In November 2018, on one of the last few occasions Chile K.M.I Chile saw Onyekachi Ugwuiro, he was packing scrap metals from the railway with some other young men. Upon asking why he was doing that, Onyekachi told Chile, one of the community leaders in Uzuakoli town, that the Nigerian Railway Corporation had given his master the job, and his master had passed it on to him.
Apparently, Onyekachi’s master, a man whose name Chile cannot recall, would always hire Onyekachi and some other young men in the community in Uzuakoli town (Abia State) to gather railway scrap metals, which would then be taken away by a truck.
Indeed, later that night in November, Chile saw a truck coming to pick up the scrap metals Onyekachi and the other men had gathered during the day. The truck had ‘Railway Task Force’ written on it.
On December 6, 2018, some police officers from the Uzuakoli police station in the Bende Local Government Council arrested Onyekachi while he was gathering scraps from the railway. The police alleged that he was stealing the scraps.
It was a false allegation, Chile opines, because Onyekachi had been legitimately tasked to gather the scraps in exchange for payment. “I had to even call the man in charge of the railway, who confirmed that it was he who had assigned Onyekachi to do the job,” Chile says.
A few days later, Chile learnt that Onyekachi, with whom he shared extended family ties, had died in police custody.
After Onyekachi’s arrest, Chile asked his mother, Madam Charity, what had happened.
“Madam Charity told me she took food to Onyekachi at the police station on December 7, 2018, a day after his arrest. Onyekachi wasn’t released that day,” Chile says.
“The next day (Dec. 8, 2018), Madam Charity prepared food again and took it to Onyekachi. When she got there, the police officers weren't straightforward about information concerning Onyekachi. She says the officers just told her stories. She became confused and insisted on seeing her son.”
Sadly, when the police opened the cell, Madam Charity was met with the sight of the lifeless body of her dear son. She says she could hardly believe her eyes. The police forcefully took Madam Charity out of the cell and told her they would take her son’s corpse to a morgue at the Royal Cross Hospital at Ugwueke in Bende town.
Onyekachi’s body is still there till date - over two years on.
Madam Charity returned to the community in tears, telling her family what had happened. She said the police had told her that Onyekachi hanged himself inside the cell.
“Everyone in our community became enraged, because we knew the police were trying to pull a fast one on us,” Chile says.
“Angry young people in the community prepared to storm the police station and burn it to the ground, but our elders asked them not to take laws into their own hands.”
Later, the police held a meeting with the community’s traditional ruler, Eze J.E. Okorie, pleading with him to restrain the youth while they tried to find ways to settle the case. The chief did plead with the youth, calming them down.
“But, up till now, the police are yet to hold up their end of the deal,” says Chile. “They have done virtually nothing about the case.”
Chile has known Onyekachi since he was born. “His family is highly respected in our community because they are honest people. I can vouch for his mother, Madam Charity, because of her credibility and honesty,” he says.
Onyekachi was an electrician. He fixed faulty electric connections in Port Harcourt and in his village, whenever he travelled there. To make some extra money, he occasionally hired buses from people to carry passengers.
He was 30, and had three children with his wife, who died in 2017. Despite being a widower, Onyekachi was a vibrant young man, full of energy and new ideas.
“He was one of the many sons of the Uzuakoli community who gave us hope about the community’s future,” Chile says.
“When the allegations against Onyekachi were made, we were all surprised, because we’ve never known him to be a thief. Anyone you ask would tell you that he was innocent. The police have not done anything to prove their allegations either.”
When the government set up the judicial panel in October 2020, the community presented Onyekachi’s case. They wanted justice for his three children, who are all under ten years old, in need of education and parental care. The panel decided and made recommendations for compensation, but the community is yet to hear from the state government.
“It is really difficult surviving under the present economic conditions in Nigeria, yet Onyekachi’s children now find themselves being orphans in such a cruel system,” Chile says. “We are appealing to the government, the police and other Nigerians to assist his family. We want to make sure these innocent young ones don’t suffer.
“When the breadwinner of a family dies, the family starves. It’s been difficult for Onyekachi’s folks. Whenever Madam Charity visits me, she cries bitterly. Onyekachi was her third son out of six, but he was the one the family looked up to.”
Onyekachi was the only one amongst his siblings to be able to leave the village to learn a vocation. The family sent him to Port Harcourt to serve as an electrical apprentice because they had earmarked him to be the one to change their fortunes.
But all of these hopes have come crashing down. His other siblings are currently learning one trade or the other, but they are still struggling to find their feet. The first son is sick.
Madam Charity has now taken one of her three grandchildren to her younger sister in Port Harcourt. Now, even with the remaining two grandchildren to take care of, she struggles, because she is a widow who barely makes ends meet by farming in the village.
Onyekachi was skilled in electrical issues, using his knowledge to fix electrical faults in cars and power connections for families in the community.
“His death is such a huge loss for us,” says Chile.
“Today, his family is begging everybody to come and support them, especially because of the children he left behind. I have tried to support his mother, but I do not have enough money to sustain it.
“We are crying and praying to God to use other members of the public to put smiles on the faces of his family members, because, honestly, it has not been easy for them at all.”