Locked up for 13 months without trial
Arraigned for robbery, police abandoned charge
Two IGPs ignored court judgment, Senate intervention
As a young boy, Hilary Okorie from Abia State admired the police and dreamt of becoming a police officer.
With no one to guide him on the path to achieving his dream, Okorie settled for a job as a clerical officer with his ordinary level certificate at the National Directorate of Employment.
While at NDE, Okorie’s earnest prayer was to get the opportunity to serve his country in uniform as a policeman one day.
The opportunity, however, came sooner than he expected, as his application into the Police Academy was accepted few days to his 22nd birthday.
Relieving the excitement when he received the official confirmation of his enlisting into the Police Academy, Okorie, now 52 said: “I have always had a deep love for police. When the opportunity came, I applied and after the interview, I was accepted. It was a dream come true for me.
“I was overjoyed and my family had a big celebration.”
After his training at the Police Academy, Okorie joined the Police on May 13, 1992, as a Cadet Inspector.
He was posted to Bauchi State Command and later to Gombe Division. In 1996, he was transferred to Force CID Annex, Alagbon, Lagos and assigned to a team of the Federal Anti-Robbery Squad. Recalling his role and experience in the team, Okorie said: “I was relatively young in the police then, so I had to understudy those in my team. My task was usually to beef up security when an arrest is to be made. It was really a learning start for me then which I was proud of.”
25 yrs horrendous journey begins
Everything seemed to be going well for Okorie until he was co-opted into a major operation to arrest a suspected high profile robbery suspect in Delta State. The operation went well until the suspect with alleged connivance of some unknown security operatives turned the case against him and his team.
It became a case of the hunter being hunted.Giving details of how the operation was conducted and how his team was eventually framed for robbery by the suspect whom they had gone to arrest, Okorie said: “In 1997, the then Commissioner of Police in charge of Federal Anti- Robbery Squad assigned a case to my team leader, CSP Muhammed Ladan. Ladan further assigned the matter to an ASP and two Inspectors. I was later co-opted into the team. We were given an official vehicle with a petition and instructed to go to Delta to arrest a prominent Chief (name withheld who was then wanted by FSARS and other security agencies for armed robbery and fraud.
“The suspect was a dismissed soldier and well-connected person in social circles. The Police hierarchy, top politicians and even governors know him. On getting to Delta State, we reported to the Commissioner of Police, State Command who endorsed our investigation activity to Area Commander, Warri. On getting to Warri, we encountered a serious challenge in arresting the suspect because he had a CCTV camera. The gate to his house was almost imprregnable and all our efforts to gain entry were unsuccessful.“We later made contact with somebody in the house who told the suspect that policemen from Alagbon were outside his gate waiting for him.
“He sent a message that we should go to the Area Command and that after his meeting with some dignitaries who were in his house, he will come there. After about three hours of laying siege, we observed when he left the house and followed him to the Area Command. At the Warri Area Command office, our team leader handed a copy of the petition against him and the warrant for his arrest. He admitted to the offence contained in the petition but promised to make restitution.
“He appealed to the Area Command to prevail on us to go back to Lagos and that he will personally report to Alagbon.
“My team leader insisted that, that was not our instruction and that we must also search his house. We told the Area Commander that we are just errand boys and that we will not leave Warri without the suspect. We even gave him an option of going to Lagos in his own car while we provide him escort. After the back and forth argument, it was agreed that we should first go and search his house.
“Unfortunately, the house had been compromised and key evidence removed because the suspect pleaded with the Area Commander to call his house and instructed his guests to vacate so that he would not be embarrassed.
“When we got to the house, we found blood everywhere in the suspect’s bedroom.
“Immediately I saw the blood, I recalled hearing the suspect while he was giving instruction on phone to someone in his house to tell his visitors to leave and that N3000 should be given to the second girl he had picked the previous night. My instinct made me to ask for explanation for the second girl and why there was blood everywhere in his bedroom. The suspect simply responded that the blood was from the sacrifice his cult group made the previous night. Since my team leader did not show interest in my line of questioning, I ignored the issue and we later took inventory of the things we saw in the house including cartridges and about 24 vehicles in the compound.
