Finding himself on the wrong side of a power struggle in his village, young Nnabuike Nnaji paid the ultimate price when he was brutally gunned down by SARS officials.
Nnabuike Nnaji, who died a day after Valentine's Day seven years ago, was a native of the Ibagwa in the southeastern town of Nike in Enugu State.
At 20, Nnabuike was living an eventful life. He had finished his National Diploma (ND) and Higher National Diploma (HND) courses at the Institute of Management Technology (IMT) in Enugu, where he studied business administration and was awaiting his call-up letter for the mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme.
He was both the secretary of his age grade and the secretary of the youth group in his church. He was also the Vice-Chairman of the youth of the Umuaneke Ode family, Ibagwa-Nike Autonomous Community.
Amid his many responsibilities, he managed to pursue a life of fitness. He was known to exercise every morning, and afterwards, would follow his father, 65-year-old Patrick Nnaji, to the farm, where together they would till the ground and sow seeds. All around the village, Nnabuike was known as an obedient and hardworking young man with great prospects.
However, Nnabuike’s village, Ibagwa, was and still is embroiled in a crisis. The village’s Igwe, Emmanuel Ugwu, had reportedly become a dictator, allegedly maltreating his people by seizing their lands and punishing anyone who refused.
The Igwe formed a local vigilante group called The Royal Youths Vanguard, whose job, many claim, was to go after families and individuals who did not relinquish their claim to their lands. He opened an office for officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) at the Ibagwa-Nike Town Hall, which he had built. The SARS officers, together with the Royal Youths Vanguard, allegedly served as the Igwe’s personal mob army. Reports say the officers would break into people’s houses, bring them out and beat them up, and then lock them at the SARS office until they decided to do the Igwe’s bidding.
Nnabuike and his family were known to be in opposition to the Igwe’s actions.
The crisis in Ibagwa at a point prompted Nigerian politician Prince Cornelius Nnaji, who represents Enugu East at the Federal House of Representatives, to invite the Nigerian army into the village to maintain peace and order.
On February 15, 2014, during the traditional marriage ceremony of the daughter of one of Nnabuike’s relatives at Onugwu in Nike, Ndubuisi Ugwu, one of the Igwe’s henchmen, came to the party with two SARS officers. Ugwu pointed at Nnabuike and, immediately, one of the SARS officers shot him. Nnabuike died on the spot.
Nnabuike’s father, Patrick Nnaji, had been at the party with his wife and other children but had left early, leaving Nnabuike to mingle with other youths. Patrick Nnaji says his son’s death affected his family’s mental and physical health.
After killing Nnabuike, Ndubuisi Ugwu and the SARS officers had tried to run away but were apprehended by the soldiers who had been on patrol and had heard the gunshot. They were taken to 82 Division of the Nigerian Army and, from there, to the State Criminal Investigation Department (Enugu State Police Command).
In 2015, the trio was charged to the Federal High Court, Enugu. Six years on, Patrick Nnaji says no justice has been attained for his son. The Igwe, Emmanuel Ugwu, Patrick Nnaji alleges, has been making sure the trio does not go to jail.
Alum Mbah, a cousin to the deceased as well as a former victim of the Igwe’s intimidation, was devastated by the killing.
“His death was really a huge shock to the entire family,” Mr Mbah says, “and others who feel that this kind of thing shouldn't be happening in a country like ours and in this 21st century.”
In response to the nationwide #ENDSARS protests in October 2020, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State inaugurated a panel that sought to look into cases of extrajudicial killings and police brutality. Nnabuike’s family submitted their case to the panel. And although they are yet to hear from the state government following the end of panel hearings, they are hopeful that the panel’s decision will help in their fight for justice.
“He [Nnabuike] was a peace-loving guy,” Mr Mbah says. “The only crime he committed was the fact that he was standing up for the truth and telling the Igwe [Emmanuel Ugwu] that he had no right to sell people’s lands without seeking their consent.”