On the evening of March 29th, a cab driver named Safianu Adam walked into an anti-government riot in Tamale, one of Ghana’s biggest cities.
Not only after he arrived in the riot’s epicentre – a downtown intersection filled with massive tire fires and men wielding weapons – he was killed.
Safianu would be the only person to die
in the violence, his body left bleeding on a sidewalk after soldiers arrived to quash the rioting that night.
The odd circumstances surrounding Safianu’s death have led his family to accuse the country’s military of fatally shooting him and the police of aiding in a cover-up.
While the authorities’ silence and lazy investigation of Safianu’s death make it difficult to ever know the truth, their contradictory explanations of what happened have kept suspicions high in Tamale, a volatile region inside of one of Africa’s most stable countries.
Safianu, who was in his early thirties, was a long-distance driver who typically left home before dawn after his early morning prayers, said his family in an interview. He would drive passengers from town to town throughout northern Ghana, making enough money to support his children, sisters, mother and grandmother.
On the night Safianu died, he arrived in Tamale after finishing a gruelling day on the road and decided to join friends to watch an international soccer match in one of the popular satellite TV spots found everywhere along the city’s side streets.
But at some point during the game, Safianu left to go see riots that had erupted in the city’s downtown core, his friends told the family. He walked into one of the most dangerous parts of the riot, an intersection in front of Tamale’s busy central market.
Young men had dragged tires in the middle of intersections and set them alight, blocking traffic into the city. The violence was only directed at property and no one had yet been reported injured when he arrived.
That’s because most people there that night were on the same side. They were Andanis, the majority sect of the region’s largest tribe, who were upset at how the government was handling the trial of 14 men suspected to have murdered their chief nine years ago.
Not long after Safianu arrived in the intersection, a military truck pulled in with soldiers firing their guns in the air. They deployed and began clearing people from the scene so the fires could be eventually extinguished.
Gunshots rang out for the next 20 minutes while people scattered. When it was over, Safianu’s body lay face down on the sidewalk, his blood running down the cement into the nearby gutter. A soldier stood in front of the body while onlookers filled the intersection again.
The family was told by friends that Safianu had been shot by a soldier in the neck. They were also the ones who provided information on his whereabouts that night.
I witnessed the scene at the intersection before and after he died was witnessed during Diamond FM’s coverage of the riots. Diamond FM is Journalists for Human Rights’ media house partner in Tamale.
Those accounts contrast with what the police told Safianu’s family the next day.
His mother, Saratu Adam, received a call from Safianu’s cell phone early the following morning, she said.
The police were on the other line and they told her that Safianu had been cut by a dagger but was still alive. She left for the police station immediately.
At the station, they told her she couldn’t see him because he was undergoing medical treatment. After pleading in vain to see her son, she returned home and a group of male relatives were sent to deal with the police.
By then, the body had been moved to the mortuary. A doctor who was flown from southern Ghana to perform an autopsy found two bullets in Safianu’s body, said Saratu.
She also claims that when the doctor gave them the bill for the autopsy, the family refused to pay, claiming the military had shot their son and they had no responsibility to foot the bill. According to her, someone from the military paid the doctor instead of the family.
Attempts to take the military to court have so far failed, said Saratu. In the meantime, the family is struggling to feed themselves after losing the household’s only breadwinner.
The police have been even more confusing when explaining what happened to the media.
According to news reports the day after the rioting, police said he had been cut by a dagger.
But in an interview several months after the riot, the police admitted that Safianu had been shot.
The night of the rioting, the call that lead police to Safianu’s body indicated someone had been shot, said Chief Inspector Eben Tetteh, the public relations officer for the police in northern Ghana.
After picking up the body, “it was concluded that someone indeed was shot and the body was examined and taken to the Teaching Hospital,” said Tetteh.
He did not know whether the police told Saratu her son had been cut, he said.
There was always the possibility that the victim had been stabbed and that’s why a qualified autopsy doctor was brought in, he said.
In June, Tetteh told the press that a police investigation was still going on. But in a follow-up interview held a month later with Adam’s family, relatives said no one from the police had yet shown up at the family home.
As for the military, they’ve tried their best to remain silent.
Captain Dam Parbi, the public relations officer for the army in northern Ghana, refused comment.
An internal report on the incident was filed and sent to military headquarters in the capital, Accra, he said.
No one from headquarters was available for comment.