Christian Onuoha is one of many in a list of Nigerians killed extra judiciously, by trigger happy policemen. Patrick Egwu visited Umuahia, and the family of the deceased, where he captures their pains as justice seems to elude them.
Sometime in June when Christian Onuoha decided to hang out with friends in front of his family house in Okwuluagha Afaraukwu in Umuahia, the Abia state capital, where he lived with his mother and siblings, he never knew that consort would be his last.
It was 8:30 p.m. on June 4. A white police truck, driving towards Christian and his friends, steadily flashed its headlights. Not comfortable with the flashes, Christian, 22, approached the driver of the truck and asked him to dim the lights.
Obviously provoked by Christian’s effrontery and the altercation that followed, the policeman driving the truck, Sergeant Collins Akpugo, alighted, pulled his gun from its holster and shot Christian in the arm. He fell down immediately, writhing in pains. In the midst of the pandemonium that ensued, Christian stood up to flee the scene but his uncoordinated steps were soon halted.
Trigger-happy Collins, not satisfied, followed him and shot him in the chest at close range. He then abandoned his truck and fled the scene. Some reports claimed Collins was drunk.
Christian was rushed to the Federal Medical Centre, Umuahia, a 10-minutes’ drive away from the scene of the incident. Efforts to revive him failed as he died from his injuries the next day.
It was a drizzling Monday morning when this reporter arrived Christian’s home located in Afara. A busy highway with buildings sandwiched beside each other leads to his family home. Surrounded by a few neighbours in her sitting room, Grace Onuoha, Christian’s mother looked visibly downcast and broken.
“They should go and bring my son for me,” Grace who was wailing uncontrollably told this reporter. “I won’t speak with you unless they bring my son wherever he is for me.”
Grace lost her husband in November 2004. Since then, she has been independently raising Christian and his five other brothers. Picking up Christian’s wooden framed picture, she continued: “He was asked to protect us but instead he killed my son who would have been useful to Nigeria and his community. He promised to make me proud one day. I am kneeling down and asking them to find my son for me.”
Michael Onuoha, Christian’s elder brother was at the scene when he was shot. When Christian was at first shot in the arm, Michael said he rushed towards where he had fallen to help before Collins met them and shot Christian again.
“It happened over there,” Michael told this reporter pointing at the scene where his brother was shot. “I still can’t believe what happened here that day and that my brother is no more. The bullet nearly hit me before it got to my brother.
‘Shielding the killer-policeman’
After Christian was confirmed dead, members of the community where he lived took to the streets to protest the extra-judicious killing and called for the arrest of Collins so he can face justice. First, the angry mob razed the police truck Collins was driving and used it to form a blockade along the highway. Then, they proceeded to the police station in the capital to register their grievances and demand for Collins, but they were dispersed with teargas canisters.
Following immense pressure, the police command in the state declared Collins wanted for murder. The Commissioner of Police, Enen Okon said a N500,000 bounty has been placed on him for anyone with useful information that will lead to his arrest. Okon said he was forced to declare Collins wanted after the five days given to him to turn himself in, had elapsed.
This reporter obtained a newspaper press release with Collins’ portrait and biodata which declared him wanted for murder. The release was published in page 11 of Daily Sun newspaper of June 18 and signed by the police spokesperson, Geoffrey Ogbonna
“The Abia state police command hereby wishes to inform the general public that the above named person whose pictures appear below has been declared wanted. This is as a result of his involvement in a case of murder. He is a police sergeant, served last at Department of Operations, Nigeria Police Abia State and native of Aromiri-Ukwu Autonomous Community, Uturu in Isiukwuato LGA of Abia State. A reward of N500,000 has been placed for person(s) with useful information regarding his whereabouts,” the release read.
But Christian’s family says the police is shielding Collins from being arrested and prosecuted for his crime. They say the reverse would have been the case if it were a policeman who was killed.
“It’s a lie,” Grace said, reacting to police report that Collins has not been found. “If I was the one who committed this crime, the police would have found me long ago to arrest me, but I don’t know why they are claiming they don’t know where this policeman is. Even if you take a look at the advert in the newspaper, you will see that his face is unrecognisable in the picture they used.”
The police has denied any foul play in arresting and prosecuting Collins and said it doesn’t shield its erring officers for disciplinary actions. “Any woman who lost her child in such a manner will say such things,” Ogbonna said. “We have exhausted all options and that was why we declared him wanted. The public know the efforts we have put in place to arrest him. How can the police be shielding him and also declaring him wanted at the same time?” he queried.
During one of the searches for arrest, the police say they found the gun used in the shooting at Collins’ home which he abandoned before he fled.
Collins still at large
Collins has remained at large ever since the killing happened. Christian and Collins live few meters away from each other in the same neighbourhood. Few weeks to the sad incident, Collins got married in a celebration held in the community. Family members who were also present at the ceremony said Christian played a major role by helping him in fixing logistics and other arrangements for the wedding.
“He was our neighbor and knows my son very well, so I don’t know why he should kill him just like that,” Grace said. “My son was not a thief or cultist. Simply because he asked you to put off your light, you brought out your gun and shot him at the spot and called him!.
When this reporter visited the house where Collins lived before he fled, few persons were seen milling around the premises. A woman was seen walking out of the compound but would not speak on the incident.
