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Chinonso with Pius Awoke after their release from detention

04.07.2024 Featured INTERVIEW: ‘No Food, No Water’ — How Final-Year Student Spent 3 Years in Wawa Military Detention for Attending Nnamdi Kanu’s Trial

Published 4th Jul, 2024

By Opeyemi Lawal

On June 21, Onyibe Emmanuel Chinonso, an undergraduate at Ebonyi State University, who was incarcerated by the Department of State Services (DSS), was released. When he was arrested, he was in his final year of studying computer science. Chinonso, along with Pius Awoke, a lawyer, endured nearly three years of inhumane treatment in detention. He speaks about his incarceration in this interview with Opeyemi Lawal.

How did you end up in Wawa Military Cantonment?

On July 26, 2021, we were returning from Abuja. On reaching Muritala Mohammed Bridge, Kogi, we saw a military checkpoint. They stopped us and asked us to wait patiently, that DSS officials were coming from Abuja and were looking for one Sienna. We waited for about 30 minutes, and when they arrived, they asked us to return to our vehicles. After we obeyed them, they asked us to bring our phones. We gave them, and they started dialling some numbers on the phones, because they came with a piece of paper with certain phone numbers written on it. But I didn’t see it well enough to pick out the actual numbers written on the paper.

They dialled these numbers on all the phones, and when they didn’t find anything, they returned them to us. They left, discussed amongst themselves and returned to request our phone a second time. They conducted their search again but still did not find anything. The officers returned our phones and held another brief conversation among themselves. They returned to us and asked us to surrender our phones. This was the third time. They still did not find anything, and this time, they asked if any of us had an extra phone, but we told them no one did. They then proceeded to search the entire vehicle, our pockets and our bags. While searching our bags, they found an extra battery in one person’s possession. This was Ojima Kenneth.

They asked Kenneth about the device using the battery, and he told them he was with the extra battery because of power issues as the current battery had a short lifespan. However, the officers said this was a lie, claiming he had either thrown the phone using the battery away or hidden it in the vehicle.

Almost immediately, the officers started to beat him, hitting him with cassava sticks. They claimed he had an extra phone, but he insisted he had none. And actually, he was not with any other phone, because we slept next to each other, and we didn’t see him with one. From there, they tied our hands like common criminals and took us from the spot to the DSS office in Lokoja. We were in their cell till the next day, July 27, when they placed handcuffs on our hands and took us back to the DSS office in Abuja.

Before we got to the DSS office in Abuja, they blindfolded us, and we didn’t even know we were heading there. When we got there, they took us inside and collected everything we had: our phones, clothes, jewellery, money, etc.

They took us to an underground cell called ‘Basement 2’. We were in the cell for close to a week before interrogations started. They asked several questions to confirm if we were Eastern Security Network (ESN). But how could we agree to what we were not? After much interrogation, on the eve of September 22, they came to our cell. There were about 30 of us or more in the cell, and as they called some people and took them out of the cell, they brought more people. By the time they brought more people, there were 26 of us.

The next day, September 23, before dawn, they came with handcuffs and leg cuffs. They opened the cell, called us in twos, chained us together with the cuffs and led us outside. They said we were going to the military for investigation and when we were done, they would bring us back.

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: Stripped, Blindfolded, Bathed With Urine… Ebonyi Lawyer’s 3 Years in Detention for ‘Attending Nnamdi Kanu’s Trial’

They took us to Wawa Military Cantonment, Niger State, and we were there until we got our freedom. Our actual offence was not made known to us, because I kept asking and they never stated it. Another thing they told us was that the person who asked them to arrest us would tell us our offence when we got to Abuja, but that never happened.

Chinonso Onyibe
Chinonso Onyibe

What took you to Abuja at the time?

I only went to Abuja to attend the trial of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). I was a 400-level student who just wanted to witness the proceeding and hear what they were talking about. The matter was of public interest, and I wanted to see what was going on.

How did this arrest affect your academics?

It affected me badly because I have been out of school for so long. I have missed many things that I wouldn’t like to remember right now. There are many losses. I just want to look for a way to fix myself and get things under control again.

What was life like for you in Wawa?

