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