Controversial Disappearance of a Toddler

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He went missing four years ago, then the police allegedly found him and gave him to the wrong mother. In this report, Vanessa Obioha unravels what really happened on the viral video of a mother accusing the police of giving her child to the wrong parent and demanding money to bring him back to Lagos

No dark clouds were looming in the sky that fateful day. The promise of a sunny day was boldly written in the clear blue sky. For Mrs Oge Dike, February 10, 2017, started like any ordinary day. She went about her daily routine without trepidation, preparing her nephew Chibuike Iheanacho for school. He attends the same school Ola Daystar Nursery/Primary School at Ogbomoso Street, close to Cele Bus-stop, with her neighbour’s son Ebube Divine.

Usually, she takes him to school while Divine brings him back home. Chibuike was three months shy away from four years and Divine was nine years old.

Chibuike’s father (Bright) was a truck driver but at the time was serving a jail term for conveying vehicles loaded with contraband goods. According to him, he had no idea, such items were stored in the truck.

Chibuike’s mother (Joy), pregnant with a second child, was a petty trader living at Ayobo in the Iyana-Ipaja axis of the state. Due to her condition, it was mutually agreed that her sister-in-law Oge, should have custody of her child.

Dike was still going about her business that fateful Friday but by afternoon, the dark clouds canopied the blue sky. She was anxiously waiting for the return of her nephew since it was past the school closing time. But when Divine came home, he returned alone and panicky.

Instantly, Dike felt something was amiss. She asked frantically for her nephew. Divine had no good news.

“We were returning from school that day and they (sic) were fighting. They threw bottle (sic) so we separated,” recalled Divine. By the time I looked around, I couldn’t find him again. I started searching for him. I didn’t see him. So I ran home to tell my mummy who told his Aunty and we all went back to search for him.”

“We ran to the school, we could not find the boy. They told us they already left the school. The security man confirmed that he crossed both Divine and Chibuike to the other side of the road. That Chibuike was not in the school premises. I reported to the Itire Police Station.” said Dike.

On hearing that her son had gone missing, Joy rushed down to Ijesha. “We went to different police stations to report him missing,” she said.

They printed his photo on fliers and posters, pasted it on walls, trees and every available space. They also bombarded Facebook with his photos.

“I remember we took his photo to Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) to report him missing,” recounted Dike. Yet, no sign of him. The police assured them they would keep searching.

In Nigeria, kidnapping and child trafficking are prevalent in organised crimes. The North-east region is usually a target for terrorists who raid schools and kidnap children. In Lagos, missing persons are either used for kidnap for ransom, rituals or trafficked. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nigeria, records nearly 23,000 missing people. It is the largest on the continent.

In 2015, The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) promised to ensure that the government maintains data of every Nigerian as well as account for every citizen missing or in captivity by the insurgency group Boko Haram. The Commission began the process but the outcome is yet to be ascertained.

Bright, who was still in jail, nearly died when he learnt of his son’s fate. But locked behind bars, there was little he could do.

Seasons and years passed, many sleepless nights and sunless days rolled by. There was still no sign of Chibuike. The world moved on but for the Iheanachos, each day was an agonising reminder that the whereabouts of their child remains unknown. The uncertainty was crippling. Was he dead or alive? Is he safe or in the worst condition? All manner of thoughts had a free day in their mind. Notwithstanding, the family held on tightly to hope, even when there was no light in the tunnel.

“I just placed my trust in God, believing that one day I will see him. Even at church, they told me the child was not dead, that somebody stole the child. They encouraged me to believe in God that one day I will see him,” said Joy.

“If God is alive, I will see my baby,” her husband added determinedly.

Then one fateful day in February, Bright received a post from a friend. It was a Facebook post advertising a missing child.

The post read: “Found Child by name Chibuike Ogbonna, Male 9yrs old, fair in complexion, speaks English and Igbo lang, hails from Agba in Oboama, Ohaji LGA of Imo State, he is presently in Ojo Division, Lagos State Police Command, grateful assist and repost so that if any of his family members can be trace (sic) they can call this number. 08031939075. Thank you.”

Bright was immediately convinced that the child in the picture was his. The feeling was overwhelming that he nearly ran out of the house. But to be sure, he forwarded the post to his sister, wife, friends and other relatives. They confirmed his thoughts. The boy in the post was indeed Chibuike.

“Everybody I sent that picture to said it was my baby. I know it’s my baby. I studied everything. Even the name remained the same,” said Bright who was in Delta State at the time.

When Divine was shown the picture of the missing boy, he confirmed that indeed it was Chibuike from the outline of his face. He remembered playing with him.

Joy was not in Lagos when her husband received the post. She was in her state Abia for a funeral. Immediately she saw the photo post, she jumped up in excitement and called her mother-in-law that her son has been found.

“I told her to come and see my Chibuike. That my Chibuike has been found. She also jumped up when she saw the picture. She started crying and commented on how he looks now since four years ago he disappeared.”