Life in Wawa is not something to talk about. People are being maltreated without help there. As we speak, some people left there are completely emaciated. There is no food, no water. Not that there is no water, but they purposely starve inmates just for punishment. And when they do serve food, the quantity is ridiculous.

Besides the food, people are also not allowed to step out of their cells for sunning. One could stay inside for weeks, months or even years without being allowed to step into the sun. Many unjust things are happening in the facility. Nigerians are being treated like ordinary animals. Life there is hard, and many citizens are being dumped there unjustly. Lots of destinies and careers are being wasted there. They can’t charge people to court but would continue to keep them there, even for an offence that if the person should appear before a judge for, the suspect would be released immediately. People are suffering there, and a lot of them need help.

I heard you were mixed up with Boko Haram suspects. Could you talk more on this?

Yes, we were mixed with Boko Haram suspects. The cell I was in, we were 15, and only two of us were Igbos. The other guys were Boko Haram suspects. If you divide the number of inmates there into two, half of them are BH suspects.

We were over 4000 inmates at the detention facility, because when I got there, my roll number was around 200, and this was in 2021. But then, they bring new suspects to the facility every time. Around June, they still brought over 38 new suspects. It was like new people joined us every three months.

What was a typical day in the cell like for you?

It was very boring in the cell. At Wawa, you just have to be your own adviser and hold yourself together, or else the whole thing will break you down. When you wake up in the morning, you sit in your position and wait until they bring whatever they want to serve for that day, and you have to take it like that because you don’t have options. When you sit, you keep thinking and waiting to see if anything will happen or if they will call your name for your release or if help will come from anywhere. At some point, I even lost hope completely. It is such a boring place. Sometimes you discuss with people, and when the thinking is too much, you relax. Sometimes you sit, other times you stand. Sometimes you lose sleep and just become restless.

Could you say anything kept you going while in detention?

The only thing you can do to help yourself is to gather courage. Sometimes, you will talk to people in your cell. If there are games like Ludo – because sometimes they make it available – you play it and try to forget your sorrow.

Do you have any unforgettable memories or events from your time in detention?

There are many of them. In May, they starved us of water completely. They denied us of it. For two weeks, we didn’t see any water. It is something I can’t forget. There was no food or water. We were saying they didn’t give us food, and they added water to it. At that point, we forgot about the food and were just begging them for water. We had no help but kept praying. You would stay like this and watch your life crawl out of your body and you wouldn’t be able to help yourself. It is something I won’t forget in a hurry.

Chinonso with Pius Awoke after their release from detention
Chinonso with Pius Awoke after their release from detention

Can you describe how the military officials treated you?

The officers have no regard for anyone. They also do not regard the fundamental human rights. They treat people like animals. When you greet them, it is hard to see any of them respond to your greeting. Greeting them could even cause problems. They would just open the door and hand over whatever they came to give you. They treat people like they are not humans.

When it comes to medical issues, the experience is almost indescribable. When you complained of a headache, they would give you Flagyl, commonly used for a runny stomach. If you complained of a small problem, they would give you Paracetamol. They would claim there were no drugs, that you should wait until the following day or the next time they would get drugs.

People die there every day, almost every time. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, someone could fall seriously ill and we would shout “emergency, emergency”, but nobody would respond to us. If they liked, they would come, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t even bat an eyelid. If the person survived till morning, luck was on the person’s side. If the person didn’t, in the morning, they would just come and take the person’s corpse and bury it. Nothing would happen. The military officers’ way of life is nothing to talk about.

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘It’s Like a Hot Iron Being Dropped Over Your Bones Repeatedly’ — A Sickle Cell Warrior Explains a Crisis

Was there a medical practitioner there?

We had, I think, one doctor or so, but there were many nurses there. However, I don’t know about their certification or what they studied in school, because they mixed issues together. You would complain of one thing and they will treat you for another. Often, their carton of drugs is empty. For instance, if you complain of an ulcer, they will say they don’t have anything now, that maybe when they come back, they will give you one. If you look at the carton, the only drugs you will find there are Paracetamol and Flagyl. And we heard some rumours that they were probably selling the drugs given to us. Just like criminals holding another person and calling him a criminal. The medical situation is terrible. They will wait until you are seriously ill before taking good care of you, maybe then take you to another block they use as a hospital. That is when you will get something like good medical treatment. But if there are no signs that you are dying, nobody will help you. They will keep saying they will come tomorrow.

