BY IBANGA ISINE
Excerpt: Drawing from interviews with naval and police personnel and witnesses, The NEXT EDITION reconstructs last year’s deadly clash between the two services that left two officers dead.
More than a dozen naval patrol Hilux pickups barricaded adjoining streets, isolating the Otop Abasi police station in Calabar, the Cross Rivers State capital on May 30, 2017.
As residents scampered for safety under a barrage of gunfire, one woman, her husband a police officer, crouched on the floor of their police barracks home and pushed her children under the bed.
“It was a war. We could not run away because all the routes were blocked and bullets were flying everywhere,” the woman, agreeing to speak in return for anonymity, said.
“My kids had just returned from the evening class when the shooting started. I pulled all of them under the bed while I lay on the floor praying to God to send help.”
The war wasn’t between the navy and waterways militants, neither was it between the police and daredevil robbers.
It was between the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Police – two critical members of Nigeria’s security services who already have a lot to deal with in the growing number of insurgents and criminal activities across the country.
Naval personnel fired machine guns mounted on a pickup, and marksmen targeted the police station – one of the city’s biggest, with a busy neighbourhood filled with unarmed civilians.
In the end, two police officers laid dead, another severely injured with his eye shot and irreversibly damaged.
The military high command, the navy and the police carried out investigations into the incident but none has released a report and no one has been punished or found guilty of any crime.
Neither the Police nor the Navy has made public the actual details of the incident.
Instead, both services have publicly dismissed the severity of the deadly assault that took lives, injured many and put the lives of hundreds of civilians at risk.
While the state Commissioner of Police, Hafiz Inuwa, described the crisis as “a minor misunderstanding between junior officers,” the commander of the Nigerian Navy Ship Victory, Salihu Jubril, said the incident only affected a portion of IBB Way (a major road in Calabar) and not the entire city. The duo spoke at separate press conferences shortly after the crisis.
Now, a year later, THE NEXT EDITION, relying on interviews with military and police personnel and witnesses, has reconstructed the events of that day.
A former top cop and serving personnel who were victims said they came under attack for daring to demand that naval officers obey the laws of the land.
“We showed them never to ever mess with us and the message was loud and clear,” a naval rating boasted in a popular joint, The Dome, three weeks after the brutal attack.
The rating told his colleagues who might have been posted to Calabar newly that high calibre weapons were issued and used in “teaching” the police a lesson.
That lesson was taught every resident of the general area of Otop Abasi Police Barracks, which houses the largest concentration of police formations outside the state command headquarters in Diamond Hill.
The “pure water” vendor and his Keke
Witnesses, the police and civil rights activists said the bloody clash started at the Stadium Junction by Ibrahim Babangida Way, shortly after the close of work.
A trader in the area, who pleaded not to be named for safety reasons, told this newspaper that a sachet water vendor triggered the problem when he blocked the traffic with his tricycle, popularly called Keke NAPEP.
“We saw everything that happened. It was a pure water seller who parked his tricycle on the road that started the quarrel,” the witness told The NEXT EDITION.
The witness said the water vendor was talking to someone suspected to be a naval rating when a traffic warden accosted and directed him to move the tricycle away to allow for free flow of traffic.
The tricycle was parked at the beginning of the IBB Way by the Stadium Junction along Calabar Road, one of the busiest highways in the state.
It connects several roads and streets including the road to the Government House, the Governor’s office, state secretariat complex, the Cultural Center, the Calabar Mall, Central Bank of Nigeria and dozens of commercial banks and businesses complexes.
Insert the Google map of IBB by Stadium Junction and the adjourning Otop Abasi axis
When the water vendor stubbornly ignored appeals to move his tricycle away from the road apparently on the orders of the naval rating, the traffic warden signaled one of his colleagues to effect his arrest.
Just as the tricycle was about being impounded, the naval rating confronted the traffic police and questioned his audacity to seize the Keke.
What started as a minor scuffle between the naval rating, the tricycle operator and the traffic warden soon degenerated into a full-scale confrontation, witnesses said.
The witness said the rating suddenly screamed, “Ahoy! Ahoy!! Ahoy!!!” an ancient rallying cry for sea pirates, now used widely by naval ratings.
