Pastor Okochi Obeni of God’s Descendants Assembly, Amasiri, Afikpo North Local Government Area, Ebonyi State, was recently tortured, brutalised and forced by his tormentors to drink water from the gutter, for allegedly criticising the council chairman, Ogbonnaya Oko Enyim. The cleric, who is currently hospitalised at Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, shares his experience with EDWARD NNACHI
What kind of relationship do you have with the Chairman of Afikpo North Local Government Area, Ogbonnaya Oko Enyim?
I’m a social media activist. Both of us are from Amasiri community so he is the chairman of my local government area. As a social critic, I criticise bad governance and people in power not doing well. The same way I criticise people in positions of authority not doing well is the way I criticise the chairman. The perceived negative relationship I have with him started when he was asked to build a kilometre of road like his counterparts in other local government areas of the state.
The governor told them to construct a kilometre of road anywhere in their councils. He was unable to do that. It took him quite some time to take action as regard the road construction. So, I wrote about it. I criticised it. So, when he was seeking re-election, I wrote again that any local government chairperson who could not build a kilometre of road in their council was not worthy of being re-elected. It was from that point that I started having problem with him.
He started hurting me, using different means. He reported me to the Anti-Kidnapping Squad of the Nigeria Police, saying I was attacking him on social media. I went there and my statement exonerated me. I told them I did not have any personal issue against him and that I was only trying to hold him accountable as a public office holder.
Did you ever suspect that your posts and comments on Facebook could put you in harm’s way?
As a social media activist, I’m not afraid of what people would do to me, since I’m not lying against them. For sure, those in government who are not doing well will in one way or the other try to make people keep mute or accept their ill-governance style. I was not afraid because I was expecting it. But I didn’t know it would be come in a barbaric manner like what I experienced.
But one thing is sure, there is no way they can stop the media in this state. The media is the fourth arm of the government. Other arms of government have their critical roles to play in society. Just like that, the media have a critical role to play to ensure the survival of the society. So, if they don’t want to be criticised or hate criticisms so much, they should stay away from public offices. I knew and had preempted that what the chairman and his agents did to me on Thursday, May 14, 2020, would come some day. But one thing I know is that injustice to one, is injustice to all.
Can you narrate how you were tortured?
I was expecting to be treated badly by these people, but I did not envisage it would take that form. That day, I was called by one Amadi Julius Nyerere, who is a nominee of the chairman and a Technical Assistant to Ebonyi State Governor, David Umahi. He called and said the Essa age grade chairman wanted to see me. I thought the plan was to reconcile me with the council chairman, so I went there. On reaching there, I discovered that all the aides of the council chairman, Isi Oru age grade members, and Essa age grade chairman (who is related to the council boss), and his executives, were all there. It dawned on me that there was a plan already on the ground that was being followed using all means available since their plan to use policemen in Ebonyi State Security Neighbourhood Watch had failed.
So, they resorted to attacks. I never experienced the kind of ugly treatment they gave me. They tied my hands behind my back and up till this very moment, I can’t make use of my hands. I can’t hold any object; you can see how I’m struggling to hold my phones. They forced me to drink gutter water and did all sorts of things to me. They put my body through all manner of inhuman treatments, aside from flogging me 36 times.
I want people to know that public service should not be a do-or-die affair. If you know are not competent to be in a position of authority and can’t tolerate criticisms, please stay off and let people who understand what governance entails take up positions of authority. Also, allow the media to do their work.
You were seen in the video apologising in your native dialect and asking for forgiveness; why were you apologising if you knew you were right?
As I said earlier, my hands were tied behind my back. Those people made to stay on my knees for over two and a half hours inside a gutter. So, to be honest with you, my strength was failing me and I needed freedom. I lost consciousness twice. All I needed was freedom. I noticed blood was not flowing through my veins anymore. Whatever anyone told me to say at the point to regain my freedom, I would say. If you watched that video, you would hear where in my dialect, I was begging them to loosen the knot in the rope used to tie both my hands together.
They said they would ask me some questions and if I answered them correctly, they would free me. I said I would answer their questions. It was a terrible experience. And so, whatever I said in that video, I said under duress. Whatever apology or pleas I made in that video were for the sake of my freedom. I knew they weren’t going to be binding on me and I never meant them. I’m a human rights activist and I must continue to make those in positions of authority to be accountable to the people and be transparent in their dealings with the people.
They are paid with public funds; therefore, the public and the press must be able to hold them to account. Therefore, whatever I said was said under duress.
