Sometime in 2007, some 19 Igbo youths were randomly picked up and locked away in different detention facilities by security operatives over allegations of terrorism and treason.
They were accused of either belonging to the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) or sponsoring its activities in the South East.
They were arrested while going about their normal businesses. However, on November 24, 2021, after 15 years of incarceration, they regained their freedom having been discharged and acquitted by a Federal High Court sitting in Awka, Anambra State. In truth, no tangible evidence was produced by government to justify their arrest and detention in the first instance.
The trial judge, Justice Nicholas Oweibo said the prosecutors failed to establish proof for treason and terrorism charges levelled against the 19 accused persons.
Saturday Sun Newspapers encountered some of them, and they recounted their heart-rending experiences in detention.
They lamented that their future had been ruined by the Federal Government of Nigeria over trumped up charges.
I lost my business and love of my life
Ikechukwu Chikwem was 35 years old when he was arrested in his spare parts shop located in Nkwo Nnewi. Now 50 and left to start life afresh, Chikwem who hails from Obazu Mbieri in Mbaitolu Local Government Area of Imo State, recalled with trepidation how his life was turned on its head.
In the morning of April 11, 2007, Chikwem was in one of his shops, attending to customers when two policemen came and told him he was needed at their station. Chikwem boldly followed the officers since he felt he had no unfinished business transaction with anyone neither was he owing any of his business partners. He told his neighbours to watch over his shop, adding that he would be back in an hour.
“Throughout that morning, they kept me behind the counter. I stayed there till 6pm. They brought one bus and asked me to enter. I asked them what was the problem and they said I would know when I got to Awka. From there, they took me to the State CID; I stayed there till the next morning when they took me to Awkuzu SARS,” he narrated.
It was at the SARS office in Awkuzu that an officer asked him, ‘where is the White man?’ Surprised by the question, Chikwem asked to know which White man the officer was referring to. Rather than a reply, he said he received hot slaps on his face, followed by severe torture that ended up paralyzing his hands for several months.
“So when they asked further questions I kept quiet because I didn’t know which answer would annoy them. All they needed was for me to always reply in the positive. One man there ordered them to take me to a hall where they hang people. They said I would say the truth there.
“They brought out sliced bicycle tube used for tying broom and tied my hands from my fingers to my shoulders. The pain was so excruciating. I was crying and shouting. I now asked him to tell me anything he wanted me to say and I would say them.
“The pain was just too much for me. At that point, his phone rang. He picked his phone and answered the call for over 40 minutes. Before he could come back, my hands had been paralyzed. I was not feeling the pains anymore. He came back with a sheet of paper where he had written a lot of things and then asked me to sign.
“One of his colleagues asked him how possible it was for me to sign seeing that my hands had been paralyzed and I would not be able to use it even after six months. Then he took me back to the cell. I could not use my hands anymore. In the cell, other inmates were the ones that would bathe and feed me. They now transferred us to Umuahia from where we were moved to Abuja.”
Chikwem and other detainees were returned to Awka to face trial in court having been charged with terrorism and treason.
“They said that I am a MASSOB member, that my in-law is a MASSOB sponsor and he is passing the information and money through me. They said that my in-law is the one paying all MASSOB members. At the end of the day, they investigated and found nothing on me.
“I was granted bail in Abuja but because this thing is political, that bail was denied. I am a businessman and my boss was Ogbuawa (wealthy Nnewi businessman). I discovered that people who wanted to bring him down were behind the plot.
“The police did all the investigation but none of the allegations was true. They gave me that bail on Friday, I was contacting my people to come and fulfil the bail conditions on Monday. On Saturday, it was reported that the owner of my phone number is a terrorist. That he is the one burning all the police stations in Nnewi. That was how the bail was revoked and the investigation started again. This whole thing lasted for 15 years.
Aside losing his business which was worth N16.7 million in 2007, Chikwem also lost the love of his life to another man. He had concluded the marital rites of introduction before the incident.
“I was about getting married and had already gone for the introduction before this thing happened. The lady didn’t abandon me; she stood by me and actually came to the police station to see me when I was arrested. But after about seven months, I told her to relax, that I was coming back.
“However, after two years in detention, I told her to go back to her parents. I told her that if I came back and found her unmarried, I’ll marry her but if she saw another man, she should go ahead and marry the person. We both started crying when I said this. My detention now took 15 years. By the grace of God, she is married now with kids. I have not seen her but we spoke over the phone.”
But for Chikwem, all hope is not lost. He recalled that many people came into the prison and died there but since he was still strong without any deformity, he still believes that he will achieve all his dreams.
