By Jimitota Onoyume, Port Harcourt
For the better part of last Friday and Saturday shops and offices around the Whimpy junction part of the ever-busy Ikwerre road in Obio Akpor Local Government Area of Rivers State, were locked as protesters took over the road. The angry protesters were heard denouncing the brutal and mindless murder of a commercial bus driver, Mr David Legbaraa, by a trigger-happy policeman, Sergeant James Imhalu,allegedly over N100.
Some commercial bus drivers who spoke to Vanguard Metro, VM, used the opportunity to complain about what they termed incessant harassment and intimidation from policemen at the popular Whimpy junction. “The policemen controlling traffic here give us a lot of headache. Sometimes you ask if they are here to control traffic or to generate revenue from bus drivers, “ Uche, a bus driver, said.
There have been conflicting accounts on what happened between Sergeant Imhalu and the slain bus driver that fateful Friday. Some eye witnesses alleged that the policeman demanded for N100 from the bus driver who was reluctant to part with it. His refusal was said to have prompted the policeman to open fire at the driver.
Another account has it that the policeman ordered the driver to park properly and the next thing they heard was a gunshot. “I heard the policeman told the driver to park well. I was trying to catch a bus going to Rumuokoro. So I did not really give much attention to what was happening between the driver and the policeman. But the next thing I heard was a gunshot. I ran for safety immediately,” a lady said.
The Rivers State Police Commissioner, Mr Chris Ezike, said he had ordered full scale investigation into the incident to unravel what truly happened. The sad incident grounded business and other activities in the area for the better part of Friday and Saturday. As soon as it was confirmed that Legbaraa, the bus driver, did not survive the gunshot his colleagues withdrew their vehicles from the road. Protesters subsequently took over, denouncing the action of the police.
They set burn fires, forcing motorists to seek alternative routes to their destinations. The protest caused a heavy traffic gridlock that extended to NTA and the Rumuokoro end of the East-West roads. Some passengers had to alight from their vehicles to cover long distances on foot. The Police were forced to fire canisters of tear gas in order to clear the road.
The following day, being Saturday, the protesters regrouped on the road, this time numbering over 2000. Appeal from the Police to them to leave the road fell on deaf ears. Some eyewitnesses said they smashed windscreen of several vehicles during the protests but this could not be confirmed by our reporter. “I heard some vehicles were destroyed around Mile 3 area. But here in Mile 4 no vehicle was damaged. We only took over the road, “ one of the protesters said.
Obviously overwhelmed by the crowd, Police appeared helpless to control the situation, thus allowing the protesters to run wild. Unconfirmed report said the widow of the deceased driver at a time went to Kala Police Station, located few metres from where the killing occurred, to lament the brutal murder of her husband. VM gathered that the lady is pregnant and due to deliver soon.
It took the intervention of Governor Nyesom Wike to calm the protesters on Saturday. The Governor appealed to them to allow the law run its full course on the issue, assuring that the trigger-happy policeman will pay for his lawless act. The state Police chief, Mr Ezike in a press statement after a meeting with the family of the deceased driver on Saturday condemned the action of the policeman, saying he had been arrested and would be tried accordingly.
He said he had also briefed the Inspector General of Police, Mr Solomon Arase, on the situation. The Police Commissioner expressed worry over the attitude of the protesters, alleging that cultists and bandits hijacked the process. He said some of the protesters were dressed in uniforms and attires identified with cult groups.
“I sympathise and condole with the family of the deceased over the loss of their loved one. I condemn in unmistakeable terms the action of the policeman as preliminary facts revealed his action was clearly avoidable. However, I shall await the outcome of full investigation as already ordered before any conclusive action is taken. The Inspector-General of Police is fully briefed but is saddened by the action of the personnel and has ordered that he be charged to court on conclusion of investigation.
“The protests yesterday and today appear to have been hijacked by hoodlums and cultists as entreaties for peace fell on deaf ears. Two wrongs cannot make a right. I, therefore, appeal to the deceased family, the National Union of Road Transport Workers, drivers union, and indeed parents and guardians to calm frayed nerves and allow peace to reign. We shall ensure that justice is done on this matter,” he said.
Counsel to the family of the deceased driver, Asagora Debon, told newsmen after a meeting with the state Police Commissioner that they did not organise the protest. He said all they wanted was peace in the state. He appealed to hoodlums not to exploit the ugly and painful incident to pursue selfish interest.
“We dissociate the family of the deceased from the protests. We are here to toe the path of peace. The police have their internal disciplinary measures to deal with the policeman. We want to state that the family members who are here can’t resort to self-help. Those on the street demonstrating don’t have the consent of the family to do what they are doing. The Commissioner of Police has assured that the wife of the deceased, a pregnant woman, will be assisted by the Police,” he said.
Peace, however, returned to the area on Sunday and remained so yesterday. Commercial bus drivers were seen plying the road. It would be recalled that the state government sacked all workers and management staff of the Rivers State Traffic Management Agency, TIMARIV, put in place by the immediate past government and got the Police to manage the chaotic traffic situation in the state capital, Port Harcourt and adjourning local government areas.