The Executive Director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) has accused the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, of victimization due to his advocacy over the state government's demolition of slums. Felix Morka's accusation came on the heels of the incarceration of his drivers at the Badagry Prison over an alleged traffic offence as well as a "physical rough handling" of his kids by the governor's police escorts during an incident on Tuesday. Mr. Fashola, however, hit back denying the assault and insisting that Mr. Morka's employees violated the state's Traffic Law.
At around 3 p.m., on Tuesday, Mr. Morka said that his two-car caravan was stuck in traffic on CMD Road, near the Lagos-Ibadan expressway.
According to the SERAC boss, ordinary people were helping to direct the heavy traffic and as they signalled them to move, the car before them stalled.
"Following signals, the two-car SERAC caravan pulled out and around the vehicle to make a turn onto the expressway," Mr. Morka, a lawyer, said.
"No sooner did they start to merge back into traffic than a police vehicle sped up and blocked the two cars, insisting that they reverse onto the curb on the opposite side of the road to make way for an oncoming official convoy that suddenly appeared from the opposite direction."
Mr. Morka said that as the oncoming convoy slowed down before his car, he recognized Mr. Fashola seated inside an official Range Rover.
The two men made eye contact – they have known each other for over a decade – and as Mr. Morka alighted from his car to exchange pleasantries; the governor's car moved forward, Mr. Morka said.
"I suddenly saw six or seven policemen running back over a distance of at least 30 feet, leaving their vehicles behind and carrying guns.
"The policemen forcibly pulled all the passengers, including my four young children, out of the two cars and started beating the two drivers.
"One fared worse that the other and was beaten severely on his legs with the butt of the policemen's guns, while one passenger’s phone was smashed in the chaos."
Mr. Morka said that everyone, including the two vehicles, was taken to the office of the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Special Offences, where they were made to write statements.
On Wednesday, the two drivers were charged, before the state's Special Offences Court, under a provision of the new Traffic Law that carry one year jail term as well as forfeiture of the vehicles to the state.
SERAC said that it was unable to meet the magistrate's "stringent" bail conditions, meaning that its two drivers would spend their Easter Holidays in prison.
According to the magistrate, each of the accused must provide a N200, 000 bond, a N100, 000 deposit with the Registrar of the High Court, and two sureties one of whom must be a senior civil servant not less than Grade Level 12.
The surety must also show evidence of seven years tax clearance in Lagos State.
"To make matters worse, they have been transferred to prison in Badagry, a couple hours drive from Lagos in traffic. The two cars remain impounded at the Task Force office," said Mr. Morka.
'A victim of victimization'
SERAC is a non-governmental organization founded in 1995 to defend the social and economic rights of the urban poor in communities such as Maroko, Makoko, and Badia in Lagos, and across Nigeria.
Mr. Morka attributed the 'harsh' penalties to his organization's recent high profile advocacy after the state government's forceful eviction and demolition of homes in Badia.
The advocacy brought the matter to the attention of the international media, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, and elicited condemnation from the Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
SERAC also championed the fight to stop last year's state government's demolition of the Makoko Waterfront and led thousands of the residents in a protest march to the governor's office after police fatally shot a local chief during the demolition.
Also, following a petition to investigate the demolition at Badia East written by the organization, a team from the World Bank visited Lagos recently.
Badia is one of the nine beneficiaries of the US200 million World Bank funded slum upgrading under the Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project, LMDGP.
"Following a meeting between the World Bank, LMDGP, and SERAC on March 15, a World Bank official just last week visited the demolition site in Badia to verify the devastation and reportedly met with a senior official of the Lagos State governments," said Mr. Morka.
After the Tuesday incident, Mr. Morka had circulated a text message maintaining that the state governor's action was "a reprisal for my sustained criticism of his administration's oppressive policies against the urban poor in Lagos."
In a swift reaction, Mr. Fashola released a statement stating that "the premise and the content of the message are completely false."
"On the aforementioned date, at around 3pm, the Governor was returning from a Security meeting at the headquarters of the State Security Service (SSS) through CMD Road in the Magodo area when his convoy and other road users got blocked by a man who had driven his Jeep with Registration number KU 549 KJA against the flow of traffic," said the statement signed by Hakeem Bello, Special Assistant on Media.
"The identity of the owner was later established to be Felix Morka," the statement added.
Mr. Fashola said that Mr. Morka had contravened a traffic law by vacating his own lane and driving against oncoming traffic.
"This had resulted in him blocking other road users, including the governor's convoy, from progressing on their journey," the statement said.
"After about two minutes, in which the driver bluntly refused to reverse and move to his own side of the road as politely requested by the police escorts, the governor instructed his Aide-de-Camp to investigate what was going on," it added.
The governor denied harassing the occupants of Mr. Morka's vehicle, adding that the drivers were arrested and charged to court "as is the norm for such traffic offences."
Mr. Fashola also described Mr. Morka's claim that the entire incident was connected to his criticism of his administration as 'laughable'.
"No one in the convoy knew who he was at the point the vehicle he was in was driven against the normal flow of traffic, the reasons for his driver's arrest were due to a clear contravention of a well-known law.
"Further, photographic and video evidence are available which will be used in the prosecution," said Mr. Fashola.