Justin Ogochukwu Nwankwo, who was the manager of Upper-Class Hotel, Onitsha, demolished in August, 2013, by the administration of the then governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, has narrated his ordeal in the hands of the Special Antirobbery Squad (SARS), in Awkuzu, in Oyi local government area.
According to Nwankwo, who said he was a Ph.D student at the time of the incident, added that he was arrested alongside the owner of the hotel, Mr. Bonaventure Mokwe and 12 others, based on a framed-up allegation that kidnapping activities were carried out in the hotel, among other accusations. In this interview, he shares his experiences at the hands of the security operatives.
“On this fateful day in August, 2013, police operatives invaded the Upper-Class Hotel in Onitsha, where I served as manager as at the time. They said they came based on the allegation that we used the hotel for kidnapping activities and for ritual purposes. “After searching the hotel, they also claimed that they found two human skulls.
“The manifest of the hotel was supposed to be given to the police before 7am, which was the normal protocol. We gave the manifest to the police and a copy to the CID headquarters.
“The list contained all those, who lodged in the hotel, including room 102, where they said they found the two human skulls. So, the person who brought the skills was the per-son who lodged there, and, as at the time the police came there by 8am, the person was nowhere to be found.
Though I can’t remember the name now, yet, as at that time, the name was clear and we told the police about it. “When police stormed the hotel, I told them that somebody lodged in that room and the names of the people that lodged in the hotel for the night were forwarded to the CID and area command, Onitsha. It was not a standard practice that we should check the bags of those that lodge in the hotel. So, we deemed it unnecessary to check people’s bags when they lodged in the hotel rooms.
“Again, the hotel was located inside the Onitsha market. Eighty to 90 percent of people, who were lodging there were traders; most of them were coming to buy fish. So, It could not have been easy for us to know who brought what to the room. “Room 102 was booked; somebody lodged there, and we submitted the manifest before 7am to the police; so, the name of the person, who lodged there was in the manifest.
But instead of the police to trace the person, they swooped on workers in the hotel, and arrested all of us. If what they did was not a set-up, how would they suspect there were human skulls in room 102, when they have not done such thing before?” Nwankwo further told Sunday Telegraph that he had suspected foul play in the entire process; adding that his boss, Chief Bonaventure Mokwe, was a renowned land agent, and that his opponents might have decided to eliminate him by sending their agent to plant human skulls in the hotel room. “Yes, our instincts were clear on this.
The owner of the hotel is a big land agent in Onitsha. The owner of the hotel was a successful land agent in Onitsha. The demolition of the facility could be because of sheer jealousy by business rivals. What happened was the effect of what happens in hotel and motor park businesses. He was set up by his adversaries, who looked for avenues to get at him.
The incident was a product of land and park business, and the hotel was the only point where one can handicap the man. The staff of the company was not part of this, but we suffered. We suffered with him all the days,” he said.
He regretted that even after the set up and subsequent arrest of staff of the hotel, they were not given the opportunity to defend themselves, before the hotel was demolished by SARS operatives on the instruction of the state government. “Funny enough, the hotel was demolished the same day we were arrested.
So, the police started the investigation and ended it the same day; the government came and demolished the hotel same day. “In one day, the executive, judiciary and legislature carried out their duties. It was pathetic how all this happened in one day.
Even the former governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, who said there was a security report against the hotel, we asked him severally to produce the report since there was an investigation.
“A proper investigation would have been carried out and a court order should have been given to demolish the hotel; but none of these happened. On the second night of our arrest, we got news that the hotel had been demolished without any opportunity for us to; at least, to evacuate our personal and vital belongings.”
According to him: “I experienced brutality, torture and near-death experience at the Awkuzu SARS. For 81 days, that is about three months, I was tortured, castrated and almost killed at the Awkuzu SARS. “However, by the glory of God, I survived.
Most painful is that, up till today, there is no tangible charge that the police have presented in court against me and my co-workers. “So, for those three months, we were arrested, detained and discharged without any charge. Yet, after seven years, we have not got any apology from the police or Anambra State government for the torture we went through.
