Emmanuel Ogebe, a US-based human rights lawyer and humanitarian worker, missed death by the whiskers under the late General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship for his outspokenness against the government. He fled to the USA upon his release and has since remained there, practicing as a lawyer, engaging the US government and other international organizations on foreign policies and aids for Nigeria.
Mr. Ogebe has been involved in relief and rehabilitation for victims of the various attacks and through his NGO, Education Must Continue, provides educational opportunities for hundreds of children in the North.
Since 2014 when over 200 girls were abducted from the Chibok Secondary School in Borno State, his life has taken a new and drastic dimension. Rather than restrict himself to advocating via the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, he took a practical step of taking 10 of the escaped girls to the US to continue their education. Benue State-born Mr. Ogebe, a father of two, has since taken on the role of father to the 10 girls as well as a few other similar victims he had also taken to the US before now.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ contributing writer, BETTY ABAH, at Virginia, USA, Mr. Ogebe, speaks on the challenges of catering for the Chibok girls, difficulties accessing government’s support, on Nigeria’s new-found democracy among other things.
PT: How long have you been in tqhe US?
Ogebe: I have been here since the 90s, I am a product of the Abacha era’s persecution of Human rights workers and activists. So after my imprisonment by Abacha I went abroad on exile.
PT: How long were you in Prison?
Ogebe: I was arrested by Abacha in June of 1996 and I came back in August 1996. It was a short but intense one.
PT: Were you tortured?
Ogebe: I was, and I was directly held in the villa for a while before I was moved to detention in Asokoro.
PT: Did you fear for your life at the time?
Ogebe: There was no doubt because I was directly under the captivity of Major Al-Mustapha. Those who made it to the villa, if you remained in the villa as a prisoner, your likelihood of coming out was very remote. In fact, nobody knew where you were – nothing! The SSS and different arms of government were approached by my family members looking for me. They didn’t know where I was. It was the most maximum detention imaginable, where other security agencies didn’t know where you were.
PT: So you were tortured everyday?
Ogebe: Not every day but it was the week before June 12 so as paranoid dictatorships go, they were edgy. There was torture and interrogation but on June 12 they had to focus on more pressing issues.
PT: At that point, what was going through your mind?
Ogebe: I was resolute in my mind that military dictatorship was wrong for Nigeria, was wrong for any civilised people and for humanity. So the torture was not going to change my perspective on the ideal. It was only a question of whether I was prepared to pay the ultimate price for my convictions.
PT: By knowing that you could die any moment, what really was on your mind?
Ogebe: I had a direct confrontation during one of the interrogations when they said they were going to kill me. I said ‘that is fine, just let me say my final prayers’ and let them do what they have to do. It was a very close shave. They didn’t know how to respond to that. They are used to people begging for their lives.
PT: Candidly, how would you rate Nigeria of now and those days under Abacha, on Democracy, freedom of expression, movement and other things?
Ogebe: Honestly, it is a joy to see that Nigeria is no longer the stranglehold of one man and his cabal of killers. You can see that there’s been an explosion in quality of human capital in Nigeria, the expressiveness of people and the freedom of expression. Look at the way people can criticise and insult their leaders with ease. When I was a human rights activist in Abuja, even as a human rights lawyer, it was not Abacha’s people who would complain, it is those around me – the victims. They’d saw “we know what you are saying is true but must you be the one to say it?”
It is indeed a joy to see that we can hold people accountable, look at Buhari who is now President, look at the way that people are critical of him. They couldn’t do this to him when he was a military ruler. He shut down newspapers arbitrarily, but look at him today, he is now subject to the will of the people, so democracy is a beauty to behold. Earlier this year, he was the one criticizing the government, now he is the government being criticized.
We have made progress in the area of freedom of expression but in other areas of life, we have obvious concerns. The value of life continues to remain very cheap, the manner in which people are being slaughtered is deeply disturbing. For us, human rights activists at a time we thought that the worst that the nation saw after Biafra was General Abacha’s brutality. We never imagined we will see a Nigeria where terrorists will slaughter people wholesale. Last year alone, Boko Haram was the largest terrorist killer globally, they killed more people than ISIL. We did not expect that Nigeria will set a record of that nature, so it is not yet Uhuru.
PT: So the main problem is terrorism, what about brutality with security agencies especially?
