•Tortured, forced to carry corpses of friends killed by police

•Freed after mysterious deaths of police witnesses

By Alemma Aliu

In 2013, 32-years-old Frank Mekwunye, a native of Utor Okpo in Ika North-East Local Government Area of Delta State was returning from Benin to Lagos in the company of two friends, Chinonso and Emmanuel when the bus they boarded was flagged down by a police checkpoint at Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State.

After inspection, the policemen claimed the bus was stolen. They arrested the driver of the bus, Mekwunye and his friends.

The driver and his bus were later released while Mekwunye and his friends, who refused to give a bribe were detained for ‘armed robbery.

Chinonso and Emmanuel were shot dead while in detention by the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS. Mekwunye was charged with armed robbery.

For nine years, Mekwunye languished in prison until last December when he was set free by the court after the key police witnesses in his trial died. In this chat, Mekwunye narrates Encounter, his cruel torture at SARS ‘theatres’, how he was made to carry the corpses of his friends shot by the police and his ordeals in prison.

Background

My name is Frank Mekwunye, I am 32 years and from Utor Okpu Kingdom in Ika North-East Local Government Area of Delta State. Before now, I was living with my parents at 11 Oyowele Adegboye Street, Ikorodu, Lagos State. I was also a final-year student of Mass Communication, at Lagos State Polytechnic, Ikorodu Campus, and a student member of the Nigeria Institute of Public Relations, NIPR, Eko chapter.

While in school, I was a member of the Kegites Club. On June 2, 2013, I received a phone call from a chief in my club that one of our members at the University of Benin was shot on campus.

I immediately arranged for a trip to Benin for the candlelight, which took place on June 3. While coming back the following day with two friends I met at the event, Okpalanta Chinonso and Emmanuel whose surname I can’t remember now, we stopped at Ijebu Ode to take another vehicle to Ikorodu.

Arrest

When we got to Itokin Bridge along the Ikorodu axis of the road, we met some policemen who stopped the Toyota Hiace bus we boarded. They asked the driver some questions and after inspecting the bus, they claimed that it was a stolen vehicle. We were arrested and taken to Ikosi Police Station in Agbonwa. After two days, the driver was released on bail and he went home with his bus.

The DPO at the station said we should call our people so that they can come and bail us but we said on what condition were they going to bail when the driver of the alleged stolen vehicle had been released with his vehicle. He said we were proving stubborn and the next day, he transferred the case to Shagamu Road Police Station.

SARS’ detention

We spent two days at the Shagamu Police Station before we were handed over to two hefty men with rifles. It was later discovered that they were from SARS in Ikeja.

When we got to their office, we were interrogated by one ASP Okeke popularly known as Bloodsucker. He brought out a blunt cutlass which he used to hit and cut us before asking his boys to take us to the cell. One evening, our investigating police officer, Inspector Mike brought out some documents and asked us to sign but we refused because they did not allow us to read the documents.

Torture room

The following day, they took us to a place within their premises called the theatre. ASP Okeke brought out his pistol and shot Emma and Chinonso on their two legs. I thought he was going to shoot my legs too but he suddenly paused and directed that we should be taken back into the cell.

Friends killed

Few days after that incident, at night, the SARS officers began to call out names of inmates to be executed. They called out my friends, Chinonso and Emmanuel and other suspects. I was lucky that my name was not mentioned. They took them out with other suspects but I cannot ascertain their number. They were many. We used to hear gunshots at that time of the night. They will take them away and shoot them, then come back and select other inmates to go and carry their bodies.

So, on that day, they took my two friends away and killed them alongside other suspects. After killing them, they opened the gate and called me out. I thought I was the next to be executed. But when I got there, my IPO, Inspector Mike, deliberately made sure that I carried the dead bodies of my two friends with others. We carried them and dumped their bodies inside a truck parked on the premises. After that day, Inspector Mike took me to his office and asked if I was ready to cooperate, and I said yes. That was how I foolishly signed all the documents he presented before me.

Cover up

Some months after my friends were killed by SARS operatives, by then I had been moved to prison. Some people brought Chinonso’s picture and wanted to know if he was in prison. I wanted to tell them that he was my coursemate and was killed in SARS detention but the head of the cell shouted me down. I was scared and could not say anything.

Trials

On August 30, 2013, I was charged before an Ikeja Magistrate  Court for conspiracy and armed robbery. Initially, I thought it was a matter I could handle myself but the matter soon overwhelmed me. Some friends tried to help but to no avail. After my first arraignment, I spent two years in prison before the matter was transferred to the state High Court.

Delays

In October 2015, my case was assigned to Justice Lawal Akapo’s court at Ikeja High Court. The judge was later transferred and Justice Oshodi took over the case. When my lawyers applied for bail, the judge threw away the application. It was later when the judge discovered that I studied Criminology and Security Studies under the Federal Government scholarship while in custody that he picked interest in my case.

The matter suffered several adjournments until 2021 when my friends engaged other lawyers to assist my lawyer. When the trial eventually began, the prosecutor told the court that the IPO in charge of my case had died since 2014.  The prosecutor also said another inspector in charge of my case died in 2016 in Maiduguri.  He was forced to go and find members of the team. When one of them eventually came, he claimed that I was among those that robbed him of Toyota Corolla whereas we were accused of stealing a Toyota Hiace Bus.

The prosecutor later brought one man, who was among those who took us from Shagamu Road Police Station to Lagos, who said I had already made a confessional statement at Shagamu Road Police Station. After his first appearance, he did not come back to the court again and the prosecutor kept giving excuses for him. At the last sitting, he said all efforts to produce the said police officer proved abortive.

The judge then expunged the evidence he had given and closed the prosecution for me to open my defence. The Police brought another statement purportedly made by me at the Shagamu Road Police Station, whereas we never made any statement in that station.

Trial-within-trial

There was trial within trial where I narrated everything that happened to the judge. When it was time for written addresses, the prosecutor said he had no written address since the Police did not come to give evidence and urged the court to use its discretion in deciding the case. That was how the judge discharged and acquitted me on December 6, 2022. I spent nine years and six months there.

Prison ordeal

My experience in prison was terrible. We were mixed with high-profile criminals, from Boko Haram suspects, to kidnappers and others. I love reading so when I realised that there was a school in that vicinity, I enrolled, went for computer training and then wrote GCE again because I could not go back for my documents. I wrote GCE twice and once I got my papers, the Federal Government gave me a scholarship.

NGOs were also regularly coming to visit, train, and encourage us and I learnt a lot from them. I also learnt shoe-making, soap-making and painting but I still went back to school to get my degree.

Bullying and intimidation are normal in prison but I refused to be bullied or intimidated. Sometimes, the staff will frustrate you just to extort you because they know you cannot get to their bosses to report. Sometimes, they will lock you up in isolation so that you won’t be able to call your people to bring money for you. The feeding was very poor; you can’t even give the kind of food they give to prisoners to your dogs.

Hope, dreams

I am starting a new life now and I want to change location and friends because I realized that some of them derive pleasure in what happened to me.

I  still don’t think my late friends’ families are aware of what happened to them. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to reach them. I strongly advise that government should reform the police; even after #EndSARS protest, the police are still killing people.

They need to be reformed, trained and well-equipped. The judiciary should also be reformed to reduce the issues of awaiting trials.

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