In the first part of the report, ARINZE CHIJIOKE chronicles the experiences of families that lost loved ones to years of police brutality and how corruption has marred activities of the panel of inquiry set up by the Enugu State government to hear cases of brutality and make recommendations.
WHEN 19-year-old Chukwuebuka Omeje left his room to attend a Block Rosary meeting at Ovoko Agu village in Igbo Eze South Local Government Area of Enugu state, he did not see any evil coming.
It was on June 30, 2009.
A native of the same village, Chukwuebuka was a student at Boys Secondary School, Ovoko, where he made excellent grades. All through his junior secondary school days, he stayed with his parents.
When the time for his Senior Secondary School Examination (SSCE) drew close, Chukwuebuka asked his father to get him a house close to his school to help him study for his examination.
His father agreed and got him a house close to the school where he was supposed to stay for one year. Sadly, he only stayed for fifteen days in his new house before he was killed.
After the meeting ended by 5.00 pm, he left the venue and went to a bus stop to wait for a bus back home. While he waited, officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), who were dressed in mufti, drove past him, stopped their car and reversed to where he was standing. Immediately, one of them, identified as Inspector Victor Ugwu, pulled his gun and shot Chukwuebuka.
Chukwuebuka fell to the ground and was in a pool of blood.
But he did not die immediately. The officers carried him and put him in their vehicle. Before they got to Iheaka, a nearby community, he had bled to death.
The officers drove to Urban Police Station, in Nsukka town, where they reported that they had shot Chukwuebuka because they suspected he was a ‘criminal.’
“But he was not,” said 68-year-old Dominic Omeje, Chukwuebuka’s father, who was out of town when his son died. “They took his corpse to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) in Ituku Ozalla, Enugu, where they deposited it.”
Initially, Omeje did not believe the story till he asked one of his brothers to go to UNTH and confirm that his son’s corpse was there. Alphonsus, the brother, returned with a confirmation that Chukwuebuka’s body was lying lifeless in the morgue.
For three months, Chukwuebuka’s corpse was kept in the mortuary – because of the allegation that he was a criminal – before the police released it to his family for burial. He was buried on October 9, 2009, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Nkpunase Ovoko amidst tears from his family and fellow Block Rosary members.
After Chukwuebuka was buried, Omeje got a lawyer, Ike Obeta, who wrote a petition and sued Inspector Victor Ugwu at the Enugu Ezike High Court.
“On one of the occasions when we met in court, I asked Inspector Ugwu if my son had done anything to warrant killing him,” Omeje said.
“He said it was a mistake and that he did not even know Chukwuebuka.”
Omeje’s family did not get justice as the court kept adjourning the case. But he kept on going to court to seek justice for four years, yet nothing happened. “It got to a point when I became tired because it appeared that the police didn’t want the killer to face justice.”
The #EndSARS protest
In October 2020, demonstrators in their thousands thronged Nigerian cities, calling for an end to police brutality in the country and demanding justice for victims of police violence and extrajudicial killings.
In the same month, reports of an unprovoked shooting of a boy in the streets of Delta State by SARS operatives had made the rounds on social media. Although the Nigerian Police denied the shooting in this case, it was not enough to quell public anger as more videos of police shootings were shared across social media platforms.
Known as #EndSARS, the demonstrations started as a call for the disbandment of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police Force that has earned notoriety for its brutality and human rights violations. The government had announced structural changes to SARS, but the alleged human rights violations and exploitation continued.
Celebrities and activists rallied for support on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and, in a matter of days, protesters lined the streets. The protestors added to their list of demands, calling for compensation of victims of SARS brutality, retraining of police officers, and trials of indicted SARS officials.
The panel and a glimmer of hope
Pressured by the demonstrations, the National Executive Council (NEC) passed a resolution for the setting up of panels to accept petitions and oversee the investigations and prosecutions of reported cases of police misconduct, which was one of the main demands of the #ENDSARS protesters.
Most of the petitions alleged human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings, torture, extortion, harassment, sexual and gender-based violence, indiscriminate arrests, illegal detention, illegal arrests and abuse of power by personnel of the Nigerian police and other security agencies.
Between November and December 2020, at least 28 states across the country had set up the panels. As many as 2,500 petitions were submitted by families and victims of police brutality.
In Enugu, on November 21, 2020, the state governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, inaugurated an eight-man Judicial Panel of Inquiry to receive and investigate complaints of police brutality and/or related extrajudicial killings in the state.
When the Enugu State government set up a panel, Omeje’s hopes were renewed. He thought that the time had finally come for him to get justice for his late son.
“We got the services of a lawyer who helped us put up a petition and submitted it to the panel, “he said.
“But after our case was heard, no decision was taken and the policeman we mentioned was not even invited,” he said.
More than one year after the panel was set up and five months after it finally submitted its report, Omeje could not say what had become of his late son’s case. He does not know if he will ever get justice.
