In the Amasiri community, Afikpo North Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, jungle justice has become a normal practice. The latest victim is a cleric and social critic, Okochi Obeni, whose case has continued to generate outcry from all quarters, reports UCHENNA INYA
Though very small, Amasiri community is one of the popular communities in the Afikpo North local Government Area.
It has many traditions, some of which are not in tune with modern civilisation, especially the ones that border on punishment meted out on supposed offenders.
In the community, punishment is usually given to a defiant. The punishment can be corporal or capital.
In the olden days, people who committed serious crimes in the community were buried alive. They were buried in the middle of the night after approval for such punishment from their fathers. Graves of those buried alive are still seen in the community. Such punishment is called “ikpa ogidi” by the people.
Today, ikpa ogidi has reduced drastically and is hardly seen in the area, owing to development and modernisation. But the community is still known for harsh punishment of offenders, despite civilisation.
A cleric and social critic in the community, Pastor Okochi Obeni, was recently tortured to near death over Facebook posts he made against some leaders of the area, including the immediate past local government Chairman, Chief Ogbonnia Oko Enyim.
The leaders considered Obeni’s posts as slanderous, capable of jeopardising existing peace in the area. The critic was punished severely.
Obeni’s shirt was removed while his hands were tied to his back. He was left with only boxers and made to lie down. Dirty water was poured on him and was dipped inside the gutter. The cleric was given 32 strokes of the cane.
Obeni was to be given 50 strokes of the cane but reduced to 32 strokes following the intervention of his elder brother, who is the Senior Pastor of God’s Descendants Assembly International where the victim also serves, Apostle Ude Sylvester Ugo. The elder brother had to buy off the remaining 18 strokes of the cane for N9,000 in accordance with the tradition of the community.
An offender in the Amasiri community is usually given 50 strokes of the cane. According to the tradition of the people, every village has 10 strokes of the cane against any offender in the Amasiri community.
The 50 strokes of cane that Obeni would have received, but for the intervention of his brother, represent five major villages in the area. Obeni was made to apologise to the community during the torture and was subsequently set free in pains.
Those who tortured him, uploaded the video of the torture on social media and it went viral, eliciting condemnations from all quarters, including the state government which set up a five-man panel on the matter. The panel is mandated to investigate the remote and immediate causes of the incident and prevent further occurrence.
Isi-oru age grade, the traditional police of the Amasiri community was responsible for Obeni’s torture.
After he was tortured, the cleric was taken to the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital Abakaliki (AE-FUTHA) by some human rights groups – the Human Rights Defenders (HURRIDE) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) – for medical attention.
Obeni’s offensive posts
He wrote: “When something is condemnable it should be condemned by all, not minding whose ox is gored. When the local government chairman took his arsenals to Amaozara Ndukwe, his in-laws’ compound and destroyed properties belonging to his in-laws, including Achi Augustine’s shop, over slight provocation, we condemned it without minding how people misunderstood it and what they tagged it. And the name calling against us.
“One thing is sure, injustice to one should be injustice to all. We protested to the appropriate quarters and our agitation for justice yielded a positive result. I wish to use this medium to appreciate the effort of Essa Ruling Council Amasiri for taking up the matter and administering justice to all.
“Thanks to Isaka Ogu 111 of Isaka autonomous community, Ezeogo Omezue Patrick Aja, for standing with his people at this trying time. Thanks to human rights chairman, Ebonyi State for shouldering this matter for us.
“I gathered from the villagers that Essa Ruling Council Amasiri set up a committee of inquiry to investigate the matter. After it’s findings, the following decisions were taken: That the Afikpo North Local Government Chairman, Hon. Ogbonnia Oko Enyim, should repair the damaged properties. That he should repair the damaged bus and return its battery. That he should replace the damaged pure water from Achi’s shop.
“Essa Ruling Council Amasiri
slammed a fine of N750,000 against the local government chairman to pay before the end of this month or Amasiri will visit his house for revenge. Essa Ruling Council chairman was slammed with N50,000 for taking sides and trying to protect the chairman.
“I wish to appreciate the chairman of Afikpo North Local Government Area for speedily responding to the above ruling by Essa Ruling Council Amasiri in repairing the damaged shops. Yesterday, he started repairing the damaged shops in response to the Essa decisions.
“Kudos to him. I advise him and others to be law-abiding and stop taking laws into their hands. I plead with Ezeogo Patrick Aja and human rights, Ebonyi State, to takedown any suit against him since the Essa Ruling Council has done justice to the matter. Left with 100 bags of pure water, bus, battery and others. Our leaders must be held accountable especially when they misbehave. Justice done at last.”
Torture becomes political tool
Obeni’s torture has become political as politicians in the local government have used it to outdo their opponents and enlarge their political coast.
The local government has been sharply divided with a faction loyal to Ogbonnaya Oko Enyim, the immediate past chairman and another faction loyal to the member representing Afikpo South West state constituency in the state House of Assembly, Hon. Kinsgsley Ikoro.
Both Ikoro and Enyim are said to be eyeing top positions in 2023 after they serve out their current political positions. Enyim won his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) ticket for a second term in office before the expiration of his tenure as the local government chairman.
