Abia State-based activist, Mr Emperor Ogbonna, who was critical of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, was held in four-month detention by the Department of State Services in Abuja. In this interview, he speaks on the harsh conditions he was made to endure in detention.
You were accused of being sponsored by an opposition member and the Indigenous People of Biafra. Is this true?
In the first place, I was in detention at Afara (Correctional Centre, Umuahia, Abia State) when I started hearing my name on the radio that there was a letter circulating online, signed by the governor, accusing me of being sponsored by IPOB and Dr Alex Otti. I was surprised. When I finally read the letter, I just laughed. Firstly, I have never met Dr Alex Otti in my life, even till today. Otti has never given me a kobo before that date. The only thing I did was read the manifesto of what Otti would do when he became governor and I fell in love with the man. I read his profile and saw that he was a banker and those who were close to him were giving good testimonials about him. And when I read things about him and what he was saying, I began to like him even more and I felt that if this kind of a man, who was a success in the banking sector, could be the governor of Abia, the state would be a better place. I started campaigning for him on Facebook, and on television, I would speak well about him. That was all. Even when his case was going on in court, I was guiding the (legal team) on how to go about the case as my junior in the chamber was part of the whole thing. I felt he was a better person to be governor of Abia State.
On IPOB, it is funny to be accused of belonging to IPOB. I have always been critical of Nnamdi Kanu. In fact, when he came up to say people should not vote, I went to MCL TV (Aba) and urged our people to go out and vote. This was because I didn’t see any reason you would want to win an election and say people should not vote. It never made sense to me. On Facebook, I have always said people should go out and vote. How can I be sponsored by IPOB? Is it not funny? So, it is just giving a dog a bad name and hanging it.
You were alleged to have said you like Governor Okezie Ikpeazu. What happened between you two?
Up till now, I still like Okezie Ikpeazu. Before he became governor, I was invited by the NTA, Aba on a topic. I was invited as a social critic and Ikpeazu was invited as a government representative when he was the Deputy General Manager of the Abia State Environmental Protection Agency. We argued and, after that, we took a photograph together. I started to like him because of the way he talked. Then when he became the governor, I was at an event and his immediate past chief press secretary personally told me that the governor wanted to see me. I came and met the governor. We talked and I urged him to remember the people of Item (Bende LGA) when he was developing Ngwaland. He laughed and assured me that there was no problem.
Everything went well and I had no problem with him. Everything I was talking about regarding Abia was on the grounds of principle and I wanted the state to get better. It wasn’t a personal war and, up till now, I still love the governor. I have always loved him. Whatever I was saying was purely based on the fact that I wanted a better Abia State. But I was told that I didn’t know what I was doing in the state. According to someone, when I criticise anything the governor does, the governor would always say to them, ‘Look at what Emperor has written on Facebook. Why haven’t you people done this thing?’ When I made a statement, the governor would call them and ask. ‘Why is this thing still happening?’
So, I wasn’t doing it just to affect anybody negatively. He is the governor. How can I pull him down? I am not a politician, but a social critic and I say things based on what I believe is the right thing. I contributed so much to the development of infrastructure in the state. I remember when I was talking about the courts. I even posted the video of how bad the court was. Sahara Reporters published it and the pictures went viral. After that, they started building the court in Osisioma (LGA). Right now, they have abandoned it. I travel all over the whole world and when I come back here, I want my country to be like those places I have been to. When I say all these things, it is because I want a better society.
How did your relationship turn sour?
There was a time when I led a protest in Umuahia, when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission accused some people in Abia State of some things and I felt that those people should step down and wait for the EFCC issue to be resolved. When they did not resign, I led a protest in Umuahia asking that they step down. It was a peaceful protest. We were performing our constitutional right to protest. We applied for a permit from Abuja and they granted us a permit to protest. We then came down to Umuahia. As I was about to pick the approval letter from the office of the Commissioner of Police, I didn’t know that all these guys had already targeted me. They saw my car and started attacking me because some people sent them to kill me, but luckily for me, I was saved. The police said they had seen the approval letter and before they could give it to me, this happened. It started circulating online that Emperor was leading a protest. Some people found my (Facebook) post and started to magnify an innocent post I made. I never mentioned anybody’s name, and I never even mentioned the documents. I never posted or shared any document there.
What was their objective?