Ogebe: That is a concern although the military are not doing as much evil as the terrorists, but given the nature of the insurgency, the ferocity of the insurgency and the fact that it is a guerrilla warfare within civilian populace, there is a propensity for high civilian casualty – Some of which are attributed to military, even though it is the actions of the terrorist. the terrorist use military uniforms and so on and so forth. That is not to say that the Nigerian military has not perpetrated human rights violations, it is very likely that it has happened, and as someone who was personally tortured by the military, as an innocent civilian, I know what they were capable of during military rule. But in the context of the conflict we have right now, the military is clearly facing an unusual kind of enemy and mistakes and excesses occur in that kind of setting.
PT: Let us talk about the main issue; at one point did you hear about the Chibok girls’ abduction?
Ogebe: I think I arrived Nigeria a week after the abduction and I heard about it before I arrived. However, It is when I was visiting a community of IDPs that I was helping that somebody told me-there was this young orphan girl that I was helping, I had taken her out to the US. Boko Haram had come and killed her father and brother, in front of her, she was just twelve years at that time-People told me that ‘the girl you helped’ it is her village that Boko Haram went and attacked and that even her relatives were amongst the girls that were abducted. I was deeply saddened but there was nothing I could do, nothing about it, other than just say this is one of the atrocities that Boko Haram has perpetrated. So during my visit, I came with about fifteen Americans, we came to help build shelters for IDPs. Some of the Americans were very agitated, ‘how can they just abduct all these girls?’ It wasn’t until two months later that I finally met a girl who escaped. It was an unforgettable experience because they had been sidelined, marginalised and stigmatised. The girl had not been interviewed by the police or the SSS, nobody had interviewed her. I was shocked that after two months, the only person that had interviewed her was her pastor. She had injured her leg as she escaped through the forest, had crawled on her stomach, was on crutches for two months. I asked her ‘have you been to follow-up with the doctor?’ “No”, ‘Why not?’ ‘I don’t have money’.
These ones who brought themselves back and escaped the worst were being called Boko Haram’s wives, the people from the village were calling them that, how can? So apart from the physical trauma they had, the emotional trauma was there. I said to myself ‘we have to do something for these children, this is unacceptable’. The worst part was that after making an Abuja trip she was going to travel back, two days journey to Chibok, where the attacks will continue. I went to the US while our local partners decided to take them in, so we moved them from Chibok, as we tried to figure out what the future held for them.
PT: How many of them?
Ogebe: I have brought a total of 10 of them to school in the US.
PT: Fifty-seven of them escaped?
Ogebe: Yes. That was how we began to seek opportunities for them to be able to come to the US, we worked on their passports, on their visas, school applications and so and so forth. To the glory of God, 10 of them are in school here now.
PT: Are there some of the escaped girls back home who are yet to be rehabilitated?
Ogebe: As I am talking to you now, this year alone I have been contacted by no less than three who are waiting for our support and assistance. But right now we are overstretched even with the funds that we have so that the idea of being able to absorb more doesn’t look feasible, until we have additional support and consistent funding.
PT: What is your motive for bringing them here and what are your plans for them?
Ogebe: There are largely two categories of abducted girls that we brought here. Those who suffered multiple attacks so this is not the first time. They were in a school previously before they were attacked by Boko Haram. They escaped on foot, their families now brought them to Chibok to be safe and to continue their education. To such a person the trauma is so much that they were not willing to go back to school.
Another category are those who have been met by the media, foreign delegations and all of that, all of these people came, interacted with them, took their photographs and left, leaving them vulnerable. So we said this is not good enough, you leave these children like this without doing something for them. We said let us help them continue their education in peace and relative security.
PT: How are they coping so far?
Ogebe: They are doing very well. Some of those girls are so thankful, when they first arrived, they were calling me from school every week, now it has reduced a little as they focus on studies but they are very thankful.
PT: I understand they call you Daddy or Uncle?
Ogebe: They call me Daddy, but in addition to that they are adjusting. Their use of the English language is unbelievable, they have improved remarkably. They are beginning to understand the State’s school system. A few of them who had a lot of nightmares in the beginning have reported that they have reduced. They are making progress emotionally and socially.
PT: In the US, have they gone through adequate psychosocial sessions?
Ogebe: Yes, we have that as a component of what they receive and we are happy to report that we have recently engaged some Nigerian-American professionals, including an Hausa speaker.
PT: Are these services free of charge?
PT: Some of the people that discountenance the whole thing about the Boko Haram abducting the girls said that the girls could not speak English, yet these people that were said to be at the point of writing WAEC? Is it that they couldn’t speak English at all or what really were the issues?
Ogebe: A couple of issues, one of the Issues were that a lot of the instructions were being done in Hausa.
PT: At secondary school level?
