In this interview with ENIOLA AKINKUOTU, a London-based businessman, Chidera Ejiri, speaks on the ordeal that he and his cousins recently had in the custody of the military authorities
You recently made a post on social media about how you and your cousins were brutalised by soldiers. Can you walk us through it?
On December 31, 2019, we were on our way back from a visit to my elder brother who had just had his traditional marriage in Abia State. We stopped briefly at a hotel known as City Global in Aba and just then, about four or five Hilux pickup vehicles loaded with heavily armed soldiers accosted us.
Did they ask questions?
If they had asked us to identify ourselves or state what we did for a living, it would have been a different case. They just told us to get into their vehicles. I sat in one of the vehicles, but the soldiers shouted that they meant we should sit down on the floor of the vehicle. Then they took us to their barracks at 144 Nigerian Army Battalion, Osisioma.
What happened next?
When we arrived at the barracks, the soldiers told us that we would be tortured. Then they asked us to lie down on the floor.
What offence did they say you committed?
They just said we disrespected them and went on to accuse us of being kidnappers. They said we should have shown them some respect, seeing that they were soldiers. I don’t know what they expected from us. Maybe they expected us to bow down before them.
They brought out big sticks and started beating us. Those sticks were so big that they had to use both hands to raise them. A bald, tall and dark Army captain supervised the beating.
I was slapped repeatedly by the captain and his men. The more I pleaded with them for mercy, the more I was tortured. They pointed their guns at us as if they were about to shoot us any moment.
What other forms of torture were you subjected to?
I sustained bruises so severe that I couldn’t even use my right arm for about two weeks. While they were beating us, one of the soldiers brought out a pair of scissors and tried to cut my beard. Another one raised my singlet up.
Are you saying you didn’t commit an offence nor break the law?
I am an entrepreneur based in the United Kingdom. I have no reason to break the law. I am an employer of labour. No one can accuse me of being a criminal.
Did you do anything to make the soldiers angry?
When they were questioning us and I spoke, they said ‘Oh, this one is from America’. They said they would torture me and give me a taste of the Nigerian experience in such a way that after the torture, I would be deported from the United Kingdom. It was very scary.
Can you describe the room where you were detained?
Yes, the room stank of urine and it crawled with centipedes. But based on my research, I found out that was where they tortured criminals. The chief officer for that location is also based there. If there is a need for investigation, the captain can easily be fished out.
At what time of the day did this happen?
It happened at night, around 10pm. And it was New Year’s Eve.
How many of you were arrested by the soldiers?
Three of us, my cousins and I, were arrested. One of my cousins suffered a permanent damage to his ear. He cannot hear with that ear till this moment. But I seems that I was the soldiers’ primary target. After flogging all of us, they came back a few minutes later and concentrated on me, flogging me again and again. They eventually tied us up and threw us into their prison.
How long were you in their custody?
We spent the night in their custody. They kept us till the following morning. From the information I gathered, the captain was on his way to somewhere else in the morning when he was called to release us. So, if my people didn’t intervene, we could have spent more than a day in their custody.
While you were there, did you meet other people who had had a similar experience?
Yes, I saw some people who had been detained illegally. They had handcuffs on their hands. They claimed the military had detained them for different reasons. Some of them had been there for up to four days. Some of these cases had to do with disagreements with civilians. If a person has a case with another person, it should be handled by the police. Why should the army detain a civilian for more than 24 hours? I cannot understand this.
How did your relatives find out that you were arrested and detained?
There were witnesses who saw the way we were arrested and bundled into the soldiers waiting vehicles like criminals. When my relatives were searching for us, some people told them what happened. What I know was that in the morning, my mum and a few people came to the barracks and got us released. My only concern at the time was to get home safely.
Do you know the name of the Army captain that perpetrated this act?
Yes. His name is Captain Ilia Mohammed Sani. But then the chief officer for that location also knows every other person involved. The soldiers were led by this captain. The military authorities can easily find out who did this. The culprits can be easily fished out.
Did your people have to secure your freedom with a bribe?
Yes, from my knowledge, about N50,000 ($138) was paid to secure our release.
Will you go back to Aba after this experience?
I really don’t know. My plan is to leave Nigeria as soon as possible. Honestly, I have been traumatised and such things are not good for the image of this country.
The fact that the captain looked at me and said, “Where you come from, there are human rights. Here in Nigeria, there are no human rights”, made it more scary. I know the army is a disciplined institution.
A part of me says the leadership of the Nigerian Army will not endorse this kind of behaviour from its rank and file. I strongly believe they will not support the way we have been treated.
Has any apology been tendered to you since your ordeal?
No apology has been tendered to me. In fact, we were made to apologise to the soldiers instead.
The following morning, when we were about to be released from detention, the captain told my people that I waved my clothes at their convoy. I couldn’t imagine myself doing that, even if I was drunk or had gone crazy. But that was the story the soldiers cooked up. Come to think of it, even if I had done that, what justifies grabbing a full grown man, branding him a criminal, taking him to your den and traumatising him? What justifies such an action?
Have you taken any legal action against them?
I have been receiving messages and advice from people, asking me to take legal action, but I have been too traumatised to do anything. I still find it difficult to sleep at night because images of soldiers torturing me and my cousins still run in my head.
How are your cousins?
Well, one of them has suffered a damage to an ear and he cannot hear with it anymore. I mean, when men that are trained to fight insurgency turn to use the same force on normal civilians, who have done nothing wrong, such injuries are inevitable.
Did they return all your personal effects to you?
They took our wallets and two cell phones. But one of the phones was damaged, while they returned the other intact when we were released from detention.
Did the people you spoke to narrate similar experiences in the hands of soldiers?
Most residents of Aba don’t talk about such incidents. In fact, when I was released, everyone asked me not to talk about my experience. It seems like normal thing for residents of Aba. I had heard of similar incidents myself, but I never knew it was this bad. Imagine that a captain, who should embody discipline, could perpetrate such an act.