By Izu Aniagu
The incident happened on the 5th of May, 2020, at about 2:40 pm, at Holy Ghost Cathedral, Enugu. Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State (alias Gburugburu), in one moment of rage, asked his policemen escort to seize my phone and beat me up.
I had gone there to fix my sister’s phone. The Ogbete main market is currently shut down. There was and still is nowhere she could fix her phone. Meanwhile, I have the contact number of a phone technicians who usually repairs my phone, so when I told her about him, she begged me to call him and arrange to meet him to fix the phone.
The trouble however was where to meet the technician who no longer has access to his shop. But when I called him, he told me, “just come; I will hang around the market along the roadside, near the motor park. You will meet me there and I will fix the phone for you sharp sharp!” “Man must survive”, he also added.
It was my first time of going farther outside my local vicinity since the lockdown began, apart from the few times I took a long walk down the streets to buy something or get some cash. I have b6een one of those people who constantly adviced others not to go out or at best cut down the likelihood of doing so.
I was almost close to the place I would meet the phone technician who I was equally sure was looking around to see me arrive, when people suddenly began running towards my direction. As they run, they were protesting and grumbling, “Gburugburu abeg leave us alone. No paliative, nothing. Allow us to find something to chop abeg; what’s is all these nonsense.”
At that point it became clear to me that the Governor was on an outing. He regularly goes out to observe and ensure there’s safety compliance amongst the people of the State, especially around the market areas. He has been doing this since the lockdown began.Each time he comes around, people would run away because it turns out he could arrest or take a very strict measure against anyone he thinks is not complying with the rules. Some of the people even complained that he has a special thing against the traders at Holy Ghost. But I believed his intention was for the good. The Governor is a good man who is passionate about the welfare of the people of the State. He takes this so personal.
I didn’t run away like others as he continued approaching closer. There is no ban on movement in Enugu or Holy Ghost. There were only a few restrictions which has equally been relaxed. The market was and is still closed and nobody was forcing his or herself inside. People were merely outside, some walking pass to their destination, others boarding or alighting from public transportations, many others buying or selling along the roadside, quite a few hailing one another, while the rest simply stood there doing nothing. Yet, in all that commotion, majority of them still managed to wear facemasks which I considered as something positive, a good pointer to their public awareness and sensibility. But why then was the Governor chasing them away? Well, it may be for something else, I thought.
As the Governor and his entourage approached, I observed that the policemen escorting him were looking distinctively dangerous with their double-edged weapon projecting firmly from their muscular hands. They too wore sparkling white facemasks just as faithfully as the Governor. But I was wearing none – excusably so – because I had a reason for not doing so.
I knew it from the start of the pandemic that because of a medical condition known as syncope which I am predisposed to, facemask was not particularly convenient for me. Any person who suffers from this condition which easily makes one run short of oxygen leading to drop in blood circulation to the brain and causing loss of consciousness must avoid covering his nose or mouth with any object. He must equally avoid a crowded room and low ventilated areas. So I knew that if I shall ever get a facemask it would only be for fancy and worn on my neck alone.
I will not put myself in jeopardy of fainting so as not to break the rules of public health. If I faint in public, nobody will bother to know why, for it must be generalized as a case of covid-19. I am not ready for such embarrassment.
So I quickly moved away from the road on citing the Governor and his men. I didn’t run back. I honourably and respectfully entered into a nearby filling station and further moved carefully into a nearby shop, especially when one of the police men waived his gun at me to get moving or to disappear from there.
In further reaction to the menacing approach of his escorts, I moved even further away again, respectfully clambered over a small protective iron railing in front of the shop just to properly get away from the roadside. But as I would later realized – that actually provoked the Governor as he obviously took notice of every other person scampering backwards and in different directions except me.
As if taken over by a spirit possession, he rushed forward, shouting at the policeman closest to where I stood to “get that boy”, “beat him hard”, “bring him here”. The policeman immediately ran to me almost with the same velocity as the Governor’s command. He gave me a huge kick in my back. But as he wanted to hit me again, I told him “Oga be careful, I am a lawyer. I am not like every other person here. I am not roaming around the street. I came here for a purpose.”
