On Thursday, September 21, 2023, a Ghanaian mother had to rush to the Accra Regional Police Headquarters when news got to her that her son had been arrested. Marking a significant day in Ghana’s history as a holiday for Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s birthday, this mother should’ve probably been taking a break to rest. But she was restless.
Young Ghanaians embarked on a peaceful protest for a better life; The police said no!
ACCRA, Ghana: A peaceful demonstration by Ghanaian youth on Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Day was marred by what most legal professionals deem as unlawful arrests by the Ghana police.
The Ghana Police Service had put on their usual boorish act; an act that many people have experienced at the various stations across the country but can’t make sense of. An ‘order from above’ said this woman could not see her son. Neither was she allowed to follow due process in an attempt to bail her son. The events leading to the trauma this mother had to go through question the Ghana Police Service’s understanding of what their task is in dealing with civilians.
This young man woke up in an enthusiastic mood to play some basketball on a holiday, a sport loved by many young Ghanaians. On his way back, he was arrested by the police. His crime? Wearing a black shirt in a vicinity where peaceful demonstrators were being targeted by the people who should be protecting them.
Around the same time, a young Ghanaian lawyer was being treated like a criminal for his intervention to try and protect a journalist. Amidst all the chaos around a host of arrests that had happened, a journalist decided to document some of the happenings between the police and civilians at one of the police stations where arrested protestors were kept. About 5 police officers rushed to her in a bid to stop her from recording what was going on. When the lawyer, known as Rockson stepped in to help with what the journalist would later reveal was a physical assault by male policemen, he was arrested with charges around the lines of ‘preventing an arrest’. The interesting part is, the journalist was not arrested.
The Police vs Organisers
In the weeks leading to September 21, 2023, organisers of #OccupyJulorbiHouse demonstration had informed the Ghana Police Service of their intent to have a peaceful demonstration, as the law requires. The police had engaged the organisers throughout the process with both parties having aligned on the 3-day demonstration from September 21 to September 23, 2023.
Less than 24 hours before the start of the demonstration, the Ghana Police Service released a statement with the heading ‘Police file application to prohibit planned demonstration by Democracy Hub Group’. The release claimed the police had ‘served the organisers of a group identifying itself as Democracy Hub in connection with planned demonstration within the vicinity of Jubilee House from Thursday, 21st to Saturday, 23rd September 2023.’
Responding to the police, Democracy Hub wrote in a press release saying ‘We wish to put on record that the Ghana Police Service has not served us with any application and we are unaware of what exactly the police application is about’.
Ghana Police Service released another statement refuting the claim of non-service of court process by the conveners of Democracy Hub, saying they were served through their lawyers Atuguba & Associates. That was where the exchange of documents ended. The next day would go on as planned - or maybe not.
In the early hours of Thursday, September 21, 2023, Ghanaians started gathering around the 37 Lorry Station as planned for the peaceful demonstration. Commuters who ply the road started sharing videos of heavy police presence along the stretch. From full gears to police on horses, the scenes and outlook for these policemen and policewomen were not usual for many Ghanaians.
By 9 am, a video had started going viral even before the protest had started. Police had arrested a group of young people, and put them in a bus headed towards the Accra Regional Police Headquarters.
“This is not a democracy,” Oliver Barker-Vormawor said as the first group of people who had been arrested were being transported to the police headquarters. He then called on all available lawyers to help with representation for the people who had been arrested.
The next hours saw more breaking stories of people getting arrested than the initially planned peaceful protest. One person granting a calm interview to a Ghanaian TV station was arrested on camera while eyewitnesses saw people change their outfits to avoid being arrested without a chance to explain. This was how the young man whose mother was at the police station found himself in a cell on a memorial day for Kwame Nkrumah’s birthday. Just by wearing black.
Young lawyers and the law
Afia Blue Tafari is a known lawyer on the Ghanaian timeline for social media platform X (formerly Twitter). Her storytelling of her encounter with a police officer for a road traffic offence case was followed by many, giving a sense of a Ghanaian barrister who wants better for the West African country and representation for the voiceless.
