Attack, Detention of Journalists Persist in Ebonyi
By Victor Nwegede
The unlawful attacks and detentions of the practising journalists by the government functionaries and public officeholders have not stopped in Ebonyi State.
This is following the state Governor’s aide on petroleum, oil and gas production, Mr. Uzor Tochukwu Okorie, who mobilised thugs to attack journalists while carrying out their official duties in the state.
The Governor Umahi’s aide branded as the Special Technical Assistant on Petroleum, Oil and Gas was on 17th May, 2020 mobilised his gang-men to attack and beat up some journalists on official duties.
The four journalists were attacked alongside their driver during monitoring of the compilation names of the vulnerable persons for the Covid-19 pallatives as directed by the state government.
Daily Newstimes reporter, Victor Nwegede and four other journalists, Ikele Ejike of MCLTV, Prince Solomon Okorie of the Guidepost Newspapers and Polycarp Philemon of Leaders Prime Newspapers were the latest journalists brutally attacked alongside a commercial driver, Ewa Chukwu .
Breakdown reports of the incident by the victimized Daily Newstimes Correspondent reads:
On Sunday 17th May, 2020 was the day slated by Ebonyi State Government for the compilation of the vulnerable persons’ names at their respective polling units to be used while sharing the State and Federal governments’ Covid-19 pallatives to them.
The directive from the state government under the leadership of Governor David Nweze Umahi was followed by the State Covid-19 Fundraising Committee under the Chairmanship of Rt. Hon Francis Ogbonna Nwifuru, the Honourable Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly, stakeholders of every polling unit, Christians Association of Nigeria, groups and individuals connected with the fight against the global dreaded virus.
Strictly working towards the government directive, the committee on Sunday May 17, 2020 began the compilation of the names from 10am to 2pm, where each of all the 1,785 Polling Units in Ebonyi State, 200 names of the poorest of the poor were asked to be collected per polling unit.
The directive in essence demanded a collective responsibility by the well meaning citizens in the state to ensure transparency during the exercise. This has led to the public officeholders, members of Christians Association of Nigeria, journalists especially those from the government owned media outfits, stakeholders and devoted individuals to rise from places of their comfort to assist the state government in order to champion this course.
Daily Newstimes as a medium of mass communication alongside some other media establishments were not left out in keeping watch to the exercise and the people piloting it.
However, it is gathered that the government directive was kept ,but not virtually in all polling units in the state as foul plays were recorded during the exercise. Some stakeholders took the compilation of the names as their family affairs. This threw many stakeholders from different quarters into conflicts and up till now, the major target audience of the government for the palliatives were left without being captured.
An instance of Polling Unit 007, Onu Nwankwo Ugo in Isi Nkwo Ukawu Ward, Onicha Local Government Area of the State, where the CAN official, Pastor Ogbonna Jonathan with his colleagues arrived at the polling Unit by 10am and only met two persons following the allegation that the ward Councillor, Mr. Onwe Nweke Onwe hijacked the palliatives forms. The Technical Assistant on IGR, Eze James Agala also expressed sadness on how the compilation exercise in his polling unit was allegedly hijacked by the same ward Councillor, Hon. Onwe Nweke onwe, described the act as selfishness.
The same experience equally took place in every polling unit in Ukawu ward, where nothing virtually was done in the reflections of the government guidelines during the compilation of the names till CAN officials began to intervene.
Reacting, the Ward Councillor, Hon. Onwe Nweke Onwe, said, “on Friday, we were called to come to collect the forms for compilation of names for palliatives, and we were instructed that as we are going on that Friday, we should call meeting of the stakeholders from different Polling Units, which I called, and they all came. I now handed them over the forms. That we should bring the compiled lists to the government house today. And that’s the process we are.”.
He insisted that, his act was based on the instructions he received, adding that the instruction was given to him in the State Government House. He noted that before the compilation, all the stakeholders of different political parties were briefed, and awareness was created across his ward through the beating of gongs by the town criers. He equally condemned the allegation levelled against him that, he took other stakeholders of the polling units for granted.
However, the traditional ruler of Ukawu Autonomous community, HRH Eze James Elom, said, he did not see any form for the palliatives. “I didn’t see any form, I don’t hear from them. I think you hold the paper? Do you see where I stamp on it? He said they are coming to share it. See, I am still lying on the bed before I hear the sound of vehicles. It is good the ward Councillor is here”, the traditional ruler said.
