By Chidi Nkwopara, OWERRI
This generation does not know Pontus Pilate and generations after it will keep hearing the name.
The biblical account, which all generations will ultimately believe, is that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontus Pilate! This repeated commentary, even in Christian prayers, is a sure proof that his soul has not known, and may never know peaceful rest.
As in the case of Pontus Pilate, there is no way the historical account of when, how or where 10-year old Somtochukwu Ibeanusi died without the mention of Ekeukwu Owerri and some names associated with the events that led to his death!
Time really flies. It is already one year since Somtochukwu, the martyr of Ekeukwu Owerri Market destruction, was summarily dispatched, August 26, 2017, from this world!
Truly, no member of the Ibeanusi family knew that danger was lurking on the fateful day. They had hardly finished their morning devotion when news filtered in that Imo State Government had commenced the planned demolition of the ancestral Ekeukwu Owerri Market.
Somtochukwu’s father owned a shop in the market and since the demolition had started, he had to mobilize members of his family to salvage whatever he could from his store. This explains how and why Somtochukwu became part of the family’s rescue team.
Before the eventual destruction of the market, and sadly, the boy’s unfortunate death, the threat issued by government was palpable. It trended for months!
Armed with this serious threat coming from the government of the day, some indigenes of Owerri Nchi Ise, including Chief Tos Oparaugo, Chief Paul Nnawuchi, Chief Cyril Ukaegbu, Mrs. Ifeoma Anokwu and others, approached Imo State High Court to contest the planned destruction or relocation of the market.
The plaintiffs lead counsel, Prince Ken C.O. Njemanze, SAN, pleaded their cause before a Vacation Judge in Owerri, vide suit HOW/380/2016, and because of the urgency and seriousness of the case, he slammed a restraining order on all the Respondents, Imo State Government and the Governor inclusive.
After the vacation, the matter was transferred to Justice K. A. Ojiako’s court, and after listening to the plaintiffs counsel, he reinforced the previous restraining order on the Governor, Imo State Government and the others. Sadly, this was later observed in the breach, when the former Commissioner of Police, CP, Mr. Taiwo Lakanu, was transferred.
Confirming service of the Order of Court, Lakanu told Saturday Vanguard at the time that: “The Command has been served the Court Order. We are a law enforcement agency and not a law breaking establishment. We are duty bound to respect the Order.”
The fine Police Officer kept his word and never did anything to disrespect the Order of Court until he was transferred and Mr. Chris Ezike stepped in.
News of the impending demolition of the market became louder from Monday, August 21, 2017. Owerri youths, women, their friends and traders started mobilizing to stoutly confront the state government over the planned forceful destruction and relocation of their ancestral market. They started keeping round the clock surveillance in the market.
Friday night turned out to be a different ball game. Heads of all the security agencies in the state, including the now transferred Imo police boss, Chris Ezike, were on hand to address leaders of Owerri youths.
The security heads were shown a certified true copy of the Court Order, but what happened thereafter was a sure proof that they were not in the mood to respect the rule of law!
The late night dialogue between the security heads and Owerri youth leaders lasted till about 3.10am. While Ezike assured that government was only interested in destroying the shanties, the youths, on the other hand, promised to take active part in the destruction of all unauthorized structures along the ever busy Douglas Road.
Before leaving the scene, the parties agreed to reconvene at 9am. This supposed agreement turned out to be an operational strategy that disorganized the angry youths, women and traders. The youths hardly reached their respective family homes when calls started reaching them that pay loaders and excavators engaged by the state government had descended on Ekeukwu Owerri and destroying everything within sight!
Before the youths could muster the required number of personnel to launch a counter attack, armoured vehicles and heavily armed security personnel had taken over all the vantage positions, while the excavators and pay loaders wreaked havoc on the market with ease!
The traders who banked on the assurances of the CP, relaxed and never removed their wares from their shops. They lost their goods when the excavators and pay loaders. A number of others also lost their wares to criminals. As they made frantic efforts to salvage whatever they could, the rampaging criminals also kept helping themselves with the salvaged goods.
