They raised their voices on Whatsapp, Facebook and on the Internet. Then Madonna University allegedly got them locked up on initial charges of multiple kidnapping, which they later upturned to Cyber Crime and malicious writing. Solomon Elusoji writes
On June 11, seven men were arraigned at the Federal High Court in Awka, Anambra State. The courthouse was besieged by a teeming crowd of student union leaders and journalists. Some of the men’s parents and relatives, too, were present. But the judge was not. According to a brother of one of the arraigned men, the judge called in sick. The men’s suit was adjourned to July 2, and they were returned to Awka Prisons.
The next day, June 12, as the country celebrated its longest spell of democracy, news websites across the Nigerian blogosphere were reporting that the seven shackled men have been victims of a twisted, demented justice system. The sources for the report were the young men’s parents and a Vice President of the Nigeria Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Mr. Chidi Ilozube. They had spoken to reporters at the court premises the day before.
According to a police charge sheet obtained by THISDAY, the young men are: Opara Harmelson, Owhonda Badaziri, Abuno Jonathan, Chijioke Nnamani, Amaechi Benedict, Blackson Nwokeoma, and Tony Ezeimo.
Six of the men have affiliations with Madonna University. Five of them are ex-students, and Tony Ezeimo is a former lecturer at the University. But Opara Harmelson is just a friend of Ezeimo’s. (Harmelson was the only one charged with advance fee fraud).
Between November 2018 and February 2019, they were all picked up by the police after a Madonna University petition alleging that they were cultists involved in the multiple kidnapping of the university’s Vice Chancellor, Prof. Chuks Ezedum. But, in court, they were charged with crimes relating to Cyber Crime and malicious writing. THISDAY could not independently verify the contents of the petition sent to the Inspector General of Police (IGP).
One of the young men’s parents claims the man behind the arrest is Madonna University’s founder, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Edeh. “Fr. Ede arrested my son since February . . . and he has insisted that he will not release him, saying he will not release them until they die in prison,” Mr Onyejekwe said on June 11.
The reason for the arrests, the parents and NANS believe and as corroborated by the police charge sheet, has nothing to do with kidnapping but the young men’s vocal activism against the school’s “inhuman”, internal activities. “Good lecturers are scarce. Madonna University administration should be nice to our lecturers, or a good number of them will resign,” Chijioke Nnamani wrote on Facebook on January 11. On February 4, he was picked up.
On Tuesday, June 18, seven days after the court bombardment and initial media reporting, Madonna University held a press briefing in Abuja. In attendance was the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ezedum, a member of the university’s alumni association, Mr Chima Achu, and University spokesman, Mr Martin Anagboso.
The purpose of the briefing, apparently, was to dispel rumours that parents and guardians were planning to withdraw their wards from the institution. They also tried to distance the university from the seven men’s case, noting that it was the Inspector General of Police that had charged them to court. But, at least, they confirmed that the young men had been charged for malicious and false publication against Madonna, not cultism or kidnapping.
How Justice was Deferred
Since his brother was arrested in February, Sopuru Nnamani’s Facebook timeline has burst into life. His posts – all about getting justice for Chijioke Nnamani – have become more frequent. His display picture is a banner detailing the injustice being meted out on the ‘Madonna Seven’. When he spoke to this reporter, his voice grated with exasperation, and hope. “My brother was arrested on February 4, 2019,” he said.
Chijioke, a graduate of Madonna, was observing his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Patani Local Government, Delta State, when men from the Nigerian Police Force came for him. At first, according to Sopuru, the arrest was resisted by NYSC, which said they couldn’t arrest a serving corps member. Then the policemen produced a petition noting that Chijioke was a cultist involved in kidnapping and armed robbery.
“In the evening of February 4, a corper (NYSC member) called us that Chijioke had been arrested. They sent us the number of the squad that came to arrest him. When we called them, they said he is accused of kidnapping, armed robbery and cultism by Madonna University.”
Sopuru found it hard to believe. His brother had been a sterling Madonna student with many individual awards to show for it. He studied Mass Communication and finished with a second class upper honours. So how did he become a kidnapper? But that was a question to be answered later. The pertinent thing, at that point, was to know where he had been taken, which turned out to be a police station in Onitsha. “On getting there, we discovered that there were six others,” Sopuru said. “He was the seventh.”
Ten days after Chijioke was arrested, the seven were charged to court. This reporter obtained an amended version of the charge sheet, dated March 19, 2019. On it, there are eleven counts, of which Chijioke’s name appeared in three. None of the allegations were remotely related to kidnapping or armed robbery. “We were surprised that the charge was cyber-crime,” Sopuru said.
On February 19, four of the seven were granted bail. Two days later, the remaining three also secured their temporary release.
“We were asked to bring a civil servant of Level 15 and Letter of Identification from a Permanent Secretary and affidavit of means, including a surety in the sum of one million naira,” Sopuru said. “On the 28th, we brought the surety. But the surety could not get a letter from the Permanent Secretary but her Director in the office. He works at Ministry of Health in Enugu. We submitted and finished our bail terms.”
The judge then asked the prosecution counsel, Augustine Obo, and a court bailiff to verify the identity and address of the surety brought before it.
“The bailiff went for the verification and wrote a report,” Sopuru said. “The only thing remaining was for the prosecution counsel to go for the verification. They refused and said we didn’t bring a letter from the permanent secretary.”
On March 19, the court met again and defendant lawyers complained to the judge that the prosecuting counsel had refused to go for verification. The prosecution counsel told the judge that they didn’t bring a letter from the permanent secretary.
