The death of a loved one is a painful experience but this loss is nothing compared to depression and betrayal a mother feels when a heinous crime shatters her family, leaving her without any psychosocial or psychological support. She can only take a lonely path to recovery as she awaits justice. Amos ABBA writes.
ON Wednesday, October 30, Rose Abah sat on a sofa in her living room in Ogene – Amejo, a rural community in Ugbokolo, Benue State looking down on her wrinkled hands as she recounted the horrific ordeal that claimed the life of her daughter, Ochanya Elizabeth Ogbanje.
“Ochanya was eight years old when I decided to take her to live with my sister so she could get a better education because our village primary school was not in good condition but that decision is now one of my biggest regrets in life,” Rose recalled.
She had sent her daughter to stay with her younger sister, Felicia Ogbuja, aged 43, who was married to a polytechnic lecturer, Andrew Ogbuja, aged, 52, who taught at Benue State Polytechnic, Ugbokolo. Andrew is also a third level knight of the Catholic Church.
Ochanya lived with them for four years going to school and helping the family with domestic chores.
The outcome of that decision turned out to be a nightmare for Rose because her daughter never returned home the same way she left. She arrived home, sick as doctors struggled to save her life.
Ochanya suffered urinal incontinence brought by prolonged sexual abuse, this meant she urinated uncontrollably when asleep or awake and she had to use baby diapers to control the urinary flow.
Rose had stayed with Ochanya in the months leading to her death; the period was marked with frequent visits to the hospital. Some were short, lasting a few weeks, while the longest was a four-month stay at the pediatric unit of the Federal Medical Center, Makurdi.
Ochanya was taken to almost a dozen doctors in different hospitals but the actual cause of her illness was hidden from Rose by her sister, Felicia. Barely literate, Rose had no knowledge to ask the right questions about her daughter’s health, and wonders why doctors were unable to diagnose her daughter’s illness.
“During one of those days when I was with her in the hospital, I had to ask her if anyone had slept with her because her feet were swollen badly that she couldn’t walk. I got the worst news of my life that day when she told me Junior (Victor Ogbuja) her cousin and Daddy (Andrew Ogbuja) his father had been taking turns to sleep with her,” she said.
The news was devastating for Rose because she trusted Felicia with her daughter’s future. She had wanted Ochanya to become a doctor; now the dream is shattered.
“I couldn’t eat for about two days after I heard that news. When I confronted Felicia, she was scolding Ochanya for not informing her. A relative of mine who had accompanied me to their house had to shut her up by telling her Ochanya would be afraid to speak of such acts because it happened in her home and she would be afraid,” she said.
The shock of hearing that news was overwhelming for Rose and the incident tore apart the relationship between the two sisters.
“My heart can’t be at rest until Ogbuja’s family has paid for what they took away from me. Ochanya was the child of my old age and whenever I remember what they had taken from me, it feels like scratching the surface of a closed wound,” she said.
It is not unlikely for parents whose children have suffered one form of sexual abuse to exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, associated with feelings of guilt, shame, and anger about the abuse of their child if not treated, according to a 2018 study published in the European Journal of Psycho – traumatology.
In Nigeria, there is no government agency that tracks victims of sexual violence and their families to offer them psychological interventions or maintain an open phone line to offer counselling services to emotionally distressed persons.
An attempt to feel that vacuum was only recently started by the European Union Delegation in Nigeria through its #HerStoryYourStory initiative, which has set up 15 Sexual Harassment Referral Centres, SARCs, in 11 states in the country.
These centres are a one-stop-shop offering ‘head-to-toe’ services to survivors of sexual violence without charge. However, the initiative is not set up to keep the data of victims or the kind of violence they suffer.
The sexual violation of Ochanya, which led to her death on October 17, 2018, at the Ultimate Hospital, Otukpo, made her a poster child for minors who are sexually abused across the country, as protests were held nationwide for her.
The doctor’s medical report revealed that Ochanya died from a severe case of vesicovaginal fistula, VVF, due to complications sustained from the protracted rape in the hands of Andrew and his son.
Ochanya was 13 when she died. One year after her passage, Rose still cannot understand how it could have happened.
