Those were the haunting words of Promise Ezeama, a student of Nwafor Orizu College of Education, Nsugbe, in Anambra East Local Government Area of Anambra State.
He was narrating in vivid details, how operatives of Special Anti-Cultism Unit (SPACS) in the state arrested and tortured him and his friends because they allegedly wanted them to accept and admit to being cult members.
The policemen flashed their van’s headlight at the undergraduates. Ezeama switched on his phone’s light and flashed it on the faces of his friends and himself, so that the policemen could see them properly.
He said: “I wanted them to know that we were not a bad gang. On getting to our lodge’s gate, the men, who wore T-Shirts with the inscription: SPACS, asked if any of us was Uche. We said no. Everyone introduced himself. One of them asked, ‘confirmed?’ and one of them inside their van replied, ‘confirmed.’ We told them where we were returning from. They said they knew and had been waiting for us. That was how our journey to police detention started.”
Ezeama recalled that the policemen handcuffed him and two of his friends, and allowed the girls among them to go. The victim wanted to make call, to alert his family about what was happening, but the police allegedly refused. Rather, they confiscated their phones. He told them that he would like to speak with the caretaker of his lodge. When the caretaker came out, he was asked if he knew the boys, he replied yes. The policemen asked him to come to their station the following day to bail the boys if they were not guilty. The boys wondered what was going on that the policemen were talking about them being, ‘guilty.’
The three students were marched into the police van, where they saw three other ‘suspects.’ The policemen drove to another community in the same Abata Nsugbe, to carry out more arbitrary arrests.
Ezeama said: “We were in the van with one of them, while others went to make another arrest. They returned some minutes later with one Israel. Israel narrated how the policemen knocked on his door, and on opening it, they surrounded him.”
Israel told Ezeama and other victims in the police van that he thought he had been kidnapped. Just like in the case of Ezeama and his friends, one of the policemen asked, “Confirmed?” and another responded, “Double confirmed.”
Israel was handcuffed and bundled into the van with others. By then the number of those arrested that early hours had risen to seven. The policemen drove the victims to the Inland Town Police Station in Onitsha.
Ezeama said that was his first time at any police station. But he wouldn’t wish his worst enemy to experience what he did there.
He recounted: “It was there that those anti-cultism policemen started interrogating us. They ordered us to remove our clothes and then put us in cell. People were already in the cell, whom they had arrested earlier. They narrated their ordeal to us and to crown it all, the policemen tagged every one of us, a cultist. The policemen later started torturing us. They asked me the cult group I belonged to, but I told them that I was not a cultist. They refused to listen and kept torturing me.”
Ezeama said he was tortured to the extent that he feared he would die. He recalled: “Oh God, at that point, I couldn’t bear it anymore. They had already listed names of cult groups, which they insisted that I should pick one. To save my life, I had to choose. If I didn’t pick, the torture will continue. They’ll torture you until you confess to be a cultist. I chose Buccaneer. After picking Buccaneer, their commander ordered them not to touch me again. They were all happy and satisfied. They then untied my hands and legs. They asked me who initiated me; I replied that I was not a cultist. I was given a hot slap and I saw stars. I quickly mentioned the name of my Caretaker, Chidubem and his assistant, Chibuike. These men knew nothing about cultism. But I had to give these policemen names to save myself. They asked where I was initiated, I told them that it was in my lodge, they asked me date of initiation, I said September, when I newly got admission into the school.”
Later that day, Chidubem went to the station to find out how to go about securing the three boys’ release. The commander ordered his boys to arrest, detain and torture him. The commander told his men to find out how Chidubem initiated Ezeama.
Ezeama said: “My caretaker called me in front of them, to confirm if I really mentioned his name. I told them that I mentioned his name because of the torture. The policemen said that I had lied against them, that they didn’t torture me. They asked both of us to lie down and then started flogging us mercilessly with machetes until the commander ordered them to stop and return us to cell, along with our caretaker.”
The landlady of the building later came to bail Chidubem, her caretaker. She was alleged to have come to the station armed with N100,000. The caretaker was released that night.
Ezeama said that the most worrisome aspect of the horror at the station was the policemen’s refusal to allow them to contact their family members until the second day in detention.
He added: “The policemen refused to allow us to call our people till day two, which was when they returned our phones and asked us to call our people to come and bail us with money. What I did was to post my ordeal on my WhatsApp status, stating my current situation and location. I also posted it on my village WhatsApp group and other groups I belong to. After that, I called my people.”
Immediately the arrest, detention and torture story spread, Ezeama’s sister rushed to the station, but was asked to come back the following, which she did. The distraught woman was told that her kid brother, Ezeama, had admitted to being a cult member. The woman stubbornly refused to buy their story; she insisted that her brother couldn’t be a cultist.
