Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Countless Nigerians rotting away in Beninese prisons, maiden declared missing since May 2011 still not found

350 inmates per cell, 30-day-old baby among detainees, 10,000CFA to sleep on bare floor, freshers pay Matriculation Fee in Cotonou jailhouse swarming with pick-pockets

Thousands of Nigerians are wasting away at various prisons across neighbouring Benin Republic, mauricearchibongtravels can authoritatively reveal.

After months-long investigations that required dozens of visits to former Dahomey, it has come to light that Nigerians, one of them a baby-girl that entered Prison Civile Cotonou (PCC), when she was only a month old; account for a staggering number of all inmates in jailhouses across Republique du Benin.

Many of the detainees are awaiting trial, while others are convicts. mauricearchibongtravels findings revealed that, collectively; the major alleged crimes of Nigerians in Benin’s goals include drug trafficking, robbery, kidnapping and financial fraud.

However, some of the Nigerians behind bars in Benin Republic really have no business being there. The story of two recently released Nigerians, Ogbonna Ikechukwu Igwe and Kalu Dimgba Onwuka, who spent almost a year inside Cotonou’s premier jailhouse; lends veracity to this belief.

In any case, the plethora of our compatriots in prisons across the neighbouring country and the fact that at least one of them has spent almost 12 years behind bars have made some Nigerians very powerful inside Benin Republic’s cells.

Former inmates at some of Benin’s goals revealed that a Nigerian is President at one detention centre and three other Nigerians hold the title of General, Ambassador and Consular Officer at Cotonou’s principal goal, PCC.

In Abomey, Cotonou, Lokossa, Parakou and Porto Novo as well as other Beninese towns hosting a detention centre; Nigerians account for a substantial percentage of the inmates.

The plenitude of Nigerian detainees in Benin’s gulags was thrown up by the experience of one Madam Grace Igwe; when she went to see her son, Ogbonna, at PCC on Saturday, 24 March, 2012.

On arrival at the reception of PCC, which is located near the headquarters of Benin Republic’s Ministere de Jeunesse, Sports et Loisirs (Ministry of Youth, Sports and Leisure); Madam Grace had given Ogbonna, as the name of the inmate she had come to see; to prison warders.

Interestingly, when the prison guard that had gone to fetch Ogbonna returned with a detainee so named, he was not Madam Grace’s son. The officer had gone back to the cell to call out another Ogbonna; and, alas! He too was not Grace’s child. However, the warder’s third attempt finally yielded the Ogbonna, Madam Grace had come to see.

A respondent told us how another visitor to PCC, this time a man and possibly father of one of those incacerated there; had given the name Kalu as the inmate he had come to visit. But, by the time he got to see the Kalu he sought, three other prisoners with the same name had been called out from one cell.

If there are at least three Ogbonnas and as many Kalus inside a cell (called Battlement, in the locals’ parlance), how many Uches, Okoyes, Nwafors, Nwaekes and Nwankwos do we have in Beninese dungeons? Such is the preponderance of Nigerians inside PCC that Pidgin English has become more common in this Francophone environment.

Indeed, during mauricearchibongtravels’ visit to PCC, we gathered from one of the inmates; another Nigerian, 25-year-old Ugochukwu Okeke; that inside his cell (Battlement G) alone, eight Igbos, aside dozens of Nigerians from other ethnic groups; were among roughly 340 inmates locked up there.

Born in 1987, Ogbonna, then a resident of a Cotonou neighbourhood known as Adogleta; was in detention, when he turned 24 years old on 26 November, last year. A few weeks later, his friend and fellow sufferer, Kalu, also clocked 24 in prison on 13 December. Moreover, both young men also passed last Christmas and Easter behind bars.
Pic 1. PHOTOS: MAURICE ARCHIBONG. Copyrights reserved.

Speaking with mauricearchibongtravels in Cotonou, shortly after his release from PCC, Ogbonna Igwe; mused: “I will never forget this experience. More than 350 of us were inside one cell”.

Ogbonna’s cell was just one of several battlements for men at Cotonou’s Prison Civile, which also has many a battlement for female detainees and all the cells as well as the warders’ quarters are surrounded by a large compound fenced-in by a colossal perimeter wall.

When asked how he fared at PCC, Ogbonna rued: “Life was tough inside the place. It was difficult to sleep because of lack of space, and throughout my stay there; we slept on bare floor. We were packed like sardine”.

According to Ogbonna, due to inadequate room on the floor of the over-crowded cell, the inmates lay in the form of 69; with one detainee’s legs between another’s thighs. The arrangement was so tight that no prisoner could move, let alone roll over. “Each person lay still, like a corpse, till daybreak”, he mused.
Pic 2.

Speaking with mauricearchibongtravels, again, a week after he was released from PCC, Kalu said he shared Battlement A with over 320 other inmates. On waking up, the inmates took turns to bathe. Two people simultaneously used a tiny cubicle that serves as bathroom inside the cell.

Interestingly, the bathroom has only one shower; so, as the inmates washed; one man’s scum splashed all over the other. Despite the risks involved in bathing simultaneously with another prisoner inside the tiny bathroom available at PCC, new inmates are denied such “luxury”. Anyone that had not spent up to 90 days within these confines must bathe outdoors, right in the open!

We gathered that better conveniences were recently installed at PCC for inmates, but prisoners that have lived there for years had immediately cornered this facility and turned it into a money-spinner for themselves. As a result, any inmate desirous of bathing in the new bathroom is taxed 50 francsCFA.

Although 50 francsCFA amounts to barely N15, Ogbonna helped to put things in perspective, when he remarked: “To a prisoner, 50CFA (N15) is like 5,000francsCFA (N1,300)”.
Pic 3.

Irritating as the bathing arrangement was, it was better than using the loo, Ogbonna further disclosed. What passes for toilet inside the battlement, which served as Ogbonna’s residence at Cotonou’s Prison Civile, is a metallic cylinder capped by a round wood with a hole in the centre.

The drum is placed in one corner of the cell and can only be used by one inmate at a time. Worse still, everytime someone mounted the thing, the entire battlement stank to high heavens. And, with some 350 prisoners taking turn to relieve themselves inside this cell the stench is best left to a conjecture.

The pungent and nauseating smell apparently explains why fat-cats among the prisoners detest co-inmates who visit the loo more than once a day. To stool more than once a day, it probably means that, that person had enough to eat the previous day or was suffering from diarrhoea.

So, to curtail the frequency with which their residence was enveloped by stench each time someone visited the toilet, the “big-boys” of PCC have devised a way of discouraging their co-tenants from using the toilet more than once.

