Our voice, our rhythm, our rights

By Fubara Tokuibiye Samuel

There are two days in my life that I will never forget. The first is the 12th October 2009. On that day I was with a group of peaceful protesters gunned down by security forces. The other is Tuesday, this week, when – after a struggle which lasted nearly five years – an international human rights court gave us justice.

It all started one morning in Bundu Ama, a settlement in Port Harcourt not too far from where I live. I was at a junction with other residents and supporters from across the city to join a protest against the painting of numbers on our homes, marking them for demolition.

At least 100 women had gathered at the junction after hearing the news, dancing and chanting. Others, including men on their way to work and children on their way to school, stopped to watch and join in.

About half an hour into the protest, a convoy of trucks carrying security forces armed with automatic weapons, led by an assault vehicle mounted cannon, charged at the crowd at high speed. They opened fire without warning.

People were shot from behind as they ran. I saw one man shot through the back, the bullet bursting through his chest. Soldiers followed trails of blood to where people hid. Bodies were seen piled onto a truck and driven away.

The soldiers fanned out through the community, shooting indiscriminately in the narrow alleys of Bundu Ama, rifle-butting and whipping young men, breaking open doors, looting restaurants and stealing money. One young man was shot at point blank range as he hid in his room. Security forces prevented him receiving medical attention for two hours.

Many of the victims were not even part of the protest. Some were on their way to work whilst others were in their homes when they were shot. A 17-year-old girl was hit by a stray bullet in a settlement on the other side of the creek.

We were shot at for simply gathering and expressing our position on policies that would remove the roofs from over our heads. We were shot for exercising our right to assemble, to protest.

But in the face of bullets and bulldozers, we were determined not to be silenced. In our struggle we found our voice and took the decision to be advocates, not victims. With the support of local and international organizations, such as Amnesty International, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), and Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP), we started on our journey to justice.

With little faith in the national courts, we decided to take our case to the regional human rights court: the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The process was at times painfully slow. The government forced adjournment after adjournment, trying to wear us down. But we were patient.

I will always be grateful that we had our day in court and that the judge ruled in our favour. But just as important as the legal and moral victory is what the experience has taught us. We have learnt what power there is when people come together to protect their rights and each other.

The case is closed, but another story and struggle has just begun. We will have to work just as hard to ensure the full and effective implementation of the judgment. But beyond that, we want to work together, with our communities, with our government, with all those from across the city who want to make Port Harcourt a city for all its citizens: a human city.

With the support of Amnesty International and CMAP, we are building Chicoco Radio. It will be Nigeria’s first community radio station and will be broadcast across the airwaves: our voice, our rhythm and our rights.