They wanted to silence me. They don’t want me to talk again. They don’t want me to criticise any government policy. They want me to be just like every other person in Abia State that would overlook things when they go wrong, and continue suffering and smiling. That was their purpose.
You spend five months in detention. What was the experience like?
It was isolation. Two or three of us were in a cell. I was there for a very long time. They gave us food in the morning, afternoon and evening.
What kind of food?
In the morning, we had bread and tea. In the afternoon, they gave us mainly rice and beans. And in the evening, we had eba. But the food was terrible.
Were the portions enough?
No, they weren’t at all! Sometimes, we would supplement it when we had visitors. The visitors might give us something and we would supplement with it. Most times, I wouldn’t even eat the food because it was very bad and I don’t eat the kind of food they gave us.
Did they beat or torture you?
I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to answer that for some reasons.
What were your worst moments there?
Every day there was my worst moment. You are confined in one room from morning to night; you are not allowed to go out. Every day was the worst. Every morning, afternoon and night was a bad experience. You could be there for 10 years without seeing sunlight or anybody. All you would see are your guards.
How long were you in detention?
I spent one month in Umuahia, Abia State. But I stayed about four months in Abuja. Imagine yourself being confined in one room for that many months. So, every day was bad.
Were you asked to confess to anything you did not do?
That was the main issue. They asked me to confess.
Were visitors stopped from seeing you?
Definitely! I wasn’t allowed to see anybody. When I was there in the beginning, only two men were allowed to see me. Then, when the protests started and they were being broadcast on television and published in newspapers, they stopped people from seeing anybody. When visitors would come, they would not allow them to see me. I wasn’t allowed to see anybody. Maybe because of the protests, they didn’t want me to reveal any information to those that were coming to see me. So, they stopped people from seeing me.
Was your lawyer allowed to see you?
My lawyer was not allowed to see me at all. No lawyer saw me throughout that period. The people that were coming were my relatives. Apart from them, they didn’t allow anybody to see me. It was only when I was in Umuahia that some lawyers came. After that, they stopped them from seeing me. But in Abuja, no lawyer could see me. They didn’t allow me to see anybody. It was only three times or so I had visitors. People were coming (to see me) but they were stopped at the gate.
Did that have any psychological effect on you?
That is the purpose – to break you down. You can imagine being confined in one place for five months. Anything they tell you to say, you say it. Anything they tell you to write, you write it. Anything they tell you to sign, you sign it, because that is the only way you can come out.
I only saw the people I was in the same cell with.
Did any of the other detainees die while you were there?
No. Honestly, the DSS has very good medical facilities. It is like they want you to stay alive. When they notice that you are sick, they give you all the medication in the world. They would even perform surgery on you. Nobody can die there. They have the best medical facility in Nigeria. They just want you to stay alive.
Did you fall sick there?
I was sick many times because I used to have a problem with my leg. I even needed surgery. I was going to the hospital. I was very sick many times.
Did you do surgery there?
No, I did not do surgery there. They were just treating me, giving me medication.
What kind of ailments did you have?
I had stomach ulcer and fever. My leg became a lot of trouble. I had suffered a gunshot injury in my leg, some time ago, and it wasn’t treated well. The court actually allowed me to go and treat it, but then I got arrested. So, I developed complications because of the injury. In August 2017, some gunmen attacked me in my house in Aba – because I am an activist. They shot me in the stomach and in my leg, and did a lot of damage. I spent almost N10.7m to fix my leg. But I was still experiencing serious problems with my leg. I just thank God for my life and that I’m still standing.
Your wife was said to have been pregnant when you were arrested. How did she react to your arrest and detention?
My wife felt like killing herself. She felt so bad, but I had already told her that I am an activist and once you are an activist, you expect some of these things. When I was in detention, Mike Ozekhome (SAN) saw me and said, ‘Emperor, if you don’t like the fire, don’t go near the kitchen. You see me, I have been detained 13 times.’ He told me about Femi Falana and the late Gani Fawehinmi being detained many times. That is what happens when you are an activist. Some people will not like what you are doing. The only thing is that you don’t do it because you hate anybody.
How did your parents feel about your detention?
My mother was crying; she was not happy about it. I am close to my children. In fact, my children are my greatest fans; they love me and want me to be around them. My daughter climbed the veranda and wanted to jump down, but thank God my wife saw her and stopped her. My entire family, my chamber, and my lawyers were affected. They all wanted me back but that is something about life. It doesn’t always work the way you want it to, but sometimes it does.