Emmanuel Egbo was thirteen years old when a police officer killed him.
Think about the thirteen-year-olds in your life. They laugh a lot. Play a lot. Emmanuel was just like that. He loved to play football. Whenever he returned from school, he would finish his homework - if there was any - run errands like fetching firewood and planting cassava for his mother, then run to the field to play football.
On the evening of May 26, 2008, in Attakwu, a town in Enugu State, Emmanuel was in front of his uncle’s house playing ball one evening when trouble came. What was the trouble? Nigerian police. The police officers walked up to Emmanuel and asked him what he was doing. He stated the obvious: He was playing football.
One of the police officers, out of nowhere, aimed his gun at Emmanuel and fired.
Emmanuel died on the spot. His ball was still rolling when his lifeless body hit the floor. He was 13 years old.
The police officers put Emmanuel’s corpse in their pickup van and drove to their station, the Divisional Police Station in Agbani.
His mother, Grace, had six children - two boys and four girls. His father, Joseph, was a railway worker who died in 1997. Emmanuel’s elder brother, Peter, died in 1998.
Emmanuel’s cousin, Gabriel Ugwu, describes him as an intelligent boy who always topped his class. His family had hoped that when he grew up he would become a star and transform their lives.
Gabriel was one of the family members who rushed to the police station on hearing about his death. Gabriel says Mr. Hussein, the Divisional Police Officer (DPO), confirmed that police officers had brought the corpse of a boy to the station and that one of the police officers had confessed to killing the boy because he was an armed robber.
How is a 13 year old boy playing ball outside of his uncle’s house a thief? Were any weapons found on him? Had he been seen robbing anybody? These were the questions Emmanulel’s family asked DPO Hussein. The DPO defended himself by saying he had merely believed the story he was told.
Later, the police officer who shot and killed Emmanuel was identified as Corporal Habila. According to the lawyer handling the case, Corporal Habila has since run away.
The police dropped Emmanuel’s body at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Ituku Ozalla. The hospital did not allow his family to see his corpse because the police had told the hospital that Emmanuel was an armed robber.
Grace says her son was a devout Catholic and an altar boy. And that he was helpful and strong for someone his age and size. Emmanuel always assisted on the farm. He went to the farm every Saturday to get firewood for her. He also dug a well in the family compound.
Emmanuel’s family wrote to Mohamed Zarewa, the Enugu State Commissioner of Police (CP), but there was no meaningful feedback. They got in touch with a lawyer, Olu Omotayo of Civil Rights Realization and Accountability Network (CRRAN), who took up the case and began writing petitions against the extrajudicial killing of Emmanuel. Mr. Omotayo wrote to Ogbonna Okechukwu Onovo, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Amnesty International, the Police Service Commission (PSC) and even the presidency.
Mr. Omotayo eventually got the IGP’s attention, who ordered the Assistant Inspector General of Police (AIG) of Zone 9 in Abia State to find Corporal Habila. Corporal Habila was found in Kafanchan, Kaduna State, and brought back to Enugu. He was charged with murder at the Enugu High Court.
Gabriel Ugwu says the case soon became warped in corruption, as the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), whose name Mr. Ugwu cannot remember, chose not to bring forth eyewitnesses from the side of the police to testify before the court. The DPP insisted that there was no need for eyewitnesses since Corporal Habila had admitted in his statement that he was guilty. The case kept on getting adjourned.
Soon, Gabriel Ugwu lost interest. Sometime in 2019, a number he did not know called him. He picked the call and, on the other end of the line, was Corporal Habila.
Corporal Habila, while laughing, told him that he was in Lagos as a free man. Gabriel Ugwu says he wept.
Thirteen years after, Emmanuel’s corpse is yet to be released to his family. His mother says she prays every day that her son’s remains are released so she can give him a befitting burial.
“If they [the police] had given me his corpse, I would have forgotten about it [Emmanuel’s death],” Grace says. “But since they have not given it to me, I remember him all the time.”
This story is part of a multimedia project by Tiger Eye Foundation and media partners across Nigeria, documenting police brutality in Nigeria, and advocating for police reform.