Free at last
For 15 years, two Nigerians were clamped into jail for the murder of the chieftain of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), Pa Alfred Rewane. They were lucky, indeed. Four others, who were similarly accused of the murder, died in custody.
When the case started 15 years ago, Lucky Igbinovia (25), Pa Rewane's security detail; Elvis Iremuna (27), his former driver; Sylvester Iyalese (27), Saturday Ogbeide (25), Ola Obanubo (32), Sunday Obanubo (22) and Effiong Elemi (29) were docked. Four of them (Ola Obanuso, Sylvester Iyabele, Sunday Ogbeide, and Sunday Obanobi) died in prison, while Elvis Irenuna was discharged and acquitted last year.
Within the week, fortune smiled on Lucky Igbinovia and Effong Elemi Edu, just as it did Evis. They were acquitted and discharged by a Lagos High Court. The freedom came when the matter, which had been handled by many judges, was finally decided by Justice Olusola Williams. The judge said the suspect had no case to answer.
'It appears to me that all the police did was to visit the venue of the incident and arrest the workers. There was no evidence to support the conventional statement of the accused. The prosecution failed to prove the two counts charge,' Justice Williams said. He consequently acquitted and discharged the accused persons.
Free at last, the three survivors gave details of how they were roped into the murder of Pa Rewane and incarcerated for 15 years. Recounting his ordeal, one of the suspects, Elvis Irenuma, who was barely 27 years old when he was arrested, said his journey to the prison began on the morning of October 6, 1995.
Iremuma, who was addressed as a pastor, told Saturday Sun that Rewane employed him as an 'office boy,' but later turned him to a driver. He revealed that in October 1995, the deceased sent a message to him that he would be having an important meeting and directed him to report at his house.
According to him, he reported at the house, located at number 100, Oduduwa Crescent, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos, about 7.30am, to perform his duties, when he heard a serious argument from the next room.
'When I got there I discovered that the intruders, who were asking how to see my boss, were armed. They pointed a gun at my head, raided the whole house and locked us up, including the late Rewane's wife, in a room.'
Iremuna said that after a while they heard gunshots, like the popping of champagne and the men left. When they got to Pa Rewane's room, he was on the ground soaked with blood. By the time they rushed him to the hospital, Iremuna said, the doctor informed them that whoever shot the late politician never gave him any chance of survival.
However, the story took another turn when an autopsy was done on the body and it was found that the pellets had dissolved. After the examination, they were told that a poisonous dissolvent bullet was used to kill Pa Rewane.
On the confessional statements allegedly made by them, Iremuma stated that he was beaten up and forced to sign a statement written by the police.
His words: 'I did not make any confessional statement to the police. When we were taken to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), one Simeon Igbinogbere, a Superintendent of Police, Inspector Oloye and ACP Zakare Biu, said I should cooperate with them that other suspects have confessed already.
'When I refused, I was asked to be taken to the 'theatre,' where they stripped me off my shoes and shirt and tied my legs and hands backwards, suspended me on a Peugeot 504 propeller and began to hit me severally. Yet, I refused to sign the prepared confessional statement, but when they threatened to shoot me, I was scared and signed.
'We where all tortured beyond human imagination. It was terrible. I still wonder how Igbinovia managed because he was totally battered. It was hell, but we thank God that at least three of us made it.'
Collaborating the testimony of the Iremuna, Igbinovia, who appeared bitter, lashed out at human rights lawyers who took advantage of their predicament to defraud them of the little savings they had.
According to him, 'several lawyers visited us at the prison with the promise to help get justice, but at the end of the day, they disappeared. It was God that sent Barrister Moses Odiri, who took it upon himself, to stand for 10 years without collecting a kobo form us. Several judges have handled our case till Justice Olusola Williams took over. He promised an accelerated hearing and true to his words, it happened. It was proved that we had no hand in the death of our dear master, the late Alfred Rewane.'
Igbinovia recalled that he was arrested because he opened the gate for the assassins. According to him, when the gunmen drove to the gate of the compound that fateful day he thought they were from his company because the car carried the sticker of Life Flour Mill, which is one of Pa Rewane's company. Just like every other person in the house that day, he rushed in when he heard shouts. It was then he discovered that Pa Rewane had been shot. The police came in, questioned him and then arrested him. He was blamed for opening the gate for the gunmen and was tortured, like the others.
Looking well fed and healthy, Igbinovia praised the prison warders, who took care of them. 'They supported us spiritually and otherwise. They only take us to court when the judge demanded for us. We were even lucky to be taken to court, a lot of inmates have spent 10 years in the prison without being taken to court for day. People are languishing in the prison; some are mad because they have lost hope. Some have spent 30 years without any conviction. It is terrible in there. The government should come to our rescue and help us to settle down. We have decided to let the past be, but others who are still in the prison languishing should be helped,' he said.
On his plans for the future, Igbinova lamented that he has lost a lot to the years of incarceration and thanked his family for standing by his side all those years.
'My dad died in the process, but I thank God that my family stood by me. At a point I had to release my fiancÃ©e to remarry when it was obvious that our fate was hanging in the balance. I believe that God will give me a replacement,' he said.