You’d think that, if you paid 50francs to use the toilet the first time, then; going to the loo twice will come to 100francs. But, inside the peculiar world of prisoners, two visits to the loo at PCC do not translate to 100CFA; instead, it ends up as 150CFA! And, any prisoner that could not afford it, just had to endure the pressure of nature’s call without relief till the next day.
Pic 4.

Indeed, there are more rules and regulations here: To even be admitted into any cell at PCC, each new arrival must cough out something like a Matriculation Fee; 5,000CFA (N1,300).

And, there is another tariff; which the newcomer must pay, failing which he/she was saddled with various dehumanising chores; like emptying the bucket of excreta or urine every morning. A milder version of such humiliating duty, like sweeping the environment or mopping the floor, where an older detainee spilled water applied to the newcomer that was only able to pay a part of the admission fee.

To entirely escape such humiliation, the fresher must come up with another 2,500CFA (the equivalent of roughly N820).

Practically corroborating Ogbonna’s observation that life was tough inside PCC, Kalu recalled that on his first day inside Battlement A; he was put through something of a rigorous interview by older prisoners.

Through that encounter, he came to realise that a new inmate that is Beninese national pays 1,000CFA (roughly N350) admission fee; whereas a Nigerian detainee is taxed double that amount. Although Battlement A holds dozens of double-decker beds, this is not to say that every inmate there enjoys sound sleep.

Since the cell is forever overflowing with detainees, there is never enough bedspace to go round. So, only the prisoners that could pay 20,000CFA (N7,000) had access to a bed-space. To make matters worse, even the prisoner that could not afford to pay for bed-space also had to part with 10,000CFA (N3,500) just to lie on the bare floor! 

As in Ogbonna’s battlement, where each newcomer must pay some money, otherwise he was saddled with dehumanising chores; in Kalu’s cell; any fresher that could not cough out 6,500CFA fee to exempt him from housekeeping duties, ended up having to empty the latrine and bucket of urine every morning.

Curiously, in spite of the hardships suffered by inmates here, some of the detainees at PCC seemed determined not to turn their back on crime. It would seem that such prisoners use time at this jailhouse to perfect the very act that landed them there in the first place. This must explain, why Prison Civile Cotonou is swarming with pick-pockets.

Ogbonna again: “A few days after I got here, one of my friends brought some money to me, so I could buy something to eat from time to time. The money wasn’t much, but for someone inside a prison; 5,000CFA is a lot of money. So, I hid the note deep inside one of the pockets of my boxer-shorts. Strangely, the next morning; when I dipped my hand into the pocket, which was under my pair of trousers; the note was gone”!

Meet Francis, other Nigerians freed from Prison Civile
Another Nigerian, who gave his name simply as Francis (not the Timothy Francis who enters this picture later), was also once a guest of the PCC authorities. This ex-detainee, who is a native of Amaekpu in Ohafia Town, Abia State; revealed that only non-initiates or complete outsiders call this jailhouse a prison.

To inmates, this gulag is preferrably called Burkina. It remains unclear, why prisoners chose Burkina Faso as sobriquet for PCC, but it may well have to do with the etymology of the current name of former Upper Volta, which roughly translates as Land of Honourable People.

Whether honourable or not, PCC inmates also have names for some of the cells. For example, Battlement F, where Francis cooled his heels; goes by the name of Zaire. However, a seemingly traumatised Francis could not tell us, if similarities exist between PCC’s Battlement F and the former name of Congo Kinshasa.

Francis, who said he was arrested over alleged escrow (a sort of 419); claimed he was innocent. He stressed that, but for his innocence, he would not have been set free by the judge that tried his case. Francis added that, sequel to his arrest by the police, he spent six days in their cell; and, after being brought before a magistrate, pre-arraignment in court, he was transferred to prison custody to await trial. Eleven days since arriving at PCC, Francis was finally released after two hearings in court.

Francis pointed out that, it is instructive that, like other Nigerians; he was also asked to sign a statement written in French. The Nigerian said he can neither read nor write French, but was cajoled into signing the statement by police officers at the station, where he was initially detained.

He recalled that nobody translated the content of the statement he was made to sign to him and that this document was later tendered and admitted in court as evidence.

Asked, if he had a defence counsel during his trial, Francis declared: “For where! I had no money to hire a lawyer: God was my lawyer and He touched the heart of the judge, who ordered my release because I am innocent”, he mused. 

Reminiscing further, Francis declared: “There’s nothing special about Burkina. Anyone, guilty or not, could land there. But, life is harsh inside the place. I have seen the place and survived it; but, I am still disturbed because there are too many Nigerians inside Prison Civile Cotonou. Sadly, many of them should not be there. I met some Nigerians that have been at Burkina for five years, just awaiting trial.

“Many of the Nigerians inside Burkina are so helpless because their relations and friends do not even know that they are there. And, the Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou is not even interested in knowing how many of our people are locked up there, and for what reason. It’s a shame”.

With regard to his overall impression of PCC, Francis remarked: “It is not a good place for anybody”.

Congestion and poor meals are the major reasons Francis found life hellish inside Burkina. Hear him: “Can you imagine that I shared Zaire (Battlement F) with over 340 other people? The place was so tight that sleeping space became a luxury each inmate had to pay for. Those that could pay 20,000FCFA (N7,000 approx) were allowed to sleep in bed. And, two of such prisoners shared a a narrow, four-foot mattress. The bed is a double-decker, the type you find in school dormitories and two prisoners sleep on the upper deck, another pair of inmates lies on the lower deck.

“Those that could not pay 20,000FCFA, are only allowed to sleep on the bare floor, if they paid 10,000FCFA. On my first day inside Zaire, all the money I had was 2,000FCFA (about N700). The money was collected from me and I was allowed to sleep on the floor. But, after the second night, I was told that my 2,000FCFA had ‘expired’; so, I was barred from lying on the floor on that third night.

“I passed that night sitting on a step and had to carry two other prisoners on my laps till morning. Because of lack of space, all those that have no ‘lodging fee’ are forced to sit, one man lapping two other people, till day-break. It was a terrible experience and I just cried myself to a fitfull sleep”.

For food, PCC inmates are given a pair of meal coupons per day. For breakfast, each prisoner is served some “watery bean porridge”. Some garri is usually sprinkled on this porridge with the serving topped by some drops of fresh palm-oil. A cup of garri, four cubes of sugar and six pieces of kulikuli is what passes for each prisoner’s lunch. Francis additionally volunteered: “There’s no supper for the prisoners”.

Interestingly, for wealthy inmates; especially powerful politicians, drug barons and other well-connected members of society, life inside PCC is really far from harsh. All that these category of detainees, called Ministers, seem to suffer is their confinement.

Unlike the lowly placed members of society that can’t even find space to lie on the floor due to overcrowding of their cells; the Ministers and Dons spend their days at this jailhouse inside Battlement VIP. This VIP’s battlement is never full, unlike the ones for the masses. Moreover, each VIP inmate (Minister) is given a free hand to cater for their comfort and most of them go to a lot of trouble to furnish their corner to taste, we gathered.