“But the judge now made it clear that what he needs is a letter of introduction to show that the person is working in that office. Some of the other defendants brought sureties from universities. You cannot tell someone in the university to get a letter from the permanent secretary, since universities don’t have a permanent secretary. So he ordered the counsel to go do the verification. When we came out of court that day, he agreed that he will go.”
Suddenly, the prosecution counsel changed his mind.
“Because that day, a SAN came to court saying that he came from Abuja with a fiat to take over the matter, meaning that the school had hired its own private lawyer. The judge told him the fiat is incomplete, that he should put a seal on it. And that at the next court date, he can take over. So the prosecution counsel, who is a police lawyer, refused and said we should go to the SAN, who hasn’t taken over, to go and do the verification.
“But I heard on May 28 that the prosecuting lawyer has written on all the files that the bail is incomplete. Like on our own, he said he didn’t see our surety’s house or office. But when the court bailiff went, he saw the house and spoke with the director of our surety.”
This reporter tried to contact Mr Augustine Obo, who is attached to the legal department of Awka’s State Crime Investigation and Intelligence Department. Mr Obo picked on the first ring. When this reporter identified himself and the purpose of the call, Mr Obo said he was in court and asked to be called again in the next two hours. Then, till this story went to press, he stopped answering his phone.
On May 8, the judge didn’t show up in court. “Some people said he was sick, some said he wasn’t just sitting, so I don’t really know the reason,” Sopuru said. And, of course, on June 11, the judge didn’t show up again. The Madonna Seven are still behind bars.
The story of their arrests started with a Facebook account, Itz Madonna. It is not clear whether the original version was a page, a group or an individual account. But a new one, created on January 7, 2017, has since surfaced. This reporter couldn’t find the original Itz Madonna or any of its posts on Facebook.
“That’s the bone of contention,” Sopuru said. The account “has been posting things that are happening in the school. At first they thought it was their PRO, Kaka. They locked him up and told him to swear” on a holy bible, that he didn’t know who was operating the account.”
Jonathan Kaka’s account of being detained by representatives of Madonna University has been posted online. It’s a vivid, mind-numbing account of jungle justice. Kaka said he was detained for five days, while all his personal effects were seized. THISDAY couldn’t reach Kaka before this story went to press, but in 2015, Madonna University officials were involved in the battering of its own students suspected of cultism. The students needed surgeries and they are still in court, seeking restitution.
“When they released him (Kaka),” Sopuru said. “Ezeimo, who happened to be an assistant lecturer in the Philosophy Department (he has since left the university) then posted it on an alumni Whatsapp group. All the people arrested were in this group, apart from one. They were commenting on what happened to Kaka. Not all the people in the group were arrested, but the seven are scapegoats.”
On the police charge sheet, two messages were cited against Chijioke as evidence. On December 15, 2018, he had written: “Ikenga (Ezeimo) on a second tot, lose guard and allow them track u to my village . . . Forget about what my village people will do to them . . . The remaining story will be on net.”
The second message was: “better tell that tyrant you call Yobo (Madonna’s Chief Security Officer) that if anything happens to kaka, I personally will import mad people from Obiagu and Abakpa in Enugu so he can compete with them . . . Nonsense.”
These messages were on Whatsapp, Sopuru said. But they were enough to put his brother behind bars, for months.
Following the controversy generated by the entire incident, rumours became rife that students were withdrawing from the varsity. Forced to address this, the VC said their no incident of panic withdrawal of students.
Describing the reports as false and mischievous,
at a recent press conference in Abuja on a certain Tuesday said it was a figment of the imagination of the peddlers of such “rumours.”
According to him, no parent nor guardian had requested the withdrawal of any student, adding that the school community was safe, friendly and accommodating to all members. He claimed the reported panic withdrawal might have been invented by families and associates of those facing criminal charges brought against them by the Inspector General of Police, exonerating the school from the ongoing trial.
Taking a swipe on the South-east Zone, National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) over the ultimatum given the university, Ezedum said the group should have known the private school had nothing in common with it.
He reminded the association that Madonna University students were not members of NANS, adding that it was the government of Nigeria that was prosecuting the former students for an alleged crime and not the institution.
Former World President of the university’s alumni association, Chima Achu corroborated the Vice Chancellor’s claims, stressing that there was harmony between students, teachers and management.
Achu, a member of the Alumni Association’s Board of Trustees, said the allegations against those standing trail were malicious and false publications, which are crimes under the country’s laws.
Achu warned that Madonna University would not hesitate to challenge anyone or group that tries to tarnish its reputation, noting the institution’s “track record of moral and academic excellence.”
To the university’s spokesman Martin Anagboso, those being prosecuted should on their matter and prove their innocence in court rather than whip up sentiments through the media.
Madonna: a Brief History
Madonna University was founded on May 10, 1999 by Catholic priest, Emmanuel Edeh, who is a serial founder of educational institutions. In 2004, under the approval of the National Universities Commission (NUC), the university’s main campus was moved from Okija in Anambra state to Elele in Rivers state.
Although the university has a tenuous online presence, there is an official website. There, Madonna markets itself as “the first private university” and “first Catholic university in Nigeria.” The school says its enjoys both “stately and ecclesiastical approval” and wants to “revive in her community the age-long tradition of Catholic education and the exacting demand of our contemporary society for sound education en-rooted in salubrious life-promoting morality.” Until 2015, camera phones were banned in the school.
Like several private universities in the country, the school has a history of running into problems with the NUC over insufficient facilities and personnel.
The university’s main charge against the Madonna Seven is that they have consciously worked to taint its reputation through malicious writing on the internet. But when this reporter asked Sopuru if he believes his brother, a Madonna alumnus, had been blasphemous, his response was unequivocal. He said: “What they posted on social media was true.”