When SARS officers arrested Ugochukwu Oraefo, the 34-year-old sought to know what his crime was. Instead, what he got as a response from the vicious officers was a traumatic experience that took four days of hospitalization to recover from.
In the early hours of April 30, 2018, three heavy-looking men in a Toyota Camry 2.2 stormed my ALUCOBEST Aluminum Store in the southeastern Nigerian town of Ogidi. The men wielded AK-47 rifles.
My name is Ugochukwu Oraefo. I am 34, and a father of five children. I sell aluminium roofing sheets, metra roofing sheets, stone-coated roofing tiles and other kinds of roofing materials.
That fateful day three years ago, I was in my store with my wife. The men wielding the guns told me they were police officers. They asked me to act as if I knew them and follow them. I was confused, so I refused. I asked to know if anyone had written a petition against me. They said they would tell me everything I needed to know only if I would enter their car.
It all sounded fishy, so I refused – again.
Later, the three men identified themselves as officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Awkuzu, a town in Anambra. When I continued to insist on not following them, they began to assault me with their guns.
Soon, concerned people gathered. They asked what the problem was, but the SARS officers did not say what offence I had committed. Instead, they said anybody who wanted to know what my offence was would have to follow them to their office. I told the crowd that I had refused to follow the men because for all I knew, they could be kidnappers.
I asked for an arrest warrant, but the SARS officers sarcastically asked whether I thought I was the governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano, for me to think they needed to obtain a warrant from me.
“We will kill you if you fuck up,” they threatened.
I told them that it was better for them to kill me there, in the presence of onlookers, than to take me away and kill me anyhow they wanted, in the presence of no one. By that, I seemed to have angered them the more, because they started beating me again.
One of the SARS officers told me he was a soldier, claiming that what they were doing was ‘teamwork’. I asked what this supposed ‘teamwork’ was, but they only continued to beat me.
Later, the SARS officers gave me their phone and asked that I speak with their Officer in Charge (OC).
I had taken a sound beating by then and was not exactly in the mood to speak, but I pulled myself together and asked the OC what my offence was. The OC told me to stop asking “stupid” questions and just follow his men. I stood my ground and refused to comply, insisting that the OC let everyone know the offence they were claiming I had committed. The OC told me to return the phone to his men. I did as I was told. Unfortunately, the men resumed beating me.
After some time, I began to cave in. I asked my wife to call my lawyer, Justus Ijeoma. Ijeoma asked her to give the phone to the SARS officers, but they refused to speak to him. When the officers noticed I was not willing to follow them unless they spoke to Ijeoma, they asked my wife to call him again. She did. This time, the officers told Ijeoma who they were, and he agreed for me to follow them.
When we reached the SARS office, the officers threatened me. They said they would ‘treat’ my stubbornness.
They later took me to the backyard of their office. There, they tied my hands and legs behind my back, then they brought out a metal rod, which they put between my bound hands and legs. They placed two heavy concrete blocks on my back, before hanging me up.
They said they would ‘deal’ with me because I was ‘spoiling’ their ‘show’; whatever that meant. They later asked me how much I was willing to pay for my freedom. It was this request for a bribe that got me convinced I had indeed been kidnapped.
Burdened by the discomfort, I asked them how much they wanted. I don’t remember much of what happened afterward, because I passed out from being hanged for a long time. They eventually brought me down and untied me, taking me to a cell.
In the evening of that same day, they brought me out and asked if I was ready to tell them how much I wanted to pay.
I asked them again to tell me what crime I had committed at least.
“You still want to know what your offence is?!” they responded rudely. “Okay! No problem.”
I broke into tears at that point. I was tired of it all. I pleaded with them to let me know how much they wanted so everything would come to an end.
The SARS officers said they wanted 20 million naira. I offered to give them two million. They weren’t pleased. They mocked my offer, asking me if I thought I had come to their station to sell crayfish.
As the negotiations continued, and with some of their colleague officers there calling me a criminal, the SARS officers took me back to the backyard and threatened to tie me up again. I pleaded and promised to increase the money to three million naira.
Mind you, during the entire period, the SARS officers did not allow anybody to visit me. My wife continued to run my shop while waiting for my lawyer to return from his travels.
The officers, at a point, threatened to kill me, believing that I was not willing to pay the money they were demanding.
They asked for my account number and I provided it. They then took me back to my cell.
The next day, they brought me out. They asked me if I wanted to ‘die’ in their station. I kept pleading. The officers remained unmoved.
On the third day of my detention, which was May 2nd, the three SARS officers that arrested me told me they were going to take me to an undisclosed location where they would ‘kill’ me for being difficult about giving in to their demand. I was blindfolded, handcuffed and driven away.
The drive took almost an hour. When the car stopped, the SARS officers brought me down and, still able to see slightly through the blindfold, I realized the place was in neighbouring Delta State, given the inscriptions on the signboards I was slightly able to see.
I also saw a pit filled with water, which one of the three officers asked me to move close to. The other officers were pointing their guns at me. The commanding officer asked why I did not want to give them money. “I’ve given my account number,” I responded desperately. “I don’t have up to 20 million naira.”
I asked them why they wanted to kill me, but they still wouldn’t tell me what I’d done. They only said they were ready to ‘finish’ me.