Did Francis suffer mosquito bites during his sojourn in PCC? He said he could not remember being stung by any mosquito throughout his 11-day stay inside Battlement F.

Interestingly, he wondered aloud, “Even if there were mosquitoes, there were over 340 people inside the cell, so how many people were the insects going to bite”?

While he never suffered mosquito stings, Francis said the prison is infested by another pest: “I saw chinch (bedbug) in the place”, he recalled.

In spite of all the pains of life inside PCC, Francis and other Nigerians that have done time at PCC observed that some Beninese ex-detainees seem to believe the benefits of life inside this dungeon far outweigh the discomfiture.

There’s free accommodation and free food, so after being released from Burkina, some ex-convicts go and commit fresh crimes just to facilitate their return to this prison because of the freebies, there.  

Speaking further, Francis lamented that his phone was collected from him, when he was taken into custody at the police station. Usually, to recover such belongings, a released inmate has to cough out some money. And, out of prison only three days before we first met; Francis revealed he was so broke he had problems just feeding, not to talk of raising money to go “bail” his phone.

Inside Cotonou’s Prison Civile
When we first heard of how crowded PCC was, it was difficult to imagine the level of congestion at this jailhouse. But, after two visits there, the picture became less nebulous. Since only a small fraction of the prisoners receive visitors, we surmised that PCC must be bursting at its seams with detainees going by the hundreds of inmates we found milling around the courtyard, some meeting their guests and others merely facilitating such contacts for some handout.

Yes, inside PCC, there are prisoners and there are prisoners. Any inmate wearing navy-blue waist-coat is something of a junior here. Many are people still standing trial and whose guilt or otherwise has not yet been determined.

However, older convicts that have lived in PCC for years do not don the same navy-blue waist-coat. Instead, they wear light-green pull-overs, like mechanic dress; and, are even unofficial police inside the prison with powers to tell newer inmates what to do and where to go. Aside the group clad in light-green, another category of prisoners wear yellow pull-overs: We gathered these ones are in charge of order among female detainees.

On the other hand, each new prisoner is free to dress in whatever he/she chose; however, a navy-blue waist-coat is an obligatory part of each new inmate’s attire. The back of that waist-coat carries the inscription Prison Civile Cotonou, while the left part of the frontal bears the letters PCC and a number, apparently that of the detainee’s registration on admission there.

We saw one of the prisoners clad in navy-blue waist-coat keeping watch over a tray loaded with items for sale under one of the two huge ficus trees in the courtyard. This trader’s wares included pairs of light footwears, sweets, kola-nuts, tablets of soap as well as sachets of detergent and the crown of the ficus trees served as umbrellas, shading the floor of the courtyard, thus helping to keep the ambient temperature lower than what obtained outside these confines.

“Everybody you see here, except the people with bands on their wrist is a prisoner”, declared my guide with the air of someone showing a visitor around his home.

Indeed, my guide was once one of the thousands of residents at PCC.  Recalling the Heures des Visites (Visiting periods) inscription at the exterior of the portico leading to the jailhouse’s entrance, we reflexively took a glance at my wrist-watch to check the time.

Interpretation: Time was 3.40pm, which meant that we still had some time to spend with our distraught hosts; for, despite the poor level of my comprehension of the French language, I learnt from the inscription that male detainees receive guests from 9am till noon and again from 2pm till 5pm; whereas visitors are permitted to see female inmates from 1pm to 2pm and again from 5pm to 6pm daily.

It is worth pointing out here that, anyone visiting Prison Civile Cotonou could be taking a huge risk. Each visitor starts by first submitting himself/herself to a sentry, who puts a large band around one’s wrist. The light orange coloured band carries some inscription as well as number and seems quite unimportant until you lose it.

This piece of padded cloth is what stands a visitor out from a prisoner and any guest that had somehow misplaced this wrist-band cannot leave the jailhouse, for everyone inside PCC without a wrist-band is either a prison staff or inmate.

And, where the visitor, whose wrist-band was missing, had no ID to identify himself as prison staff, then; the one had to be an inmate, and; therefore, cannot go out!

Beyond the first sentry, who was in military camouflage, the visitor had another checkpoint a few metres ahead. Here, sat two men; whose sole duty seem to be to frisk every visitor to ensure that no one goes into the prison with any sharp object, phone or camera.

For some of us naïve ones, who visiting for the first time; came with our phones, we were directed to go to outside and drop the handsets. Sympathetic habitues, who understood our problem, directed us to shops opposite the prison yard to drop such equipment (called portable but pronounced as por-tab in these climes). This aspect generates some money to the shop attendants, who earn 50CFA (N15) per each handset left in their custody by visitors to PCC.

After dropping our phones and returning to PCC’s reception and having been again cleared by the sentry in military fatigue, we were waved on by the men at the second check-point, who were clad in a pair of light green trousers topped by a shirt of the same colour.

From here, each visitor proceeded through a narrow metallic door; and, finally comes into a courtyard, overflowing with visitors, inmates and prison security personnel; with two old ficus trees standing on the grounds.

Owing to the plenitude of guests and the inmates they’ve come to visit, and the fact that hundreds of people are talking at the same time; there is an endless drone of human voices at this lounge until around 5.30pm; when all the inmates must return to their cell, where they are locked in till the following morning.

We were trying to take in more of the sights and sounds of PCC innards, when the warder that had gone to call out Timothy Francis to meet us returned to tell us this particular inmate said, we should please be patient, that he was going to join us soon.

After waiting for another two minutes, Mr. Timothy Francis finally emerged through another door, which opens into the inner chambers of the quarters, where the cells proper are.

Mr. Francis was 48 years old, when he landed in PCC. Today, he is 51 and has spent more than three years inside this gulag. Although he said he is a married man with children, Francis, who hails from Afikpo North LGA of Ebonyi State; would not give the name, address and phone number of his wife.

Francis also had no pastor’s name to give: “I will not lie to you. I was not the church-going type. I never went to church: It is inside this prison that I started attending religious service”, he revealed with a candid mien.

When asked the next date he was due in court, it came to light that most inmates only became aware of this particular appointment on the eve of their appearance in court.

“Sometimes, they inform us at 10pm. So, in the morning, we board a mammy-wagon with many other suspects heading to the court. If, you missed the first trip, there’s usually a second shuttle, but normally; by 11am everyone due in court on a particular day, should have left the prison”, according to another inmate; who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Like 51-year-old Francis, Ugochukwu Okeke; who found himself dumped at PCC on 9 November, 2011; was not the church-going type either. Though baptised Catholic, 25-year-old Okeke, who said he is an indigene of Awgu in Enugu State; probably stopped attending mass as soon as there was no elder in the family to nudge him into doing so.