Chukwuebuka’s family remember him every year
On June 30 of every year, Omeje gathers his family to pray for the late Chukwuebuka. Together, they remember him and celebrate his memory. They also hold mass celebrations dedicated to him.
“We will not forget him in a hurry,” Omeje said. “We loved him.”
After Chukwuebuka’s burial, Omeje relocated his family to Nsukka as his wife always broke down in tears whenever she saw the graveside of her late son in front of their house.
Enugu’s panel of injustice
At its inauguration, the Enugu Panel of Inquiry had an initial six-month timeline from November 2020 to April 2021 to receive, hear cases of police brutality and human rights abuses, investigate, and make recommendations.
After the period elapsed and the panel was yet to conclude its sitting, the time was extended by another four months and this time, it was expected to end sitting in August 2021.
But in the entire 10 months the panel sat, there were allegations that it failed to carry out its responsibilities of administering justice to families of victims of police brutality in the state. The families have continued to wait for compensation for their losses.
Although the panel submitted its report/ recommendations to the state government on November 10, its activities were fraught with injustices and subversion of due processes allegedly championed by its chairman, Justice Kingsley Ude(rtd) and his secretary, Mr. Onochie Ugwu.
When this reporter reached out to the chairman of the panel, Justice Ude, on what was causing the delay in compensation for families, he said “the panel cannot say what is causing the delay in compensation. We have done our part and made our report to the government.”
But while Ude said the panel had submitted its report to the government, Osmond Ugwu, who represented the civil society on the panel, told The ICIR that he does not expect the government to work with a report which was not founded on truth, justice and failed to follow the terms of reference establishing the panel.
Osmond said that after the panel was inaugurated, they had the mandate of receiving petitions from victims of police brutality, investigating the petitions, evaluating the evidence, drawing conclusions and making recommendations to the government.
He, however, revealed that the panel failed to carry out investigation on the petitions received, adding that many witnesses mentioned did not appear to give their testimonies.
“Our job started in the mentioning of the petitions and adoptions,” he said.
“There were no investigations and evaluation of evidence upon which we were supposed to make decisions and recommendations.”
He alleged that the chairman and secretary of the panel failed to make use of the Enugu State Commission of Inquiry Law, 2004, which gives it the power in Section 9 to issue a subpoena to any respondent that refuses to appear before it.
“Each time I tried to bring it to their notice, they failed to listen,” he said. “Some of the respondents were merely served hearing notices and when they refused to appear, the panel did not act.”
He explained that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) organised a virtual training for all members of the panel – like it did in other states – and exposed them to the procedures involved in fundamental human rights violations and investigations.
“We were given documents to work with, but we did not work with them,” he said.
“Adopting a petition – which is a formal presentation of the petition to panel members – does not mean end of proceedings. We were expected to go back and investigate the content of the petition and during the investigation, we hear from witnesses.”
Osmond, who is the president of the International Solidarity for Peace and Human Rights Initiative, said he was not aware of the time the panel he was part of submitted its report to the government.
“I only heard about it through a friend who works with the government.” he said. “It was a deliberate attempt because the chairman and secretary of the panel knew I would not have accepted that we submit the report.”
He noted that the failure of the panel to properly investigate and mete out justice to perpetrators of human rights abuses in Enugu State would only serve to perpetuate such abuses in the society.
A trigger-happy policeman ended Ikechukwu’s life
When 32-year-old Ugwu Daniel Ikechukwu, a driver for Peace Mass Transit, a transport company, was leaving Onitsha in the early hours of January 6, 2020, he did not know he would not return.
His wife, 27-year-old Onyinyechuckwu Ugwu, who was seven months pregnant at the time, was at her village in Ezza in the southeastern town of Effium in Ebonyi State. She was preparing to return to Enugu where they lived the next day.
Ikechukwu, a native of Imilike Ani in Udenu Local Government Area of Enugu State, had called his wife that morning and asked about their children and told her that he was about to begin his journey from Onitsha to Yenagoa.
“He always told me everything he planned to do; he never kept her in the dark,” Onyinyechi said. “When he called, I told him we were fine and wished him well.”
But neither of them knew the danger ahead.
At about 5.00 p.m the same day, Ikechukwu arrived at his company’s bus terminal in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, from Onitsha in Anambra State.
While the passengers were coming down from his vehicle and their luggage was being brought out, a policeman attached to Fidelity Bank, Okutukutu, Yenagoa, approached Ikechukwu.
He asked Ikechukwu to hand over his car keys and when Ikechukwu refused to do so, the policeman cocked his gun and shot him. The bullet hit Ikechukwu’s left ear and spinal cord and hit a passenger behind.
As the policeman tried to run away, people caught him and started beating him. When the police got wind of what was happening, they came and rescued the trigger-happy policeman from the mob and took him away. They also took Ikechukwu and the injured passenger to the hospital immediately.
