Chibueze Okoli was just about starting life when police brutality plucked him from his loving, prayerful family
The cover of darkness has passed away and dawn is at hand. The journey to Mr. Alexander Okoli’s home begins. The path to his home cuts through a local church. A narrow gate of gray shade stands on the detour leading to his home.
Here, in his home, Mr. Okoli sits on a black-leathered sofa, his wife to his right, alongside his son in-law and daughters.
Old age has weighed heavily on him. For much of the evening, he does not speak much. When he does, his words come at a measured pace, each sentence carefully decorated with gestures. From time to time, there is an obstruction prickling his lungs, forcing him to shiver. Everyone waits a while, then the conversation resumes again .
Everyone avoids the elephant in the room – the death of their son, Chibueze Okoli, who had wanted to be a priest. As Brenda Okoli explains during a first meeting at the gym in the city of Awka, southeast, Nigeria: “We don’t talk about my brother in our house.”
For over a dozen years, the Okolis have talked about their son, Chibueze Okoli, in only a few words. The purpose is to keep their old parents within the range of hope; to nullify any feeling of resignation. But Brenda knows, as do some of her relatives, that the tall, protective and selfless Chibueze is dead.
She also understands why it is a bad idea to force such convictions upon her parents. In their home, there is a family altar where prayers are made daily for Chibueze’s life and return.
But this altar, beyond the prayers made on it, are mnemonic of his life. Chibueze was a man of prayers and faith. He loved priesthood. He attended the seminary, resigned due to illness and then recovered.
While at home, Chibueze’s love for music began to bloom. He spent most of his days in the room, creating songs and singing loud and wide. His mother, Celine Okoli, loved everything about him. Sometimes she got carried away listening to his voice. Sometimes she served as the uninvited back-up singer. “My spirit is always with him,” she says. “He is an obedient son.”
One morning in September, Chibueze dressed up and traveled to Atlantic Intercontinental University, Okija, 30 kilometers away from his family’s former home at Onitsha. Chibueze wanted to earn a degree before returning to the seminary.
But a day after he traveled to complete his entrance registration, the Okolis got a call. At the other end of the line was a man, who spoke under tension and fear. He told them that Chibueze had been shot by the police in Onitsha – a bustling commercial center in the east of Nigeria.
It took days before the witness made himself manifest. When he did, Brenda Okoli didn’t recognize him, though he lived close to their home. The witness explained that Chibueze was on an okada when the police accosted and shot him. He slumped from the motorcycle – in pain and tears. The witness couldn’t make out the content of their conversation, but he claimed to have heard the cries of Chibueze.
When the news got home, the emotions among the Okolis varied – and still does even today. Brenda is active, even now at the gym outside their home in the city of Awka; she sings and twists and talks. She is capable of summoning a problem in her mind without visibly wearing the pain on her face. It’s her unspoken way of never allowing a situation to stay above her vigor.
But her mother is different, much more inclined to a visible display of grief. As she speaks of Chibueze, tears well up around her dull eyes. She sobs between sentences. Her words are heavy and painful and slow. The last time she sat with Chibueze, he was in his usual “mummy’s-boy” mood, all chatty.
“Remain water for me, mum,” Chibueze had said after bathing and so Celine left some water for her son in the bucket inside the bathroom. The affection and fervent feeling of attachment between mother and son was unreal. Brenda supposes that their bond was born out of the pain of childbirth. Chibueze was the only Okoli child born through caesarean section. Indeed, the scars are still there on Celine’s abdomen.
After a long spell, the Okolis began to patronize the merchants of miracles. It was the only way for many reasons: Since 2008, there has been no trace of the body or blood of their son. This lack of clarity has created room for imaginations and unstable emotions. Some days, one might wake up feeling positive about the situation while other times, they go to bed in despair.
And there is hope for sale. But it is not cheap, or easy. From the pulpit, pastors make “special” sacrifices and offerings. They see visions. They declare and decree prophecies. Then, lawyers pontificate and charge fees. The police promise “speedy” investigations that will bring “perpetrators to book.”
With time, weariness begins to set in, taking the place of optimism. Mr. Alexander Okoli and his wife have been through all these cycles, with their entire household of three daughters and two sons.
Only a year ago, Mr. Okoli was to explain to his kinsmen why there hadn’t been a formal burial for Chibueze. He had pleaded, time and again, for their patience. He wanted to wait a little longer, to allow enough time for Chibueze to return. A formal burial for Chibueze would mean that the family has resigned to his death – a situation that does not align with the Okoli creed of faith, prayer and fasting, sustained with perseverance for more than a dozen years.
As he cajoles the family to this waiting game, Mr. Okoli’s own convictions are also beginning to waver. In reality, he has no direct evidence as to when and how Chibueze disappeared. The day he received that phone call detailing the shooting of his son at Onitsha, he was home at Oko, attending a funeral.
A man who witnessed the shooting of Chibueze said the police dumped his bloody body into their van and drove away. The witness drove behind their van, keeping a good distance for disguise. The van came to a halt at the office of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) office, Central Police Station, Onitsha. The men dropped Chibueze on the ground, at the edge of the gate.
Chibueze never shut his mouth. He cried. And more than crying, he yelled his name, the names of his parents, their contact address, their phone numbers and his own innocence. Bystanders stopped, watched the drama and moved on. But the witness wrote down the details he heard and traced his family.
Mr Okoli recalls when he received a call from the witness: “I nearly died in an accident, [given] the way I drove from my hometown back to Onitsha,” he says.
The SARS office in Onitsha claimed there was no trace of Chibueze. The police officers said his body had been taken away by the officers that had brought him, but didn’t offer any clue regarding their destination. Mr. Okoli tried to get more details from the SARS officials, but they chased him away.
The months after were torturous for the family. By the end of 2008, the Okolis had petitioned the police to investigate the matter.
However, it seemed, the police saw it as an opening to dribble them around. On any given day, the police would refer them to Awkuzu, then Onitsha. The family visited a couple of police custodies. The back and forth continued until they got exhausted and even threatened. The witness, citing growing threats to his life and household, pulled out of the case. The lawyer, shortly after, backed off with the same excuse.
In October 2020, Brenda was scrolling through her phone, observing the news. She watched the video of a young man who was allegedly shot by the police in Ughelli, Delta state. That death revived the call for an end to police brutality and profiling of young Nigerians by SARS.
Each time, in the past few years, that Brenda has read such a report, she has often fallen into deep sadness. Then she would wonder why her family and many other affected families have had to bury their grief in silence.
This time, in October 2020, Brenda was optimistic about the possibility of a protest or an uprising, led by young people. And when a protest eventually materialized, she joined other young people who protested at the SARS office in Awkuzu.
“For the first time, I cried for my brother,” she says, remembering the events of the candle night set aside by the protesters to honor the dead and entertain their eulogies.
“I made peace with his loss. I felt a big burden was taken off my heart,” Brenda adds. “I heard many other stories, much more depressing than mine. I realized we were not alone.”