However, light-complexioned Okeke, who stands all of 6-feet, 9-inches tall; added: “But, I still went to church once in a while in a year, before I found myself in this place”.

Interestingly, after finding himself at PCC, Okeke; like most other inmates in their craving for succour, has also turned spiritual. Though baptised Catholic, Okeke has joined a Pentecostal fellowship at PCC. His reason: “I could not follow the African language mass for PCC inmates, who are Catholics. So, it is easier for me to worship with the pentecostal congregation, whose services are in English”.

Due to time constraint, Okeke could not come round to telling us how old he was, when he first lost a parent or his age by the time he became a full-fledged orphan.

Although he has older siblings, it would seem that everyone was merely struggling to survive. So, after his dad’s demise; Okeke apparently had to start fending for himself. That’s how he ended up ekeing a living through hawking of DVDs and CDs along Lagos streets.

Okeke said his elder sister, Mrs. Rita Okolo, is the one that led him into prison. During our first visit to PCC, we had met Mrs. Okolo briefly but we were not allowed to engage her in a chat.

Like her younger brother, Ugochukwu, Mrs. Rita Okolo stands well over six-foot tall and is also fair of skin. However, she looked paler than her male sibling; and even the baby Mrs. Okolo carried on her shoulder looked worse.

The infant, Miss Favour Okolo, is the youngest of Mrs. Rita Okolo’s five children and the case of this woman and her baby-girl, who has been with the mom in prison since the age of 30-days-old, throws up the classic dilemma.

Should the infant be taken from its mother and brought up by someone outside prison until the mother, if found guilty, had served out her term? Should Baby Favour be left with her mother, so she can continue to enjoy breast-feeding and general motherly care, even inside prison?

And, could Favour’s case be one of child abuse? Did the mother, if truly she was trying to trade-in fake currency for genuine notes, deliberately take her month-old baby along; with hope that its age would elicit sympathy for her and thus engender her release; if she ran into trouble?

Is her refusal to handover Baby Favour to a foster mother a ploy by Mrs. Okolo to wrest compassion from agents of Benin Republic’s justice system? Many questions, but few answers.

According to Ugochukwu, his elder sister had invited him through a phone call to join her on a trip to Cotonou and assist in freighting-over goods like shoes. Although he did not come round to telling us the date of that fateful telephone call, Ugochukwu remembered vividly that, “It was around mid-night, when my sister called me”.

Continuing, Okeke said: “After we spoke, I had agreed to join her because she had only recently put to bed. So, I went to her place in Ajamgbadi and together we travelled to Cotonou. It was my first trip outside Nigeria, I had never been in Cotonou before that day.

“When we alighted from the vehicle, my sister took me to a place inside the market to change money. While she was negotiating with the Baba (an elderly male money exchanger), I walked away to buy biscuit and ‘pure-water’ because I was hungry. By the time I walked back to the Baba’s shed; I was alarmed to see that a crowd had gathered around my sister. People said she was trying to exchange fake money”.

When we interjected and asked Okeke: How much was the money?

He said he had no idea. As to whether the money was genuine or not, this is what Okeke had to say: “I have never seen any money except naira in my life. So, if you show me the money of Pakistan, the currency they said my sister brought, I cannot tell the fake one from original. Even the money used in Benin (CFA) I cannot tell the genuine one from counterfeit”.

So, what happened subsequently at the market?

Okeke again: “The Baba had advised me to go and leave my sister to face the music. But, as they began dragging her to the police station; I was touched. How could I abandon my sister in such critical situation? What would I tell our people at home? So, I refused to leave.

“Even if I had decided to abandon her, I didn’t know how I was going to return to Nigeria and I had no money on me. So, I followed them to the police station. There, I was identified as the person that came with her to change fake rupees and was also detained. From the police station, we were transferred to this prison and I have been here for over six months now”, he cried.

Does Okeke have any idea who was looking after his sister’s four other children in Lagos?

“Yes, the children are with their father, my sister’s husband”, he said.

Did Rita Okolo get the fake notes from her husband?

“She said one Tony sent the money to her”, Okeke replied.

Has Tony been contacted and informed he is the reason they are in prison in a foreign land?

“It has been impossible to reach Tony on the number that my sister has, since this problem exploded”, Okeke lamented.

When we saw Favour during our visit to Prison Civile Cotonou on Thursday, 3 May, 2012; she looked pale. Indeed, her frail physique could leave anyone thinking the infant, then over seven months old, was several months younger.

Favour’s stunted growth may not be unconnected with the harsh surroundings she has been growing up in and her mother’s diet. This nursing mother, who ought to be feeding properly, is; like other inmates at PCC, only entitled to two meals a day.

And, to make matters worse, one of these servings is a cup of gari, four cubes of sugar and six pieces of kulikuli.

Good sides of PCC
But, evocative of the proverbial two sides to every coin; Cotonou’s Prison Civile has its obverse side, too. Due to the miserly quantity of the inmates’ rations as well as their meals’ deficient nutritional quality, those that can afford it, are allowed to send for foodstuffs from nearby markets. Yes, there are charcoal cookers, some pots and pans within the prison compound and inmates are permitted to use these utensils to prepare their meals.

In fact, Francis; the ex-detainee, corroborated other Nigerian commuters’ comments about amenities at PCC, thus; “Although I found life inside the place harsh, there was light (electricity) 24 hours. Inside Burkina you can watch television all-day and all-night, everyday. There’s also non-stop supply of pipe-borne water. In Nigeria, even people that are not prisoners hardly enjoy these amenities”.

We also gathered from Ogbonna Igwe that his cell had at least 14 TV sets with satellite channels. Hear him: “There were more than 14 TV sets in my cell, so we spent most of our time watching football and many Nigerian (Nollywood) films”.

On a similar positive note, Kalu Onwuka recalled that PCC’s Battlement A actually had over 30 TV sets with satellite channels. He also confirmed that the authorities made provision for two meals a day to each detainee.

The recently freed young men further revealed that their cells also had dozens of ceiling fans for ventilation and that every three months, each battlement was put through thorough fumigation to reduce the risk of infection.

Additionally, the compound of PCC also boasts a well-stocked supermarket and a cafetaria, where an inmate could buy whatever he/she wanted, provided the person had enough money as the prices of items in both shops are over the top. With such facilities, this Cotonou jailhouse poses a sharp contrast to what obtains in the average prison across the developing world.

In fact, Ms. Ugochi Ezinne Ndubuaku, a 26-year-old Nigerian and budding human rights activist, recalled that on one of her numerous calls at the jailhouse to see Ogbonna and Kalu, she had overheard some other guests chatting, whereupon one of the discussants had remarked that Cotonou’s Prison Civile is the best jailhouse in the entire Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sub-region.