“The suspect offered to give us anything to forget about the investigation but we refused. CP orders release of arrested suspect“We informed the Commissioner of Police, FSARS, (name withheld) that we had apprehended the suspect and would be returning to Lagos that night. At about 6pm when we were about to depart, we reasoned that being a high profile suspect, it would be dangerous to travel to Lagos through Warri-Benin road. We diverted to Onitsha and lodged in a hotel that night.
“The following day, as we departed Onitsha for Lagos, a Commissioner of Police, in one of the Southwest states called the suspect who briefed him that he was being taken to Lagos. A few minutes after the suspect dropped the call, the Anti-Robbery Squad CP, (name withheld) called the suspect and asked him to hand over the phone to us. My team leader spoke to the CP and after their conversation; he told us that the CP instructed that the suspect should be released on the spot. We released him and returned to Lagos. Some days later, the suspect reported to our office in Lagos and met the CP. His statement was taken by Muhammed Ladan and the CP later ordered that he should be released.
Team members arrested, detained for 13 months without trial
“Three days after the suspect left, my team was summoned by the Special Fraud Unit, SFU. When we reported there, we were told that a complaint was made against us by the suspect. We were shocked because the suspect didn’t make any complaint in our office; so how come SFU was investigating an allegation of fraud and armed robbery against us. The team members that went for the operation were detained in different cells. We were kept in detention for 13 months. After the first nine months, we were arraigned before the Igbosere Magistrate court for armed robbery.
“They claimed that we robbed the suspect of N2.9 million. I was shocked at the allegation and wondered at what point we robbed the suspect. At the Magistrate Court, the Magistrate insisted that since we have been in custody for nine months, we should be remanded in police custody.”
Lagos DPP advice exonerated team members
After Inspector Okorie’s arraignment along with three other police officers in 1997, the case file was forwarded to the Directorate of Public Prosecution, DPP, Lagos State. On August 11, 1998, a DPP advice signed by one Yinka Gbadamosi, a Legal Officer in the directorate exonerated all four police officers of any wrong doing.
The Advice reprimanded the police for detaining the officers for over 11 months and further advised that the case file be sent to Delta State DPP since the alleged incident happened there.
Part of the advice letter reads: “We have carefully studied the said file and we are of the considered opinion that the Directorate does not have jurisdiction to proffer legal advice on this matter for the following reasons; (a) There is no evidence that the team left Lagos with a common and settled intention to commit any offence since they were reacting to a petition and could not jointly have anticipated what they would confront in Warri, Delta. (b) Since the matter happened in Warri, it is the DPP in Delta State that has jurisdiction to proffer a legal advice on whether there is a provision in the criminal procedure that can vest the Lagos State DPP with the power to entertain a matter which occurred in Delta State.
“Be advised therefore that whether or not there were prima facie cases of armed robbery and official corruption against the suspects should be for the Delta State DPP to advice on. However, this file was delayed by your office for almost 11 months before sending it to our office, thus delaying an early determination of the matter, while the suspects have been in detention at the expense of the state. Kindly redirect the file to Delta State DPP for quick action.”
Charge abandoned in Magistrate court
After the DPP Advice was issued, Police authorities in Lagos refused to take action on the case.
The charge was abandoned at the Igbosere Magistrate Court while Okorie and his co accused remained in detention.
Okorie later separated his case from the others and engaged a lawyer who shockingly found out that the case file had been removed from the registry of the Magistrate Court to appear as if the charge was never filed there.
Luckily, Okorie, who still had a copy of the charge, instructed his lawyer to file a fundamental human rights enforcement suit at the Lagos High Court for his release.
With the DPP Advice, a copy of his employment letter, and the charge filed by the police at the Magistrate Court, the Lagos High Court wasted no time in granting Okorie bail on very liberal terms. The court order was served on the Police and he was eventually released after about 13 months in detention.
Believing that his problems were over, Okorie returned to his duty post few days after only to be told by his superiors that he has been ‘suspended’ from service. As an officer who had never received a query in his short period of service, Okorie found the information very shocking. Surprisingly, the suspension was just a verbal order as no letter of suspension was issued to that effect.
Despite his appeals, the Police authorities barred him from resuming at his duty post.
Bank Accounts Frozen
Inspector Okorie’s two personal bank accouts with First Bank and AfriBank were also frozen by Police authorities without any valid court order. His salary was also immediately stopped.