The commanding officer instructed the other officers to shoot me on the count of three. I was broken at this point. I wept. I begged. I asked them to take all the money in my account and spare my life. All I had then was five million naira.
The officers, though, insisted they would still kill me – but that they would take the money as well.
On the commanding officer’s count of three, I shut my eyes and heard the sound of gunshots.
I regained consciousness to find out it had been a mock execution.
They took me back to their station, where one of the officers asked if I knew where I was. “Yes, Sir,” I remember responding.
Another popped up and said he wanted to ‘finish’ me, but their commanding officer, Sunday Okpe, asked them to bring me to him. Okpe asked the officers to leave after they brought me to him.
After I took a seat, Okpe asked how much money I was going to give him so he could save me from the grips of his men. I told him that apart from promising his men that I was willing to give them all the money in my account, I did not know what to do again.
Okpe wasn’t moved. He insisted I give him “something tangible” so he could persuade his men to leave me alone. When I said I could only provide 200,000 naira to that effect, he took offence and ordered me out of his office.
Worried that I had blown a good opportunity to secure my freedom, I began to negotiate.
I told him I would make it 500,000 naira. He refused. I upped it to one million, telling him I would find out if my workers had cash in the office so I could access it.
He seemed okay with it and ordered me to make sure the money was brought to his office physically, as against a transfer.
He then freed me so I could go and arrange the money.
On Saturday, May 5, 2018, I went to see the SARS officers. I went in the company of the father of an apprentice at my shop, who also brought one Andrew Modili, a local politician who wields some influence in our area. The officers told us to transfer five million naira into the account of Modili.
I honestly do not know how Modili later settled the SARS officers after we sent the money to his account. The officers did not allow anyone else to see them apart from Modili.
Meanwhile, the officers took me to see Okpe, who asked to know how he would receive his agreed fee of one million naira. I promised him I would bring the money to his office on Monday, given the fact that his workers were closing for the day and the next day was set to be a Sunday.
Okpe told me that he would let me pay on Monday, May 7, because of Modili’s intervention. He then warned: “No ear must hear what has happened. Otherwise I will finish your family, your entire generation and everything you have.”
I promised to do as agreed.
At home, I did not confide in my wife concerning my ordeal at the hands of the SARS operatives. I also kept away from her the amount of money I had invested in my freedom. I was afraid that if I did, she would tell others out of concern, which would have led to the news spreading.
I also did not confide in Ijeoma, my lawyer, who at that time was outside Nigeria. I believe that if I had told him everything, he would have called the SARS officers to demand a refund – which would have put me at risk, as the officers could make a move to hurt me before Ijeoma returned from his trip.
I planned to tell Ijeoma everything when he returned, as I wanted the SARS officers to pay me back in damages.
On the morning of May 7, 2018, I went to the SARS office and gave one million naira to Sunday Okpe, as agreed.
Pleased that I had fulfilled my promise, Okpe gave me his phone number, claiming that we were now friends, and that I should call him anytime. He said he wondered how I had been in Anambra for years and not heard of him. He promised to offer me ‘protection’ from trouble. I told him that I was not a criminal; that I was engaged in a genuine, legitimate business, and so I did not expect to run into any trouble.
Okpe later told me I was ‘lucky’, and that I ought to thank my God, because he had planned to pursue my family at my house and take everything I own.
He told me he had heard I was a cultist, but I told him it was a lie, and that I know only God. He then revealed that SARS had looked for me in several locations to arrest me, but had not succeeded. He said they had monitored me at my store so many times. He also said he was the one who had guaranteed his men that my store was the best place to capture me.
After two months, my lawyer Ijeoma returned. I told him everything that had happened.
When he asked why I hadn’t told him all that had happened, I told him I feared nothing but talk would have come out of it. I was aware of many people SARS had killed, whose families were yet to receive compensation.
My lawyer and I wrote a petition to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in Abuja. The SARS officers were summoned to the headquarters of the police for questioning, where they accepted they had collected six million naira from me. They refunded the money after a month, thankfully.
I later sued them for damages. But they never showed up.
I believe the government does not hold SARS accountable because they work for the government.
My experience with SARS messed me up. I spent four days in the hospital in order to recover from the physical and psychological trauma I underwent in their custody. My legs and hands felt alien to me from all that beating.
Life afterwards was tough. Some of my store customers stopped patronizing my business after they had heard about my arrest and detention, never bothering to find out what my supposed crime was. Some concluded I was a thief, while others believed I was a kidnapper. My reputation was torn to shreds.
You know, people who are arrested by SARS officers are often painted as kidnappers and armed robbers by the public, but I believe the real kidnappers and armed robbers are the SARS officers themselves, who have poisoned Ogidi and Anambra State with their intimidation of innocent people. They are heartless criminals who are worse than the criminals they claim to pursue.
I am an honest businessman. I don’t steal.
Imagine what would have become of my five children if anything unfortunate had happened to me in SARS custody. They wanted to kill me, or at worst, make me poor.
Thank God for saving me from their hands.
This story is part of a multimedia project by Tiger Eye Foundation and media partners across Nigeria, documenting police brutality in Nigeria, and advocating for police reform.