By ARINZE Chijioke
The Police in Imo State say Ikechukwu Ojokoh, a dressmaker, is a member and the coordinator of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, in Mbaise. The Police also said he partook in the murder of five policemen in the state and would soon be charged with murder. But Ojokoh’s family members and neighbours insist that he is innocent and neither an IPOB member nor a murderer, arguing that he was arrested at a market close to his shop and was already in police detention when five policemen were killed. Arinze Chijioke who travelled to Umuokirika Community in Mbaise Local Government Area reports.
Ikechukwu Ojokoh’s daily routine begins with a morning prayer with his family, including his wife and five children, after which everyone goes about their normal business. While he goes to the shop where he makes dresses, his wife, Maureen, goes in search of palm kernel which she uses to make red oil and sells after making food. Their children go to school.
On Saturday, April 15, as it is customary, Ojokoh, a native of Umugwa Umuokirika in Ahiazu Mbaise Local government Area in Imo state and his family had their prayer after which he and his wife left the house. As he headed towards his shop, she went to the popular Afor Oru market to buy foodstuffs and prepare breakfast.
After he opened his shop by the roadside, Ojokoh also went into the market to get some clothing materials for his work. The time was exactly 11.00 am and the date for the rerun election of the House of Representatives and state houses of Assembly elections in the state.
“On my way back, I saw him, but he was walking briskly. I was some steps backwards and all of a sudden, a vehicle raced passed the both of us, reversed and stopped at where he (Ojokoh) was,” Maureen said.
According to witnesses, immediately, some officers in uniform came out of the vehicle and assaulted Ojokoh. He fell to the ground and questioned why he was being beaten, but the officers kept beating him. They pulled his shirt and used it to tie his eyes. When people around the market tried to gather, the officers brandished their guns and dispersed the crowd, they dragged him into their vehicle and sped off.
Witnesses say the officers were men of the Nigeria Police Force, Imo state command, who had come to arrest Ojokoh on the allegation that he was a member of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
“I ran after them, together with his sister. We did not know where they took him,” Maurine said. “We kept searching till 4.00 pm that day, and when we returned around the market, distressed and shivering, I saw a Sienna car parked in front of his shop and when we explained what had happened, the occupants, who looked like security officials, asked us to describe my husband and that we should go to Tiger Base, the Police detention facility in Owerri”.
Immediately, Ojokoh’s sister called one of their brothers, Paul Ojoko, in Owerri, who went to the station. When he got there, he saw the officers dragging him out of their vehicle with his eyes closed and when he asked what was happening, he said they pushed him aside and forced Ojokoh into a cell.
Framed for murder
On April 21, six days after Ojokoh’s arrest, gunmen attacked and killed five policemen at Ngor-Okpala local government areas in Imo state. While some reports say the officers were ambushed at a local restaurant, others say that the officers, who are attached to the Mbaise/Ngorokpala Area Command, were on patrol of the area when they were attacked.
On April 30, the Imo State Police Command issued a statement that they had arrested the men who were behind the murder at their hideout in Umuahia, Abia state. The police also said that a 48-year-old man, Mathew Chukwuma of Mpam Ahaizu Mbaise, who was arrested in his hideout at Umuahia, Abia State confessed to being the Sector Commander of a dreadful IPOB/ESN syndicate in Mbaise and also assisted “curious operatives in arresting three (3) of his syndicate.
According to the statement, among those arrested were Ojokoh, 53 years ‘m’ of Umugwa, Chilaka Charles 44 years ‘m’ of Umuezuo, and Anthony Iwu, 50 years ‘m’ of Umugwa all in Umuokiria. The police said others escaped.
Ojokoh, who was in the custody of the police even before the attack, was eventually paraded along with others by the Imo State Police Command, which said that they had admitted to killing the five officers.
But the Ojokoh’s family members have refuted that he was arrested in Abia state.
“Ojokoh was never arrested at any terrorist hideout but Afor-Oru market, said his cousin, Ikechukwu Amaechi. “He was in police custody six days before the attack and could not have taken part in it”.
Maurine and her husband have been married since 2000, and in all these years, she said he had never told her he had issues with anybody.