She couldn’t say how that commentator came by his rating. Was the man a serial convict? Was he a sociologist or some retired prison’s chief?

We cannot tell, but; from traversing ECOWAS amid encounters with top-flight diplomats, ordinary folks and street-people over the last 25 years, the two most-dreaded prisons in West Africa are in Kirikiri and Yopougon, located in Lagos (Nigeria) and in Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) respectively.

The reputation of PCC as a comfortable jailhouse probably spawned the joke among Cotonou residents about a suspect, who protested the three-year prison sentence handed him after being tried and found guilty of theft. As the rib-cracker goes; much to the consternation of the judge, the convict had asked: “Is that all”?

Before His Lordship could respond, the jail-bound man exploded: “I had thought you were going to give me 10 years! You know that at Prison Civile, I won’t have to pay rent… I’ve known no peace outside prison, since after serving my last term. Revenue office people frequently harassed me to pay tax, even when I am unemployed! The other time I stayed at Prison Civile, I had no problem over tax for five whole years and didn’t have to worry about raising money for house rent”!

But, best jailhouse in ECOWAS or not, like other prisons across the world, PCC is not immune to over-crowding, going by Ogbonna’s revelation that over 350 inmates were packed inside the cell where he spent 11 months. Apart from congestion, this presumed model prison also throws up its share of hazards.

For example, on the day Ogbonna and Kalu were released from PCC; both young men coughed intermittently throughout the roughly one-hour period we spent with them at the residence of Chief Ebuka Onunkwo, Eze Ndi Igbo (Leader of Igbo Community) in Benin Republic; whose resilience culminated in the duo regaining their freedom.

Moreover, Ogbonna must have coughed more than 100 times in the three hours that we, again, engaged him for a chat. This was on the next day, barely 24 hours, after he regained his freedom. It would seem these ex-detainees had contracted some respiratory tract infection, and I had advised Ogbonna to see a doctor.

Ca, c’est la vie (such is life) inside Cotonou’s Prison Civile, touted as ECOWAS healthiest jailhouse.

How Ogbonna and Kalu landed in prison
The unknown fate of a teenage girl, simply known as Ezinne; and, one Mrs. Ebere Friday Asiegbu, popularly called Madam Ebere, are at the heart of these young men’s woes. Ogbonna and Kalu were arrested for allegedly kidnapping Ezinne.

The missing maiden, Ezinne, was househelp of Mrs. Amarachi Kalu (simply called Amarachi), a younger sister of Madam Ebere. However, like the proverbial outsider weeping louder than the bereaved; it was Ebere that allegedly vigorously pursued Ogbonna’s undoing. The matter even got to the point, where Amarachi and her elder sister began working at cross-purposes.

Believed to be in her late 40s, Madam Ebere is a used-cloths trader operating from a shed on Abuja Line at Missebo Market, Cotonou; while both Ogbonna and Kalu ran shops on Lagos Line inside the same emporium.

Kalu is son of Mr. Dimgba Onwuka of Ndi-Ngbikere Amaaja in Abiriba, while Ogbonna; son of Mr. Chike Igwe, hails from Ezi-Ama in Igbere. Both communities are in Abia State. Incidentally, Madam Ebere, the woman, whose complaint to Beninese security agents landed the duo in the jam; is a native of Ozu-Item bordering Uzoakoli; also in Abia State.

Despite interventions by various authorities, including the Igbo community in Cotonou and the fact that the matter was reported to the local Nigerian Embassy many months earlier; Ogbonna and Kalu might have rotted away in incaceration for donkey years because virtually every Nigerian in Cotonou was wary of wading into the matter lest they incure the wrath of Madam Ebere.

When asked to confide in us and confess, if he knew anything about the missing girl’s whereabouts; Ogbonna said: “I’ve never seen Ezinne in my life”.

Asked to describe what Ezinne looks like, this is what Kalu had to say: “I have never met Ezinne. I therefore cannot tell what she looks like. Even Ebere, I cannot say that I really know this woman”.

Then, how did Kalu come to be detained? “I believe that Ebere roped me in because I am a friend of Ogbonna and we shared the same shed inside Missebo Market. I came to know Ebere because Ogbonna introduced her as the person he once worked for”.

Free at last!
Shortly before 4pm on Wednesday, 11 April, 2012; Ogbonna and Kalu walked with somewhat unsure gait out of Prison Civile, Cotonou after almost a year in detention. Emerging from the gates of the dungeon that was their home for more than 11 months, the duo were a shadow of themselves.

Although Ogbonna and Kalu were arraigned at the local Cour d’Appel Cotonou, Tribunal de Premiere Instance de lere Classe de Cotonou (Court of Appeal, Cotonou, Tribunal of First Hearing), since July last year; every effort to free the detainees, had until 11 April, 2012; proven abortive.

As they took their unsure steps back into the free world, Ogbonna and Kalu looked subdued, shaken, traumatised and emaciated. Outside the prison gate, the just-freed Nigerian men had to meander through a crowd of numerous other visitors milling around the entrance and anxiously waiting for word from or an opportunity to see their relations inside the jailhouse.

On hand to receive Ogbonna and Kalu back into the land of the free were Chief Ebuka Onunkwo and Ms. Ugochi Ndubuakwu, the 26-year-old graduate of philosophy.

Others that went to welcome the former detainees back to the world of freedom included Madam Grace Igwe, Ogbonna’s mom; a friend of Ogbonna and Mr. Suka Doobee, an Ogoni, Rivers State indigene, who described his friend as a foster brother.
Pic 5.

From the prison, where the duo had spent their latest birthdays, last year’s Christmas and Easter of 2012; we all headed to the residence of Chief Onunkwo, where the former detainees probably enjoyed something of comfort like sitting inside an air-conditioned room since they were arrested in 2011.

Subsequently, Chief Onunkwo had put a call to an official of Nigerian Embassy Cotonou to inform him that the young men were out. The Igbo leader had also conveyed the same message to Mr. Itah Okoh Kalu, Chairman of Abia State Community Union; and, Mr. Okezie I. Jonathan, a former Personal Assistant to Chief Emmanuel Uko Elendu, immediate-past President of the Cotonou Chapter of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO).

After a while, but at different times, Messrs Kalu and Jonathan joined us at Chief Onunkwo’s residence.

Across the developing world, a prison is more of a torture chamber, instead of the rehabilitation centre it is supposed to be. So, in Benin Republic, a prison; even the PCC that is widely hailed as the best in West Africa, cannot be equated with a recreational centre. So, the agony of being locked up in an over-crowded cell can only be imagined and no matter how fertile one’s imagination, it is doubtful anyone, except the one that had spent time in confinement; can really understand how traumatic the experience could be.