“My sister started haggling with the police on how much to pay for my bail. They first mentioned N200,000, but after my sister’s pleading, they came down to N100,000. In the process of hunting for the money, my sister met a friend, who directed her to a human rights lawyer, Justus Ijeoma. The lawyer warned my sister not to pay a dime, that he would follow up the case and he did,” Ezeama said. The young man recollected that they were detained for three days before Ijeoma intervened and the matter was charged to court. It was in court that Ezeama and his friend, Daniel Nnaji, were granted bail.
He added that one of those arrested, Godswin Simon, was released after he started vomiting blood. Ezeama said that Simon was released without paying for bail because of the blood and the police feared he might die.
Ezeama fumed: “I learnt that the boy had a heart problem. Those policemen should be dismissed. These policemen are killing youths. They are killing people’s careers. Even on that day, the policeman that took my statement was drunk and his words were slurred. How can a policeman be drunk and be reeking of it?”
The story of 24-year-old Daniel Nnaji, who was arrested along with Ezeama, is not too different. Nnaji is a professional dancer, attending same school with Ezeama. He has a dance crew and used to go to shows. For Nnaji, dancing is a hobby.
He said: “I’m a dancer; I even have a dance crew. Sometimes we go for shows if we’re invited or contracted. Yes, I combine dancing with my studies.”
Nnaji said he and his crew were invited by the anti-cultism student leader in their school, identified as Sam, to come and perform at the orientation programme for the year one students.
The show ended about 2a.m. and he headed to his lodge, which was a stone’s throw from where the orientation programme was held. He and his friends sighted the Anambra State Police Command’s Anti-Cultism Policemen, otherwise known as SPACS.
“We saw Anti-Cultism policemen; they came to our lodge, looking for somebody named Uche. They asked if anyone of us was Uche, we said no. Rather than allow us to be, they ordered us into their van. They said they would take us to their station for further investigation. When we got there, their leader came out and asked us if we knew why we were there, we said no. He said that we were all cultists! He said that whether we cooperated or not was up to us. We were ordered to remove our clothes and marched into cell.
“The following morning, we were brought out to write statements. While writing the statements, they would ask, ‘are you a cultist? If you say no, they’ll tell you that you’re a cultist. If you refused to accept that you’re a cultist, they’ll continue to torture you. They’ll tie your hands and legs and use machetes to flog you; you must accept that you’re a cultist. We were not the only victims in their cells.
“I had to finally accept that I was a cultist because the torture was too much. One of them used a machete to flog my back and hand. He said if I didn’t accept, that he would continue to flog me. He handcuffed and asked me to lie down on the ground. I refused because I was afraid. I didn’t know what he wanted to do. He then forced me to the ground and started using machete to flog me. My hands were bound behind me. The policeman torturing me told me that he was once a cultist. He brought out a book and started asking me questions on how I was initiated. He asked if I was initiated in a bush, house and school. I said I wasn’t a cultist, he said that I must pick one. I picked one. The second question was if I was blindfolded or flogged during initiation.
“What I discovered is that they wanted us to accept and then use it as evidence against us. That was my first time in a station or being locked up in a cell. The following night, they brought in another set of young men, who were also accused of being cultists. People we met in the cell were all complaining. One said that he was arrested after he stepped out of his home to buy recharge card. Another guy said that he was just a cart pusher; he didn’t know why he was arrested. The truth is that there are real cultists out there, but these policemen wouldn’t go after them. Even if they arrest the real cultists, they would collect money and allow them to go.”
Nnaji’s frantic mother, who had been wracked with fear because she thought her son was missing, dashed to the station after receiving information that he was in police detention.
Remembering how his mother came to the station, crying and begging for his release, Nnaji’s voice filled with anger. He felt that the tears and pleading of a woman should have softened the policemen, but it didn’t.
He said: “My mom later came, begging them to release me with N30,000, but they refused to listen to or mind her. They asked for N150,000. My mom continued to cry, but they were not moved. She told them I couldn’t be a cultist. They threatened to charge us to court. It was because we couldn’t meet their demand that they didn’t release us. These policemen go out every day and keep arresting innocent Nigerians. Some people were arrested along the road, just walking pass. To be sincere, the reason these policemen are arresting innocent people is to extort them. How can you arrest someone without evidence, and then force them to accept to be what they are not? If the victims’ family members come, the police will demand huge sums of money for bail. If the person couldn’t pay, they’ll take him to court, so that the person would be thrown into prison. Is that not wickedness? If my mom had been able to pay the N150,000, I would have been released. Some of the boys, who were arrested with us were released after paying huge sums of money. Right now, as I’m speaking with you, some boys, who had not been able to cough up amount demanded by the policemen, are still in detention.”
