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When Timbee Avuve went out for a casual night with friends three years ago, he had no idea it would end with a bullet in his leg and a trip of no return to the infamous SARS facility “Abattoir.”

Timbee Avuve’s nickname was Romeo. His friends called him that because he loved dancing.

Like many Nigerian homes, money was tight in his family. Timbee who is from Mbachim in Benue State lost his father in 2004, leaving his mother, a now-retired primary school teacher, to cater for five children – three boys and two girls.

His older brother, Terzungwe, a 32-year-old painter, soon became responsible for taking care of Timbee and his other siblings. Terzungwe paid Timbee’s school fees at the college of education and regularly sent him pocket money. He taught his younger brother how to paint and handed him small painting jobs, which he did well. Terzungwe was also ready to sponsor Timbee’s university education, as he hoped upon completion, he (Timbee) could help him (Terzungwe) with the family’s financial burdens.

On July 16, 2018, Timbee and his friends were invited for drinks at a beer parlour in Aliade, also in Benue State. He reached the bar and met some other friends who had also been invited by the same mutual friend. They settled down and began drinking.

Minutes later, a car with tinted glass drove into the bar’s compound. Men wielding guns and dressed in mufti emerged from the car and started shooting sporadically. People in the bar ran away. One of Timbee’s friends was hit by a bullet and died on the spot. Timbee, however, was shot in the leg. The men, who turned out to be officers of the Intelligence Response Team (IRT) of the Nigeria Police Force, arrested Timbee and two of his friends. The men then drove to the Alliade Divisional Police Headquarters.

Timbee’s 35-year-old cousin, Aodowase Kakaan Desmond, is a lawyer who says he and Timbee shared a close relationship which made them more or less brothers. “He loved the arts,” Mr Desmond remembers. “I was encouraging him to study law because it was important to study a course [where you can be] self-employed. I gave him reasons why he should go into law. But he intended to study something else in the arts.”

Mr Desmond says he was crushed when news of the shooting and arrest reached him.

On July 17, 2018, while at the police station, Mr Desmond found out the IRT had taken Timbee and his friends to Abattoir – a detention facility operated by officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), in Abuja, which had formerly been a butchers’ yard.

The next day Mr Desmond and Terzungwe went to Abuja. There, the officers denied them access to the compound. They returned the next day, July 19, and thankfully, were finally allowed into Abattoir. The officers confirmed that they had arrested three people at Aliade, and that one of them was in an open cell while the other two were in the underground cell.

The officers allowed Mr Desmond and Terzungwe speak to the boy in the open cell, who turned out not to be Timbee. The officers however did not allow them speak with the other two boys, claiming it was because there was an ongoing investigation.

The boy in the open cell told Mr Desmond and Terzungwe all that had transpired on the day they were arrested.

The officers gave Mr Desmond and Terzungwe the phone number of the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) handling the case, named Felix Onuh. When reached, Mr Onuh told the duo he was outside Abuja and did not know when he would return.

Due to his job being based in Enugu, Mr Desmond says he employed the services of an Abuja-based lawyer, Joel Akerigba, to take up the case. Mr Akerigba, like Mr Desmond and Terzungwe, did not have any luck making headway.

On January 19, 2019, seven months after the arrest, Mr Desmond received a call from a police officer who told him that the two boys in the underground cell, which included his cousin, Timbee, had been brought out and killed. That police officer worked at the SARS office and sought anonymity.

Mr Desmond says the news crippled Timbee’s family: his older sister suffered depression and almost committed suicide, his mother fell sick, while his other siblings were swallowed by grief.

According to Mr Desmond, the police refused to confirm the truth or lie in the tip-off given by the anonymous officer. He says Timbee’s family plans to file a fundamental action against the police when, after three years, the law would agree that it is safe to presume Timbee is dead. They want to avoid the case where they file the action and Timbee is eventually found to be alive, as that would be considered perjury by the court.

Mr Desmond says the police had suggested that some of Timbee’s friends were into cult-related activities, hence the reason for their arrest.

“Once a case is brought before them [the police], whether they investigate or not, they presume you guilty till the court proves you otherwise,” Mr Desmond says. “That is their system.”

In November 2020, in response to the widespread #ENDSARS protests, the Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, set up a panel to investigate police brutality.

Terzungwe submitted an application to the panel, and he is hopeful for a positive response in the search for answers regarding his younger brother’s disappearance or possible demise.

The family, who have been told that the case is still being looked into, keep going to Abuja to look for Timbee, but they are yet to find him. All the family wants is an answer that will provide closure to their grief.

“He was always supportive,” Terzungwe, Timbee’s brother reflects. “Now, I feel like I don’t have anybody in the family again. He was most close to me.”