Years ago, when Awkuzu was in a state of unrest, the advent of SARS was warmly welcomed to fix the problem – until they eventually overstayed their welcome and became the same obnoxious problem they had come to fix
Three years ago, Benjamin Udeh, an Awkuzu-based trader, enjoyed the habit of taking a walk to the notorious Awkuzu junction, where he would release stress in a makeshift hangout.
There, in the company of his friends, he would banter with them over drinks, reflecting upon life and its elements. “I sit there,” he says, “under that small shop and see SARS [officers] humiliating people.”
Udeh appears distant and unkeen, but his words sound certain.
One day after the ban of SARS, he went back to the junction and sat at the familier spot, with a beer, grinding out conversations with peers.
He watched the roving cars and the police officers who stood like statues with rifles. He looked at retailers displaying wares on the floor with nylon, trampolin and stones.
He had not witnessed the gunshots and death, skirmishes and corpses and burnt tyres.
The town had always been buoyant, he tells me – the Awkuzu he had always known and cherished for several practical reasons. For one, it sat on a strategic spot, connecting towns and communities, serving as corridors to important administrative and commercial districts, including Awka – the capital city. And at night, the town came to life with highlife music blaring in bars.
The last time Awkuzu had had that serene nature was nearly two decades ago, Udeh estimates. Then, he was just young and fancied his capacity to have fun. But he is pleased with the good changes coming into the town.
“We celebrated the coming of SARS [to Awkuzu],” he tells me. “We loved it then.”
The love between Awkuzu and SARS didn’t last more than the initial few years. “The officers began to levy businesses, rape women and kill men who stood on their way,” Udeh says.
The night life of Awkuzu began to recede. Every sunset arrived with a fresh fear of terror. Moments of calm were few and far between. It was always tense. “It felt like slavery,” Udeh explains.
Young people protested and elders sat in deliberations over numerous reports of torture and extortion.
It seemed like SARS was an enigma. They targeted those who were vocal against their operations and they had spies planted around the town. Little by little people began to “mind their business.” It became too dangerous to conduct a conversation around the operations of SARS.
Around that time, distant lands and the press began to take interest in Awkuzu. In 2014, research by Amnesty International observed that “impunity” in the policing system and systematic lack of accountability enabled “abuse of power” in places like Awkuzu. In three years, starting from 2017, the body had documented 82 cases of of “torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution” by SARS. Awkuzu was fingered once more.
Yet the presence of SARS, which has become the infamous nemesis of Awkuzu, is traceable to kindness.
In the 1900s, Aguleri and Umuleri started a skirmish over land. The matter was entertained in the prime colonial court at that time and a fragile peace was restored. The bits of peace faltered many times along the years, giving birth to random confrontations that were either resolved by bloodshed, dialogue, peace accords or court injunctions.
However, in 1995, and for most of the 1990s, it became a full-blown war, ferociously fought, without recourse to brotherhood and shared ancestry.
Indigenes fleeing the unpredictable war found Awkuzu hospitable. And so did mercenaries, most of whom were criminals, hired and equipped from different parts of the country to execute the conflict. As the crisis lingered, these guests began to build local networks and love affairs.
When the war drew to a close at the turn of the century, many of the warlords were already in love with the town and its people. Some of them stayed back – workless, nurturing their sporadic relationships and feeling the warmth of the town. “These were idle men,” Sunday Obinna, an indigene of Awkuzu, says.
In the aftermath of the war, the population wasn’t disarmed, according to Raph Igwa, a veteran journalist. “But if it had happened,” he adds, “then it just was not effective.”
That was how the fortune of Awkuzu flipped. The settled warlords began to build violent gangs within the population, seeking supremacy, creating cults and terrorizing common people.
SARS, fresh and desirable, were welcomed as a solution to the situation. “Initially, SARS did so well,” Obinna says. “The communities conveniently collaborated with them, naming the criminals.”
However, after dismantling the gangs, “SARS became terrible. They committed the worst crimes,” says Obinna.
Some years ago, Obinna enlisted as a spy for the community vigilante group. He was to lay his ear on the ground, picking the rumors of crime and suspects. It was while in this role that the atrocities of SARS became even more apparent to him.
He recorded cases of SARS officers killing a man because he married a wife “that’s too beautiful for him”. He encountered cases where the police insisted on sharing a wife with the husband because she looks “sexy.”
Some men “entirely kept their wives indoors” so that the eyes of the lustful officers didn’t fall on them. Only a few of those who resisted them escaped intimidation.
“Those SARS men loved women a lot, especially the beautiful ones,” Obinna says. “You see them looking chubby, robbing bleaching cream and… building hotels.”
Obinna explains that the posting of officers to SARS became “competitive and lucrative” because of such factors.
Igbariam is a small town near Awkuzu. It is roughly a five-minute drive away, and is home to Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University of Science and Technology, formerly Anambra State University. In late 2014, the institution was named in honor of the late secessionist leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who is highly regarded in southeast Nigeria.
Students of this institution were frequently targeted by SARS, according to Chiamaka Uwakwe, a student. The officers came at midnight, broke down doors and made arrests. The fee for “innocence” was at least 50,000 Naira.
Uwakwe explains that aside from avoiding nightlife, many students began to mimic poverty in their dressing and choice of gadgets as a way of warding off prying SARS eyes. This aura of poverty, with its low haircut and “godly” looks, was meant to make them look ‘decent’ and avoid being targeted as questionably ostentatious. “The harassment was way too much,” she says.
Back in Awkuzu, all that Sunday Obinna and Benjamin Udeh can observe is a dimple of life coming back to town. “There is a big difference now,” Obinna says, refreshingly.
“Crime has fallen in frequency and ferocity. Sunset gunshots have gone away.”
“I really think that the exit of SARS brought more peace to Awkuzu,” Obinna adds.
“I knew they were criminals or at least knew the criminals. Today people are free to walk around, though the times are still scary.”