On Thursday, when news of arrests started trickling in from all corners of Ghana’s capital, Accra, that was Afia’s mood - helping the best way she could for all who needed representation and without a fee.
“If you haven’t spoken to law yet, send me a dm of your name and the station you have been sent to,” Afia wrote on X, a refreshing post on a timeline that was filled with uncertain fate for the arrested individuals.
As this statement went viral at the time, the police started distributing demonstrators in their custody in what seemed to be a strategy to frustrate lawyers who were willing to help more than a lack of space to keep people in custody. Lawyers were being asked to go back to the headquarters where the arrests were booked when they showed up for their clients at the venue of their cells.
In an update from Lawyer Prince Ganaku on X Spaces that had run for hours throughout the demonstration, the barrister gave the first sense of the situation of how dealings with the Ghana Police Service were ongoing, calling on other lawyers to help as the arrests were getting more and more.
“The protestors have been arrested in batches. I came here when I was prompted by the arrested protestors,” Lawyer Prince Ganaku said on the X Spaces.
“When I got here, I spoke with the charge office and I was told some of them are in the cells of the charge office. Some of them are in there, some of them are in interrogation, some of them are in the barracks.
“The lawyers have been told we won’t be allowed to see those who were arrested earlier, the first batch of people because they have been distributed across the cells,” he said.
Lawyer Afia Blue Tafari collaborated Prince’s experience writing on X:
“They’re not letting lawyers see anyone. They’re transferring protesters to other stations. When you go there they tell you since they processed them at HQ, you have to bail them at HQ. Mafia tactics. Make noise.”
Prince added he and another lawyer were trying to get a list of all the people who had been arrested to have a chance of representing them. He then made a call to all lawyers who had some time on their hands to pass by and help.
Within moments of this news breaking, the official names of people in custody had been gathered with their respective locations. As most people on the timeline were known by their X handle, others had to help these lawyers with their official names.
That, however, did not mean the task was made any easier.
One of the key people who initiated the X Spaces Lawyer Prince had earlier given the update on, was Ghanaian journalist Bridget Otoo trying to help the mother whose son had been arrested on his return from basketball training.
In an attempt to help her see her son, the situation quickly escalated as the young gentleman called Gheorghe (@Boss_gheorghe) who was with Bridget Otoo was picked by the police.
“A woman spoke to me about her son who was playing basketball around Christ The King, the basketball area there,” Bridget narrates the story of how Gheorghe was picked up.
“The boy was supposed to play basketball and the police in their swoop as they do with other crime event just carried him along. She’s been here trying to hear from her son. And she spoke to me. I get to the gate and I tell the policeman to go in there and he tells me there is nobody there. I said ‘but you have just taken people in there’. He said he will not allow us in.
“While I was waiting the police charged at us. We didn’t provoke them, nothing. We were just standing. He opened the gate and charged at us picking as many people as they could grab. I want to believe because I am a woman that is why they didn’t grab me. I have the phone of a gentleman who is still inside,” she added.
That gentleman was Gheorghe, whose pickup was captured live on the ongoing X Spaces he had helped initiate with over 1,500 listeners on at the time.
One of Bridget’s fears during her narration turned out to be exactly what her nightmares had been. “At the time Vanessa was in there and I was scared for Vanessa. Because we had sent her out and the police had guns, they were being hostile to anybody who is in there,” Bridget said.
Ghanaian journalist with X handle @OleleSalvador who had been giving minute-by-minute updates on the #OccupyJulorbiHouse wrote on the situation with a video attached:
“One of my colleague journalists who was a victim of the ‘Rambo’ style apprehension and manhandling action by the @GhPoliceService narrates her harrowing experience.
“Her crime? Recording the mini-chaos between the police and some protestors in the yard, even as a journalist.
“Her phone has been seized.”
Vanessa was the journalist Lawyer Richmond Rockson tried to help following police officers rushing at her over her decision to record happenings - leading to the lawyer’s arrest.