Unlike the other two, Effiong Elemi-Edu was unlucky to have visited the area on that the day Rewane was killed. He was picked up by the police, who raided the area. He had only gone out that night to buy suya (roasted meat) for his new wife when he met his waterloo. He revealed that he was approaching Oja bus-stop, trying to reach Mallam Sweet Suya Spot, when he heard gunshots and therefore, took cover. After the gunshots stopped, he decided to go back home, but suddenly, from the dark the police pounced on him.
He said: 'At SARS, I met six other persons whom they had also accused of murdering Pa Rewane. The others include Elvis Irenuma, Lucky Igbinova, Sylvester Iyasele, Saturday Ogbeide, Sunday Obanobi and Ola Obanosun. We all suffered torture. In fact, out of the seven of us, only the three of us survived the ordeal in police custody. I later learnt he was one of the pro-democracy activists under the NADECO umbrella, a group opposed to the dictatorial and killer regime of Sani Abacha.
'In the name of the God of Justice, please believe me; I never met him. How could I have killed a man I had never met? I have never stolen nor contemplated murder. All I had in mind while coming to Lagos in 1985, a year after my secondary school, was to work, save some money, study Business Administration in the university, and see how I could actualise my dream of becoming a basketball star.'
?Efiiong said when he was arrested he worked at a plastic manufacturing company at Ajao Estate, Lagos. His dream of ever becoming a basketball star has been killed, just as his honeymoon was cut short. During this ordeal, his wife remarried, four years after she lost hope of his coming back to fulfill his marital vows to her. His mother also died of heartbreak, a month after his arrest.
On alleged mystery surrounding the death of the other four suspects, Iremuna alleged that they died in police custody as result of the inhuman treatment in the torture room. He insists that the only person he could identify was Igbinovia, who was a staff of the slain politician; the others where picked in the streets and forced to admit to a crime they never committed.
'The torture was to much that four of us could not withstand it. When were finally taken to court, the magistrate requested that we be remanded in the prison pending when the case would be transferred to the appropriate court. Instead of taking us to prison, we were taken to police custody, where we were chained without medical treatment or food. Ola Obanuso was the first to die in April 1996, followed by Sunday Obanobi, who died June 6, 1996. Saturday Egbeide was the next in July 1996 and the next month, being August, Sylvester Iyasele gave up the ghost. We all waited for our turn till God decided to intervene and we where brought to court,' he stated.
Relief came for the three
Immediately after this incident, the then Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Ibrahim Coomassie, directed the federal anti-robbery section of the Force Criminal Investigations Department, Adeniji-Adele to liaise with the Lagos State Police Command to hunt down Pa Rewane's killers. Having tortured and tamed them, the police were alleged to have played a fast one by abandoning them to die in their cell.
At a stage, it was also reported that the police went to the tribunal to say that all the suspects had died. Fortunately for the suspects, the lawyer engaged by one of the surviving suspects, Effiong Elemi Edu, was in court that day to move a motion for bail. He quickly informed the court that the surviving suspects were alive, adding also that four of the suspects had died under questionable circumstance while in police custody. The court then ordered the police to produce the three in court in 1998.
Series of adjournment
The tribunal could not, however, conclude the case before General Abdulsalami Abubakar handed over government to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. The case then started afresh (de novo) before Justice Adesanya. In fact, close relations to the late statesman had cause to publicly disown the police robbery theory because the suspects were charged for conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
Initially, the police added a murder charge but for reasons best known to them, they dropped the charge as the case progressed. Earlier in the year 2000, the state counsel brought a letter to the trial judge purportedly written by the attorney general of the federation ordering the court to halt trial, with the excuse that new facts had emerged. The letter had said that the case was not robbery, as being claimed by the police.
Consequently, the trial was discontinued, as Justice Adesanya proceeded on retirement in June 8. 2001. Due to pressure from lawyers to the suspects, the case was reassigned to Justice Oyebanji but at that time, she had not been allocated to a court. The then chief judge was duly informed and he ordered that the case be re-assigned to another Judge. This time, it was assigned to Justice A.O. Ogunmenkan, who, for over four years, was hearing only trial-within-trial of alleged confessional statements. Lawyers to the suspects alleged that Justice Ogunmenkan refused to hear arguments from the suspects on the statements that they copied, even when the suspects produced the copy of the original statement written by the police and copied by the suspects.
By December 18 of that year, when the suspects first appeared before Justice Ogunmenkan, the state made an oral application withdrawing the charge against the suspects, citing lack of evidence to prosecute the matter. The judge then requested a letter to that effect and subsequently adjoined for three weeks.
The state came back at the end of the expiration of the adjournment and told the court they intend to continue the trial. It was rumored that some faceless individuals went to tell the state that the suspects would sue them if they eventually withdraw the charge due to the number of years they spent, awaiting trial.
When the case was finally opened, the state could not call eyewitness but relied solely on police witness who were not there when the incident occurred. When the state sought to tender the confessional statements in evidence, as exhibits, lawyer to the suspects objected to it. This led to some legal gymnastics known as trial-within-trial. The suspects were subsequently tried and the court ruled against them. Based on some inconsistencies noticed by their lawyers, they called for adjournment to enable them call a handwriting expert, a request, which was turned down. Other legal issues that arose made the judge angry and she voluntarily withdrew from the case after four years.
By next adjournment in 2006, after the case was transferred to Justice Nwaka, the state had called only one witness, who told the court that he did not obtain the alleged confessional statement, but merely, as a senior police officer, endorsed it. From tha