Before he got to Yenagoa, Onyinyechi said she was communicating with her husband as they were wont to. But when it was 5.00pm and she called several times but he did not pick up, she became afraid and wondered what had happened.
“I felt he was busy because he had told me that any time I call two times and he does not pick, I should know he is busy with work. I did not call again.”
After some time, a stranger called to inform her about her husband’s shooting. The man who called to give her the news also told her that her husband, who had regained consciousness, wanted to speak with her.
“Ikechukwu asked me to come to Yenagoa the following morning, together with someone, that he was dying,” Onyinyechi recalled.
All through the night, Onyinyechi cried, but her mother and family members tried to console her. The next day, she left for Bayelsa and when she got to the park, she was taken to the Federal Medical Centre in Yenagoa, Bayelsa, where her husband had been taken to.
“When I saw the emergency unit inside the hospital, I noticed that he was not moving, “ she said.
“They later transferred us to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) because they said they could not handle it since the gunshot affected his spinal cord.”
On January 10, four days after the incident, Ikechukwu died from his wounds at the UNTH. Onyinyechi felt her world crumbling before her eyes.
Onyinyechi is now left with taking care of six children after her husband’s death. Now, she sells fried yam and potatoes to take care of her children’s education.
She had to leave the house she lived in after expiration of the rent because she could not afford to renew it. In the early days of her husband’s death, she developed an eye problem and was told at the hospital that it was because she had cried a lot.
Onyinyechi said her husband was loving and caring, playful and generous and never let his family want anything. He also extended the same kind-heartedness to mother, siblings, co-workers, and friends.
“My heart is bleeding seriously, I can’t get myself to believe that I will not see my husband again,” she said. “It is a lifetime pain.”
What is more troubling for Onyinyechi is that she is yet to hear anything from the panel of inquiry set up by the state government.
“I got a lawyer who filed a petition over my husband’s death and submitted it to the Enugu State Panel on Police Brutality,” she said.
“The last time we met at the panel in April 2021, the judge said that the panel was going to submit a report to the state government for necessary actions to be taken on my cases.”
But she is yet to hear anything concerning the report. She cannot even say what decision was taken about the death of her husband.
Alleged diversion of funds
Apart from allegations of failure to follow due process, Osmond also spoke of how there was poor awareness creation about activities of the panel even when the state government, according to him, made over N6 million available to be used to inform the public about the panel and its activities.
“We did not have enough petitions because many families, who would have loved to come, were not aware when the panel was created and when we started sitting,” he said.
He also alleged that apart from providing money for publication, the state government made funds available for other services of the panel, including the serving of petitions to respondents.
“The government provided vehicle, fuel and recharge cards for that purpose, but the secretary went ahead to collect money from petitioners before their petitions were served,” he alleged.
Some petitions were not heard
Osmond also spoke of how over 40 petitions out of the 147 petitions that were submitted were neither mentioned nor heard till the panel report was submitted on November 10.
He explained that when the panel called for submission of petitions, some families sent in theirs through an email address provided. But none of those was heard. Only 68 petitions out of the 147 received were adopted, he said.
He explained that as a member of the panel, he was supposed to have access to all petitions that came in and make inputs in all of them. But he was restricted to making inputs on 14 memos out of the 147 received.
“I was also made to submit my record book before time after I had insisted that I must make input into all petitions,“ he said. “I was supposed to sign in the report before submission, but I did not sign.”
Another panel member confirms allegations
When this reporter contacted another member of the panel, who would not want his name mentioned, he confirmed the allegations against the panel, describing most of them as ‘administrative lapses.’
He explained that the panel made sure that respondents mentioned in petitions were served to make for fair hearing but insisted that they could not force people to appear.
“It was our job to ensure that they were served. It is not our place to force anyone to appear before the panel,“ he said.
For those who refused to appear before the panel, he said the panel entered judgement against them and made recommendations based on the strengths of the allegations against them.
He noted that although the panel had the power to issue subpoena (a writ ordering a person to appear in court), its decision to go ahead with judgements were based on the advice of the chairman of the panel.
“For such people who could not appear before the panel, we made sure to have evidence of service, so they don’t contest our judgments against them. We cannot be said to be fair if we did not make efforts to hear from respondents.”
On allegations of lack of provision of enough information about panel activities, he said there was provision of funds for the media and that he saw some of them a couple of times during the panel sitting.
He, however, noted that he was not satisfied with the level of coverage as there were sittings of the panel that were not covered by the media.
“In one of our sittings, we had a serving commissioner in the state, a magistrate, senior police officials and members of communities in attendance. But there was no media coverage. I can’t say how many times they were supposed to cover our sittings.”
He further explained that while the secretary shared links to reports that were done during the panel sittings, no reports were made available when the panel submitted its report to the government.