Ogebe: Yes, the teachers were teaching them in Hausa, which is rather sad and unfortunate. All the girls I met were able to communicate in English but were more comfortable and fluent in Hausa. So if you want a full narrative of the event that transpired, it is better to speak in their most comfortable language. If you insist on their speaking in English, they will only give you limited information. Another issue is that they were not comfortable speaking English outside as Boko Haram had warned them that western education is evil.
For example, one of our girls who is here now, I just recently met a journalist who interviewed her a while back, after her abduction. The journalist said the girl vouched she was never going back to school, that she would wear her hijab in her home. But she is in the US now, if you see her now, you won’t believe it. In fact, that particular girl refuses to go home on vacations, even Christmas vacation, insisting that she wants to stay in school and catch up. So, I believe that it is creating an enabling environment for them that brings out the best in them.
PT: How do you feel when you hear from certain quarters that no girls were abducted?
Ogebe: It is unfortunate because up till now we still see people who make those kind of remarks and it is sad that people are still divided. This is not something that we should play politics about; the abduction of someone’s child is not something that should be an object of any game. It does, because as a nation we love to engage in shadow boxing. You have a situation on ground instead of facing it, you are arguing myths and legends, instead of facing it and finding solution to the problem.
PT: What kind of support have you received from Government so far?
Ogebe: Zero. We have received no support from Nigeria, America or any country. If anything, we are the ones supporting the government because our highest administrative cost in Nigeria has been the visa fees that we pay to the American government, the transport cost to the embassy, sometimes being denied, being delayed and so forth.
So no, we have not received any government support. Not only government, even institutional donor support, we have not received any support from any foundation. It has purely been a grassroots movement, individuals have donated, donations as little as 20 dollars, 25 dollars.
PT: Have you approached the US government to see if they can give the girls scholarship?
Ogebe: The US government is very aware of what we are doing, we have spoken to them but they have not indicated any interest in helping. The same thing with the government of Nigeria and they haven’t shown any interest in supporting. So we have to continue doing what we need to do.
PT: How is your relationship with the Nigerian embassy here?
Ogebe: The embassy is aware of their presence and some of the girls have visited, in fact the late ambassador (Prof. Adefuye) who died recently, invited the girls to the embassy to have lunch with him, which we thought was a very state-manly and fatherly action to have been taken. This is because the Jonathan-led-government had spent over $4 million dollars fighting the ‘Bring Back Our Girls Campaign’ and almost fighting the veracity of the abduction, saying it wasn’t true. So I was very touched when the ambassador risked his career so to say, to invite them to offer them lunch, he couldn’t do much because the embassy had limited his gesture.
PT: That was after the last election?
Ogebe: Yes, it was after the election that he did so.
PT: What about the new government, have you reached out to them?
Ogebe: We have reached out to the new government but because it was still new at the time, you weren’t sure who you could talk to. When the president was in the US (Washington DC) earlier in the year, the girls were denied the opportunity to see him.
PT: They were denied?
Ogebe: Yes, we did reach out to the embassy for them to be included in the activities, they said they had a youth town hall meeting and all that planned. The embassy said they had no control over the activities of the President because the schedule was controlled from the Villa. When representation was made to the Presidency, they did not include meeting the girls.
PT: That would have been a good move from the president, but do you still plan to reach out to them with time?
Ogebe: Yes, we are still expecting to hear from them.
PT: Do you plan to bring in more girls?
Ogebe: Until the issue of funding for the current girls in the US is assured, expanding it to more girls will be unlikely. So far we have received request for more girls to join our programme, but we are not receiving any new one at this time.
PT: I understand that one of the girls was denied visa, what was the issue?
Ogebe: We do not understand what was going on, the embassy of the US had denied one of our girls a visa, three or four times already. We pleaded with them to look at the matter objectively. Even members of the US Congress have spoken to the embassy but the embassy has so far remained adamant.
PT: Why, what is the reason?
Ogebe: The last reason they claimed was that her English was not up to standard but the fact remains that her classmates who were at the same level with her, passed through and are here now, so why is she the one being denied?
PT: Are you still working on her case?
Ogebe: Yes. We have spent over $1,000 on all of these Visa fees and related logistics, for her alone. So it is becoming a black hole, you wonder whether it is worth it. It is just that when you see the depression that the visa denial is causing her, we feel that we shouldn’t give up. So we are still working on it.
So the last time, to mark the 500 days of the abduction, some of her classmates who are here wrote an appeal to the ambassador of the United States in Nigeria urging him to come to our aid.