Scars that won’t heal
Whenever she remembers the circumstances that led to her daughter’s death, Rose breaks into silent tears.
“If only Andrew can say exactly what he did to my daughter? If only he would open his mouth to say what he really did to her. He has two daughters but he didn’t touch them because Ochanya was the rag he found to satisfy his deviant lifestyle,” she lamented.
Ochanya also was serially being raped by Victor, who, in an unrelated incident, had been expelled from the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi for misconduct. Though he was caught by his sister who reported him to their parents, he was mildly scolded, and no further action was taken against him.
Andrew and his son separately abused Ochanya sexually, threatening her not to reveal the unholy affair to anyone according to Ochanya’s testimony in court before she passed away.
The effect of his threats was frightening because it kept Ochanya from speaking about the abuse until it was a little too late. When she eventually spoke up, she had become too sick
Andrew is currently facing trial on charges of criminal conspiracy and serial rape, while his Victor who has been declared wanted by the police since November 2018, is still on the run.
Rose still blames herself for not spotting the warning signs that Ochanya was being sexually assaulted by her guardian.
“I wish I knew what was happening in Ochanya’s life early enough while she was living in Felicia’s house because she might still be alive today. When she visited me during the holidays, there was no reason to suspect any foul play because she appeared happy but I was ignorant. I still see her in my dreams because it feels like yesterday,” Rose said.
A consultant psychiatrist at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, Makurdi, Akinjola Oyedele, says the emotional stress of losing a child if not managed properly can trigger a mental illness, especially in such traumatic circumstances as sexual abuse.
“Losing a child in such a tragic circumstance can throw a lot of things into play that might make a parent to grief beyond normal and blame him or herself for sexual abuse incident which can lead to serious mental issues. For instance, a parent’s grieve over losing a child for six months can be seen as normal but a case where it lasts for more than a year then psychological help is required,” he told The ICIR after learning of Rose’s situation.
Data from Nigeria’s first National Violence against Children Survey carried out in 2014, confirmed that in Nigeria one in four girls and one in ten boys have experienced sexual violence with over 70 per cent of them having experienced it on multiple occasions between the ages of six and 11.
In a report, rights activist, Caroline Ajie, estimates put the number of girls in Nigeria who experience sexual abuse annually at two million but there is no precise structure in the country that provides psychosocial help to sexually abused victims or their families to enable them cope with the emotional distress.
“The impact of sexual abuse on children has a very serious psychological effect on parents’ because they can start having anxiety issues with regards their other children or depression could set in which can pose a bigger problem if not treated,” Oyedele observes.
For Vershima Orhii, a HND II student of the Department of Catering and Hotel Management at the polytechnic she said though Andrew had taught her she never envisioned him as a paedophile until the news broke out on campus.
“He was not the friendly type of lecturer that students usually flock around or relate with because in class he would try to advise his students to be studious and make you feel like you’re not doing enough. I was not close to him because he taught me during my ND but I never saw him as someone who would stoop low to sexually abuse a kid until the story about Ochanya broke out,” she said.
She said that news has made her more cautious of her male lecturers because she cannot read their thoughts on their female students. She is eager to finish her studies and leave the school environment.
“That news made me very cautious around my male lecturers because I can’t read their minds so to avoid putting myself in a compromising situation I try as much as possible to avoid them for me to be on the safe side. I really want to get done with my academics in this school and just leave,” she said.
A Failed Promise
At the centre of Rose’s tragedy is LGEA Primary School, Ogene – Amejo, an ill-equipped public primary school owned by the state government which caters to the educational needs of children in the community.
Several classrooms in the school are close to ruins and mostly without windows and doors. Apart from a single block of four classrooms, every infrastructure in the school is begging for prompt rehabilitation.
Enclosed with bushes, the deserted school building reflects the sorry state of an abandoned project apart from the freshly made blocks that littered the compound.
Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, at a press briefing in November 2018 announced renaming the school after the late Ochanya to honour her memory, while directing the Executive Secretary of the State Universal Basic Education Board, Philip Attachin, to upgrade facilities in the school to modern standards.