Instances: Neither Ogbonna nor Kalu could immediately recall his date of birth, when this question was put to each of them at different times shortly after their release from PCC.

In the same vein, Ogbonna could not remember his phone number either. These shed some light on the extent of their disorientation, after barely a year in prison. Truly, this duo needed rejuvenation on many fronts.
Pic 6.

It is also pertinent to note that, apart from the need for medical attention; anyone that had suffered the fate befallen Ogbonna and Kalu also requires psycho-therapy to facilitate proper social rehabilitation. But, instead of plans for their rehabilitation, the two young men were berated for failing to register as members of their village communities in Cotonou.

Abia State Community Chairman, Mr. Itah Okoh Kalu, pointedly told the duo they were to blame for their woes. In Mr. Kalu’s view, were each of them registered with their village association; that body would have risen to their defense and consequently facilitated the resolution of their crisis.

Welcome to Cotonou, where Ogbonna and Kalu are struggling to find their feet again, after an enervating Critical Life Experience (CLE). These young men’s lore is riddled with many an allegorical strut.

Although many Nigerians in Cotonou talk of a rampaging dog, there is no mention of its pedigree. But, whether alsatian, bull mastif, rottweiler or tosa inno, a canine cannot overwhelm a lion. Curiosly, however, in this unfolding thriller; even felines appeared to cringe at the mere mention of dog. Interestingly, a few fearless ones had declared that, “for all you know, the dreaded dog could well be a toothless bull dog, after all”.

Referring to the belief that “good will ultimately triumph over evil”, an elderly Igbo man, who asked not to be named; remarked: “The release of Ogbonna and Kalu have proven the God-fearing ones right. May God continue to bless Chief Ebuka Onunkwo for ensuring that peace reigns in our midst in this foreign land”.

From tenants to destitute
Until his arrest, Ogbonna lived in a small room within a house in Adogleta area of Cotonou, but after six months in prison; his landlady sent an emissary to inform Ogbonna that she no longer wanted him among her tenants. By the time the eviction notice reached the detainee, Ogbonna’s annual rental on the property was due to elapse three month’s later.

To drive home her determination to see Ogbonna out of her house, the landlady had given her messenger a refund of the remaining three month’s rent to take to the man in prison. With that settled, bailiffs were brought in to evacuate the space Ogbonna occupied and his belongings were carted to a nearby police station.

As a result, Ogbonna’s release from prison paradoxically means that he is now destitute. The same fate has befallen Kalu, who also lost his abode while in prison.

When asked how life has been since his release from prison, Kalu rued: “This woman seemed out to ruin us. Because I lost my home and belongings, while I was in prison; I have been suffering since I came out. I am now homeless, and with no money to resume my business, some friends have been feeding me.

“My parents are poor and have eight of us. Most of my relations live in the village; and, all eyes are on me to help them. I was managing to send some little money home from time to time before my detention. But, now things are very tough. I can’t even feed myself, so how can I send anything to the people in the village that have been relying on me?

“I have an elder brother who also lives here in Cotonou but he cannot help me. He used to visit me from time to time, while I was in prison; but, things have not easy with him too. He was actually evicted from his shed over non-payment of rent. I’m so confused, I don’t know what to do or where to start from now”.

A lore of multiple betrayals
The odyssey of Ogbonna and Kalu reflects the travails of millions of Nigerian youth of the current generation. Brought into this world by miserably poor couples in a nation, where most leaders care little about their citizens’ welfare; such offspring undergo incomplete metamorphosis jumping from infancy to adulthood.

The story of Ogbonna and Kalu is lush with multiple betrayals. At 12 years old, Ogbonna was betrayed by parents that surrendered him to servitude and at the mercy of complete strangers. Before his teenage years, Ogbonna was betrayed by the Nigerian State, whose officials failed by not aborting his illegal emigration to Benin Republic.

Before Ogbonna and Kalu were transferred from police custody to prison, each was made to sign a document written in French, the content of which was not translated to them.
Pic 7.

This last aspect was like signing their death warrant because the statement, which Ogbonna and Kalu signed, was admitted as an evidence in court, each time either of these suspects was taken there.
Quite significantly too, neither Ogbonna nor Kalu was represented by any legal counsel on all occasions, and there was no official of the local Nigerian embassy in that court each time their case was called. Evidently, through Nigerian Embassy Cotonou, the Nigerian State again betrayed both young men.

‘How I got involved’
At a time that countless Nigerian men in Cotonou turned out to be no better than spineless worms, when it came to efforts to free Ogbonna Igwe and Kalu Onwuka from prison; one brave lady enlisted in the battle to free the detained duo.

Meet Ugochi Ezinne Ndubuaku, the 26-year-old graduate of Philosophy from Imo State University, Owerri. A member of her school’s Class of 2011, Miss Ndubuaku’s somewhat frail looks belie her steely resolve and intrepid nature.

Slim, dark-complexioned and effervescent with spunk, this young Amazon said she committed her time, emotion and money to see the two young men released because of her conviction that they did no wrong.

But, Ndubuaku’s belief in the innocence of the suspects could well be just the obvious part of her motive. The latent part could be that she was propelled by contempt for supposed brave men that practically cringed at the mere mention of some character called Dog to whom all sorts of powers had been ascribed.

Not afraid to ply a road that hundreds of Igbo men were scared to tread, the young woman once told me she has never known fear all her life. This might help clue one in, on the character we are talking about.

But, other questions still rankled in our minds. For example, being only just out of school and unemployed, how does she fund her advocacy? Where was the money for shuttling between Nigeria’s federal capital, Abuja and Cotonou in Benin Republic as well as visiting other towns in the course of her struggles coming from?

For roughly four months, we had met several times in the course of investigating the unfolding saga over which Ogbonna Igwe and Kalu Onwuka were detained, and throughout those encounters, this young woman never smiled let alone laughed. She was always pensive.

But, on 11 April, as the two young men walked out of prison into the free world, Miss Ndubuaku’s joy seemed to know no bounds. Here was a lady that hardly smiled since the four months that we first met; but, on that day, Ndubuaku was excitedly laughing from ear to ear.

Pic 8.

But, for one’s pondering over the future of the released young men, we could have said her mood was infectious. In any case, this lady’s mood was evocative of someone that had just surmounted a principal hurdle. In many ways, she truly deserved to celebrate, after all; the emotional and financial resources invested in her drive to see Ogbonna and Kalu out of prison finally yielded positive fruit.

But, the question again crossed one’s mind: What could be her motive? Was she like Mrs. Ebere Friday Asiegbu, who turned out the complainant over Ezinne; whereas the presumed missing maiden was ward of Mrs. Amarachi Kalu?

Was Ndubuaku also like Chinua Achebe’s proverbial outsider weeping louder than the bereaved?

