“Is that our visitor?”
The woman asked the young lady who brought the reporter to her as she sat calmly at the entrance of her house at No. 14 Sabongari, Idah, Kogi State. Her eyes were wide open. But she scrambled on her seat, flailing her hand here and there, in a futile search for the stainless cup filled with green tea by her side. It was evident that she was blind.
The introduction was brief. She was Elizabeth Ocheja, a widow. Her husband, Sgt Ocheja Amanabo of the Nigerian Army with identification number 63NA/274143, died in 2018, aged 66. He was a veteran of the Nigerian civil war. But his military career was blighted by an inexplicable tribulation of double jeopardy arising from his being wrongly tried twice for a coup plot. The unfortunate episode brought to an inglorious end his career and also his life, plunging his family into a life of untold hardship that left his wife prematurely blind and the children pauperized.
So meeting the 63-year-old widow was a heart-breaking session even for the reporter who travelled from Lagos to Kogi State to hear her story.
The story, dismal and bitter, is bad as one can imagine. But wait until you hear an earful of the calamity that befell the family and you begin to get a grasp of the magnitude of the injustice that broke the soldier’s spirit and sent him to an early grave, leaving his family wallowing in despondency.
Really sad story
It took the woman a while to muster the courage to narrate her story. Understandably, it is not the kind of story anyone would like to remember, let alone recount. She managed to do so, after a brief spell of crying, as she was momentarily overwhelmed by her emotion. Aside from losing her sight to glaucoma, the widow was a woman whose heart was heavy with grief, her psyche not yet healed of the pain of losing her husband under a heartbreaking circumstance.
Eventually, she was ready. And the story unfurled as a chronicle of suffering that started in 1990 after the aborted Gideon Orkar coup d’état.
Her narration: “It started on April 22, 1990. My husband was at home with us. At 4 am, he woke to do is normal morning exercise, which included washing his clothes. The next thing, we heard gunshots from outside, within the barracks. When the day broke, we heard that there was a coup that tried to topple the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the then Head of State. Around 7 am, the barrack bugle sounded. My husband and his colleagues went out to the parade ground at 149 Battalion, Ojo Military Cantonment. It was there they were officially told that there was an attempted coup.
“At the parade ground, others were designated assignments. He was not sent on any; rather, he was sent home. He got back home at around 4 pm. On that same day, they came back and arrested him and a few others.”
According to Elizabeth, Military Police searched the barrack while the men were on the parade ground. The Ochejas lived in Apartment 5 of Block 56, but their neighbour in Apartment 6 didn’t go to the parade ground. His absence raised suspicion. He was subsequently found hiding inside the fridge in his room. According to Elizabeth Ocheja, the soldier was summarily executed. But his discovery created suspicion for Ocheja who lived next door.
She continued: “My late husband was framed and was arraigned before two separate military tribunals, headed by Major General Y.Y. Kure and Major General Ike Nwachukwu respectively. At the first tribunal, where he was charged for treason, he was discharged and acquitted after a long investigation. A letter of release was issued to him. We saw the trial on television. We rejoiced that he was released because only very few people survived a treason trial by the military.”
As they awaited his arrival from detention, his life took a sudden twist with the announcement that Ocheja and 31 others would be re-arraigned for the same offence they had just been discharged and acquitted of.
“They came back the next day and retrieved the release letter and gave him a retrial letter which was not lawful but he complied. It was wrong to try a person twice for one offence. My husband was tried the second time.”
The second tribunal, headed by Major General Ike Nwachukwu, was a special court-martial conducted behind closed doors.
“It was there they handed him a two-year jail term stating that he committed prejudice to service discipline. They said he was not guilty of the charged offence as those who were found guilty were sentenced to death by firing squad. Yet, my husband was handed a two-year sentence unjustly.”
Ocheja subsequently spent three years in Gumel Prison, Kano State. Curiously, he was never dismissed from the Army.
“All his military kits and military identification card were never taken away from him. He was never thrown out of the barracks as it was traditionally done to those who were dismissed, killed or jailed,” the widow stated.
Incarceration was one of the many punishments meted out to Ocheja, his blind widow avowed, noting that her husband also suffered negligence, betrayal, isolation, and poverty after his return from prison.
“After serving his term of unlawful incarceration, he went to resume duty at his former office at the Ministry of Defence, Moloney, Lagos Island but was told to get a letter of pardon from the president. Our effort to get the letter during the military era was abortive. Even President Obasanjo didn’t grant him a pardon. Every effort to secure the said letter was futile until former President Goodluck Jonathan heard of his case through a Good Samaritan who was touched by his story. Eventually, he was granted a presidential pardon and that paved way for all his entitlements to be paid as captured in his documents to the president. The letter was to enable him to pick up the pieces and start a new life again and also pay the medical bills for my eye surgery abroad.”
For the Ocheja family, their trial was far from over.
Sadly, his files got missing at the Ministry of Justice and for the next few years, the family was trapped in the complex labyrinth of bureaucracy that characterised government places.
“Some persons saddled with the responsibility of making sure his files go through the process of actualizing his entitlements kept demanding money from him,” she stated.
Cost of survival
How the family survived the trying period when Ocheja’s life was in limbo––either imprisoned or travelling to make sure he was reinstated––was a harrowing tale of misery.
Ocheja could not work as a civilian because he still was technically an employee of the Nigeria Army. On the other hand, he was not recognised as a soldier in the employment of the Army because he needed to be cleared and be given a clearance letter. Given the circumstances, the onus of survival fell on his wife.
“I had to go to Badagary to buy groundnuts which my children and I hawked around Ojo Local Government,” she recalled.
They also tried to make ends meet by becoming hewers of wood.
“My children would go into the bush and fetch firewood. I would sell for them while they hawked groundnuts,” she stated.
Death of the soldier
Eventually, a combination of physical stress and trauma took a toll on his health and in 2018, Ocheja was overwhelmed by his travails.
“On January 9, 2018, my husband was in the bathroom preparing for his journey to Abuja to meet one man, Akin Kilo Akintewe who claimed to be working with the Federal Ministry of Justice when he fell. After three days, he died, with tears in his eyes. Even at the point of death, he was telling me “sorry for not fulfilling my promise of taking you to the United States for an eye operation.” He died of hypertension and strokes as confirmed by the doctor.
After his death, his family had written series of letters, attached with copies of all his documents, to the authorities concerned but to no avail.
The widow had nothing but lamentations: “My husband fought in the civil war and sustained bullets injuries on his back. He was once proud of the patches on his back, but in the end, those patches became a reminder of the cruelty of this country.”
Twenty-one months after his demise, Ocheja’s entitlement is yet to be paid to the family he left behind.
His widow believed the injustice meted out to Ocheja is part of the big problem of Nigeria of today. “And until such matters are settled, public workers would never have faith in the system,” she said.
She concluded her story praying for the intervention of the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Tukur Buratai and President Muhammadu Buhari, to expedite payment of her husband’s entitlement to his family.