Joy happily boarded the next bus to Lagos. But on getting to the Juvenile Welfare Centre (JWC), near Alakara Police Station, where the child was transferred to, she was told the child has been released to another woman.

Her sister-in-law Dike had gone ahead to Ojo Police Division to claim the child on seeing the post but was told that he’d been transferred to Alakara Police Station in Mushin, where the child was handed to JWC. She was also told that another woman had come earlier to claim the child and they directed her to Alakara Police Station. Dike disclosed that when she presented the picture of Chibuike to the officers in Ojo, they confirmed that the missing boy was indeed Chibuike. Their semblance was too striking to be ignored. She was advised to visit the Okoko Police Division since the woman reported there first, perhaps they could trace her address.

“When we got there, they said they had released the child to another mother. Which mother?” Dike queried.

She brought out the photo of the child and showed the officer that this is the missing boy.”

Meanwhile, Joy said she brought her son’s birth certificate, photos and ante-natal cards including photos of Chibuike on his third birthday celebration, only to be told that the child was no longer in their custody.

“I asked them why they released the child to the woman, they said the boy greeted the woman with familiarity so they handed him to her assuming she was the mother. They didn’t demand the woman show them all the certificates they asked me to bring,” Joy said with a hint of anger in her tone.

“When they saw photo of Chibuike, they agreed that indeed he looked like the boy that was brought to them. They assured me that they will trace the woman’s address and arrest her.”

“I just wanted to see the baby. Even if it turns out not to be mine. I just wanted to see him,” said Bright.

They identified the officer who released the baby to the alleged impostor as Mrs Ali.

“She went through her file and brought out a photo she took with the woman and said she would look for the woman. She asked for transport money which I gave her N1,000 since she claimed she lived close to the area the woman lives,” revealed Dike.

“We have to pay them N10,000 for them to arrest the women in Ojo and bring them to Alakara Police Station,” added Bright.

The woman was finally arrested on Sunday, February 28, according to the couple. She confessed that the child was not hers.

However, things got complicated when the child of the woman arrested took the police to arrest another woman who brought the child to her mother. When queried about the whereabouts of the child, the second woman said it was her sister in Imo State that connected her to the mother of the child. She claimed that the child was already on his way to meet his mother in Imo State unaccompanied. The two women according to the parents of Chibuike are in the police net.

Still digging deeper, it was discovered that one of the women sent the lost-but-found child on an errand but he apparently missed his way and that was how he got missing the second time.

“It all looked suspicious. A child who supposedly missed his way from the house to shop, and now, you are sending him to his mother in Imo State alone,” argued Dike.

We are talking about a child, not a phone or an item,” lamented Bright painfully.

The couple painfully waited for the child to be returned but no answer seemed to be forthcoming. The officers at the JWC suggested to them that since the boy was yet to be returned, that they should pay the sum of N200,000 for transportation to Imo State to bring the child to Lagos.

“They said the money would cover the expenses of two policemen, one of the women arrested, the supposed mother and child. Making five people.”

Over the weekend, a video of Joy narrating her experience had gone viral.

When this reporter visited the JWC, Ali and the CSP Ibironke Ajala declined to speak, rather directing the reporter to the state Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), CSP Olumuyiwa Adejobi, who in a recent statement described the woman’s allegation as false and unfounded, stating that three mothers are claiming the child.

“The boy allegedly got missing some time but was found at Ojo Division, Lagos. He was later taken to the Juvenile Welfare Center (JWC) office at Alakara for investigation.

“A woman came to claim him and sent him to another woman in Imo State. This woman in the video appeared on Friday to claim the same boy that she was told that has been seen and published on Facebook.

“So she has not even set her eyes on the boy before she started claiming the boy and alleging the police baselessly. The case is a complex and sensitive one, so the command will be professional about it and make sure the facts emerge.

“We are on it and we will do the needful as urgently as possible. We are working with the Imo State Command to retrieve the boy and commence further police actions,” he said.

However, in an audio file obtained by this reporter, the officers at JWC could be heard shouting at a family friend who was intervening on behalf of the couple. Here are excerpts from the recording:

“Who was the person that released the child,” asked the family friend. “The person is not here?”

“You are not a police officer,” shouted one of the female officers. “Don’t ask who released the child. The reason is that…”

“I can say it was the police that released the child,” interrupted the family friend.

“Yes, we are all police officers.”

“So that’s legally approved.”

“Excuse me please”, the female officer’s voice started getting louder. “If you don’t want to listen to me, please go out.”

Voices raised in a heated argument. But the family friend could be heard asking the police officers if they asked the couple to bring money or not.

“Yes, for us to travel to Imo State. Will I use my money to travel to Imo State,” shouted the police officer.

More raised voices.

“We are going to travel to Imo State. I will not use my money to travel to Imo State.”

The recording ended with her saying sarcastically that they should bring N20.