He said: “What God deposited in me is still there. I can make it. I have forgotten the 15 years. I am now facing the future. Now, I am pleading, if I can be given another opportunity by our people, I will be grateful. I need financial assistance.
“I had planned to save up to N22 million. I’ll keep N2 million here and take N20 million to China and get my goods. That was before this incident. I actually had N16.7 million when this thing happened. I was almost getting to my target before these people came and damaged everything.
Siblings dropped out of school, family house demolished
For Ndubuisi Okam, a native of Edda, Afikpo South in Ebonyi State, he was arrested on his way to Aba to purchase stock jeans which he sold in Abakaliki.
After spending 15 years in detention, he returned to his village only to realise that his father’s house had been pulled down. His family now lives in a one-room shanty. His three younger brothers, whose education he was financing, had dropped out of school. He also lost two of his uncles while in detention.
“I am happy to be alive and out of prison but I’m not happy with the situation I found myself. I was charged with treason and felony and plan to overthrow the government. I didn’t do anything. I thank God that after all the years, the judge of the Federal High Court Awka discovered that I did nothing.”
Okam, now 35 had planned to get married to a certain beautiful young girl called Nnenna before the unfortunate incident.
“She was the girl of my dream, but another person has now married her,” he said.
But that is not Okam’s problem. All he needs now is a fresh start. He wants to be empowered financially, so that he could assist his family
“I was 20 years then but I am 35 now. I want to have a good future but I need money. I have plans but none of them will make sense if I don’t have money.”
They kept changing judges –Ezekwem
Another victim, Chidiebere Ezekwem who hails from Ogwa community in Mbaitolu Local Government Area of Imo State was a shoe dealer in Onitsha. He was on his way to Aba to buy shoes when security operatives intercepted him along the way and brought him to Awka to face trial.
He bemoaned incessant adjournments and frequent change of trial judges who handled the case.
“When a judge starts the case, before getting to the end, he will be transferred and another judge will take over. This thing continued for several times until a particular judge, Justice Oweibo, came. Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, Senator Chris Anyanwu and members of MASSOB also got involved in the case before I was discharged.”
Now 40, Ezekwem said he was billed to get married to a girl he was engaged to before the incident. “The lady later got married to another man, so, I’m not married.
“After I was discharged on November 24, 202I, came back to my home in Ogwa community, Mbaitolu Local Government of Imo State because I have no other place to go.”
Just like his colleagues, Ezekwem now needs help from government and other public-spirited individuals to go back to his former business.
He said: “I want to continue with my normal life. I thank God for my strength, I lost everything but I did not lose my life. I also thank God for the MASSOB members who came up in their multitude for my rescue.
“So many things happened in the prison; idleness, no facilities, no sunlight, staying in the prison for 15years and seven months affected me, but I thank God for everything.”
They paid biggest price
– MASSOB leader
Reacting to the development, leader of MASSOB, Uchenna Madu in an interview hailed the 19 youths for paying a price bigger than what most agitators had paid in the past.
He said that while others including Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, Nnamdi Kanu and himself had spent some years in jail, these Igbo youths spent 15 of their most productive years in detention.
“As a matter of fact, since 1999 when this struggle started, this people are the highest and the greatest people that have paid the price, apart from those that laid down their lives.
“The highest I spent in the prison was three years, six months and two weeks but we are talking about 15 years here. Ralph Uwazuruike spent two years, Nnamdi Kanu has gone about two times or so but two years is the highest he has spent in the prison at a stretch. But these ones here have spent 15 years of their youth in prison.
“The Federal Government detained these men who had future plans and ambitions for their family and community. They have frustrated them and at the end of the day they are discharged and asked to go just like that. That is injustice.
“We know other steps that we are going to take to redress this and bring justice to our brothers. In their villages, so many people had seen them as criminals but today they are saints. They are freedom fighters.
“They suffered for the sake of Biafra. I use this medium once again to thank Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe. We met him, we appealed to him with Senator Chris Anyanwu, Senator Ben-Collins Ndu and a few others. We begged them and they listened to us, they moved. Abaribe is a true Igbo leader, even though he believes in the continuation of Nigeria. Abaribe believes in one Nigeria, he may not share the same idea of Biafra with us but at the same time the pains of his people touch him so much.”
One striking thing that Saturday Sun gathered in our investigations was that all these people never knew one another before their arrest. They were doing their businesses in different locations across the South East before they were arrested and branded Biafra agitators.
One of them said he did not belong to any Biafra group. But he stated that since he was incarcerated for years for what he knew nothing about, he was now ready to die for the Biafra struggle.