Five days to his final University exams, Joseph Ugochukwu found himself in the cruel custody of SARS operatives.
I had just finished saying my morning prayers when I heard knocks on my door.
The day was Wednesday, July 13, 2016.
I am Ugochukwu Joseph, a 29-year-old native of Awgu, a southeastern town in the Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State. I lived on the Sir Ken Nnamdi Drive, Independence Layout in Enugu, the state’s capital. I was then a final-year student of biochemistry at the Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT), and was preparing to write my final exam on July 18 that year.
When I asked who it was that was knocking on my door, the voice of my friend and schoolmate, Chuka, came through. Calmed by the familiarity, I went and opened the door.
I found out however, to my dismay, that Chuka was not alone. Standing with him were four mean-looking men wielding guns. One of the men introduced himself as Ekpe and said he and the other three men were officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Ekpe asked me if I knew Chuka. I admitted that I did. Ekpe then asked me to get dressed and follow them to the SARS station. He seized my laptop, which I was then using to write my final-year degree project.
I pleaded with Ekpe to allow me to make some calls, but he refused and switched off my phone.
I followed the men and Chuka to the station in Golf Estate, within Enugu city.
At the station, Ekpe gave me a sheet of paper and asked me to write a statement. I started writing. Unknown to me, Ekpe stood behind me and peeked at everything I wrote.
At a point, Ekpe called my attention and asked me to stop writing. He told me to write that I was a kidnapper and an armed robber.
I got angry and told Ekpe to allow me to write my statement, unless he did not want me to write it myself, as he had initially asked, anymore.
Ekpe flared up. He snatched the sheet of paper from me, reached for a big stick, and used it to hit me several times.
He beat me so much that I injured my hand – afterwards I could barely pick up or hold onto stuff..
After the beating, I was told to undress. I obeyed, stripping till I was only in my boxer shorts. I was then thrown into a cell.
A week before my arrest, on July 6, 2016, I had accompanied Chuka to the bank to make a transaction. A friend of ours, Ifeanyi, had come to my house with a car, and together, the three of us had driven to the bank. On arrival at the bank, another friend of Chuka, Ikechukwu, met us. He too, like Chuka, had come to withdraw money.
At first I wanted to wait outside until they were all done, but I later joined them inside the bank. After some time, I left them and went back outside.
Ikechukwu called and told me they were having issues with making their transactions. I then went back into the bank to find out what the problem was. There, I discovered that the account they wanted to withdraw from was locked, ‘probably because of security issues’.
On our way out of the bank, one of the security men attached to the bank, who knew Chuka, told him that they would have to come back and settle the issue later. Chuka told me that he believed the security man wanted them to return and settle (parlance for bribery) the police because of their case.
I had asked Chuka in annoyance why the police needed to be settled when the issue was a bank issue and not a police one. Chuka said nothing.
After Chuka and Ifeanyi did not show up at the bank again, SARS operatives were used to lure them out and arrest them on the evening of July 12, 2016.
That was how the investigation eventually became a knock on my door earlier that morning.
On the morning of July 14, 2016, my father came into Enugu from Awgu. He called my phone but it was switched off. He did not know where I lived. That was his first time visiting me.
He called my younger brother, who in turn called my girlfriend. My girlfriend went to my house, where the neighbours told her I had been arrested. One of the neighbours told her that Ekpe, who was popular around our area, was one of the SARS officers who had arrested me.
That same day, my father rushed to the SARS office. An officer told him that there was nobody that met the description of ‘Joseph Ugochukwu’ in SARS custody. My father even mentioned my nickname to the officer, but the officer insisted there was no such person in the station. My father then went back to Awgu, a 40-minute taxi drive from the city of Enugu.
The next day, July 15, 2016, my father returned to the SARS station with Caeser, one of my neighbours, in tow. The officers initially did not want to let them in, but after much begging from both of them, the officers eventually gave in.
Caesar told Ekpe that he was my neighbour and had seen him (Ekpe) when he arrested me. The officers brought me out from the cell.
My father asked the officers how much money he would have to pay to bail me. They said he would have to pay 300,000 naira.
It was a huge sum for my father, who pleaded for a reduction, saying that he could only afford 50,000 naira. The officers did not accept it.
My father was troubled because of my forthcoming final-year exams, which I had to sit for to graduate and receive a degree certificate. Apart from my safety, his years of investment in me was on the line. And so he continued to beg the officers, hoping they would be moved. But they insisted the least amount they would collect was 250,000 naira. My father gave up the negotiation and left in search of the money.
Meanwhile, Ifeanyi’s family soon came and paid 250,000 naira for his bail.
Chuka’s family, too, were there, and they also paid 250,000 naira to secure his release.
My father later returned to the station with the money that evening for mine.