The Executive Director of the International Human Rights and Equity Defence Foundation (I-REF), a lawyer, Justus Ijeoma, when he heard of the unlawful arrest and detention of Ezeama and Nnaji, decided to fight for them.
Ijeoma is a human rights lawyer, whose works especially focus on police violence. His organisation provides free legal services and aims to improve the access to justice of the population and the public accountability.
He said: “On February 4, 2020, Promise (Ezeama) was charged to Otuocha Chief Magistrates’ Court alongside three others, Ohabuike Onyema, Israel Odoh, and Nnaji Daniel. They were arraigned on a one-count charge of, ‘belonging to various secret cults.’ The other three had no lawyer to represent them so I appeared for all of them. Curiously, five names were written on the charge sheet, but four persons were brought to court. Your guess, as to why they had such ‘error’ on the face of the charge, will be as good as mine when you hear the personal account of Promise’s ordeal.
“The absence of one of the defendants meant that the arraignment would not have gone on as the defendants were not complete in court, but the prosecutor amended the charge. Now, the offense to which they were charged is not ‘triable’ by a Magistrates’ Court, yet they were arraigned in the court, apparently hoping that the court would just decline jurisdiction and remand them in prison pending when the file would be transmitted to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) and possibly information filed at the High Court.
“However, the honourable court, in its wisdom, decided to interview the four defendants, first before the charges were read to them. After listening to them, the charge was read to them. Plea was not taken. We applied for their bail, stressing that though the court does not have jurisdiction to try the matter, it can exercise its discretion to admit them to bail.
“Following our submission, the court distinguished between the jurisdiction to try a matter from the jurisdiction to grant bail and admitted all the defendants to bail. The family members of Promise and Daniel were on ground to perfect their bail and they were released. The other two had nobody in court to perfect their bail and so were taken to prison pending the perfection of their bail. However, we have been able to contact their people and hopefully, their bail will be perfected.
“The court ordered that the case file be transmitted to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) for information to be filed at the High Court. The court also bound over the prosecution witness, Investigating Police Officer (IPO) to give evidence when required at the High Court. The case was adjourned till 2nd April, 2020, for report of compliance.”
The Executive Director of Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), Mr. Okechukwu Nwanguma, a human rights activist, said that he was aware of the matter and had received further information from the detainees.
Nwanguma explained that it was while Ezeama’s sister was running from pillar to post; attempting to raise the money asked for bail, that she ran into a friend, who directed her to Ijeoma.
He said: “It was in the process of looking for who to borrow money from to give to the policemen to free her brother that she met a friend who directed her to a human rights lawyer based in Onitsha, Ijeoma, who told her not to pay a dime to the police for bail and then undertook to step in to secure his freedom; owing to his sister’s failure to come up with the money demanded by the policemen to grant him bail, and following the lawyer’s calls inquiring about the case from both the IPO and the Officer in Charge of the SPACS, they decided to charge him to court.
“In fact, as early as 7:30a.m., the police headed to court without giving them notice and opportunity to contact their lawyers. On their way to the court, Ezeama asked the policemen, how they could contact their lawyers to come and stand for them in court. One of them, Jegede, told him that they could, ‘buy any lawyer in the court once we get there.’ Another one of the ‘anti-cultism’ policemen, known as ‘Ala Owerri,’ told him inside the court that he ‘will see hell in the prison where they will take us to if this court did not hold as he is wishing.’ Fortunately, before their case was called up, his lawyer arrived in court and at his instance, the magistrate first called the parties to interview them in chambers and after the interview, ‘Ala Owerri’, again told him that if he knew that a good lawyer would appear for them, ‘he would have shot me on the leg and used that as evidence.’”
Nwanguma argued that operatives of the Anti-Cultism Squad were like predators, regularly hunting for young boys every day, arresting, labelling them cultists, detaining and torturing them to ‘confess’ and pay money for bail, or they are charged to court, if they fail to pay.
He urged the police hierarchy to investigate the policemen, especially since he knew that the Anambra State Commissioner of Police, Mr. John Abang, had zero tolerance for corruption and human rights violations.
The activist called for a prompt, impartial and exhaustive investigation with a view to ascertaining what happened and ensuring that the accused police officers were appropriately disciplined if found culpable.
Our reporter contacted the state Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr. Mohammed Haruna, to find out what police are doing about it.
He said: “The Commissioner of Police, John Abang has ordered a full-scale investigation into the allegations.”
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