“At once, two naval officers on mufti rushed to the scene and without asking questions, started beating the traffic policeman and dragging him on the ground,” a witness who gave his name as Cobham told this newspaper.
“We started locking our shops because we knew there was going to be a major crisis as more and more naval men came out from the barrack to join the fight.
“Not long after, one DSP from the nearby Area Command came to the scene and attempted to calm the naval men but they ended up beating him up too.”
Unable to stand the unprovoked beatings by the naval ratings, who at the time had reached seven in number; the DSP held onto one and began to drag him towards his office.
The Akim Area Command is located less than 200 meters away from the Stadium Junction where the fighting started.
As the DSP dragged the rating passed their barrack towards the Area Command, more naval ratings joined but could not disentangle their colleague from the grip of the stout police officer.
It was, however, the violent intervention of a senior naval officer that saved the rating from being dragged right into Akim Police station by the DSP.
Having inquired and was told a naval officer was being dragged to the police station, the senior naval officer was said to have also joined in the struggle to free the rating.
He even tried to push the DSP into the 10 feet-deep drainage along IBB Way as they got close to the police station but the lone police officer would not let go of his captive.
The senior naval officer, however, head-butted the policeman on the mouth and blood gushed out while onlookers shouted for help in vain.
Other policemen watched helplessly while the DSP endured the beatings and head-butts for defiantly insisting on ensuring that one of his assaulters was arrested and made to face the full weight of the law.
After the head-butt, the DSP, who was dripping with blood all over his body, let go of his captive and walked back to his office with his clothes torn.
How Navy declared war on Otop Abasi and environs
Apart from the rating who boasted that the Navy had sent a strong message to the police not to mess up with its officers and men, observers have questioned why the navy deployed such heavy artillery guns during the crisis.
A member of St. Bernard Catholic Church located inside the Navy Barracks, who witnessed the deployment of troops on the day of the attack, said he saw naval ratings coming out of their barracks machine guns mounted on Toyota Hilux vans to fight the police.
“On that fateful day, I had gone to the church shortly after I closed from work because we were having the Men’s Fellowship Talent Week,” he began.
“I was at the gates to the church and was sharing pleasantries with some of our members when we saw people dragging themselves by the road.
“They were going towards the police station. One of those involved in the scuffle wore a military camouflage. They were almost at the police station when suddenly, they retreated.
“We saw them come into the barracks but not long after, some naval ratings emerged with guns and others mounting Toyota Hilux vans fitted with machine guns.
“They attempted to enter the police station but were repelled by the police surveillance team which fired sporadically into the air.
“They retreated to the barracks and sensing what could happen, we ran away from the church that evening.
“I took my family and we drove out of the church premises and other civilian members also fled with their families. We knew the Navy was ready for war with the way their officers were giving commands to their subordinates,” the source said.
According to him, some members who were holed up in the church said it was possible the navy opened their armoury and issued guns to its ratings to fight the police.
More witnesses speak
A resident of Barracks Road, who gave her name as Mayen Ita, said the navy blocked all routes to the IBB Avenue and adjourning roads with Toyota Hilux vans mounted with heavy guns.
“I was returning from the Watt Market when I saw naval men with heavy guns mounted on Toyota Hilux vans blocking the Barracks Road and some of their men standing on alert as gunshots rang out of Otop Abasi and Akim Police State,” Mrs. Ita said.
After encircling the police barracks, formations and civilian areas, a detachment of troops supported by heavy guns fired into the area with brutal force.
“It was a war. We could not run away because all the routes were blocked and bullets were flying everywhere,” a police officer’s wife who begged not to be named said.
“My kids had just returned from the evening class when the shooting started. I pulled all of them under the bed while I lay on the floor praying to God to send help.
“I heard when some of the naval men went under the drainage and fired shots into the police station and the barracks.
“I heard when they shot a policeman inside the station and he shouted as he died,” the source recounted with her eyes drenched in tears.
The source said another policeman who was shot during the gunfight was apparently unaware of the crisis and had innocently entered the police station when the gunfire subsided.
