March 28, 2013
Attack on Human Rights Defenders: Lagos State Government Uses Punitive New Traffic Law to Harass the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC)
Under the ruse of enforcing the notorious new Traffic Law of 2012, the Lagos State Government has imprisoned two staff members of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) and impounded two vehicles, one belonging to SERAC and the second to its Executive Director, Felix Morka, The move comes just days after a visit from the World Bank, occasioned by an urgent complaint filed by SERAC, to investigate the Lagos State Government’s massive demolition and forced eviction of the Badia East community on February 23, 2013.
On Tuesday, March 26, just after 3pm, the two-car caravan was stuck in traffic on CMD Road after the gate of Magodo Phase II residential estate and just before the entrance to the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. As is often the case in heavy rush hour traffic, ordinary citizens were in the junction helping to direct traffic. As they signaled the line of traffic to move, the car immediately in front of the SERAC caravan appeared to have stalled. Following signals, the two-car SERAC caravan pulled out and around the vehicle to make the turn onto the Expressway. No sooner did they start to merge back into traffic than a police vehicle sped up and blocked the two cars, insisting that they reverse onto the curb on the opposite side of the road to make way for an oncoming official convoy that suddenly appeared from the opposite direction.
The police vehicle continued on down the road, followed by a second and then an official Range Rover, which slowed and stopped next to Mr. Morka’s vehicle. Mr. Morka looked over and recognized Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola inside. The two men made eye contact and, as they have known each other for more than a decade, Mr. Morka alighted from his vehicle to greet the Governor. As he approached the car, the Governor’s vehicle began moving and he suddenly saw six or seven policemen come running back over a distance of at least 30 feet, leaving their vehicles behind and carrying guns. The policemen forcibly pulled all the passengers, including Mr. Morka’s four young children, out of the two cars and started beating the two drivers. One fared worse than the other and was beaten severely on his legs with the butt of the policemen’s guns, while one passenger’s phone was smashed in the chaos.
All the passengers, the two drivers, and the two vehicles were taken into custody and immediately carried to the office of the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Special Offences, which sits directly behind the Office of the Governor in the Alausa area of Lagos. Everyone remained at the
Task Force office for several hours into the evening, while the drivers were detained forced to write and rewrite statements.
The two drivers are being charged under provisions of the new Traffic Law of 2012 that carry a disproportionately punitive penalty: one year’s incarceration and forfeiture of the vehicles to the State. The matter is before a magistrate sitting in the so-called “Special Offences Court,” a court employing summary procedures that is housed in the Task Force premises directly behind the Office of the Governor.
Late on Wednesday, the magistrate set near impossible conditions for bail: each of the accused must provide a N200,000 bond, a N100,000 deposit with the Registrar of the High Court, and two sureties, one of whom must be a senior civil servant (Grade Level 12), one of whom must have landed property in Lagos State and both of whom must show 7-years tax clearance in Lagos State. Despite tireless efforts from SERAC to meet these onerous conditions before the end of Thursday, the two men have been remanded in prison for the four-day Easter weekend. To make matters worse, they have been transferred to prison in Badagry, a couple hours drive from Lagos in traffic. The two cars remain impounded at the Task Force office.
Looming in the background of what the Lagos State Government wants to call “routine traffic enforcement” is SERAC’s recent high-profile advocacy efforts over the massive forced eviction of thousands of residents of the Badia East community on February 23. Thanks to press statements and photographic/video evidence from SERAC, the matter has been widely condemned internationally, including in the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press and by Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
SERAC also led the fight to stop the July 2012 violent demolitions and forced evictions of thousands of residents on the Makoko Waterfront, a community where it has worked for 17 years. SERAC’s media and advocacy campaign culminated in a protest march that brought thousands from Makoko to the Office of the Governor after the fatal shooting of a community leader by the police on July 21, 2012. Combined with an international outcry, the Lagos State Government had no choice but to halt the demolition and change its plans for the waterfront.
More recently, a team from the World Bank was in Lagos in response to a SERAC petition to investigate the Badia East demolition, which displaced thousands of intended beneficiaries of the $200 million World Bank-funded Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project (LMDGP). Badia is one of nine host communities for “urban upgrading” a under the LMDGP. The Badia East demolition cleared a huge area directly next to a canal only recently constructed by the LMDGP. Following a meeting between World Bank, LMDGP and SERAC on March 15, a World Bank official just last week visited the demolition site in Badia to verify the devastation reportedly and met with a senior official of the Lagos State Government.
Earlier this week, five Badia East evictees who are part of a lawsuit SERAC has filed against the Lagos State Government were arrested on false charges and detained for over 48 hours. The Government has also this week increased its harassment of the evicted persons sleeping outside or in makeshift structures around the demolished area. Task Force is now patrolling the area daily, knocking down temporary shelters and telling evictees to move on or go elsewhere.
SERAC is a non-governmental organization that has worked since 1995 to defend the social and economic rights of the urban poor in communities such as Maroko, Makoko and Badia in Lagos and elsewhere in Nigeria. Led by Mr. Morka, it has all too often been forced to confront the policies and practices of the Lagos State Government that dispossess and further impoverish Nigerian citizens in flagrant disregard for their fundamental rights. SERAC fears that its sustained defense of the urban poor has now struck one too many chords, prompting the present retaliation against human rights defenders and community members who dare to challenge the arbitrary policies and practices of the Lagos State Government.
Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC)
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