Speaking on behalf of the CAN officials, Pastor Ogbonna Jonathan, blamed the Councillor for having started the compilation of the names on a day before the scheduled date and also added that, “my observation is that there’s no list made. As I am talking now, I was not there when they make the list. The Government asked us to make the list openly identified for the vulnerable persons that are ready for registration. And nobody should sign for them if they are not there. And they know I did not see the list”, stressing that the ward councillor has erred the Government directives on the exercise.
Interacting with the Vice Chairman of Onicha Local Government Area, Hon. Mrs. Rachel Nworie, said, the exercise recorded a good atmosphere in her polling unit, believing that the same thing would be the case of other units in the area. She expressed surprise on report that individuals hijacked palliative forms of some wards, and stressed that, it might not be true as she pledged to find out.
In his collaboration, Rev. Emmanuel Obasi, the CAN representive said that, he arrived on time, and no form was filled yet till he came with his colleagues, who also confirmed that the most vulnerable persons were captured, adding that most of them have no phone numbers to fill in the forms. He assured those captured would get their palliatives and noted all political parties were included in the compilation list. He however, condemned the way the stakeholders of Ukawu Ward polling units were compiled, insisted that, the CAN officials would not endorse the erred forms.
Notwithstanding, the group of the journalists drove to interview the Coordinator of Ohaozara West Development Centre who according to the Guidepost Publisher, Prince Solomon Okorie had earlier booked an interview appointment with him, unfortunately, he was not around when we reached his place.
The Guidepost Publisher, Solomon Okorie equally asked us to accompany him to his father’s compound in Okposi, Ohaozara Local Government Area to pick some items. While heading for his father’s compound, a young man in rough ride of motorcycle blocked us on the road, and an attempt made by the driver to drive defensively, the motorcyclist suspected to be either a robber or cultist persistently rode after us, and finally blocked the road and picked a heavy stone, insisted that a move by the driver would turn bloody.
We have to step out from the car, immediately, we tried to know what the problem was all about, but he maintained we should wait that unusual dangerous attacks were about to explode on us, saying, the whole of the town is blocked should any of us dare to make any movement out of the scene.
I had to shift to make call. I walked out, and hid myself in the bush where I called the Special Assistant to Ebonyi State Governor on Security, Ebonyi Central zone, asked him to help me by sending the phone number of the Special Assistant to the state Governor on Security in the South which he did give through calling me back. As I dailed the number, it was switched off, and by then, my airtime was not enough to convey a long call, I had to call my close relative to send me airtime, but the number was not reachable as well. I then, called my young brother whom I told on phone to send airtime to me, but to no avail even with three text messages sent to him at the exact time.
Not a quite long, the Leaders Prime reporter, Polycarp Philemon, called me back, and told me that he had reached a police station, and asked me to send the name where the incident took place. I had to come out by the road side, and immediately, I saw a boy walking across there, whom I asked, he said, the place is called ‘Onu Ogoni’. I waited a while for the airtime, but nothing was seen, I had to proceed for it, as time was almost running out. I saw another guy, plumpy and black in complexion, and I asked him if there is any place I could buy airtime there, but he said no. I equally asked him, if there is any nearby police station there, but, he told of calling one policeman living by that side.
He called the acclaimed police officer, who came and began asking me why I was looking for a nearby police station. As told him about the attack incident, he then, made a call that attracted a group of guys numbering over 7 persons that worsened the situation. The gang-men descended and beat up me till I was between life and death. At a point, they asked me to tell them where my ‘escaped colleague is now,’ but out of duress, and to know whether they could get me free from the heavy torture, I told them, he is already in the police station. They forced me to provide his number with them, which they tried to use my phone but they learnt my airtime has exhausted. These people asked me to borrow airtime from my line or buy airtime from my bank account, but, I told them, the line cannot facilitate the request because it is not the line I used to open my bank account. They have to flash Polycarp with the acclaimed police officer’s own line, and immediately, the boy called them back and they handed the phone over to me, asking me to use all means to persuade him to come back to the scene of the incident for settlement. I did as they forcefully ordered, but the boy did not come back the area till they asked two boys, their group members to take me to where they kept Ikele Ejike of MCL TV and Solomon Okorie of Guidepost Newspapers after a heavy torture and logs of firewoods they packed at my back while lying down with my face on the ground.