When The ICIR reporter visited the school on November 6, the school was deserted without pupils and teachers in sight. There was no national or state holiday declared that day but speaking to some residents revealed that pupils stopped attending school after being asked to pay money for local craft.
So, as the local primary school languishes in the throes of neglect, a year after Governor Ortom promised to upgrade it, pupils and parents in Ogene – Amejo are still battling with the same problems that drove Ochanya away from the community and, ultimately, to her untimely death.
In 2017, the Benue State Government set up a strategic plan, which is named the State Priority Agenda, SPA, to provide safe spaces for Orphaned and Vulnerable Children, OVC, and also comprehensive social protection services.
For the first year of its implementation in 2018, the state government allocated ₦274 million for the project, which was targeted to reach 400,000 families. This indicates that ₦548 was expected to be spent on each family.
However, ₦45 million was actually released in 2018 which accounts for 20 per cent of the total amount allocated. The budgetary allocation for 2019 was not publicly available but the project was projected to accommodate 420,000 households in 2019 and 421,000 households in 2020.
Enuwa Soo, founder of The Potters Place, an orphanage and rehabilitation centre based in Otukpo, Benue State where Ochanya had stayed for over two months to receive counselling and rehabilitation, said she thought Ochanya would pull through the ordeal to become a living survivor of sexual molestation.
“Sometime in August 2018, I got a call from Ochanya’s sister who told me she needed time away from home for counselling and recovery from the trauma she had experienced at her aunt’s house. I quickly obliged and she stayed with me for over two months, I had high hopes that she would survive the disease and tell her story but it was not to be,” she said.
Soo lamented that from her personal experience with the Ochanya case, it is a practice with officials of the state government to give a knee – jerk response to issues associated with sexual abuse by donating money to victims without any deliberate policy in place to protect children.
“While Ochanya stayed with me at my rehabilitation home in Otukpo, she was also getting medical attention at the time from my pocket. The wife of the Benue State Governor paid a visit to the hospital Ochanya was staying and after hearing her story she gave her a gift of ₦5,000. The money is not the problem but that was all the state government could offer, it didn’t pay her medical expenses or provide any psychosocial assistance until she died.
“If that is the way we handle sensitive issues like sexual abuse without any effective action beyond lip service and political rhetoric then there’s a big problem with the government’s approach,” she argued.
A rare condition for a teenage girl
Ochanya’s plight reflects the appalling condition of sexually abused children who become victims of sexually – related diseases in Nigeria. VVF is a major gynaecological problem in the country with, according to estimates by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA.
At least 100,000 women in Nigeria are infected annually, and the complications are a leading cause of death for girls between 15 to 19 years old in the country.
It is estimated that 20,000 new cases are registered yearly according to figures obtained from the National Strategic Framework for the Elimination of Obstetric Fistula in Nigeria, and 90 per cent are untreated.
This implies that about 55 women are infected by VVF daily and 18,000 cases are also untreated daily.
VVF causes a hole between the bladder and vagina which results in leakage of urine into the vagina making the woman to have uncontrollable incontinence of urine or faeces or both. It is mainly caused by unrelieved obstructed labour, accidental surgical injury related to pregnancy as well as crude attempts at induced abortion.
Dr Amir Imam, coordinator and trainer on VVF surgery at the Murtala Muhammed Hospital, Kano, described Ochanya’s case as a rare occurrence of VVF considering she neither was pregnant nor suffered obstetrical trauma which occurs when a baby cannot pass through the mother’s birth canal because it either does not come head first or is too large for her pelvis, which can cause complications leading to VVF.
“There are cases of young girls who are not pregnant or trying to give birth who have VVF but it is very rare, not a natural occurrence. Certain factors could be responsible for a girl to have VVF when she is not expecting a baby. For example, if she is exposed to female genital mutilation as sharp instruments used during the process can create a likelihood or if she has a congenital malfunction,” he said.
He reconstructed a medical scenario of possibilities that may have played out that made Ochanya susceptible to VVF.
“If you look at the physiology of a woman, during intercourse her vagina expands but for younger girls like a thirteen-year-old that are just starting to menstruate that is not the case. She may have a congenital malformation in her vagina. That is probably she was born with that problem in the vagina but it did not manifest until when she became sexually active,” he explained.
