It was around 5:10 pm last Monday. Avwebo Otoide, a senior registrar at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, left home for the isolation centre in Yakubu Gowon Stadium where she was to resume for a night shift. She had no idea what fate awaited her on the short walk to her destination.
She had barely hit the Ohiamini-Psychiatric Road, off Rumuola, Port Harcourt, when a Hilux van and a luxury bus, both light blue, of the Nigerian Airforce closed in on her.
At the time, Rivers State was under daily curfew only between 8 pm to 6 am.
As she turned to look, an officer disembarked from the Hilux van, brandishing his gun, and specifically pointed the barrel at her.
“Stop there,” she recalled the officer saying. “I stopped and looked at him. I told him ‘you don’t need to point your weapon at me, just ask me who I am.'”
“Who are you?” she was asked, to which she said she was a medical doctor, pulling out her ID card. What followed was a heavy slap on her left cheek, Mrs Otiode told PREMIUM TIMES.
“I was dazed for a moment. I heard him say ‘Are you the first doctor?’”
As the argument ensued, she was quickly surrounded by about six military personnel, one of them female.
“I looked up in shock. I said to him ‘I told you I’m a doctor,’ and you hit me?” she remembered telling her attacker.
“You did not identify yourself. Why will he hit you if you identified yourself?” one of the officers, masked, replied.
“You must have been rude to him,” another officer said.
She was infuriated.
Not backing down without a fight, as the soldiers made to leave, she took out her Samsung phone to film the scene, but an officer seized it from her.
“I waited till their backs were turned and brought out my second phone, an infinix phone,” the doctor said. This time she resisted attempts to yank her phone. For that, she said, she was shoved into the luxury bus.
“I looked around, there was no soul in sight to witness the brutal treatment I was receiving. I asked where I was being taken to, no one answered me.
“I immediately stood up so I could see where I was being taken and started making phone calls. I called my medical director, NMA financial secretary, some of my senior consultants. I tried taking pictures.”
Just then the bus stopped briefly, and an officer whose name tape bore Bass MO attempted to seize the phone, smashing the screen in the process. The struggle to seize the phone would ensue one more time.
The phone screen of Mrs Otoide smashed by an officer of the Nigerian Airforce
“I refused to let go of the phone,” Mrs Otoide said. My colleagues kept calling and I kept talking and giving as many details as I could. I eventually made a short video that I sent out immediately to our association page, just in case.”
“A senior officer came from the Hilux and told them to stop struggling with me and to just drop me at the isolation centre. The vehicles made a U-turn and took me to the isolation centre at the liberation stadium.”
Upon arrival at the isolation centre, her phone was given to an official at the centre, Mr Orekefe. After this, the officers drove off, with all her attempts to have them filmed being futile.
“Mr Orekefe claimed I refused to calm down and talk to him, that since I was so unwilling to cooperate, he would ensure I spend nothing less than 24 hrs in detention at the isolation centre.
“A police officer tried to take my phone from me again. I protested, explaining that it contained evidence, so I couldn’t hand it over. He led me to a gated area and locked me in.
“My phone was taken by a female police officer (Chukwuemeka Gary), I was told you couldn’t have your phone in police detention.”
Based on calls and text messages she had made while in the bus, she was later freed after the intervention of the state’s attorney-general, who had called to speak to her.
“I took the phone, and for the first time in several minutes I was spoken to with dignity. He (the attorney-general) introduced himself and asked me what happened, I explained.
“He apologised and said I would not be detained. He asked me to return the phone to Mr Orekefe. After the call, Mr Orekefe apologised on behalf of the Air Force officials who had assaulted me.
“He promised they would get to the bottom of things but said as the young men had left it would be difficult to trace them. He asked a police vehicle to take me home.
“I have had a mild but persistent headache since that assault. I am not worried for myself, because as a doctor, I have a voice, I’m backed by an association that would fight for me, but what about others not as fortunate?”
Now, all that Mrs Otiode seeks is justice.
She wants the Nigerian Air Force to identify the officer called Bass MO and his colleagues.
“I am asking for a return to sanity and respect for humanity,” she said over the phone.
Calls and text messages sent to the spokesperson of the Nigerian Air Force, Ibikunle Daramola, an air commodore, were not acknowledged.
Meanwhile, Mr Daramola had in a tweet decried the incident, saying the force had identified the accused “airmen”, and “appropriate disciplinary action will be taken to the extent of their culpability.”
But, Mrs Otoide believes “they really haven’t done anything yet.”
“They sent an interrogator to me. We had an appointment for Friday morning, but he did not show up. We kept communicating and he said he would get back to me with a new time and date,” she said.
By 9 am on Saturday she said the interrogator called her, asking her to come to the Air Force base “to give testimony before a panel of inquiry that was already sitting.”
“The petition to the Air Force was written by the NMA Rivers State chapter, not by me. So, they should have communicated with the NMA,” she noted. “I couldn’t honour such an impromptu invitation on my own and the NMA wouldn’t respond until they are officially invited.”
One too many
The enforcement of lockdown imposed to check the spread of coronavirus, the virus behind COVID-19, across states has been mired by cases of rights abuses by various state actors in the country.
Human rights commission said 18 people were killed by security operatives within the first two weeks of the lockdown. A fortnight later, 11 more were killed extrajudicially.
Last week, a pregnant woman died due to some delays at a checkpoint in Ogun State.
There have also been reports of assaults on citizens. Earlier this month, a policeman was caught on camera assaulting a woman alleged of violating the lockdown protocols. The police have since dismissed him.
Meanwhile, the police also reported that 27 police personnel were assaulted by the public during the lockdown.