LATE last month, the police in Rivers State arrested two newspaper vendors, Ifeanyi and Chidi, who normally ply their trade at Oyigbo, near Port Harcourt, and threw them in jail. When a third unnamed vendor showed up at the Oyigbo Police Station to offer food and solidarity to his detained colleagues, the food he brought was seized and he too was detained by the police. As of press time, only one of the trio, Ifeanyi, has regained his freedom, and apparently not until a concerned pastor had coughed up the sum of N10, 000.
This is wrong on so many levels. From information available to the public, both Ifeanyi and Chidi were arrested because, according to the state Police Public Relations Officer, Nnamdi Omodi, they had dedicated their newspaper stands at Oyigbo junction to discussions of the activities of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), the Nnamdi Kanu-led Igbo self-determination group. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the two vendors had consciously made the space of their business available to pro-IPOB sympathisers. If they did, they still would not have acted illegally, for allowing a discussion of the activities of a ‘terrorist’ group and sanctioning same are two different things.
What exactly does the Rivers police command want the vendors to do? Instruct their customers (real and prospective) not to discuss IPOB, thus violating their customers’ right to free speech? For reasons best known to them, the police in Rivers State are refusing to recognise the distinction (a crucial one at that) between being present where something is being discussed and being party to or approving of that thing. By the distorted logic of the Rivers State police, participation in (or being within earshot of) a discussion of a ‘terrorist’ organisation is tantamount to committing terrorism.
And whilst this may not be the time and place for an exhaustive discussion, the point is worth flagging that IPOB’s status as a terrorist group remains a matter for debate. The Federal Government seems sold on it, but the majority of Nigerians are not, recognising that the use of ‘violence’ alone does not suffice to make a group terrorist. Even if, at some point in the not too distant future, all Nigerians somehow agree that IPOB is indeed a terrorist organisation, public discussion of that fact cannot be a crime.
To return to the illegally detained vendors: what the police in Rivers State have done is to pile on three poor and defenceless citizens whose only crime is selling newspapers. Their initial arrest was illegal, and their continued detention egregious, as the law clearly states that a person cannot be detained for more than 24 hours before being charged or otherwise released. The alleged demand for money for their release also violates the law because bail in Nigeria is free. The Secretary of the Newspaper Distributors’ Association, Rivers State chapter, Mr. Imoh Micah, has argued that the arrest of the three vendors is an attack on the newspaper vending profession. We agree with him.
The police in Rivers State should do the legal and honourable thing and free the other two detainees today. They have done nothing wrong. On the contrary, they have been wronged.