PUNCH Investigations on July 29, 2021, published a three-part undercover story on the mindless killings by soldiers in Imo State. Succour has come the way of the family of a businessman, Noel Chigbu, who was killed by soldiers on July 30, 2021. The Federal High Court in Owerri on May 12, 2022, awarded a N200m judgement against the Nigerian Army, writes TESSY IGOMU
The heightened excitement in the tone of Tobechi Chigbu’s voice that blazing afternoon was unmistaken. As he gleefully announced what prompted his call to our correspondent, it was with huge relief and a sense of fulfilment.
“I can’t thank PUNCH Newspaper enough and I am grateful for the selfless effort put into that report. The report that detailed my brother’s death was one of the pieces of evidence tendered during the court proceedings.
“The Federal High Court in Owerri found the Nigerian Army complicit in the death of my younger brother and a N200m judgement was awarded against it for Noel’s death.
“This is great justice for the family and a sort of closure. I will send you the certified true copy of the judgement as soon as I get it,” an elated Tobechi said before ending the call.
The publication, which exposed police and military brutalities that led to alleged extrajudicial killings of unarmed citizens in Imo State, made use of documents, on-the-ground reporting, interviews with scared families of victims, eyewitnesses, videos and pictures, evidence of tales of anguish, trauma and despondency to recount the plight of grieving families.
PUNCH Investigations had reported that the father of two was on his way home on Friday, April 30, 2021, after dropping off a friend, when he was allegedly shot by soldiers for violating a checkpoint rule at the Amakohia flyover area in Owerri.
The soldiers, it was learnt, were deployed in the area from the 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze in Owerri.
Noel was days away from celebrating his 39 birthday and died the same day he took delivery of his new white Toyota Camry.
After a gruelling search for Noel’s family members, our correspondent met with bespectacled Tobechi, his elder brother. The heaviness in his heart was palpable as he narrated how he found out about Noel’s demise, and how hard he tried to get justice for him.
One striking persona about Tobechi was his unshaken resolve to get justice, against all odds, even at the detriment of his life.
He was resilient in the face of what he saw to be obvious dangers.
While recounting the incident, Tobechi revealed that Noel’s bloodied, bullet-riddled body was found in the morgue, at the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri, after a police officer working in the control room of the Imo State Police Command headquarters, picked up the call put across to his mobile phone and told him to come over.
Before then, Noel’s wife had called Tobechi around 10 pm on the day of the incident to inform him that he had yet to come back home.
At the Police Command, Tobechi learnt that his brother was allegedly killed by soldiers and his corpse was dumped at the FMC mortuary.
“The police officer said the soldiers initially refused to write a statement regarding the incident, but later scribbled down his purported crime and directed that his relatives should look for him at the FMC.”
According to Tobechi, “He had been embalmed and there were two bullet wounds on his head. The soldiers registered my brother as an unknown corpse with the N5,000 they found in his pocket. One of them wrote down his mobile phone number.
PUNCH Investigations learnt that when the soldiers took Noel’s body to the morgue, they were agitated and allegedly threatened to shoot the attendants for insisting on knowing what happened to the corpse.
A shattered Tobechi was able to uncover the identity of the soldier that left his phone number.
He told PUNCH Investigations that he was Staff Sergeant Kennedy Buwa, attached to the 34 Artillery Brigade in Obinze, Owerri.
That vital piece of information narrowed his search for the alleged killers.
Armed with the information and details of findings made by two military police (warrant officers) sent by the military to conduct a physical examination of Noel’s vehicle, Tobechi’s quest for justice began.
Based on PUNCH Investigations’ earlier report, Tobechi said, “The soldiers revealed that it was the same bullet that shattered the back windscreen and that it was embedded. They concluded that it was fired from the back if Noel actually violated the checkpoint rule.
“The warrant officers explained that the other two bullet holes found indicated that the soldiers must have opened the door to shoot at him.”
In a petition dated May 4, 2021, Tobechi petitioned the Brigade Commander, 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze, Brigadier General Raymond Utsala, and called on the military authority to identify and prosecute the soldiers that allegedly murdered his brother.
The petition was copied to the Imo State Governor, Commissioner of Police; Director, Imo State Department of State Security; Chief of Army Staff; Senate Committee Chairman on Army; National Assembly and Senate members representing Ngor Okpala Constituency; National Human Rights Commission, the media and civil society organisations.
With the military denying complicity in the death of Noel and also refusing to grant him official permission to bury the deceased, Tobechi headed for the court.
On September 17, 2021, he filed a suit against the Chief of Defence Staff, Chief of Army Staff, Imo State Governor, and Commander, 34 Artillery Brigade Owerri.
