Rivers State man, Vaughn Itemuagbor, narrates to Gbenga Adeniji how operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad allegedly manhandled and extorted N150,000 from him to secure his release after he was heavily tortured recently
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I am an IT consultant, software programmer and founder of multiple start-ups based both in Nigeria and the United States – convertproof, mobimatic, Irokoweb and snapilabs.
You narrated via a Facebook post that you once had a terrible encounter with SARS officers in Rivers State before the second one. What happened during the first one?
I was going to our annex office in an area in Port Harcourt in March this year when I was stopped by some SARS operatives on a routine stop and search. I was asked who I was and my occupation. I introduced myself and what my profession was.
But one of them said I wasn’t saying the truth and that I should follow them to their office for further questioning. I did as instructed. But when I got to their office, I insisted on knowing what my offence was but I got a slap from one of them.
I was with a female friend on that day. After some time and with much pleading, I was released after paying N10,000. They took me to a cash centre within the office to pay them.
What efforts did you make to report the case to the appropriate authorities?
Immediately I left their office, I called the Public Complaint Rapid Response Unit number but no one picked the call. I figured it was an isolated incident and wouldn’t happen again.
How did the second one happen?
It was at 9am last Sunday. I was on my way back from where I went for breakfast at an eatery when I noticed a Toyota Corolla behind me. There were some men in it who wore black shirts. They asked me to stop. I initially thought they were kidnappers or robbers until I realised that they were SARS officers. I immediately pulled to a side of the road and wound up the car window. I then said, “Good morning sir” to one of them. He asked me my name and I responded. He then asked what my job was. I told him that I was an IT consultant. He asked for my ID card.
When he took my ID, he said, “So you think you are smart. You are showing us ID card when we know what you do for a living.”
I said, “Sir, I have no idea what you are talking about.” He immediately entered into my vehicle and signalled to two of his colleagues to come along. He said I should drive, that he was taking me to the station. On the way, I asked him what my offence was and why I was being taken to a station. He threatened to slap me if I didn’t continue driving.
What did he do next?
He asked for my phone and I gave it to him. He asked me to unlock it and I did. He then started checking my pictures and messages. I didn’t bother because I felt that once they were sure of who I was they would let me go. But I was wrong.
On getting to the station, I was told to take off my shirt and my trouser and to sit on the floor. They still asked me what I was doing for a living. I reiterated that I was a programmer and IT consultant. The first one asked his colleague if by IT I meant industrial training to which I corrected them that it was information technology. At that point, he gave me two hot slaps and said I thought I was smart and would confess by the time they finished dealing with me.
He asked his colleague to bring handcuffs and immediately put them on my hands after which he left the room. An hour later, he came into the room and asked the other officer with me if I had confessed. That one responded that I was speaking English. He then took a black wooden stick and started hitting me on my body. I did my best to dodge it. That was when I realised that the situation wasn’t the usual. I was determined to withstand the brutality being innocent but I didn’t expect the beatings and slaps.
Did they leave you after the beatings?
He asked his colleague to bring a paper for me to write a statement. I filled basic information like my details and signed. He told me to fill my occupation and I wrote, ‘IT consultant and software programmer.’ He slapped me and ordered that I should write that I was an Internet fraudster.
That was when it dawned on me that I was going nowhere until I did as instructed. But I didn’t implicate myself by writing what I was not. Instead, I went on my knees to beg them to release me that I wasn’t who they thought I was. I told them that I run a legitimate business.
While I was on my knees begging one, an officer who wasn’t part of the team, arrested me came into the room. He told me not to worry and that they wouldn’t use the statement for anything and I should just do as ordered. I had to obey.
When I was told to negotiate for my release, they asked me what I had and I told them I got N30,000 in my account. They said I was joking and that the least they would accept was N1m. I said they would have to kill me to get that because that was all I had.
After pleading, they agreed to N150,000 and told me to call my friends to send the money. It was at that point that they gave me back my phone and started making calls while they stood nearby. It was later that they asked me to write that I gave them a bribe to facilitate my release. They also told me to sign the statement and I did.