Also, they bury people there. If you die, your people do not know where you are. We were in the detention house, we had not gone to court, and our name was not on any list to say that when we died there, they would include our names in the list of those who had died. When you die there, they will bury you there. Nobody asks them questions. Highest, they will do an autopsy and send to the federal government that this was what happened to you, not that they will reach your people; those ones don’t even know where you are. They will just send the report to the government to notify them that their goods have been reduced. As we were there, we were goods. If you complain of sickness too much, they will tell you to die. “We still have a place to bury you.”

Were you ever sick throughout your time in detention?

Yes, I was. In 2022, I had severe malaria and typhoid. What saved me was that I had collected malaria drugs from them even before I fell sick. The way it works there, they do not give you what you want when you request it, and sometimes, inmates collect these drugs and keep them. You will have begged them for a long time before they give you the drugs, and when they do, you just keep them.

So, when I fell ill, it was a drug I’d collected earlier that saved me. If you don’t do it like that, by the time you are seriously ill, they will tell you they don’t have drugs, and there is nothing you can do. So, all of us there turned to doctors just to control some issues.

Did you have beds there? What about your personal hygiene? How did you manage it?

There were no beds, but we had mats. The fifteen of us in one cell had to share between 10 and 11 mats. It is just that we slept in a way that everybody got to sleep on them. They also gave us blankets, and with them, you could mark your position and that was where you would sit anytime you woke up. That place is your position. If you want to discuss with someone, you can shift to the person’s position, but otherwise, you will have to stay in your position from morning to evening. You will sit there, you will stand there, except you have to use the toilet, because we had the convenience in the same cell.

On personal hygiene, they gave us soap, but it was once in three months. Sometimes, it came once in five months or whenever they liked. We kept managing it, and anytime it finished, you would wait until they shared another one. We would bathe without soap. This was anytime they allowed us to bathe, because it was not every time we got water. But when they allowed us to take our bath, if you had soap, you would use it; if you didn’t, you’d take your bath like that.

They also gave us powered detergents. The 15 of us would get one small Nittol pack and share it in bits amongst ourselves to wash our clothes. If it finished, you would keep wearing your clothes until they shared another one, or you would just put your cloth in water and squeeze it.

Did you get new clothes?

They share singlets, boxers, three-quarter shorts and polo shirts. But polo, not every time. Like this year, they might decide to give you a three-quarter short and a polo, and then next year, you would get singlets and boxers. You would only get any of these once in a year.

Sometimes, we didn’t even get it in a year. There was a year we did not get it. I spent three years but have only two singlets, which means that there was a year they didn’t give me. In 2022, we got boxers and polo shirts. In 2023, we got three-quarter singlets and then polo shirts. They don’t ever share the four at a time. They selected the ones to give us.

Does this mean you wore one singlet, a pair of boxer shorts and a polo every day for one year?

Yes.

I see that you have been able to recall some dates that are significant to you. How were you able to keep track of time in detention? You had a radio you listened to?

No, we didn’t get a radio. There was nothing like it. The only thing that helped me is that, since the day of my arrest, I kept tracking the dates until we got to Wawa Barracks. Another thing I did was that the pea-size toothpaste they gave us, I opened it and used charcoal to write some dates on it. I got the charcoal from the food they served to us. This food, they wouldn’t even wash the pots used to prepare it, and you would see pieces of charcoal in it. I used the charcoal to write on the slivery insides of the toothpaste pack; sometimes it was not clear, but that was how I could track dates until my release.

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: How NAFDAC ‘Killed’ Fake Drug Geolocation App Created by Young Nigerians

What about your academics? Do you plan to return to school?

Yes.

How did your parents and relatives react to your freedom?

They were very happy.

Did they know where you were all the while?

No.

What does it feel like to be free?

Being free is the best.

Was there anything that kept your hopes up in detention?

Nothing exactly. Just simple hope that we would be released one day and God would see us through.

This is the second of a four-part interview series. Read the first here.

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Published 4th Jul, 2024

By Opeyemi Lawal

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