In the early days of our acquiantance with Ndubuaku, the question had naturally popped up: “What is your interest in this matter”?

To that, Ndubuaku had responded that she just wanted to see Ogbonna released because she was sure of his innocence.

In fact, the budding activist had narrated to us how she once burst into tears when the same question was put to her at a meeting, where she was asked to address members of Igbo community in Cotonou on the incarceration of Ogbonna and Kalu. At that forum, an elder had asked Ndubuaku about her age and marital status.

Before the young woman could finish replying that she was 26 and single, at least two people had interjected to ask, if Ndubuaku was fighting the detained young men’s battle because one of them had promised to marry her. In reaction, she had broken down in tears.

Explaining that she was not into any intimate affair with either Ogbonna or Kalu, Ndubuaku said she was shocked by some people’s want of empathy. She said she has brothers among her seven siblings and would have done the same, if the detained men were her relations.

“What is happening to Ogbonna and Kalu could happen to any other person”, she had told us in the early days of our meeting; while stressing that she was going to do everything within her power to see to it that the duo were released.

It is worth noting her resolve here: Ndubuaku wasn’t kidding, when she declared she would leave no stone unturned in her battle to see Ogbonna and Kalu out of prison. This could be gleaned from the many trips she made to Abuja, where she reported the matter to the Directorate of State Security Service (SSS) in Nigeria’s FCT (Federal Capital Territory).

At some point, she told us she was compiling a comprehensive report of the matter to be sent to Nigeria’s Intelligence Agency (NIA). And, in Benin Republic, Ndubuaku was a frequent caller at Nigerian Embassy Cotonou; where some staffers were often consulted for their action or inaction on the matter.

When asked how she got to know of this matter, in the first place? Ndubuaku, who had in the past visited her elder sister, who lives in the Beninese city, started her narration; thus: “After my final exams in November (2011), I came to Cotonou on holiday. And, a day after my arrival in Cotonou I went to Missebo Market to buy some ladies’ wears. Every time I visit Cotonou, I go to Missebo Market for shopping…”.

She told us that in the beginning, she only went to Missebo Market to buy things for herself, but after a while, schoolmates and some “Big Girls” (bank workers and other comfortable women in Owerri, Imo State) started requesting that she buys a few things like skirts, blouses and footwears for them.

It was in the process of meeting such requests that she got to know Ogbonna, who was sharing the same shed at Missebo Market with Kalu. Over the years, Ndubuaku came to find in Ogbonna a trust-worthy person and sometimes, even left items she had paid for in the latter’s custody for weeks.

Ndubuaku again: “Occasionally, apart from clothing items, I even gave him money to keep for me. Ogbonna eventually became the only person I bought things from. Even, if the item I needed were not among his stock, I asked him to source them for me. This is how I started leaving some money with him. And, I never found him wanting because, whenever I returned to demand for my goods or money; he always returned everything to me intact.

“On getting to Missebo Market last November, I headed; as usual, to Ogbonna’s shop. When I didn’t see him at his shed, I had asked for his whereabouts, whereupon two of his friends, Suka and Maximus (alias School Boy); told me that Ogbonna had travelled.

“For many days, whenever I asked after Ogbonna and Kalu, everybody would lie to me that they were fine… Apparently, these people were shy of letting me know that their friends were in trouble and even behind bars. However, I later ran into one Mr. Udeagha, who is a close family friend; and, he sat me down and broke the news to me. ‘Ogbonna’, Udeagha revealed, ‘was in prison’.

“I was shocked! Then, when I asked over what crime? I was informed that a certain Madam Ebere, who Ogbonna once served as apprentice had accused him of kidnapping her housemaid”.

When Ndubuaku asked how Kalu got into prison, nobody seemed to really know; except that, “It probably has to do with his friendship to Ogbonna”.

When she confronted the detained men’s neighbours at Missebo Market over their efforts to secure the duo’s release, Ndubuaku was told that Ogbonna had no relation in Cotonou; and that, based on alleged threats from Madam Ebere, none of the young men’s fellow traders at Missebo Market was bold enough to visit their detained colleagues. However, Ogbonna had one friend in deed. Named Suka Doobee, this fellow turned out not to be as chicken-hearted as Ogbonna’s other pals at Missebo Market.

Interestingly, Ogoni-born Suka regularly visited Igbo-born Ogbonna and stood by his friend throughout the latter’s months of tribulation, in spite of all the fire and brimestone allegedly threatened by Madam Ebere.

Continuing, Ndubuaku added: “When I asked, if there was an Eze ndi Igbo (Igbo King) in Cotonou; I was told that, there is one. However, when I requested someone to take me to the residence of the Eze Igbo, the guide mistakingly took me to the office of Chief Emmanuel Uko Elendu.

“Incidentally, Chief Elendu would later explain to me that the reason I was brought to him must be because of his position as a member of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), Cotonou chapter. He however went on to add that, he had a few weeks earlier handed over the title of NIDO President to a successor.

“Nonetheless willing to assist, Chief Elendu had sent one of his workers to go and invite the Chairman of ASIDO (Abia State Indigenes in Diaspora Organisation), Mr. Itah Okoh Kalu; to his office, so that I could brief the latter as all the parties mentioned in connection with the detainees’ plight were indigenes of Abia”.

She recalled that, when eventually the ASIDO Chairman arrived and she briefed him; he subsequently asked her to go and meet the victims and get their names. Ndubuaku, who was also asked to get the detainees’ villages’ names; however found a curio in Mr. Kalu’s insistence that ‘each of the boys’ must have three names’.

The activist had subsequently rushed to Prison Civile to get the detainees’ data and on returning to Chief Elendu’s office had encountered the immediate-past NIDO President ordering a man to “go and release those boys”!

Hear her: “I later learnt that Chief Elendu had been issuing his marching orders to one Mr. Friday Asiegbu, the husband of Madam Ebere. I then handed the boys’ names and the names of their communities to Mr. Kalu and told them I was leaving, after thanking them.

“As I made to depart, I noticed that Udeagha was still waiting for me. So, I asked him; if there was a Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou? He responded in the affirmative and I told him to take me there.

“As I waited patiently for Udeagha to take me to the embassy, the man had called me back to warn that the matter I was dabbling in was a very risky one. According to Udeagha, everybody had been avoiding the matter because of fear over what Madam Ebere could do.

“Therefore, I should refrain from embarking on a journey of no return. But, despite Udeagha’s warnings, I insisted that all I wanted him to do was to take me to the Nigerian Embassy. To reassure him, I told him that, once I got to the embassy, I would work on my own and that I would no longer involve him in my struggle”.

With that, Udeagha took Ndubuaku to Nigerian Embassy Cotonou.