“The most significant physical injury I sustained at the time of torture was the total rupture of my scrotum. It was totally damaged. My neck was tied with rope, and the rope was dragged at both ends until I had a scar on my neck. If I open my body, you will see series of scars incurred by the hot iron pressed on my back. There were multiple injuries inflicted on my body by the Awkuzu SARS police, led by CSP James Nwafor.
“The torture I went through at Awkuzu SARS was horrible. The painful thing was that they took an innocent man to a detention camp without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. “They packed us into a police van to a torture camp.
They wanted me to join as a prosecution witness against the owner of the hotel, and because I refused to do that, my own torture was the severest. “They tried to force me to say that there were activities of kidnapping in the hotel, which was not true.
So, when you hear that my scrotum was damaged, and that I was hanged and my hairs were pulled, it was to force me to admit what was not true.
“Apart from the torture, the 81 days of incarceration was something one would not want to remember. I was in the black cell of Awkuzu SARS for 81 days, and it was a miracle that I am still breathing and my genital still performing because, no one stayed in Awkuzu SARS for that number of days and survived.
They were hitting my scrotum to extract information from me by force. They even forced me to thumbprint on a statement I did not write. Imagine a near illiterate person (policeman) forcing a Ph.D student to thumbprint a statement he did not generate.
“At the time they forced my finger on the paper, I was unconscious and they poured three buckets of water on me to revive me to enable them use my thumbprint. Is that not enough torture to a Ph.D holder at the time?
“They gave us the severest torture, especially I, because, they wanted me to join the prosecution team against the owner of the hotel, Chief Mokwe. In order to extract false information forcefully from me, I was hanged, my hairs were pulled. They tried to force me, who was the second in command of the hotel, to agree that ill activities were carried out in the hotel.”
Okonkwo further said that he passed out severally during tortures meted on him by SARS in Awkuzu, but that he survived, by divine help. “On several occasions, I passed out. How I got to know I passed out was that I noticed the water that might have been used to revive me.
Intermittently, on the day of the arrest, I received about three buckets of water. This was just on the day of arrest. We were arrested in the morning in a Black Maria vehicle; taken to almost all the police stations in Onitsha, and arrived at about 3:30pm at Awkuzu torture hall, where the torture began.” How did Nwankwo and his co-workers at the Upper-Class Hotel, Onitsha, came out alive after three months in detention?
He narrated: “There was heavy pressure. Heavy human rights pressure was brought on them to free us or charge us to court, if they claimed they had anything against us.
The police acknowledged to our team of lawyers that their hands were tied, and that the government had demolished the building; even as there was nothing they could do. They said they were waiting for further instructions from the government. So, at the end of the day, they manufactured a case, charged us to court on three grounds.
“Also, the hotel had been demolished and the government, through other proxies, was trying to settle the matter; but what they proposed did not appeal to the owner of the hotel. We were eventually released after 81 days. They manufactured a case and took us to court because of pressures from human rights organisations, coupled with the fact that the state government wanted a safe landing.”
Okonkwo, now a university teacher, also said he has approached the Anambra State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Police Brutality to seek redress, since the police had failed to substantiate their claims and allegations against him, his former co-workers at the Upper-Class Hotel, as well as the owner of the hotel, Chief Bonaventure Mokwe. “The major thing I need is that the panel should clear my name. When this incidence happened, we were tagged the ‘Otokoto’ in Onitsha.
So, I want the panel to set me free from what I call the mental torture, and, secondly, to pay us for damages and injuries inflicted on us by the Awkuzu SARS through torture, incarceration and demolition of our hotel.
“So, I am claiming N50 million before the panel, as damages for the property lost during the demolition, as well as psychological trauma I passed through.” Meanwhile, when Sunday Telegraph contacted Chief Mokwe he said he was not in town; but would appear before the Anambra State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Police Brutality on November 26, 2020, with comprehensive information on how he, with his staff was unjustly detained, tortured and his hotel demolished.