But some people felt you shouldn’t have given them the N150,000 since you have nothing to hide. What do you say to this?
While I was with them, a common phrase they kept repeating was, “SARS no be your mate.” These are not people you joke with. There was no negotiation. It was like, “You are a young man. We think you have the money to pay and that’s what you will pay.” After the statement, I was taken outside for negotiation and when I told the officer that I had no money, he corked his rifle and shot thrice into the air close to my ears. I almost fainted. Then, though I earlier claimed I had no money, if I had the N1m they demanded, I would have given them to save my life.
What do you think is responsible for your being a victim of the SARS men twice?
Two factors are reasons for it. I am young and according to one of them, “what do you do at your age to be able to own a car?” But I answered that the money for the car came from IT procurement. He only said, “hmmm!” Also, I work with computers and the Internet. To them, those two indicate Internet fraud.
The photos of yourself which you posted on Facebook showed bruises in some parts of your body. How did you come about the injuries?
The bruises came from the SARS men’s beatings that day.
You said you decided to augment your knowledge from studying plant science with computer programming to realise the dream you envisaged. How do you feel that the dream is being threatened by SARS officers’ brutality?
What is the point in doing more if it will mean you can no longer move around for fear of someone arresting you on suspicion of what you are not?
After studying plant science, I took up software programming via online programmes and eight years down the line, I have become one of the most sought-after software developers in Nigeria. But to the men of SARS and most Nigerians, if you say you make money by working on a computer, it means you are an internet fraudster. Yes, it affects the vision but it is well.
What justice do you seek which you think will ultimately heal your wounds from past and recent encounters with SARS officers?
I just want this brutality to stop. I love the work that SARS operatives are doing in going after Internet fraudsters as that’s the reality in our country. Such people have made life a bit difficult for the tech community in Nigeria. It took me three years to be able to get my first business registered in the US after multiple applications. This is because being a Nigerian or a Nigerian one as a co-founder is a red flag everywhere. I want them to realise that not everyone who works with a computer, young and drive a car is into Internet fraud. If an ID card is presented identifying a person and what they do, there is no need beating them to confess to what they are not.
Recently, there has been a clampdown on Internet fraudsters otherwise called Yahoo boys by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the police. What would be your advice to security agencies in carrying out their duties especially as every flamboyant Nigerian youth is a suspect?
I can only say they should do their job. One can’t claim to be an IT person in this age without having online presence. A google search of anybody’s name, who claims to be in the tech sector, should bring up enough information about that person to justify or disprove the person’s claim. I have trained over 3,000 Nigerians through our Webx training programme which holds every year and for the past five years. A simple google search of my name would have shown that. This is no rocket science.
Police return N150,000 ‘bribe’ to Itemuagbor, detain cops
The Police in Rivers State on Thursday invited IT consultant, Vaughn Itemuagbor, for a discussion on the matter and the N150,000 collected from him by the SARS officers was returned.
Speaking exclusively to SUNDAY PUNCH on Friday, the victim said he got a call from the spokesperson for the police in the state after his attention was drawn to the story online.
He said, “I went there with my lawyer and I narrated my story to him. He was in obvious shock and he immediately took me upstairs to the office of an assistant commissioner of police who in turn said he got a call from the state commissioner of police regarding my ordeal.
“They took the issue seriously. A call was put through to the office of the commander of the FSARS in Rivers State. He immediately ordered a senior officer to take us around the office complex and identify the officers. I was able to identify the officers with the help of a senior police officer.
“Though the officers denied the allegation by saying they had never met me before then, the commander immediately ordered that they be detained pending further investigations and disciplinary action.’’
Itemuagbor stated that the money was returned after he signed the necessary legal documents, noting that the SARS commander in the state personally apologised to him for what he went through.
“I want to use this opportunity to thank PUNCH newspapers, the office of the Rivers State commissioner of police, the spokesperson and the state FSARS Commander, Akin Fakorede, for their immense efforts in helping me find closure to the ordeal,’’ he added.
We Culled This From : PUNCH NEWSPAPER