Residents of Port Harcourt's poorest neighbourhoods say that police have wrongly blamed them for street violence between rival cult groups last year and are carrying out indiscriminate raids into their communities motivated by financial greed not criminal investigation.
In the most recent of what residents in the Diobu neighbourhood said is a string of police incursions into their community, on the night of 17 January state police arrested at least 200 men and boys in a single raid.
Families said they were not told the reason for the incursion and were later forced to pay for the detainees’ release.
"I was sleeping at around two in the morning when I heard noises," Aaron Igbiki, a 31-year-old fireman, told IRIN.
"I asked what was happening... but [police] took us to the cell without telling us our offence," he said.
Several residents told IRIN that their doors were opened by force, pointing to shoe prints and gun-barrel marks left on doors.
Searching for cultists
Once the men and boys were at the jail, the police examined them for marks that would indicate membership in Port Harcourt's notorious cult groups, blamed for street violence in recent months, some of those detained told IRIN.
"They checked everybody's backs for cult marks, but found nothing," said Promise Uge, a secondary school student who was arrested.
Port Harcourt's cults first came from university fraternities, which over several decades became violent and expanded onto the streets. During elections in 2003 and again in 2007, cult members say they were paid to help rig local and federal elections.
Today, the groups have grown in number and mixed with armed militant movements that are protesting underdevelopment in the oil-rich region.
Photo: Elizabeth Dickinson/IRIN
|Aaron Igbiki, a fire man living in the Diobu slum in Port Harcourt, says he was arrested without justification on 17 January 2008, along with as many as 200 others from his community|
Violence reached a peak in August 2007 when two rival cult groups fought running battles on the streets of Port Harcourt. Only after the military imposed a curfew was calm restored in the city.
Today, signs line the streets urging youths to "Shun Cultism!" but the poorest neighbourhoods, like Diobu, are still often accused by the police of harbouring the cultists.
Port Harcourt’s slum dwellers said they have consistently borne the brunt of blame by government officials since violence flared last year.
The former governor of Rivers state, Celestine Omehia, in August proposed demolishing a neighbourhood near the city's waterfront that was suspected of harbouring cultists among the slum’s estimated 50,000-100,000 residents.
The plan, which some Nigerian observers warned could exacerbate ethnic tensions in the city, was shelved in October after Omehia left office.
Alhaji Lawal Yahaya, a community representative in Diobu, said the city’s poorest residents are being unfairly targeted. "[The people who were arrested] were responsible people, not criminals, not militants," he said.
Many of those arrested, Yahaya said, were immigrants from northern Nigeria and so were highly unlikely to have been involved in the local cults. "The militants are no longer here," he said.
With the military still patrolling the streets of Port Harcourt, residents say many of the cultists fled long ago to camps outside the city – often amid the Niger Delta region's winding, hard-to-reach creeks.
Many residents said they suspected another motive for the arrests: money. Diobu residents told IRIN they paid between 2,000 and 5,000 naira (US$17 and US$42) to get family members out of jail.
Diobu families struggle to come up with the cash. Despite the millions of dollars worth of oil that passes through the city every year, the average blue collar worker in Port Harcourt can earn less than 20,000 naira (about US$170) a month.
|...If I told you that doesn't happen here, I would be lying to you... But there is corruption everywhere...|
"Nothing happened in the area to warrant the arrests," the fireman Igbiki said. "It was another way of getting money."
Police corruption is a common and acknowledged problem in Nigeria.
In November 2007, Human Rights Watch called for an inquiry into police conduct after the Inspector General of Police, Mike Okiro, boasted having killed 785 armed robbers between June and September 2007.
The human rights watchdog estimated that as many as 10,000 people may have died as a result of police brutality between 2000 and 2007.
"If I told you that doesn't happen here, I would be lying to you," said Felix Ogbaudu, the Port Harcourt Police Commissioner. "But there is corruption everywhere."
Ogbaudu suggested that better pay and working conditions would abate the problem.