On the process, my phone (Infinix Hot8) was snatched by them, my #10,000, two ATM Cards (Access Bank and Access Diamond ATM cards) including my operative identity card as an information Officer and other valuables like my voter cards were left in their hostage. All attempt made for their release proved abortive as they continued threatening me, allegedly stated that we want to remove their boss from office.
They conveyed me on their bike till I reached, where I eventually met again, Solomon and Ejike sitting together with the STA and his groups, all of them were guys. I expressed wonders of what caused our attack, but one said, ‘i am not part of the matter in contention. I further told them that my valuables were still with his boys, but the STA were busy threatening us, insisted that, he has never seen me and he did not believe that, I am a journalist, adding that I should tell him who accredited me. I have to tell him that I am a journalist, being accredited by NUJ Chairman and in regards to the coverage and reports on Covid-19 pandemic situation, I have much to boast on keeping people abreast with the unfolding development about the deadly disease. By then, the information about one of us who went to report to the police about the incident had reached him through his gang-men. He immediately changed his an attempt to go into dialogue with his boys and the major party connected with his allegation on impersonation. All drinks ordered for, on his attempt to begin the dialogue were left on the table.
Since coincidentally, the Leaders Prime reporter, Polycarp Philemon had arrived the scene with Police and all of us were taken to the station, Police Divisional Headquarters, Obiozara in Ohaozara Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. There was no one in the scene exempted.
Reaching there, the STA with his influential ones among his gang-men cornered the police and the whole story was in the reverse, resulting into an allegation that all of us impersonated as taskforce team on petroleum, oil and gas and we were seen that day collecting money from filling stations while embarking on such illicit acts. When the IPO asked the STA, if he has anybody to come and testify his claims, he couldn’t provide any. An attempt to say a word, attracted more ordeals to the journalists in the police station, as some policemen who are in good terms with the gang-group exploded tears-gas on our faces, beating us and denied many of us an access to make call immediately to tell our individual parents and dear ones of the incident with our phones switched off.
It was with the intervention of God, one of us, Prince Solomon Okorie were allowed to contact the NUJ chairman, Comrade Tony Nwizi who later intervened alongside his Executives and other journalists in the state. The PPRO of the state, DSP Loveth Odah was later called by the same Solomon Okorie. Through the actions of NUJ leadership of Ebonyi State Council, and the PPRO, Mrs. Loveth Odah, our bail grants were facilitated and we were released out from the police station on Monday 18th May, 2020, but it was a full of mystery, because, cell congestion and total negligence to Federal government directives on social distancing and the use of facemasks among other health guidelines to curtail the spread of Covid-19 pandemic remained abused in the quarters.
This is because, in a cell of 8-by-8m is kept in 9 suspects by the Police with many accused persons facing delayed bails or even charges to court to seek justice.
On Wednesday 20th May, 2020, the Committee on Ethics, Screening and Disciplinary of Ebonyi State Council of Nigeria Union of Journalists under the Chairmanship of Sir Dom Isute summoned all the affected journalists and their presence, the major party in contention, confirmed that, I am (Victor Nwegede) not a party to the allegation coming from the STA, which led to our arrest and detention in the police station. And that, on the very day the STA and his men arrested and detained the four journalists with the commercial driver in the Police station, those Journalists including me were in a different assignment, saying that the STA has accused them without minding that one person, Victor Nwegede of Daily Newstimes who has no knowledge of the subject matter till the arrest and detention took place.
DSS has equally invited us for an interrogation, sped up investigations, believing that one on the right lane in delivering his or her duties should not be victimized because of a mere allegation.
Against the backdrops, I, Victor Nwegede of Daily Newstimes Nigeria have therefore, stated that, I am not a taskforce on petroleum, oil and gas production in any part of the world let alone Ebonyi State as alleged. I have never collected money from filling stations or dealers on petroleum, oil and gas in any part of the state. I have not even carried out any investigation as a journalist on oil prices of Ebonyi State and beyond especially in this administration. I hereby state categorically that I was only carrying out my official functions as an Information Officer and the watch dog of the society, which the compilation of the vulnerable persons’ names for Covid-19 palliatives is not in exemption as this report would give credit to our medium and benefit many people especially those embarking on research related to this programme.