It is a heart touching story of scheming, incarceration and torture. Recently released journalist, Jones Abiri shares his experience in the hands of the dreaded State Security Service (SSS) in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES Evelyn Okakwu and Halimah Yahaya. Mr Abiri spent two years without trial at an SSS detention facility.
PREMIUM TIMES: You were arrested and detained for two years. Can you narrate how your arrest took place?
Mr Abiri: I was arrested in my office in Yenagoa. That was on July 21, 2016, 23 minutes after three o clock. Twelve men came into my office and showed me a warrant for searching my office, duly signed by a magistrate, Lucky. I gave them the privilege to search my office. After the search, they could not find any incriminating thing.
What they found was a phone that they had been tracking. The phone was brought to my office by some men who had come to ask me to write a (press) statement for them as a journalist. They said someone directed them to me. I did not know that they were having an ulterior concept (motive) for asking me to anchor the statement.
At a point, I wanted to resist. But two of them threatened me. They said I must write the press statement, if I was ‘mindful’ of myself. So I became afraid for my life and decided to write the press statement for them. It was published by various media houses and later they called me and said that there was a particular story that was published that the government had reacted to the story and that they would like to react to the position of government.
At that point, two of them came. They were looking quite haggard. They asked me to help them charge a small Nokia phone. The phone should cost about N2, 000 or so in the market. It’s one of these old phones. Unknown to me that was the phone they were using to send text messages to oil companies (allegedly) demanding for money.
I ignorantly agreed to help them charge the phone. I did not know that AGIP had sent a petition to the SSS state command, which had resulted in the tracking of the number inside the phone. They gave me the phone and left, as if to return shortly.
When they did not come back, I realised that there was no way I could contact them, because the phone I was using to contact them, was charging in my office. So I removed the phone and put it in my drawer. They (SSS) found the phone in my drawer.
That purportedly linked me to becoming the leader of joint Niger-Delta Liberation Force. Which I do not know. I am not the founder nor a member of the militant group. If I had been attending any of their meetings, I would not have been operating an office for the production of newspapers, in Yenagoa
I would have been in the creeks. They wouldn’t have seen me. Moreso, I was running a programme, I was a law undergraduate. A level three law undergraduate. As a law undergraduate and mindful of the facts about the illegality of militancy, why would I condescend so low as to be involved in such a thing?
When they left, they told me they wanted to buy a copy of the paper, so that I would see the story that government reacted to. That was how I kept the phone and the SSS said I am a militant, a leader of a militant group.
PREMIUM TIMES: What was prison experience like for you?
Mr Abiri: Very unfortunate. While I was in the detention facility of the SSS, underground where I was kept; there was no freedom of moving out of the facility.
When the light is off, I will not even recognise the person who is sitting in front of me until when the light returns, that is when we would start moving within the facility. We were about 26 of us that were in the facility and the room is about 12 by 12 which is not up to some prominent Nigerian’s parlour.
That was where we were being kept and though the ground was tiled, nothing was on top of the tiles for us to have a conducive environment. We demanded for cartons before they could even bring in the carton for us to use part of it to lay our heads.
That was the hostile nature of my being in the hands of SSS and if you talk in terms of food, medical and other things, I was severally denied of my right to medication. I was not given proper medical care but since I could not do anything, I continued to rely on my creator. And thank God, God saw me through and you see the little (frail) body (pointing at himself), at this material time, if not I would have been a dead man.
PREMIUM TIMES: What were the medical issues you had while in detention?
Mr Abiri: The medical issues I had was H.B.P (High Blood Pressure) too because I thought as much about my family, most especially my children and my other relations, so I had B. P in the night, I fell down while I was praying because I was the pastor in the cell.
I quickly made myself an evangelist preaching the word of God. When I was outside I was not that well known to the word of God but since I was in the captivity I continued to rely on God, so I prayed earnestly to ensure that God answers my prayer.
PREMIUM TIMES: What kind of food were you eating while in detention?
Mr Abiri: In the morning hours it’s mostly tea with N50 bread and one sachet milk which cost N30. That was what they were giving us to feed on as breakfast. In the afternoon they may likely bring beans or rice and the evening, they serve us semo with soup or wheatmeal or eba (cassava meal). There was also meat.
PREMIUM TIMES: You mean you people were better than some of us outside the prison, you were eating three square meals daily?
Mr Abiri: I did not know when I was in captivity what you were eating, so I cannot make the comparison. In fact, if you know the hostile nature of the environment, you will not pray to be there.
PREMIUM TIMES: Was there a means of ventilation?
There was no proper ventilation, since the facility was underground, there was no natural breeze coming into the room for you to have air to breathe but one standing fan was kept for the 26 suspects.
PREMIUM TIMES: Were you tortured?
Mr Abiri: Yes I was. When I was arrested on the 21st of July and brought to their office, a state command in Yenagoa; my eyes were blindfolded and they asked me to stay glued to the wall. So I did that but did not know what was happening.
The next thing I heard was something that struck on my back and I fell down. That is why my spinal cord, (pointing at his waist) this my waist; I cannot stand for a very long time. That is why I want to hurriedly go home to ensure that proper medication is administered before the next date of my trial.
