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Provoked by a question, a SARS officer’s wrath took the life of an innocent man called James Joseph Okon who was on his way home from work.

Around 2 pm on November 21, 2016, James Joseph Okon was on his way home from work. He had just completed his shift at Indorama Eleme Petrochemical Company, where he worked as an Instrumentation and Control Engineer.

He had on a backpack as he walked along a road in the Elelewon area of Rivers State. Then, suddenly, he spotted four operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) approaching him.

The officers stopped him and asked where he was coming from. Work, he replied. Not convinced, the officers began to search him. After having found nothing, three of the officers left him, but one of them, identified as Christian Osunbor, continued to probe. James was frustrated by this officer’s prolonged baseless suspicion, and so he questioned him, asking Officer Osunbor, what he was looking for exactly.

The question angered the SARS officer who immediately cocked his gun and shot James on his right leg, just below the knee. On hearing the gunshot, the other officers returned and asked Osunbor why he had shot James. The officer told his colleagues to take off to avoid being traced. And they all did, but not before collecting James’s phone and wallet to clean their tracks.

According to eyewitnesses, James was still breathing when the SARS officers left the scene. The eyewitnesses further claim that though James struggled to speak, he was able to mention the name and address of his younger brother, Anietie Joseph Okon, who was called to the scene.

“I got there around 5 pm,” Anietie recalls. “He was not dead. He was trying to say something but he had no strength to speak. I thought he could make it, so I needed to rush him to the hospital.”

“I called for help,” Anietie continues. “There was serious traffic in Port Harcourt that day but we managed to get him to a hospital. When they [the hospital] saw it was a gunshot, they said they needed a police report, but we did not have it.”

James was then rushed to another hospital, where he was confirmed dead. He was 40 years old.

“At that moment, I was completely confused,” Anietie recalls.

James’ corpse was taken to his hometown at Mbak Obio Itam, Akwa Ibom State, where he was buried the next day.

Anietie initially thought James had been attacked and killed by armed robbers. It took eyewitnesses to confirm to him that his brother had been slain by an operative of SARS.

Anietie says he later went to the Elelewon Police Division to find James’ murderer, but the officers there accused him of procuring James’ corpse without letting them know, claiming that by that act he had essentially jeopardized his chance of having the case properly investigated. He was later asked by the officers to pay N100,000 for them to investigate the killing.

When more detailed information was given by an eyewitness who identified the officer who shot and killed James, Anietie involved the Human Rights Commission, who wrote to the police headquarters. All the officers involved in the case were tracked and arrested by the state Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

Subsequently, Anietie asked the state CID to release their investigation and questioning report. He was given what he claims was a fake report to sign. He refused the findings. The State CID then stopped providing updates on the case. This went on until last year, when Anietie was finally told he had no case. Officer Osunbor was eventually released and reposted to another state.

To date, Anietie does not know the whereabouts of officer Osunbor – a situation he says frustrates him.

Anietie had given up on pursuing justice for his brother until he heard of the #EndSARS Judicial Panel of Inquiry created on October 22, 2020, by the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, to look into cases of brutality and extrajudicial killings by SARS. Anietie petitioned the panel. His case was heard and deliberated. The panel which has closed up shop, submitted their report to the Rivers state government. He now awaits action from the government.

Yet nothing the panel does can compensate for the degree of loss James’ family has suffered because of his brutal murder. “He was the pillar of the house,” says Anietie. “Responsibilities rested on him. The family has been heartbroken since my brother died. It is more heartbreaking because the police, who were supposed to provide solutions, failed.”

James was the second of six children. Anietie says he was a friendly, cool-headed man who had big dreams. “He was driven by technology,” says Anietie. “He was always saying he would build electronics. He had good plans and ideas of making his life beautiful, but his life was cut short.”

Although James was not married, he has a 21-year-old daughter, Juliana James, who is currently studying in an undisclosed tertiary institution in Delta state.

“The responsibility [of taking care of Juliana] is now on me,” Anietie says. “We have aged parents. When he was alive, we shared the responsibility, but since he left, it has been difficult.”

“Life without him is hard,” Anietie, who shared a close emotional bond with his brother James, continues.

“There has been a vacuum that no one else will be able to fill.”