PT: I am really impressed that you have taken a practical step in the entire saga. The rallies, the media advocacy is good but this is a practical step in the sense that you are able to directly help the girls. You mentioned earlier that some people interviewed the girls, took pictures and left without doing anything tangible. How would you advise the people at home who are engaged in different activities, for the Chibok girls and women who had escaped from the Boko Haram camps, who are abused by Boko Haram? What practical step do you think Nigerians can take to change the lives of these people?
Ogebe: The same way that Nigerians have to provide their own electricity, their own water, their own security, now we also Nigerians have to provide our own humanity, our own relief and emergency response. If you look at the government’s Victim Support Fund, it is over a year now, we have not seen received support from them either, so at this stage it is left to us to support one another.
They need to look and see how they can help, make something tangible out of the lives of these children. I think that corporate Nigeria should also come forward, I don’t see any reason why MTN and Glo and Airtel and all the rest, cannot come up with initiatives such as adopting some of these children or providing extensive rehabilitation programmes for them. If terrorists could come up and abduct one child, can we say there are nocorporate citizens and natural citizens who would say let us assist these children? We cannot leave everything to the government; if we left everything up to the government we will be finished. The Safe School Initiative has billions in its account but won’t provide for these girls.
Incidentally our organization Education Must Continue put the girls back in schools abroad within 5 months of their abduction and within 3 months of our meeting them. It took the government at least 10 months to put them back in school even though the FGN owns so many schools. We had to obtain passports, visas, flights, schools etc. It wasn’t easy.
PT: Are you connected to the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ Movement back home in Nigeria?
Ogebe: Yes, we are in touch with them and all of these major, deep commemorative groups, we are in touch with them and we collaborate.
PT: Can you talk a little about your work on displaced persons- that preceded even your current project with the girls?
Ogebe: Yes, I have actually been working on this issue exclusively for about 5 years, though I have been a human rights lawyer for over two decades, so the earliest case of abducted Chibok girls I was working on was actually from 2012.
PT: The same Chibok?
Ogebe: These young children were from Chibok but they were abducted in Maiduguri, from their father’s house after he was killed. They were 7 and 9 year-old girls. They are still missing.
PT: You also work with displaced camps?
Ogebe: Yes, in fact we created a camp purely for IDP children, in one camp we had over 700 children. The camp is in Yola and we have built a school for them, starting from primary all the way to secondary school, all on one plot of land. The latest research of these kinds of insurgencies is that with the collapse of education, it could have ripple effect on them in many years going forward. The victim of today may become of the terror of tomorrow. What pains me is that nobody is looking at the generational impact of what is happening, nobody is doing that and if we don’t address that we will reap the consequences in the next 50 years, and we will always be reactionary, rather than trying to nip it in the bud in the first place.
EMC just opened another one in Borno two months ago and it now has 2000 children. According to UNICEF, over 1.4 million children have been displaced by the insurgency. So when we start a camp, we are always shocked at the number of kids that show up.
PT: Has this rather hazardous job been fulfilling for you?
Ogebe: It certainly has been – of course it is challenging. It is not what one thought one would be doing at this stage of one’s life. It is not where one thought that the country would be at this stage. Many of us thought that we paid the price of democracy many years ago, we have not reaped the dividends of democracy, instead the democracy has come back to demand more things from us. People who were complicit with the military to ruin our country got into power, they are not using the same power to better the lives of Nigerians; they are looting the country. So you look at the whole situation and wonder if the country is not a heroic failure, because what I am doing as an individual, one senator with the resources available to him will be able to do it and not bat an eyelid, not lose sleep, but here I barely have sleep trying to make all of these things happen. How to take care of all these children, in addition to the children that I have to take care of…
PT: Do you still have enough time for your legal profession?
Ogebe: I actually left my practice to go and spend one year working on this issue. I have ended up getting involved in this issue for five years now. I can tell you, I do not step into my office, more than three, four times a year; that is how engaging this issue has become. When you get involved in the cause of humanity, it is difficult to get involved in any mundane thing again, because you realise that this is part of history, it is also part of eternity. You are involved in something that is beyond our mere humanity, it is something that God looks upon and is concerned about.
PT: Looking at it now, how would you refer to the response of the Jonathan government to the issue of the abduction of the Chibok girls?
Ogebe: The response was a colossal failure, it was an unmitigated disaster. People’s children have been abducted, instead of addressing the issues at hand, you bring about conspiracy theories, you attack the parents, you claim the opposition are out to rubbish you and then you hire PR companies at millions of dollars to launder your image. More money has been spent by government fighting the campaign than it was assisting the cause of the girls.