How is your condition now?
At first, I thought it was going to be a minor thing after the doctors here treated the wounds I had. However, after the treatment, I discovered I could not make use of my hands. I also realised I could not make use of my buttocks because I hardly sit properly and easily now. Just as I was rejoicing that I was going home to meet my family, a doctor examined me and discovered that most of my veins and nerves had been damaged because of the long hours that my hands were tied and I was beaten.
He said the health challenges could become permanent if I didn’t treat them quickly. He said it could lead to paralysis. They further advised that I should be moved to the physiotherapy centre of the hospital and that’s where I am currently. I have been receiving treatment here but I still can’t hold any object. I can’t easily close my hands or open them. I still feel so much pain all over my body, but it is better than how I felt on the day of the incident.
My worst fear is that these current health challenges might lead to permanent paralysis in the future. I’m begging people to pray for me to recover quickly.
What do you want as justice?
The people who tortured me should all be arrested. I’m still surprised and worried that Ogbonnaya Oko Enyim has not been arrested. It doesn’t give me joy that somebody would commit such a heinous crime and be walking freely on the streets of Nigeria. I’m still begging the police to do something about it. I heard that the Nigeria Police Force Public Relations Officer in Abuja, Mr Frank Mba, said some arrests had been made; I am not yet satisfied. Ogbonnaya Oko Enyim, Okpara Akpu Mbe, Oko Olughu, Amicable, and others should have been in police custody by now.
They instigated the attack; they were the ones videoing me and telling the Isi Oru people what to do to me. So, I’m begging the security agencies to come my rescue by bringing these people to justice. It is not all about me; it is about other practitioners and journalists whose lives are very much in danger in the state. Let them do justice to this matter and when they do, I will be glad and will be able to beat my chest and say Nigeria is a safe place for the media.
Would you still have the courage to be critical of the local government chairman and other political leaders in the state who you think are not doing well?
Well, this is the first time I was threatened. The chairman once took me to the state Criminal Investigation Department for criticising his style of governance. But that didn’t bother me. He once sent members of the Ebonyi State Security and Neighbourhood Watch to my family; they came and threatened my wife, which I also ensured was published to draw attention of the public to the situation and that the lives of my wife and kid were at stake, but that also didn’t stop me. So using the Isi Oru and other traditional means illegally to frustrate me cannot also stop the fighting spirit in me
I only want to see good governance, not bad governance in our land. Those in authority should be accountable to the people; that’s what I have been saying and that’s why the local government chairman is angry with me and everyone that criticises him. Those at the grass roots should feel the impact of governance. This is the crux of my agitation; this is why I have been involved in active social media activism. They can’t stop me. When I recover, I will still investigate and write to condemn evil and all violations against human rights in Amasiri, Afikpo North Local Government Area in Ebonyi State.
What’s your greatest regret amid all these?
My regret is that the elite in Amasiri are keeping quiet over this issue. They think it is about me alone. It is about the general interest of Amasiri land. I read that the local government chairman called some journalists (The PUNCH not included), community people, government officials and others to his house and told them that torturing me was in line with our tradition.
Amasiri community is where the only Senior Advocate of Nigeria in the entire Ebonyi State hails from and you are telling the world that barbarism or inhuman treatment is part of our culture. It baffles me. I’m lost. But I thank God that the custodian of our culture and tradition, (Ezeogo) Patrick Aja (The current Isakaogu of Ndukwe Kingdom), has debunked the media report because barbarism and inhuman treatment are not part of our culture. I had expected all educated Amasiri men and women to stand up and condemn this barbaric action. My only regret is that people are not saying anything about a development that can jeopardise the future their children. I don’t regret holding government to be accountable to the masses.
What was your criticism of the local government chairman about?
Well, I’m not criticising the council chairman, I’m only criticising his style of governance, I mean, his bad leadership tendencies. I do not hate him. I don’t hate him as a person. All I’m against is the way he runs the affairs of the council. You should take governance to the people who own it. But we can’t find this kind of thing happening here.
Good enough, he is the first chairman of Afikpo North Local Government Area to have come from Amasiri land. The roads in Amasiri are dilapidated. We don’t have good drinking water, and he is from here. If we don’t hold him accountable, the ugly trend may not change anytime soon. It was because I engaged him on social media that he started the one kilometre road in the first place and he has not been able to complete it after over one year. And when I write about it, he will come and attack me again. But when we hold leaders accountable, they will know that journalists are watching them and do what is expected of them.