In the motion of notice filed, he sought to enforce his fundamental rights as guaranteed under Sections, 33, 34 (1) (a) 35 and 46 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and as enshrined in Article 1-12 of African Charter of Human and People’s Rights (Enforcement of Ratification) Act.
Other reliefs sought by him are, “An Order of the Honourable Court for redress for the infringement of the Fundamental Rights of the Applicant in terms of the relief set out in Paragraph 2 of the statement pursuant to order 2 Rules 3 of the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rule 2009 accompanying the Application, served along with same.
“N1bn only as general damages against the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th respondents respectively, for a redress of the infringement of the Fundamental Rights of the Applicant.”
Punch Newspaper’s publication on the death of Noel was among the 11 exhibits tendered by Tobechi’s counsel, Brigadier Gen. G.O. Anyalebechi (retd.). It was number 10 on the exhibit list.
While delivering her judgment, Justice Maureen Onyetenu of the Federal High Court in Owerri, Imo State, awarded a N200m court judgement against the Nigerian Army for killing Noel.
Based on the certified true copy of the judgement made available to PUNCH Investigation, before passing the judgement, the presiding judge said two issues that called for determination in the case were: whether the respondents breached the fundamental right of the applicant and if the answer is in the positive, whether the applicant is entitled to damages for any such breach.”
During the argument in court, the 1st, 2nd and 4th respondents denied killing Noel and claimed that they met him dead and merely took his body to the police headquarters.
However in paragraphs 42, 43, 44 to 50 paragraph affidavit, which the applicant (Tobechi) relied on deposed that the officers of the 34 Artillery brigade investigated the matter and actually found that it was their officers that killed Noel because he refused to stop his car after being flagged down by the said soldiers at a checkpoint.
However, counsel to the 1st, 2nd and 4th respondents submitted that even if it was true that the soldiers killed Noel, they could not be prosecuted or proceeded against based on Section 239 of The Army Act 2004.
The judge, before passing her verdict on the case, noted. “The defence of the 1st, 2nd and 4th respondents is a mere denial. I have gone through the length and breadth of their counter affidavit and nowhere did they depose that the soldiers under the command of the 4th defendant were acting in aid of civil authority or with regards to military rules when they killed the deceased. It is counsel raising this issue for test time.
“This is an attempt at giving evidence in the address of counsel to the 1 and 2 and 4” respondents and it is trite law that addresses of counsel no matter how brilliant cannot take the place of evidence.
“The constitution makes it clear that where there has been an infringement of the fundamental rights of a person, he is entitled to damages.
“In this case, it is clear to me that there has been such breach in the unlawful killing of the deceased, Noel Ezeribe Chigbu, on Friday, 30th April 2021 by the 3rd and 4th respondents and the applicant is entitled to damages.
“In considering the issue of damages, I take into consideration that Noel Ezeribe Chigbu, the deceased, was a young man whose life was cut short in his prime, that he left behind a pregnant wife and young children which the 2nd and 4th respondents did not dispute and a brother who must have experienced anguish at his death. The children have lost their provider and protector.
“More so, I take judicial notice of the frequent incidents of the Nigeria Army turning their guns against innocent citizens at every slight provocation at their checkpoints.
Continuing, she stated, “Is the fact of failing to stop at an army checkpoint enough provocation to kill a person? If indeed the story of the men of the 2nd and 4th respondents is true.
“Human life is sacred. The action of men of the 2nd and 4th respondents is wanton, cruel, reckless and indeed showed they have no regard for human life.
“For the above reasons, then I will award severe damages against the 2nd and 4th respondents.
“In conclusion, therefore, this application succeeds and I make an order declaring that the applicant right as granted under Section 33 of the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) has been breached by men and officers of the 2nd and 4th respondents.
“I, therefore, award the sum of 200 Million Naira as general damages against the 2nd and 4th respondents.”
Speaking later with PUNCHInvestigations, Tobechi said though no amount of money could equate to the life of Noel, the judgement was a relief to his family and would serve as a form of closure.
He said one of his regrets was that his younger brother did not live to see his new baby.
“She was two months pregnant at the time of her husband’s death and was delivered of a baby girl on November 8. It’s been a long road for his wife,” he added.
Counsel to Tobechi, Brigadier Gen. Anyalebechi (retd.), said the judgement revived people’s belief in Nigeria’s judicial system and removed fears about intervention in judicial activism.
“This is because the judge was free and unhindered in delivering what she felt was the position of the law. It revived our hope,” he added.
The lawyer, however, said he was not satisfied with the amount awarded for cost and damages.