent history, wrought in anti-oppression movements against the ruling tyrants. The tradition is, however, to a great extent black and bleak, so we ought to think of getting rid of it. We are about three months away from the national elections, ahead of which the political field is likely be heated up with party campaigns. If the present state of anarchy continues, we will see electioneering v

iolence aplenty, with pitched battles between sticks and stones.

Everybody expects responsible behaviour from the police, who are employed to maintain law and order. Presumably, they will be protectors, not killers, of people. They will help the citizens to lead a peaceful life, not plunder peace from their life. They will curb violence in society, bringing the anti-social elements to book. They will fight not innocent persons, but only the criminals, nabbing and putting them on trial. They themselves must not kill any person, even any alleged criminal, until the court obliges them to do so. They will safeguard human rights, and by no means violate human rights themselves. With their every action they will help democracy to nurture the rule of law, deemed indispensable for good governance.

But what do the police do instead? They attack the gatherings of people, with their baton and guns, injuring and killing them. They mercilessly beat up political activists, social workers, students, teachers, labourers and farmers, not even sparing the journalists. They use weapons against men and women, youth and old, making no exception even for children. They are, as if, specially trained to silence the voice of democracy. Their only pleasure seems to be in terrorizing the weak, innocent and helpless. Apparently their target is the trouble-mongers. But to fight violence they become violent themselves. To protect human rights, they trample human rights themselves. To restore peace, they create unrest themselves. Their lawful actions prove ‘illegal’ at last, jeopardizing democracy.

Our people psychology also sounds somewhat eccentric, emanating from an unhealthy political culture. No harm if the party-fans shout slogans and wave the flags of their respective parties. No harm if they hold political rallies and bring out processions peacefully. But very often the “bought-over” hoodlums amidst become violent and vandalize vehicles and shops, exploding bombs and setting fire, harming life and property. Their demonstration turns rogue, only to provoke the police to go for tough (much too tough) action. The police set upon the ‘unruly’ party-fans, brandishing sticks (like village ‘lathials’) and lobbing tear gas canisters. They disperse them and make arrests. They torture the arrested and file cases (often false) against them.

What is ominous is that this kind of police action, without any fail, is directed against the agitation programs of the opposition parties, and not of the parties in power. The activists of the ruling parties go berserk in streets during their political campaigns, but the baton of the police dare not fall on them. By the way, the neutrality of the police is riddled with questions and the mass of the people have lost the last shred of confidence in them. Serious damage has been done to this law enforcing institution, dealing a blow to the polity.

It is a regretful but unavoidable fact in Nigeria that the political parties, which are privileged to form the government, abuse their power to use the police against opposition camps. They do whatever they wish in the name of maintaining law and order. They kill people openly or secretly, they kill in North or south, in the fashion of shooting down birds in the wilderness, because they are sure the long hand of law cannot reach them, as that hand is at their service. The police do their duties at the behest of the government high command, become very much partial and partisan in character. Hence the police are fearless; they are emboldened to do anything, yes, anything, in the real sense of word. But unfortunately most of the things they do go against the interest of the people in general. This has happened repeatedly, year in and year out, during the regimes of successive governments in Nigeria. And its consequence is that the police have become the ‘enemy’ of the people.

The opposition parties do not seem to bear any real grudge against the police who leave no stone unturned to make their life hell, because the party leaders know when they gain power, they will need the police to punish the opposition in the same way as now. In fact, the police have been used as the pawns of nasty political games, always favouring the ruling class, against the interest of the ruled. Looking at history, we find that PDP and AC Party, when in power, inflicted police violence on the people, committing willful sins. The opposition is always the victim of police atrocities.
But the system, which pits the police against the people or which guarantees not only repression but oppression of the opposition, does not bode well for the growth of democratic institutions. The system should be overhauled. This will entail a positive change in the attitude of the political parties, and change in the behavioural pattern of the police alongside some vital administrative reforms. The parties in power must stop thinking that the police are like their private servants who are totally at their beck and call. The police also have to understand that the baton they hold is the symbol of law, not a tool of repression. The administrative reforms, if necessary with constitutional underpinning, will ensure that the police are not used by the ruling parties for gaining political mileage.

In fact, the image of the police is totally negative in our country. Politically motivated repression aside, they are accused of taking bribes, extortion, raping, detaining people only for money and filing false cases and manufacturing evidence. They know hundreds of tricks for harassing the hapless people. Transparency International correctly identified the police department as the most ‘corrupt’ in the country. This is an unexpected and unacceptable situation. The police have to shed this negative image somehow or other. They have to remember that the law enforcers must not be law-breakers. They have to prove themselves to be the friends of people, not their enemies.

The crisis in our politics is that the leaders are not faithful to democracy, and they lack commitment to people. They can seldom rise above the petty party interest and dedicate their actions to the greater national cause. They have only one aim in life and that is to acquire power, by hook or by crook. Power is everything and all other things are valueless to them. With such a political mindset, the leaders can easily get furious when their way to power is threatened by sticks. Impatient, they order their activists to assail the policemen who get in their way. The Inspector General of Police in a statement said it has opened investigations to identify the officer that caused the chaos. The sporadic gun shot in a crowded place like that to me should be treated as a criminal act. Get ALL the police at the venue arrested and you will see the culprit emerging, otherwise they all will cover him/her up. This, however, cannot be regarded as one of the democratic norms. The political parties should be a bit more patient in their words and actions, and the police also should exercise much more restraint in tackling the Nigerians will and wish because democracy entails freedom of expression..

Critics say that the Nigerian government should have done more to prevent such tragedies. The Nigerian government insists that any such mass gatherings are inherently dangerous and difficult to handle, and that they have taken a number of steps to prevent problems. One of the biggest steps, which are also controversial, is a new system of party-rally attendant registrations, stadia capacity and effective police-training to control the flow of crowds. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate intending party-fans, while restricting repeat participation viz a south-eastern visiting a south-southerner campaign stand whereas Mr. President has once visited the later. Party-fans who have the means and desire to perform the rally several times have protested what they see as discrimination, but the Acting Party-chief has stated that they see no alternative if further tragedies are

to be prevented.

Following the Saturday 12 February 2011 stampede, the Rivers State Government in association with the Nigerian authorities embarked on major construction work in and around the Liberation Stadium area. Additional access-ways, footbridges, and emergency exits were built, and the three cylindrical pillars were replaced with concrete walls to enable more party-fans simultaneous access to them without the jostling and fighting for position of recent years. The government has also announced a multi-million-dollar project to expand or alternate the stadium to five levels; the project is planned for completion in time.

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1 comment

Belema Adokya February 16, 2011 - 11:43 am

Cheers is not shameful. Government should reciprocates if the public acknowledge their relevance.


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