He later wrote on his X page:
“My ‘crime’ was my intervention when several officers of @GhPoliceService manhandled this journalist. I was physically assaulted by some officers, and detained for hours. Thanks to my learned friends, I have been released. Be assured I’ll take steps to remedy this recklessness.”
Vanessa was not the only journalist who had an encounter with the police on the day. BBC journalist Thomas Naadi was ‘detained’ by the Ghana police and later released according to information from his colleague Akwasi Sarpong.
The Ghana Police Service in an official statement addressing this particular issue claimed the report was ‘erroneous’ and the ‘police would like to put on record that the report is false and should be disregarded’.
They further explained that the journalist was picked among a group of people but identified himself during the screening process and was ‘immediately allowed to go’.
The Ghana Journalists Association refuted the claims by the police, highlighting other journalists who were maltreated during the demonstration.
As all these were ongoing, lawyers on the day had doubled their efforts to try and get protestors in police custody out before the close of day. They had received information on the arrested being arraigned in court the next day and having to spend the night in cells with no bail.
In one of her many updates on the day, Lawyer Afia Blue Tafari wrote:
“Unfortunately it’s unlikely that anyone will be granted bail today. The police say they’ll arraign them tomorrow in court for any bail application to be made. Sad.”
An online campaign
While the lawyers, demonstrators, friends and family of the arrested were making sacrifices on various grounds, the topic was gaining momentum online with a lot of backlash aimed towards the Ghana Police Service and anyone who had a voice in Ghana. Among these groups of people were celebrities in Ghana. And of course, the media.
During the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria, a lot of sympathy was triggered from their West African counterparts. From government officials, musicians, actors and actresses, top media personalities to the average Ghanaian, messages of support kept trickling in towards Nigeria. People with influence in Nigeria also got involved.
The quest online as lawyers tried to get bail for arrested participants of the #OccupyJulorbiHouse demo was to get solidarity from all the voices that mattered in Ghana. That meant some extreme online measures of calling people out for their actions and inactions, resulting in messages from celebrities that got criticised, deleting of posts by top personalities who were not aware of the ongoing situation and calling on all the people who could help amplify the cries of the Ghanaian youth.
Posts started coming in soon with the criticism online exchanges usually have.
Time to go home
In the closing hours of the day, a notice that calmed nerves was put out by the lawyers who had been heroines and heroes of the day. The police had agreed to grant bail to all the arrested. The good news was they needed 10 sureties who could then stand in for all arrested on the day due to their involvement in the #OccupyJulorbiHouse demonstration.
Lawyer Afia Blue Tafari gave the update on X, writing:
“Regional command just granted bail. They need 10 people as sureties. If you are around please avail yourself @OleleSalvador nb.
“Adults, preferably closely related, and it will help if they are property owners, professionals or civil servants,” she added.
A sense of hope for the first time on the day resonated across X timeline, where most of the conversations on the day had happened. Hope not in the system, but in the young lawyers who yearned to push through the day for the freedom of those arrested.
Results started coming in in batches as the arrests had been. People in the different police stations were being released. A sense of relief could be seen in the updates from the many lawyers who had put in their best on the day to make things happen. Some of them could now tap into their sense of humour.
“They took all the stubborn boys to Shukura. Their boss is @thebodjona,” Lawyer Afia could finally share a joke she had planned all afternoon since seeing the list in a humour post.
By 8:30pm, Oliver Barker-Vormawor, one of the first batch of people to be arrested had been the last to be released. The timeline was filled with some accounts of their experiences with the Ghana Police Service and a toned-down version of earlier requests. Citizens could breathe a sigh of relief knowing that all the arrested persons could finally go home.
In what looked like a peaceful approach by the Ghanaian youth to make their voices heard around the hardships and high cost of living in the West African country, the Ghana Police Service said no based on an ‘order from above’ and went ahead to arrest young Ghanaians who only wanted to exercise their human rights, in accordance with Ghana’s constitution.
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