It’s been six years since Jude Nnaji disappeared. For his family, including a six-year-old daughter he never met, moving on has been an impossible task.
JUDE Chinonso Nnaji, who was 26 when he went missing, was many things rolled into one.
He finished his secondary school education at Union Secondary School, Ugbaike, in the Enugu-Ezike village of Enugu state. Struggling to get admission into the university to study microbiology (or nursing, because he wanted to care for people), he learnt how to repair faulty electrical connections. From his savings, he began buying and selling gallons of palm oil. He eventually bought a motorcycle for himself.
Jude was also an aspiring dancer and musician. He wrote many songs he unfortunately never got to record. His favourite song was ‘Never Forget Me’ by the American hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, which he played almost every day. The song features Senegalese-American singer Akon, who was Jude’s favourite musician.
Part of a large family, which consisted of his mother and eight other siblings, Jude had lost his father in 2007. Jude loved his family; he constructed some rooms for his mother, which now serve as her kitchen and storage rooms, and also paid the fees of one of his sisters who was in secondary school.
Jude’s greatest desire was to travel out of the country, preferably to Dubai – where he planned to work hard and make a lot of money, return to Nigeria and help his mother, siblings, wife and children have a better life. But this dream never came true.
On the morning of January 13, 2015, Jude’s brother-in-law, Okpe Onyebuchi, called him to accompany him to see a friend in Obollo-Afor, a town in the Udenu Local Government Area of Enugu State. According to Jude’s family, it was at Obollo-Afor that officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (widely known as Awkuzu SARS), arrested him.
“My brother was at home that day when he got a call from a friend who asked him to come to Obollo Afor,” recalls Ifunanya Nnaji, Jude’s sister.
On January 15, two days after Jude’s arrest, six SARS operatives showed up at his family house, driving in black Toyota Sienna and Camry cars and wearing black clothes. Without an explanation, they ransacked the house. After not finding what they were looking for, they told Jude’s mother not to come in search of her son. Jude’s mother asked the officers what crime her son had committed. There was no response.
“They did not tell us what exactly he did,” Ifunanya says.
Jude’s elder brother, 40-year-old Michael Nnaji, found out the SARS officers’ office was in Awkuzu, a town in the Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State. He went there and was threatened by the officers, who told him never to come in search of his brother again, as he risked being locked up.
Micheal defied that warning and turned up again at the SARS station on January 23. This time, the officers did not even open the gates for him.
“After that day, Micheal didn’t go back to the station because of the threats. They warned him not to go back again,” says Ifunanya.
Jude’s family, out of fear and lacking anyone to fight for them, steered clear from the SARS office and prayed for Jude’s return.
Six years on, Jude is yet to return.
Okpe Onyebuchi, the brother-in-law whom Jude had accompanied to Obollo-Afor on the day he was arrested, was only seen three months after the incident. Mr. Onyebuchi revealed that he had put Jude’s SIM card in his phone, and it was through the card that the SARS officers had tracked them. The officers had come specifically for Jude. That was why Mr. Onyebuchi spent only three months in custody. Why the officers were after Jude remains a mystery.
Jude’s wife, Rita Jude, while carrying the couple’s second daughter, had not been around during the incident. She had been in the town of Onitsha where she sold food.
Rita says she misses her husband, especially the affection he showered on her, and the laughter-filled conversations they shared. She says her husband was hardworking and made sure his family never lacked.
Rita, who eventually gave birth to a second child, a girl, on September 15, 2015, says she had a dream in which she had a debate with her husband on what name to give the baby. In the dream, she told her husband she preferred to name the baby Chidiomimi (God is mysterious), but Jude suggested the name Chiziterem (Godsent).
Chiziterem Nnaji is six years old now.
Rita says her children keep asking her about their father, and she still doesn’t know how to tell them that he is missing and might be dead. She works at a betting shop to feed her children and take them through school. Being a single mother, she confesses, has not been easy.
In the wake of the nationwide #EndSARS protests in October 2020, Enugu State’s Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi set up a panel to investigate complaints of police brutality or related extrajudicial killings. Ifunanya, who was 15 when her brother Jude was arrested, saw an opportunity to demand justice.
With the help of a lawyer, she drafted a statement and submitted it to the panel. She was asked by the panel to go and serve letters to the officers said to have carried out the arrest. She says she has not been able to do that because she is afraid of what might happen if she goes back, given the fact that she has been warned not to return. The panel has since rounded up hearings.
Ifunanya remembers her brother as strict but loving. He would encourage her not to look down on herself, advising her to take her education seriously.
Her brother, she recalls, was shrewd when it came to business ideas and investments. “He got a motorcycle for himself from his savings. He was also buying and selling gallons of palm oil with his savings, and was earning money from it,” she says.
Jude’s absence over the last six years has left his family distraught. Jude’s mother, Roseline Nnaji, has burnt most of the papers that contained her son’s song lyrics, because she does not want to be reminded of him. “I don’t know whether he is still alive or they [SARS officers] have killed him,” she says.
“I don’t have money to look for him. I don’t even have anybody who is behind me in the case,” she continues. “I want to see Jude. That is my problem.”
As for Ifunaya, remembering her brother has been made easy by his favourite song. “I still play ‘Never Forget Me’ ,” she says. “Anytime I play the song, it reminds me of my brother and the dreams he had.”
This story is part of a multimedia project by Tiger Eye Foundation and media partners across Nigeria, documenting police brutality in Nigeria, and advocating for police reform.