According to her, it was a naval marksman stationed across the road from the police station that killed a young policeman called Emmanuel. Those details could not be independently verified.
Apart from the two police officers who lost their lives, another policeman, whose name was given as Ibiang Eteng was shot.
Mr. Eteng, a sergeant, was neither working with the Akim Divisional Police Headquarters or the Area Command that were directly targeted by the troops.
He was attached to one of the serving judges in Cross River State but lived within the Otop Abasi Barracks which is an extension of Akim division.
A relation of the wounded policeman, who pleaded not to be named, told this newspaper Mr. Eteng had closed from his duty post and decided to go to Marian Market to get some provisions for his family.
Without a prior knowledge of what transpired between the Navy and Police, he was at the IBB Road entrance to the Police station when he heard gunshots and thought it was safe to run into the barracks.
As he made a few steps towards the Police station, a high calibre bullet hit his right eye and he fainted.
But by divine intervention, instead of the bullet going through his skull, it plucked the eyeball and went off.
Today Mr. Eteng is blind in the right eye, although doctors at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital did all they could to alleviate his pains.
The bombardment of Otop Abasi
The clash between the navy and the police could have been deadlier, given the dense population of the area.
This newspaper found no fewer than 17 strategic police formations are located within Otop Abasi general area.
Apart from the police formations, the Police Officers Wives Association (POWA) has chains of shops, which have been rented out to small business owners.
The area is also littered with makeshift structures popularly referred to as “attachments,” created by officers and men, who do not have regular accommodation within the barrack.
Those who know say approximately, 7,000 persons, consisting of police officers and men as well as their family members, operators of small businesses and a large civilian population, live in and do businesses around Otop Abasi, said to the largest barracks in the state.
Police formations within Otop Abasi
The Dog Section, the Works Department, State Armoury and Maintenance Department, Veterinary Department, the Police Hospital, the Police Band Department, Police Communications Maintenance Workshop, the Police Children’s School, the Inspectors’ Mess, the Police Transport Workshop, the Female Police Hostel, the Tailoring Department, the State’s Command Stores, the Bomb Disposal Squad, Calabar Area Command, Akim Division and Otop Abasi Barracks.
Our investigation also showed that the Calabar Area Command where the attack was targeted is the largest in the state, controlling 15 divisions.
Its jurisdiction cuts across seven out of the 18 local government areas of the state.
The divisions are Akim, Airport, Atakpa, Uwanse, Efut, Export Processing Zone, Akamkpa and Odukpani. Others are Odukpani, Biase, Bakassi, Akpabuyo, State Housing, Federal Housing, Biakpan and Akpai Omini.
A senior police officer in the state who pleaded not to be named because he is not empowered to speak on the matter said the Calabar Area Command alone boasts of over 7,000 police officers and men, compared to about 1,500 officers and fighting men of the Nigerian Navy in the entire state.
“If our men are deployed to confront the Navy in a full-scale war, we would run them down. We have more men and machines than they do,” the source said.
Barely a week after the incident, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris, warned the police to desist from retaliating the killing of their colleagues.
Mr. Idris who spoke through the Deputy Inspector General of Police in charge of Training and Capacity Development, Emmanuel Inyang, however, condemned the level of damage caused during the crisis.
Mr. Inyang, who was accompanied by the Assistant Inspector General of Police in charge of Zone 6, Abubakar Marafa, as well as the Commander of Navy Ship, Victory, Salihu Jibril and Mr. Inuwa, visited Akim Divisional Headquarters and those who were injured during the crisis.
“Over the years, we have maintained a cordial relationship with the military and other security agencies. We should not take the law into our hands because of this minor incident,” the IGP cautioned.
Mr. Idris, who gave the advice while addressing officers and men at the Akim Police station, did not say anything about the officers who were killed during the attack or promise to compensate their families.
However, one year after the incident, neither the police or the military has released the report of investigations they ordered into the crisis.
Attempts to speak with the Force Public Relations Officer, Moshood Jimoh, and his counterpart in the Navy, Ayo Olugbode, failed as they would neither pick calls or reply text messages.
Isine is multiple awards-winning journalist and Managing Editor of NEXT EDITION NEWSPAPER