“He is not a thief, he neither fights nor looks for trouble, he only minds his business,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “You can move around and ask. Now, the police are accusing him of a crime he did not commit,”.
Since the arrest, Maurine has not been herself. Her eyes hurt from crying. She has also not been working. Now, she depends on free will donations by those who know her husband to survive and feed my children, five of them. Sometimes, she borrows money that she hopes to pay back when he is released.
Friends, neighbours say he is a good man
At Afor Oru market, where Ojokoh has plied his trade for over two decades, the mood is sombre. His neighbours and friends cannot still wrap their heads around his arrest and detention, worse still, the allegation of murder.
Every day, they come out, expecting to see him back and working again. Some of those who spoke described him as easy-going and someone who was focused on his business.
Emeka Ogu, a welder who works directly opposite Ikechukwu’s shop has known him for over 15 years now and within this period, he said Ojokoh has been a peaceful man.
Ogu, who was present the day Ojokoh was arrested, said that freewill contributions were being made as part of efforts to secure his release because he is innocent of the charges against him.
Nzenwa Christopher, a printer, has known Ojokoh for three years now. He said that he (Ojokoh) had a name for everyone around his workplace, that was how jovial he was.
“Each time you passed, he would call you and say hello, he is loved around Afor Oru,” Christopher said. “He has not had any issues since we knew each other, I am still surprised at his arrest
The traditional ruler of Umuokirika, Ikechukwu’s community, Eze S.P. Iwu said that plans were underway to see the commissioner of Police in the state concerning the issue because he is innocent of the allegations.
“Ikechukwu cannot hurt a fly, he is a young man about his occupation, “he said. “I have known him from childhood and the fact that people want to know when he will come out shows how much they love him,” the chief.
Rights group petitions IGP over wrongful arrest
Following the continued detention of Ojokoh, a human rights organisation, the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC) petitioned the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Usman Baba, seeking a prompt and impartial investigation into his wrongful arrest and parading over the murder of the officers.
In the petition, Executive Director, Okechukwu Nwanguma, said that it was both curious and ironic that Ojokoh, who was arrested on April 15 and still being detained at the Tiger Base Owerri as of April 21 when the attack was carried out and has not been released up to date, was paraded alongside others alleged to have carried out that same attack.
“Ojokoh’s family members were hoping that the police would have finished their investigation and cleared him of any links with IPOB or charged him to court,” he said.
Nwanguma noted that while the attack and killing of police officers at Ngor-Okpala junction was unjustifiable and all those responsible should not be spared the maximum penalty permitted by law, parading a man for a crime committed while in police custody raises serious concerns and questions and calls for a careful investigation to ensure that an innocent person is not accused wrongly or made to pay the price for a crime he did not commit.
“Okojoh’s family seriously fear his life because most people arrested by the police in Imo State and labelled IPOB members have usually been executed extrajudicially or disappeared,” he said.
In the petition, Nwanguma also drew the IGP’s attention to what he described as the attitude of many policemen in the Southeast who now “presume everyone accused of being an IPOB member of having automatically lost their constitutionally guaranteed rights to due process, including the presumption of innocence until otherwise proven in a fair trial.”
He said that the presumption is a dangerous attitude that has led to the murder of many innocent citizens, adding that summary executions and extrajudicial killings can have ugly repercussions including creating a cycle of violence.
Nwanguma asked that Ojokoh be released or charged to court if he has any case to answer and that his family and legal representatives should also be allowed access to him.
A violation of rights
A lawyer Chukwudi Unah, who is an associate at Charles Anthony (Lawyers) LLP said that it is clear that Ikechukwu would not have taken part in the act since he was in detention even before it occurred.
He explained that where the police wrongfully arrest an individual for an incident he knows nothing about, all he needed to do is to raise the plea of alibi timeously at the Police and where they fail to investigate his alibi plea, the accused person would be discharged and acquitted by a competent court.
“He can then sue for defamation of character and violation of his rights as he would insist that the Police had no reasonable grounds whatsoever to have commenced the prosecution, “he said.
He, however, noted that the Police enjoy wide powers of investigation and prosecution, and the court cannot interfere with the same, except where it is evident that such prosecution is malicious and or where the Police fail to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
He further explained that for the assault and dragging into the police vehicle, he can sue for violation of his constitutional rights provided and guaranteed under sections 34 and 35 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).