Explaining further, he stated that continual force by an adult on a teenage girl could make her sustain a tear in her vagina that could be responsible for VVF but not fistula.
“Although, what could also be looked at is the extension of the vagina downward caused by a tear since it is a case of a big man overpowering a little girl sexually over a long period of time that could cause a tear in her vagina which may lead to urine or faecal incontinence but not a fistula as no sharp object or metal is inserted into her vagina or obstetric trauma which happens during delivery,” he added.
Ukan Kurugh, a rights activist who was actively involved in organizing protest demonstrations in Makurdi and its environs for the late Ochanya, said the actions of paedophiles like Andrew and his son only create an atmosphere of fear for young girls around the opposite sex.
“I visited Ochanya in the hospital when she was alive. You could sense this feeling of disillusionment when she looks at you. That look of someone who has been let down by society. What Andrew and his son did to Ochanya would reinforce a feeling of fear and suspicion for young girls of Ochanya’s age who will hear her story,” he said.
Speaking further, “And for her family, the delay of justice can destroy their psychology and give them a wrong perception that the world tolerates such evil. No girl should ever be exposed to the horrors of abuse Ochanya faced,” he said.
Long road to justice
Andrew was arrested on allegation of rape in April 2018, following a petition by Enuwa to the Benue State Commissioner of police and the International Federation of Women Lawyers, FIDA, Benue State chapter.
Upon a formal report by FIDA, Andrew was arraigned before Upper Area Court 1 in Makurdi, the state capital in April 2018 and granted bail while Ochanya was undergoing treatment at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, Makurdi.
His son, Victor, then a 300-level student of the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, who was at large at the time, was declared wanted by the police.
However, the tide turned against Andrew when Ochanya died in October 17, 2018, he was re-arrested and arraigned on a four-count charge bordering rape and culpable homicide before Chief Magistrate Court 1, Makurdi. His application for bail was denied by the magistrate while he was remanded in Makurdi prisons.
The case was transferred to the Benue State High Court in Otukpo in May 2019, after the defense counsel contended that the court in Makurdi did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.
Twice, when the case came up for hearing, it was adjourned because the presiding judge was away from the court on election tribunal duties.
The Office of the Attorney General of Benue State filed a fresh case against Andrew after amending the charge and transferring the case to the Benue High Court 9 in Makurdi because of a new investigation into the case while Andrew was remanded in prison custody.
Andrew’s wife, Felicia, was arrested in Markurdi by NAPTIP officials on November 23, 2018, after evading arrest for four weeks.
The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP, arraigned Felicia before a Federal High Court sitting in Makurdi on a two-count charge for negligence over the alleged rape and death of Ochanya in her care.
She is currently being remanded at the Federal Prisons Makurdi, pending when she meets a ₦6 million bail bond.
One year after Victor was declared wanted, his location is still unknown but the police still claims it is making frantic efforts to find him. When The ICIR sought to know from the spokesperson of the Benue State Police command, Anene Catherine, if the command was still on the lookout for Victor, she said yes.
“After declaring the young man wanted it is expected that the general public should bring any information to the police about him. Apart from that an intelligence unit was set up to track his whereabouts and arrest him but as at the last time I spoke with the team there was no information concerning him yet. We are still on the issue,” she said.
When asked why it has taken the police more than one year to find a suspect who does not have any prior history of paramilitary training, she explained that looking for people on the run takes time.
“Someone can actually be declared wanted for more than a year and we won’t find the person. It’s not that the police are not doing anything to find him we are doing a lot but we have not gotten any clue as to where he is currently. I can assure you that we will find him,” she said with optimism.
Ochanya’s mother does not share the optimism of the police because she is not comfortable with the fact that someone who was responsible for the rape of her daughter, which led to her death is still walking free.
“I wonder why the police are yet to arrest Victor after one year since they started looking for him. I wouldn’t like what happened to my daughter to happen to any family which is why they need to find him. I just want people who took my daughter’s life to pay for their crimes,” she said with a tone of finality.
Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.