At this point the Governor had come to face me squarely. He would have slapped me if it wasn’t for social distancing. I think he also heard what I told the policeman, but he nevertheless ordered him to seize my phone.
Then he started to rail at me. “You’re supposed to be the one to sensitize others. You should know better the danger of the disease. Oh my God! I am trying to save your life, your own life, don’t you understand this! What’s wrong with you people? Please what’s your problems. Tell me. We’re saying people should not come out. Stay in your house. Go home. Oh God! Where’s your mask?”
I didn’t want to interrupt “The Almighty Governor” so I kept mute all the while and let him calm down to that point where he finally asked me the question “where’s your mask?”
I then began to explain. “I’m not wearing a mask, Sir, because I’m suffering from asthma…so that’s why. There was no need explaining to him of a health condition called syncope. I continued. “And again, Sir, I haven’t even been coming outside but something brought me out today and…” I wanted to add that even though I wore no facemask, I had my hand sanitizer inside my pocket, but he cut me shut.
“Give him his phone! If you have asthma I will take you to hospital I will take you there. Give him his phone…if he has asthma. Give him.” And he walked away.
All these happened in a few seconds. The policeman handed back my phone to me, turned and joined the Governor’s entourage and walked away.
I looked around, straightened off my shirt and gathered my composure before I started moving again. But people quickly surrounded to find out what kind of conversation I had with the Governor. Some simply wanted to confirm he didn’t smash my phone because, according to them, he did exactly that to a boy whom he caught videoing him while he was busy yelling at people to go home. I reassured them that the Governor was a gentleman.
It is unfortunate that the incident happened. I have nevertheless embraced it with poise. It’s not enough reason for me to start condemning the Governor as a bad man. I do not hold anything against him now because apart from that one blow I received at my back, the policeman appeared to be cautious and wouldn’t hit me further after I told him I was a lawyer, even when the Governor continued to bark at him to hit me harder.
For those who do not know, what the policeman did by not hitting me as hard as the Governor commanded him to was enough to serve as a case of insubordination in Nigeria. This is a country where a low-rank police officer attached to an ex-governor once slapped a senior police officer who led a team of other police to arrest his boss. He could as well have shot the senior police officer in that moment of overzealousnes. This case is similar to my own case, except that the officer in my case wasn’t so eager to be a fool. I thank him now in retrospect.
Meanwhile, I think I also noticed the Governor became somewhat apologetic, in a guarded manner, when he asked that my phone be returned. He probably thought about my position as a lawyer. But that shouldn’t be a yardstick for exercise consciencenes in dealing with ordinary people on the street because the incident could have happened to any other person.
The Governor must understand that he has no such right to order a beating of any individual, for it is an inalienable right of every citizen not to be subjected to torture or any degrading or dehumanizing treatment. And no citizen can be legally assaulted or punished extrajudicially by anyone whether the Governor, President, military or police, except as otherwise prescribed by the Constitution which is usually through either a judicial or tribunal process.
Governor Ugwuanyi before our chanced encounter would have easily beaten every Governor in Nigeria to the trophy as the most courteous and even-tempered Governor. This may no longer be the same for me.
I will advice him that as he goes out again to meet with the people (most of whom are extremely hungry and angry) especially during this lockdown, let him remember to exercise caution. He should know that a moment of patience in a moment of anger can help him avoid a thousand moments of sorrow. The news of security personnel killing innocent Nigerians while enforcing the lockdown rules abounds. Enugu State must not share in the bad news.
As for me, each time that I may have to remember that single kick from the policeman and his continuous yelling for more, and if the slight pain I’m feeling now lingers on together with that memory, I shall never forget it that my Governor tried to dismember my body on a certain pandemic year while also claiming to protect my dear life. I will tell the story anywhere I go and for as long as I live.
- Aniagu is a lawyer, based in Enugu.
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