Donatus Ojokoh, Ikechukwu’s immediate elder brother, said that the family, through their lawyers, had already written to the Commissioner of Police in Imo state, Mohammed Barde, asking him to warn his officers against infringing on Okojoh’s rights and also allowed his family members to have access to him.
“But I was warned not to ever come in search of him again,” he said.
“We are suing for defamation of character at the federal high court in the state,”. “We decided to sue the Police to discharge and acquit him through the court because if he continues to be in Police custody, they may waste him”.
By “waste” Donatus means he can be killed extra-judiciously.
Unah, the lawyer, said that although the family can sue for defamation of character, that would fail if the Police succeed on the charges against him.
Trials by ordeal, extra-judicial killings
Lending his voice, Chairman, Board of Trustees of the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, (Intersociety) Emeka Umeagbalasi, said that the development is a clear case of false labelling and criminalisation driven by corrupt and biased intelligence.
Umeagbalasi, a criminologist, said that Intersociety had done several investigations with its findings showing that over 90 per cent of those killed by security forces or paraded as IPOB members in the region are cases of wrong accusations obtained outside the confines of a diligent criminal investigation.
According to him, it is worrisome that the fundamental elements of criminal investigation and their principles as well as “man-machine driven intelligence” have collapsed in the operations of security forces in the Southeast.
“What we now have is trial by ordeal and prosecution of security operations on the basis of hearsay, “he said. “There are selective approaches to issues of security, insecurity and other unsafe conditions in the region, and this has messed up the operational and administrative competence of the Police,”.
In his reaction to the killing of seven youths, including two siblings, by officials of Nigeria’s southeast regional security outfit, Ebubeagu on 17 July 2022, at Awomamma community in Oru East Local Government of Imo state, Osai Ojigho, the then Director of Amnesty International Nigeria said, “Instead of launching proper investigations into killings in the region, security and government officials are often quick to claim victims of extrajudicial executions were caught up in shoot-outs or simply label them members of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the armed wing of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) or unknown gunmen,”.
She said that Amnesty International Nigeria has documented several cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, mass arrests, torture, extortions, and ill-treatment by law enforcement officers and members of the Ebubeagu security outfit responding to the violence in the Southeast.
For instance, the organisation said that it documented 52 incidents of unlawful killings and 62 cases of arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture across Anambra, Imo, Ebonyi and Abia states from January 2021 and that at least 115 persons were killed by security forces between March and June 2021.
In May 2021, the Imo state government announced the arrest of at least 400 people for allegedly being linked to insecurity in the state. However, the organization’s investigation showed that most of those arrested were randomly picked up in their homes and off the street and had nothing to do with ESN.
“Some victims told Amnesty International that they were arrested while walking in the street, at a public bar or simply for having birthmarks or tattoos on their body, “it said.
Back at Afor Oru and the entire Umuokirika community, residents say they cannot wait for Ojokoh to be released. It is going to be a celebration of some sought for the good man.
He admitted to being a member of IPOB – Police
However, while Ojokoh’s family and friends insist that he is not a member of the IPOB, the police in Imo state claim that he is has confessed to not only a member of the group but also its coordinator in Mbaise.
In an interview, Imo State Police Public Relations Officer, Henry Okoye, said that Ojokoh had volunteered confessional statements under caution to him on video record that he is not just an IPOB member but the one coordinating the group and the ESN in Mbaise.
On the question of why he was accused of murder even though he was in detention when the crime was committed, he said, “it is a question of conspiracy, and it does not matter whether or not he was present at the scene of the crime”.
“He will still be punished for it” the police spokesperson stated.
Speaking further, he said, “Ojokoh confessed to me that they had been holding a series of meetings on how to attack our personnel attached to Ngor Okpala and Mbaise on April 21. As the coordinator, he does not have to be present for the activity to be carried out”.
Okoye claimed that other IPOB members, including those who were arrested following the murder of the officers, identified him (Okojoh) to be the one coordinating their affairs.
He said that the Police will arraign Ojokoh in court as the case is being handled diligently, adding that they will also respect the rule of law to ensure that Ojokoh is given a right to a fair hearing.