My two-day stay in the cell was terrible. Someone had advised me to have money on me before going into a cell, in the range of a thousand naira, because I would need it there to save me from being bullied by inmates. While I escaped being beaten, I wasn’t spared ‘mounting the wall’, which is cell parlance for the act of facing the wall and acting like one is climbing it.
Chuka wasn’t as lucky as I was. When he came into the cell the previous day, July 12, he had no money, and was well-beaten. His eyes remained red from the hurt for over two weeks.
I however got some beating of my own later on from Ekpe and his wicked officers, who tortured me for ten minutes while ordering me to provide the contact details of Ikechukwu. I kept telling them I did not know Ikechukwu and had indeed never met him. At a point, I literally wet my pants out of fear.
I remember the depressing scenes in custody. There were three cells in the station. Cell 3 was the biggest while Cell 1 and 2 were the size of toilets. I was in Cell 3, which had more than thirty inmates who slept on each other at night due to the limited space. The cell’s floor was gummy with blood. The bodies of some inmates had started to decay. I remember this inmate who was paralyzed and was seated in the same position where he urinated and defecated.
There was this night when the inmates in my cell started singing and shouting. Their voices grew so loud that the SARS officers felt they were planning to break out of the cell.
The SARS officers began shooting the wall from the opposite side of the cell. For more than twenty minutes, the sounds of the guns rang out. Soon, the inmates stopped singing, but the SARS officers kept on shooting. But for the impenetrable nature of the wall, the bullets would have hurt or even killed some of us.
Throughout my stay, I did not have a bath and did not eat – even when I requested for the food.
An interesting thing I observed was the concept of the messenger-inmate. This was an inmate who ran errands for all other inmates. He mostly slept in the hallway, rather than in a cell. As an inmate, if you needed anything, he was your guy – and he would earn commission on every errand. The messenger-inmate had spent two whole years in the cell and thus considered the place as his home. Even more interesting was the fact that he had come in when he was 14 years old. He was the one who would receive food from the relatives and friends of inmates and bring it to them.
From what I saw and experienced, I am convinced most people in SARS custody are innocent of the crimes they are accused of. Some had been arrested because someone paid SARS officers to arrest them, probably because they owed them money.
When I finally got home after my bail, my father bought me some drugs. My brother also gave me a new towel. I was able to take my bath – and with hot water. My family decided to burn the clothes I’d worn to the cell – they just didn’t want to see me wear them again.
Throughout the days I wrote my final exams at the University, I battled depression as an after-effect of my SARS ordeal. I was spiritless, and barely managed to get by. Studying became difficult as I could hardly concentrate. I would have occasional flashbacks while studying. I would see sights and sounds from the cells which would get me angry, sometimes to the point of dropping my book. It was only by the grace of God that I managed to pass that exam.
Socially, my life changed – in school and at home. As the class representative of my class on campus, I felt really ashamed knowing everyone had heard about my arrest and detention. I avoided social gatherings, eventually becoming a recluse. Some of my family members too began to see me in a different light, as they concluded that my arrest meant I had started engaging in vices. My neighbours would also cast suspicious looks at me. It really did take a while for things to normalize again.
My life has changed – and it does feel as if it has done so for the worst. There is more tension and less freedom. There is a lot of caution and fear. I have been forced to be very intentional about my every move and every phone call. I have become very defensive. I have become very insecure.
I remember an incident in Onitsha, a southeastern town in Anambra State – which turned out to be my second run-in with SARS officers. It happened in October 2019. That afternoon, a friend and I had come out of the Federal Housing Estate there and entered a Keke, a three-wheeled tricycle. Unknown to us, SARS officers were tailing our ride.
As we got to a place where the road was sloppy and deserted, the SARS officers double-crossed us. They were three in number. They drove a Toyota Hilux.
The SARS officers told my friend and I to hand over our phones. When we refused, the officers threatened to shoot us – and they arrogantly claimed there would be no consequence for them if they did. We immediately quit arguing with them.
They took us to the Central Police Station, Onitsha. There, they called us ‘bad boys’ and threatened to lock us up in a cell.
My friend asked the officers what we had to do to be set free. The officers told us to pay 50,000 naira each. We told them we could only pay 5,000 naira. The officers refused to accept that. After many negotiations, we agreed to pay them 15,000 naira each.
The SARS officers refused an online transfer; they said they wanted the money in cash. (Online transfers via mobile applications or USSD codes can be easily traced, thus making it easy to trace and find SARS officers who extort or harass people for money).
The officers seized our phones and ordered us to go to a nearby POS machine and withdraw the money.
My friend withdrew the money, came back to the station and paid the SARS officers. We were then set free. It was already evening.
I am now a proud anti-SARS advocate. Those officers are dangerous, and I cannot hide my dislike for them. They have way too much power, and this has caused citizens – especially the youth – to live in constant fear.
I think SARS officers need rehabilitation before they are reintegrated back into society, simply because they have a strange lust for blood.