However, Governor Dave Umahi has appointed caretaker committee chairmen in all the 13 local areas of the state because of the inability of the state electoral body to conduct local government elections after the expiration of the tenures of the chairmen.
The caretaker chairmen will remain in office pending when new elections are held while most of the former chairmen are holding return tickets.
Age grade’s justification for Obeni’s torture
The Essa Ruling Council, which is the symbol of authority in Amasiri, community justified Obeni’s torture. The age grade said Obeni’s posts were unbecoming and very slanderous, capable of causing crisis in the area if not checked.
It noted that the community had to invite Obeni to explain why he was making the posts on Facebook which it said were all false and attempts to jeopardise existing peace in the area.
Speaking with our correspondent, the Vice-Chairman of the Essa Ruling Council, Chief Godffery Oko, claimed that the social critic posted fake news against him and that he deserved the punishment meted out on him.
He said the community has been punishing offenders in accordance with its tradition and wondered why Obeni’s case was generating an uproar.
Oko alleged that politicians are the ones sponsoring the cleric to smear the image of their opponents and heat up the polity.
He said: “We handle our problems in our traditional ways which we think is more comfortable. When somebody does a thing, the first thing you will do is did you find out whether the person did the thing? And you know anything written is hardly deniable. The false information the boy is posting on the internet is there on the internet and people have it on their phones. Even, he did not deny it. He said he was paid to do it; he confessed openly in the presence of everybody.
“We know that the court is there and we know the police are there. We are not unaware of these organs but security is not just one man’s affairs; you have to do your best. Then when it is above you, you have to go to a higher organ. If you go to the police, the next thing is to go to the court which is the final arbiter. If something is within the arrest level, we use our traditional method and arrest it. No one who commits offence always believes he is treated fairly.
“The traditional ruling council is a transitional organisation and you know the Igbo man arranges the organogram of the leadership according to ages and here in Amasiri, we do it in three age groups. We have the Amasiri traditional Essa Ruling Council, we are in three age grades and these age grades form the Amasiri traditional ruling council and our duration in office is five years. After that five years, another group of three age groups will come up to take up the Essa. So, I wouldn’t talk about any other person’s government. We presently are the type of people who will not fear whose ox is gored, we always give people the opportunity to defend themselves on any matter and we handle the matter fairly on a level playing ground. We do not like vindictive punishment; we do not treat people with impunity. When we find you guilty, we cannot give you a punishment that is above what you have done.
“We are not partisan and anybody who tries to bring politics into what we are doing here in Amasiri is making a very big mistake because we have our traditional ways of handling issues and we do not do it arbitrarily. Somebody must be given a chance to defend himself when he is accused of committing an offence in the community and that is democratic enough. We always discuss an offence one commits in this community within ourselves and if you are found guilty, we will dish out punishment accordingly. We do not do jungle justice.
“Anybody who commits an offence must have to face the consequences according to the rules or laws of this community. What we are doing is according to our tradition; the way we handle things to bring about peace, not minding whose ox is gored.
“The security outfit of this community, the Isi-oru, handled that situation. The boy was found guilty of defaming people’s character. He was publishing on the internet falsehoods against individuals and also trying to portray the leadership of the Essa Ruling Council in a very bad light. So, when he was found guilty, we asked the security agent, the Isi-oru to go and look into the matter. That same boy wrote on social media that the council chairman slapped me at an occasion. I have never had any problem with the council chairman let alone slapping me. We have never had any misunderstanding and that is why I said anyone bringing in politics into what the Essa are doing, is an enemy of the community. The council chairman does not manipulate the traditional ruling council. We do not consult him before doing what we are doing, we only consult him when we think that the government has to know what we are doing in the community.”
On his part, the Vice-Chairman of Ekpuketo Age grade in the community, Deacon Joseph Ndukwe Obiahu, said Obeni would have been lynched if it was in the past that he committed the offence that led to his punishment.
He said: “Let me be sincere to you. As a Christian, I must be very sincere. You see, if it were in those days, the boy is supposed not to live from what he committed. Like myself, posting my name, saying this or that is not normal. The vice-chairman has said all that the Amasiri people don’t welcome evil and that is why we punished the boy.”
The leader of the Isi-oru age grade that handled Obeni’s punishment, Julius Amadi Nyerere, also described it as traditional punishment.
He also said if it were in the past that Obeni committed the offence, he would have been killed but was given strokes of the cane to warn and reform him.
Nyerere said the Isi-oru age grade did not intend to kill the cleric as being speculated by people but “was given the punishment of his size”.
He said: “Obeni was not punished to death; he was not punished to inflict injuries on him. He was punished so that he could change and from that particular moment, he left us, properly dressed and left us without any problem. His brother, Baron, who is trying to push him, even came that day and gave this Isi-oru group N10,000, saying that we treated him fair but I don’t know why he is pushing him against us after the traditional punishment.
“This guy is not the first, the second, third, fourth even the 100th person that was treated like this in our community. This is a treatment that has been in the community. Yes, I agreed that it has generated an uproar. Probably, the Essa will review the traditional setting because this thing is a traditional thing, they are the people to review it. As this one has happened may be because of the uproar, it will go back to them, then they will go back to their table and see how they can amend it.