So I was tortured and through that torturing, they were able to achieve their aim. I told them that I am not a militant because of a story that I wrote. I was against the governor, most especially Bayelsa governor and the federal government. Some of the stories that were published in my newspaper were ‘antagonistic’ and many of them were investigated before it was published and some were gotten online.
I believe that was what angered the government to have arrested me by linking me up with those men to write a press statement, so that they would be able to achieve their aim.
PREMIUM TIMES: After you left the state command, where else were you taken to?
Mr Abiri: Abuja. They flew me to Abuja and I was detained on the 28 of July. Since then, I have been in Abuja till date before I had my little freedom in the hands of DSS on the 2nd of August.
The prison warder took me to Keffi Prison and that was where I was kept before Peter Nkanga, Maurice Alangwa and others jointly, with Daniel Ezekiel organised to bring my family for ‘sightseeing’ and that was my first day of seeing my family, for over two years. So that was the bitter part I had while in detention.
PREMIUM TIMES: You were 26 in cell, did you talk with others, what were their offences?
Mr Abiri: Yes we discussed a lot, I have my problem and they have their problems too, so in the cause of being in the same cell, there are people with ordeals that have been there for the past 2,3,4,5,6,7 years without trial.
The whole story has been made public, if the DSS is denying what I am saying, they should allow human right bodies and other NGOs, the media to visit their facility and personally interview and find out one or two things about those suspects that they have arrested. They would narrate their ordeals.
PREMIUM TIMES: So those people that have spent seven years, why were they detained?
Mr Abiri: Well everybody has his own degree of offence; allegedly, because they have not being brought before any court of law. They have never ever been taken to court and their family relations have forgotten about them because they don’t know if they are still alive. It was as a result of some of them going to court that they were able to inform the lawyers to get across to those that are from the same area as they were. That is how some of them luckily get help at times.
PREMIUM TIMES: Are some there for terrorism related offences?
Mr Abiri: Yes, many of them were accused of alleged involvement with Boko Haram. Others were accused of involvement with Niger Delta militants.
PREMIUM TIMES: Did you meet Sambo Dasuki in the DSS facility?
I met Dasuki in there but not in the same cell. You know he is a big fish but where he is now; there is no toilet, so anytime he is pressed, they take him outside; so through that process we were able to see him, there was a time I physically met him and shook hands, he was coming to ease himself, by then I was at the room up.
That is where they normally keep suspects after investigation after which they would be assigned to various cells. I knew of his matter before meeting him, so there was no need to discuss with him, though.
PREMIUM TIMES: In your own cell did you have toilet?
Mr Abiri: Truly, we had.
PREMIUM TIMES: When suspects are sick, do they treat them there in the cell or they take them out for treatment?
Mr Abiri: Sometimes, the doctor would come to the facility to attend to those who have some medical issues but it is only on specific issues that they take the person to the clinic. If not, the doctor would come to the cell and give prescriptions and then return to get the drugs for the suspect.
PREMIUM TIMES: During your own case, you said there was a time you fell down, while you were praying. How did you get attention?
Mr Abiri: My ‘co-members’ continued to bang our cell door, until I was given due attention. The doctor had to return from airport road to attend to my matter that night. I did not know myself for over an hour, many of them thought I was dead.
PREMIUM TIMES: How would you describe Nigeria’s democracy in the light of your experience?
Mr Abiri: The President should be told of the activities of the State Security Service. Is it that the president is giving more power to the security outfit? SSS is attached to the Office of the President. So I am also making efforts to forward a bill to the National Assembly.
I have told Peter and they have seen the concept of my bill. I’m going to forward that bill by next year because it is a transitional period. The government should be held responsible for any missing Nigerian; especially the State Security Service.
Human right groups and the media should be given opportunity to visit various detention facilities/prisons for them to have first-hand information. Sometimes, the story might have a public Interest and when you are denied of any access, it becomes a problem. So doors should be open for the media and human right bodies to ensure that they visit those places and talk to the suspects. They (suspects) are Nigerians.
I am going to sponsor that bill through my senator and federal house of representative member from my area; for them (lawmakers) to review the Act that establishes the State Security Service.
PREMIUM TIMES: One last word from you for Nigerians?
Mr Abiri: I specifically thank the media who came to my aid. If not for their intervention, the SSS would not have thought it wise to take me to the court for the one count charge; that I sent threatening text messages to Shell and other Multi-national companies.
They arrested me for allegations under terrorism law but they could not prosecute me under the same law. That is where they fumbled. They know the law. I’m in court now with them, at the Magistrate court and I have also asked my lawyer, Femi Falana, to institute a legal action enforcing my fundamental rights at the Federal High Court in Abuja here.
I thank most especially PREMIUM TIMES who took the pains of writing stories about my captivity and the world media also aided in my release. Also, Amnesty International, Press Unlimited, an organisation in Netherlands. They brought some money to rehabilitate me and thanks to Peter, he coordinated that.
That (money) has made it possible for us to pay some of the bills of the legal team. The media should please not ‘relax’ on us, my release has propelled me, given me strength, I am so resilient now. What they never expected is what they would see. That is what I would say.
Since the matter is in court, I don’t want to say certain things about the court issue. When I have secured justice, then I am going to address a press conference to that effect.