Concluding, the young woman said: “When we got there, I cleared myself with the security and got inside the premises, where I was referred to see the Consular Officer. From there, the rest is history as you are already familiar with every step of the road we travelled”.

One battle won, but war not yet over
Although the eventual release of Ogbonna and Kalu from prison could pass for a monumental milestone, the fact remains that it is just one battle won in the war to locate the missing Ezinne.

Incidentally, while Ezinne lived with Amarachi as domestic servant, her brother, Obinna, was also domestic help of Amarachi’s sister, Madam Ebere. Both sisters and their family live on different floors of the same two-storey building in Cotonou. Amarachi and her husband live downstairs, while her elder sister’s family occupies a flat on the third floor.

But, with these two sisters seemingly working at cross-purposes; tracing Ezinne has been made more difficult. As things stand, no one; except Amarachi and Ebere as well as their family members, seems to know what the missing maiden looks like.

Meet Amarachi, Ebere’s younger sister and guardian of missing Ezinne
This lore is not only loaded with twists and turns, it is also evocative of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, except that in this case, the gender of the feuding siblings is female.
Pic 9.

Amarachi and Ebere are both daughters of one Mr. Kalu; a native of Ozuitem, now deceased. Amarachi, 28, now Mrs. Orji, is the youngest of the late Mr. Kalu’s kids. Samuel, a photographer and video cameraman, is the only male child among the five children sired by Mr. Kalu. Amarachi said Ebere is at least six years older than her.

Onyinyechi is the eldest of the siblings and is followed by Ebere. Samuel came next with Oluchi as the fourth baby. However, Oluchi later died, leaving Onyinyechi, Ebere, Samuel and Amarachi in this world. And, in the evolving dispute in the family; their widowed mother, Onyinyechi, Ebere and Samuel are in the same corner, all ranged against Amarachi in the other corner.

Amarachi helped to put things in context, when she rued; “In the family, I have become like an outcast now, because I didn’t support the arrest of Ogbonna”.

How could she be against the arrest of a man that allegedly kidnapped her maid?

Hear Amarchi: “While I know that people can change, I have known Ogbonna for many years and from his conducts, I can never believe that he could kidnap anybody”.

Amarachi, who was brought to Cotonou by her sister, Ebere, in 1999; went on explain that the better part of the 13 years that she has lived in the Beninese economic hub, were spent in Ebere’s home and through this, she had the opportunity of studying Ogbonna at close quarters. 

“If kidnap is to extort money as ransom, then Ogbonna didn’t have to resort to that. He was once in charge of Ebere’s shop and often had cash in excess of N300,000 from sale of bales of okrika (used clothings items) in his custody. If he was a criminal, Ogbonna would have absconded with Ebere’s money many years ago”, Amarachi’s reasoned.

“Among all the boys that ever worked for Ebere, Ogbonna was the best. He could have stolen her money years ago, but he didn’t. So, I don’t believe that he kidnapped Ezinne”, Amarchi declared.

When asked, if she had any picture of her missing ward, Ezinne; Amarchi revealed: “Samuel, my brother, collected all the pictures of Ezinne that I had with me”.

As to why she surrendered all the pictures of Ezinne to her photographer brother, Samuel; Amarachi said, when he came to request the pictures, she handed them over without reservation, thinking that Samuel and others were going to use the images to intensify the search for the missing girl.

It is worth recalling that, when Ogbonna’s mother, Madam Grace, contacted Ebere to request picture of Ezinne to facilitate the search for her; Amarchi’s sister had allegedly said there was no picture of the missing girl. The woman, whose statement presumably sent Ogbonna and Kalu to prison, had also reportedly claimed not to have any contact of Ezinne’s parents or guardian.

Amarachi recalled that Ezinne went missing on Wednesday, 11 May, 2011 and that the girl’s disappearance was reported to the police same day. Four days later, when all efforts to locate Ezinne failed; Amarachi said she went with her husband to report the incident at Nigerian Embassy Cotonou.

However, the couple could not do so because the official saddled with such matters was said to be away on official duty somewhere else. Two weeks later, when Amarachi and her hubby returned to the local Nigerian mission, they learnt that the Consular Officer they were supposed to see was “not on seat”. The man had travelled, they were told.

Meanwhile, Ebere’s approach toward locating Ezinne seemed rather odd to her sister, Amarachi.

Amarachi again: “I had hoped to trace Ezinne through her brother, Obinna, who was then leaving with Ebere. Since we all live in the same building, though on different floors and in separate flats, I suspected that Ezinne might have confided in her brother, Obinna, and probably told him, where she was hiding. So, I had hoped that through Obinna, we would get to Ezinne, wherever she was. But, to my surprise, Ebere decided to send Obinna away”.

After sending Obinna away, Amarachi claimed, her sister, Ebere further complicated matters by having Ogbonna dumped in detention. “If, as Ebere claimed, Ogbonna had a hand in Ezinne’s disappearance, how was his detention supposed to help us trace the missing girl”? she queried rhetorically.

Asked to describe Ezinne, Amarachi submitted: “She’s a very nice and industrious girl. I miss her so much because when Ezinne was around, my children; I have three children, hardly noticed my presence or absence”.

With regard to the missing girl’s warts, Amarachi had this to say: “My only problems with Ezinne is that she loves men. The reason I occasionally beat her was to discourage her from falling prey to any man. I didn’t want her to get pregnant in my house”.

When we asked: “Why are most Igbos in Cotonou afraid of your sister, Ebere? Do you know of any link to any secret cult?
“You need to know the relationship between I and my sister…She (Ebere) wants to be worshipped, and because she is very rich; many people worship her. But, she is not God, so I can only respect her. This is why we have problems”, Amarachi concluded.

And, did we make any effort to reach Mrs. Ebere Asiegbu (Madam Ebere) for her side of this story? You bet! But, the woman would not honour invitations to mediation meetings.

To be fair, it is possible Madam Ebere is being villified for nothing, but one thing is clear; we have not heard the last of this story yet. More than 12 months have passed since Ezinne was declared missing, and until this maiden is found, one cannot say c’est finis or it’s all over with this saga.

Pic 1. Ugochi Ndubuaku, budding activist, who struggled to get Ogbonna out of prison.

Pic 2. Mrs. Ebere Friday Asiegbu.

Pic 3. Ogbonna Igwe, minutes after his release from Prison Civil.

Pic 4. Kalu Onwuka, shortly after being freed.

Pic 5. Ogbonna’s mom, Madam Grace, pleading her son’s innocence.

Pic 6. Pensive Madam Grace Igwe before her son’s release.

Pic 7. Madam Grace and Ugochi Ndubuaku.

Pic 8. Victory at last! Ms Ugochi Ndubuaku, laughing from ear to ear.

Pic 9. Mrs. Amarachi Orji.

No comments:

Post a Comment