Miss Blessing Iyenemi, a newspaper and magazine vendor, is an indigene of Rivers State and she is about completing her Master’s programme in one of the four universities in Rivers State. Iyenemi, who has been in the business since year 2000, used the proceeds to finance her first degeee at the Rivers State University (RSU), Port Harcourt, while her Master’s programme is also self-sponsored. She was arrested on September 4 by officials of the Rivers State government’s Taskforce on Street Trading, Illegal Markets and Motor Parks. Its coordinator, Mr. Bright Amaewhule, who is also a Special Assistant to Governor Nyesom Wike and earlier assured that vendors and newspaper distributors would not be arrested. However, Iyenemi was detained overnight and forced to pay a fine before she regained her freedom in the evening of September 5. In this exclusive interview with Southsouth Bureau Chief, BISI OLANIYI, she relives her unpleasant experience. Excerpts:
On September 4, you were arrested by officials of Rivers State government’s Taskforce on Street Trading, Illegal Markets and Motor Parks, in spite of earlier assurance by the coordinator, Mr. Bright Amaewhule, that vendors would not be arrested. What went wrong?
I was surprised about my arrest. The officials of Zone Nine Taskforce of Rivers State government arrested me at Second Artillery Junction on Aba Road, Port Harcourt, while selling newspapers and magazines on a table, very far from the road and in front of a fast-food outlet just before the Catholic church.
The owner of the fast-food outlet gave me and other persons the space to operate from. I am the only vendor at the spot, while other persons were selling bread and other items, but since the taskforce officials began operations in Port Harcourt and its environs on September 2, the other persons left the spot. I decided to stay back, since I am rendering essential service and with the earlier assurance by the coordinator of the taskforce, Mr. Bright Amaewhule, that vendors would not be harassed or arrested.
I was shocked when two officials of the taskforce in a white Toyota Hilux van came around 1 p.m. on September 4, 2019, accompanied by policemen and they arrested me, after destroying most of my newspapers and magazines, in spite of selling at that spot for over 10 years.
I was then dragged to the nearby mobile court, presided over by a female magistrate, who interrogated me and made me to pay a fine of N5,000 for alleged assault. The magistrate also stated that since I could not produce an operational permit for selling newspapers and magazines at the newsstand, I should be moved to the nearby Elelenwo Police Station in Port Harcourt, and to be detained overnight. I politely informed the magistrate, taskforce officials and the policemen that the coordinator of the taskforce (Bright Amaewhule) earlier gave an assurance that vendors should not be harassed or arrested, but my explanation was not considered and my detention journey to a police cell, for the first time in my life, began.
Prior to my being moved to the police cell on September 4, some media professionals gave me Mr. Amaewhule’s mobile number and that he would be expecting my call to intervene.
I immediately called Mr. Amaewhule, the President-General of Gov. Wike’s Campaign Organisation, the Grassroots Development Initiative (GDI), and he asked me to give my phone to the chairman of Zone 9 of the taskforce, which I quickly did, but I was not released. When I asked the Zone 9 chairman the outcome of his telephone discussion with Mr. Amaewhule, he ignored me and asked me to join the vehicle to Elelenwo Police Station, Port Harcourt, where my jewellery, phone and other valuable items were collected before I was moved into the dirty and smelly female cell. There, I met a middle-aged woman, who had been in the cell for three days.
I was so worried in the cell, but the lady of about 36 years that I met was admonishing me to calm down. We both sat on the bare floor throughout the night, but I could not sleep. It was a very horrible experience. That was my first time of entering a police cell.
Were you offered food in the cell?
I was asked by the policemen on duty if I wanted to eat or drink, but I said no, because I had no appetite.
What happened at daybreak on September 5?
In the morning of September 5, members of my family came to the police station and the policemen on duty brought me out of the cell to the counter, where I sat till 4 p.m.
When the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) arrived in the morning of September 5, he asked the policemen on duty of my offence, since he saw me at the police station the previous day, and the DPO was informed that the taskforce officials brought me.
The DPO became angry and he asked the policemen on duty to call the chairman or coordinator of the taskforce to immediately come and pick me, but they did not come until 4 p.m. on September 5, making the DPO, a man, to use his mobile phone to also call the taskforce boss to quickly come and pick me, warning that he would no longer tolerate the abuse of human rights and dignity, stressing that they should no longer bring suspects to the police station, if they refuse to stop the indiscipline and lawlessness.
When the taskforce officials observed that the DPO was livid, they appeared at the Elelenwo Police Station and returned me to the magistrate at the mobile court at Second Artillery Bus Stop. I was asked to pay another fine of N5,000, for not having an operational permit, before I was allowed to go. The magistrate added that she was not aware that vendors should be exempted from persons to be arrested and prosecuted.
I was informed that the Permanent Secretary of the Rivers State Ministry of Information and Communications, Pastor Paulinus Nsirim, called Mr. Amaewhule on September 4, to let me be released unconditionally, but the former Chairman of Rivers State Council of Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ (Nsirim) was not respected.
Is it true, as alleged, that you assaulted the taskforce officials?
How would a young lady like me have assaulted two hefty taskforce men, who were backed by policemen? We only had an argument when the taskforce officials were destroying my newspapers and magazines. I was surprised when I was accused of confronting the taskforce officials.
I am pleading with media houses in Nigeria to provide vendors in Rivers State with branded umbrellas and tables to prevent further harassment from the taskforce officials.
What is your message for Gov. Wike, who put the taskforce in place?
I want to plead with Gov. Wike to please allow the vendors to continue to sell newspapers and magazines on newsstands throughout Rivers State.
With your unpleasant experience, will you continue as a vendor?
I am not discouraged at all. I will continue with the business of selling newspapers and magazines. I have been able to employ two persons, who are still working with me. I intend to employ more persons to expand the business.
You have been speaking good English. What is the secret?
I am a Banking and Finance graduate of Rivers State University (RSU), Port Harcourt (full-time) and I graduated in 2007. I took part in the national youth service in Sokoto State in 2008/2009. I am currently on full-time Master’s programme in one of the universities in Rivers State, studying Accounting and I am about rounding off. By God’s grace, I will top it with a doctoral degree.