Last year alone, it is on record, published in the US that the Nigerian government spent over $4, 000, 000 (Four Million Dollars) on lobbying. That is about a Billion Naira; I did not see anywhere where that level of assistance was pumped into the Chibok community. Many of the parents have since died – about 20 of them. One of the fathers that I met last year, his two daughters were abducted, only for me to be informed this year that the terrorist came back and took his two sons again. Another father I met just died in November. More than half of our 10 girls have lost at least 10 family members in one year including three parents.
PT: Do you think that this current government will be better, looking at their responses so far to Boko Haram and insecurity?
Ogebe: Yes, anyone who comes in and does the opposite (of the last administration) will do better. That said, Boko Haram’s atrocities since the handover have heightened. When we were tracking it, it was an average of a 100 people a week since May 29th handover. So the killing has assumed a worrisome dimension. When the president said that he is giving three months for it to be wiped out, we hope that this is not the three months that has been announced over and over again, but as a military person himself, he has a formula, battle plan and strategy to extinguish the Boko Haram menace.
PT: Recently, it was in the news that U.S. billionaire businessman, Robert F. Smith undertook to sponsor some of the escaped Chibok girls. I understand those are the ones currently at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola. What comes to your mind, realising that it has taken a foreigner to come to the aid of these girls amidst all the international publicity generated around them and the fact that Nigeria boasts of some of the richest people on earth. What’s really going on?
Ogebe: It’s a puzzle to me because Nigerians can be generous and compassionate people, but specific to the Chibok girls we haven’t seen any interest in corporate sponshorships. I guess sometimes there has to be political gain and advantage before before bigwigs will give.
Another issue though is that many people just assume it’s the US government taking care of them. Recently myself and one of the girls met a prominent female former legislator who used to chair the Diaspora committee and she was introducing her as one of the girls the US government brought. I said “no” this was spearheaded by Nigerians.
So I am delighted that the African American billionaire Robert Smith is helping the Chibok girls in Nigeria. Many people hash-tagged but not many tried to help in material, practical ways.
I am delighted to report that a very successful Nigerian American businessman Tony Onianwah of Apex Petroleum just informed me that he would pay for the college tuition of the Chibok girl who just lost her father last month. She got admission since last summer but couldn’t resume due to shortage of funds. Nigerian psychiatrists and lawyers in Diaspora have also provided them professional services pro bono for which we are grateful. But more needs to be done especially since neither the home government nor the host government is.
PT: Talking about your family, what early influence did your father Justice James Ogebe; what impact did his influence did he have on you as a human rights activist?
Ogebe: The interesting thing is that we seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. Being a Judicial officer, he was in the system for over 40 years before he retired and then being a human rights lawyer, I was attacking the system for many years. During the Abacha era, when Abacha’s men who captured me found out the relationship my interrogators were confused. So the issue was brought to Abacha that I was a son of a sitting federal Judge and Abacha told them that if my father was in government, why was I criticising the government? So I was told that he gave an order that if my father tries to intervene on my matter that they should leave me there to rot in jail, so there were issues like that. The greatest thing I learnt from my Dad is that he is a fearless individual; he is a man of integrity and he is not afraid of anything or anyone, the fear of God consumes all his fear so he has no fear to share for any human. So that has helped me to be bold because I have seen the power of integrity and boldness, so that has been my experience.
PT: Did he try to intervene?
Ogebe: He is a man of prayer, when he prayed; the Holy Spirit told him that he should not do anything about it. Not knowing that this was what Abacha had said, it was me who later told him that this was what Abacha had said from the information we got. My mum wanted to call a doctor who was a colleague of hers, who was Abacha’s physician but the phone line in the house went out of order, so they couldn’t reach him. Eventually, Abacha wanted to do Sadaka (sacrifice) because he wanted Nigeria’s Football team to win the Olympic football gold medal. We were told he asked his marabouts what he was supposed to do, we were told that he was told to do one or two good deeds to atone for the bad things he had done, so he decided to release some of the prisoners from the state house. That was how two of us were released.
PT: Finally, do you think Peace will return to Nigeria?
We have the resources to solve our problems ourselves and it should be the prayer of everyone here. Even those who are benefitting from the military budgetary allocation would not wish Nigeria was in a situation it is at the moment. But if it is not well handled, it may boomerang into something bigger-no country should allow one section of its population to hold her to ransom.
PT: Thank you very much for you time.
Ogebe: Thank you.
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