“That’s his room, the one with new painting,” Michael told this reporter pointing at Collins’ room where he lived with his wife. “You can see that he lives very close to us.”
“They are all neighbours so I wonder what exactly went wrong that will provoke him to shoot the young man,” Eze Elonu, a member of the community said. “His (Collins) house is just few houses from here. They use the same road and Christian was his friend.”
After the killing of Christian, the angry protesters proceeded to Collins’ house to see if they could find his wife and retaliate. But she was not there. They met a padlock fastened to the door.
“They would have killed her if she was in the house because everyone was angry,” Elonu said. “But she left for Owerri where she works a day before the incident happened.”
“Nobody is happy with the killing of the boy,” Elonu added. “It’s very painful to lose a child. We are all angry and want the government to take action and bring the killer to face justice for the crime he has committed.”
Rising cases of extrajudicial killings by the police
There have been growing cases of brutality, extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses by the Nigerian police officers and in most cases, little is done to bring those responsible to justice. Nigerians all over the world have condemned police frequent killings of unarmed citizens.
On July 1, a policeman, Okechukwu Nwanefi shot and killed Ikenna Ukachi, 25, in Otoko community of Obowo LGA of Imo state. After the killing, the police officer abandoned his rifle and fled the scene. The police command in the state has declared him wanted to face justice and offered reward for anyone with information to his arrest.
In protest, the youths in the community invaded the police station where the policeman was stationed, razed it and stole all the rifles.
In March, Kolade Johnson, an unarmed man was killed by the police at a viewing centre in Lagos where he had gone to watch a football game. The policemen from the anti-cult unit had come to effect the arrest of suspected cultists when the incident happened. Protesters took to the street to demand justice and an end to police killings of innocent citizens. The police command arrested and dismissed the policemen who had fled the scene. They were later handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department for prosecution in a conventional court.
There are other countless cases of other extra judicious killings and brutality by the police happening everyday across the country, which have attracted wide condemnation. Many others have been killed for minor or unprovoked offenses.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian police is known for its notorious gross records of extrajudicial killings, brutality and human rights abuses. In February, a nationwide campaign to scrap SARS started. Non-violent protests were held and a popular hashtag #EndSARS was created on social media to condemn the frequent reported cases of extra judicious killings by SARS and a call for reforms of the entire Nigerian police structure.
“These things are seen in the rank and file of the police force except for a few of them,” Chibogu Egbunna, the head, legal unit at the Catholic Institute for Development, Justice and Peace (CIDJAP) said. “The problem is from recruitment because when you see a well-trained officer they don’t misbehave. A well-trained officer knows his bounds but most of them are on drugs, or drink and act under influence.”
Egbunna who works with CIDJAP in providing legal services to awaiting trial inmates at Enugu prisons, says a proper background check is needed on individuals seeking admission into the Nigerian police force. “But we don’t have a strong data base to track their background and this becomes a problem,” she added.
Broken family seeking justice
More than one month after Christian was killed, his family is still seeking justice for the killing of their son. They fear justice will be elusive if Collins is not arrested and prosecuted.
“If he had come to me before killing my son, I would have asked him to kill me instead,” Grace said. “My son would have been alive to take care of his siblings. Anybody who gives birth knows the type of child she has and I know my son very much and what he can do. My son did nothing and he was killed just like that.”
“Nothing on earth can compensate for death,” Egbunna said. “Nothing can bring the dead back to life. The only action to take is to charge the person responsible to court so the law can take its full course and the bereaved families can find rest.”
Meanwhile, the road to justice appears to be long for Christian’s family. Getting a lawyer has been a challenge and Michael said they don’t have the money to pay for legal services.
“I have been visiting the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) since this incident happened but nothing has come out of it,” Michael said. “They have been telling me how they are trying to arrest him but I think that is enough. We want justice to take its full course for the death of my brother but that requires money. I just want them to come and bury my brother so he can rest.”
The president of Citizen’s Right Realization and Advancement Network (CCRAN), Barr Olu Omotayo who provides legal services for victims of extra-judicious killings in Nigeria said the killing is a criminal offense and the policeman who committed the crime can always face charges whenever he is found even in years to come.
“They can take legal action against the police for the unlawful killing of the boy and demand for compensation,” Omotayo said. “There are instances where we have done this and the court agreed and gave judgement against the police because as at the time he committed the offense, he was a police officer. So whenever he is caught, he can be charged for murder but the police is liable for compensation for the unlawful killing.”
Omotayo said the policeman is culpable for murder under the Criminal Law. Section 319 of the Criminal Code Act provides a death sentence for any person who commits murder.
Christian has been described as a promising young man who respects those around him. After he finished high school some years ago with good grades, according to his family, he couldn’t proceed with his university education because there was no money to pay his way through school. To help his family, he moved from one job to the other.
“He is one of the nicest persons I have seen in this community since I have been here for the past 7 months,” Amaka Nwaiwu, a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member said. “He is not hostile and treats everyone with respect. He sees me as family.”
From where she is seated in her sitting room, Grace takes another look at the picture of Christian which was placed on the table.
“I want to look him in the eyes and ask him why he killed my son,” Grace said. “I’m sad I won’t see my son again. My God will fight my battle.”
This report was funded by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).