Thursday, November 13, 2008

Naval ratings and the assault on Ms Okere

THE recent incident in Lagos in which six armed naval ratings attached to Rear Admiral Harry Arogundade of the Nigerian Navy descended on one Miss Uzoma Okere and mercilessly brutalised her in public for alleged failure "to give way quickly" for a two-car convoy smacks of barbarism and unconscionable use of brute force. The act is totally unacceptable and condemnable. Men in uniform are expected to be officers and gentlemen at all times, no matter the provocation. Assaulting a defenceless citizen falls short of this standard.

It is good enough that the President, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the Senate Committee on Navy and the Naval authorities have ordered that the matter should be investigated. The Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola has also condemned the reprehensible act. In addition the Lagos State Government has banned the use of sirens in the state, henceforth, as part of the measures to forestall future occurrence. The investigations would be helpful, but where guilt is established, the culprits should be brought to book accordingly. Ms Okere may also consider the option of seeking legal redress.

She was reportedly battered by the Naval ratings in broad daylight and stripped naked while Rear Admiral Arogundade, unperturbed as it were, sat inside his car and watched the horrid act. He has been accused of failing to intervene on time to stop his boys from manhandling the defenceless lady.

This incident has once again tainted Nigeria's image abroad and portrayed the country as a place where human rights are brazenly abused especially by military personnel and those in positions of authority. This is evidenced by the widespread outrage that has been generated by the incident. A video tape of the incident is being circulated on the internet.

According to the victim, identified as the daughter of the Sergeant-at-Arms of the National Assembly, Col. Emmanuel Okere (rtd), who narrated her ordeal to journalists on her hospital bed at Kamorass Hospital, she was driving home on Muri Okunola Street in Victoria Island on Monday, November 4, when suddenly Arogundade's convoy appeared behind her, with blaring sirens to clear traffic. The convoy consisted of Arogundade's personal Navy Peugeot car and his pilot truck ferrying six armed bodyguards. She said on seeing the convoy, she immediately realised that a Rear Admiral was on the road and quickly gave way.

Ms Okere explained that one of the ratings came out to control the traffic hold-up that had built up. According to her, she was moving on the left side of the road (apparently in a frenzy), when suddenly she was pulled out of her car and dragged into a private house where she was beaten mercilessly. The men, she said, hit her with the butt of their gun and tore her dress. Her head was swollen and blood gushed out, with bruises all over her face and body. She was traumatised. One of her colleagues who had tried to intervene was also manhandled.

And as if the Naval ratings had run amok, several members of staff of PriceWaterHouse Coopers, who reportedly witnessed the incident and protested the harassment in front of a house which Arogundade entered on the same street, were also manhandled. Cameras, belonging to persons who tried to record the show of shame, were reportedly seized and destroyed. But an unidentified passerby managed to record a video clip, which was released to media houses including the Cable News Network (CNN).

Arogundade was quoted as saying that "the lady should thank her stars that she survived the beating from his men". In other words, she could have been killed like several Nigerians that have died under similar circumstances and nothing happened. The Naval ratings are also said to have claimed that Ms Okere provoked them by attempting to assault a Navy man in uniform. Even if so, does this justify the resort to jungle justice by men who should see themselves as the people's servants?

Without doubt, the act perpetrated by the naval ratings is odious, uncouth and horrifying. Why would six fully-armed naval ratings pounce on one helpless woman, whatever might be her offence? What manner of training did these officers receive? And, what manner of country are we living in? In Nigeria, regrettably, incidents such as this are common. A garrison mentality pervades the land and men in uniform have not learnt to adjust to the democratic dispensation. Senior military officers strut about in siren-bearing convoys, chasing innocent civilians off the roads. Havoc is daily perpetrated and the life of innocent road-users is endangered.

In a place like Lagos where traffic is chaotic, there is unceasing movement of military personnel and government officials in convoys blaring siren, whipping and harassing other road users. The abuse of sirens is a menace that needs to be addressed and Governor Fashola of Lagos State is in order by directing that sirens should no longer be used in Lagos State, except perhaps by ambulances, fire trucks and the police rushing to a crime scene. It is so bad that currently, bank directors, commissioners, visiting ministers, even private persons, abuse the siren.

The Arogundade episode has several precedents. For example, earlier in the year, security guards in a convoy of the Imo State Governor, Ikedi Ohakim, assaulted a woman in a similar situation in Lagos. Violence against women is unacceptable and we strongly condemn it.

Again, a naval officer, sometime last year at Ikeja in Lagos, drew his gun and shot a commercial motorcyclist who allegedly blocked his car. And in Abuja, a legislator's convoy driving against traffic knocked down two young schoolgirls on the way to the airport. Unfortunately, many of the culprits in these obnoxious incidents went scot-free. This gives new offenders the temerity to commit more havoc against motorists and pedestrians.

The National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly should seize this opportunity to address this matter squarely once and for all. The use of siren should be properly regulated. With the exception of fire trucks, ambulances, and the police trying to apprehend fleeing criminals, or rushing to a crime scene, no one else should be allowed to use siren. This rule was made in the past, but it was not enforced. Legislation is required, proper enforcement must follow.