Following this state of confusion, not even government functionaries and the armed security personnel could decipher who the true owners of the wares were.
Confusion reigned. In no time, gunshots rented the air. People started scampering into safety. Those who had guts watched the blood chilling drama from a distance.
Our reporter, Chinonso Alozie, who rushed to the scene to cover the story, was not spared as he received severe beating from the demolition team, when it was discovered that he was there for Vanguard Media Limited.
DEATH OF SOMTOCHUKWU
Stories started making the rounds that about three citizens had been killed and many wounded. Among those reportedly killed included 10-year old Somtochukwu Ibeanusi, the only son of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Isaiah Ibeanusi. He was hit by a bullet in the head!
Mr. Ibeanusi told Saturday Vanguard that he went in search of his children as soon as he learnt that someone had been shot along Mbaise Road, Owerri.
“I picked my son up and rushed my dying son to the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri, where a doctor on duty certified him dead on arrival”, Ibeanusi recounted with grief.
He also disclosed that soon after depositing the lifeless body of his son in the FMC morgue, he went to report his predicament to the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, His Grace, Dr. Anthony J. V. Obinna.
The Village Head of Amawom, Chief Dennis Dike, gave the names of indigenes of his village as Leonard Ebubeagu Osuji, Sebastian Oparaku and Iheanyi Osuji.
“Leonard was shot in his thigh while Sebastian and Iheanyi were shot in the head and groin respectively”, Dike told Saturday Vanguard.
NO CASUALTY STORY OOZED OUT
While Ibeanusi was grieving over his son’s death and other injured persons were struggling to save their lives, the CP and Imo State Government claimed that “no life was lost”.
One of Governor Rochas Okorocha’s media handlers made the matter worse, when he posted online that “the picture being circulated was a scene of an incident in Rivers State”!!
On his part, Mr. Ezike described the operation as “smooth, successful and devoid of any casualty”.
Although Ezike maintained that no life was lost in the incident, he however capitulated when Saturday Vanguard gave him the gory details of the incident.
He then advised the late boy’s family to report the incident to Owerri Urban Police Division and also promised to send intelligence officers to the family, especially as the matter was not reported anywhere, at the time of the interview.
GOVERNMENT CHANGES GEAR
When it became very glaring that Somtochukwu actually died in the incident, Okorocha said his administration would probe the incident.
A press statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, CPS, Mr. Samuel Onwuemeodo, explained that the investigation would ascertain whether the reported death, if true, could be linked to the movement of the market.
The CPS also noted that “the probe would help establish the families of the bereaved and morgues where bodies of people purportedly killed during the relocation were deposited.”
Onwuemeodo equally blamed politicians for being the brains behind the rumours of killings that trailed the demolition of Ekeukwu Owerri market.
Government is yet to publish the outcome of its investigation. What the citizenry can say with certainty, is that after it’s initial denial that no life was lost, government started building what it called a shopping complex, named after the slain boy!
As scathing condemnation continued trailing the gruesome murder of Somtochukwu, the 34 Artillery Brigade, at that time, claimed that it did not come into Ekeukwu Owerri market on it’s own accord.
Explaining how and why the Army became involved, the Brigade’s Public Relations Officer, PRO, Captain Haruna Timothy Tagwai, as he then was, said “it was a joint operation”, stressing that they are part of the security of the state.
FAMILY STILL IN SORROW
It has not been easy for the Ibeanusi family, since they lost their loved one. They still find it extremely difficult to discuss the sad loss.
“What do you expect the family to say? The dent is there. The pain still remains. It cannot be wished away and nobody feels it more than the family. You (Saturday Vanguard) are remembering him one year after, but the family feels his absence on a daily basis”, Mr. Ibeanusi lamented.
For the citizenry, Somtochukwu Ibeanusi is the martyr of the struggle to preserve the ancestral Ekeukwu Owerri Market.