Court Battle Begins
Ten years after exhausting all avenue to return to his duty post, including appealing to very senior officers in the Lagos Command, Okorie in 2007 through his lawyers filed a suit before the Federal High Court, Lagos seeking to compel the Police to defreeze his account and also hold that he remains a serving police officer since his appointment was never officially terminated.
Despite the simple reliefs contained in the suit, the matter lasted for another three years.
Few months after the suit was filed, a legal officer, at Force CID, Annex Lagos filed a motion on behalf of the police for extension of time to file defence. The legal officer never appeared in court to move the motion despite several hearing notices issued him. After about one year of deliberately delaying the suit, the presiding Judge, Justice A.R Mohammed struck out the motion and allowed Okorie to state his case. The matter suffered another setback when Justice Mohammed was transferred to Enugu Division of the Federal High Court.
Fortunately for Okorie, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court granted a fait to Justice Mohammed to take the case file with him. He delivered judgment in the suit on October 20, 2010.Justice Mohammed in the judgment held that Inspector Okorie remains a serving and subsisting police officer and thus entitled to official regulation. The judge also ordered that Okorie’s two bank accounts be unfrozen and his salary which has been withheld since 1997 be reinstated.
While granting N50,000 to the plaintiff as the cost of filing the action, the judge also ordered the Police authority to effect his promotion which had been overdue in accordance with police regulations.
All efforts by Inspector Okorie to make the police obey the valid pronouncement for his reinstatement and de-freezing of his account hit brick walls. A year after the court order was served on all the relevant police authority and command, no action was taken. The court judgment became a worthless paper in his hand on the police file.
Late Sen. Chukwumerije’s failed intervention
When the attention of the late Senator Uche Chukwumerijie was drawn to the matter, he wrote to the then Inspector-General of Police, Hafiz Rigim via a letter dated May 17, 2011 and appealed to the police boss to kindly obey the court orders and reinstate Inspector Okorie to his official duties.
A copy of the letter personally signed by the late Chukwumerije and sighted by Encounter reads in part: “I write to draw your attention to a sad case of injustice and neglect of court judgment order in favour of Inspector Hilary Okorie Ejim, suit no. FHC/L/CS/541/2007 in which the court amongst other orders declared that Inspector Ejim is a serving and subsisting police officer duly employed and thus entitled to official regulation.
“Inspector Ejim was deregularised from service by the Nigeria Police since 1997 as a result of wrongful detention and abandoned charge. His last station was at FCID Annex Lagos. (Attached are copies of his appeal to me and court judgment for your attention.) I plead that you use your good office to effect the regularisation of Inspector Ejim in compliance with the court judgment. I thank you in appreciation of the courtesies you may wish to accord me in this regard.”
Delayed Legal Advice
One month after IGP Rigim received Senator Chukwumerijie’s letter of appeal, he wrote to the Commissioner of Police, Legal /Prosecution Section, Abuja, Bayo Ajileye for legal advice. The legal advice did not come out until a year after in 2012. When it finally came out on August 12, 2012, CP Ajileye in a letter to the IGP advised that Inspector Okorie should be reinstated according to the orders of the court.
Part of the advice signed by CP Ajileye and also sighted by Encounter reads: “Sometime in 1997, the Ex-Inspector was then serving in the Anti-Robbery Squad of the Force CID Annex Lagos. That following a petition written to Force CID alleging one Chief Moses Odeh to be involved in a robbery incident, the then Assistant Inspector-General of Police Force C 1.0 Alagbon Close, Ikoyi Lagos and the Commissioner of Police, Anti-Robbery Section Force CiD Annex Lagos, directed the Inspector and his team to effect the arrest of the Chief.“After the arrest of the Chief at Warri, the Commissioner of Police ordered the Anti-Robbery Team to release the (Chief) and this order was complied with. However, after some days, the Chief wrote a petition against the said Anti-Robbery team, alleging that he was robbed of certain amount of money by the members of the team
“Based upon this allegation, the team members were arrested, investigated and charged to court and the court remanded them in the Police custody for thirteen (13) months. The case file was later forwarded to the DPP for advice. The advice of the DPP exonerated the Inspector and his team members. Thereafter the Inspector sued the Inspector-General of Police for unlawful dismissal.
“From the above, the main issue for determination can be put thus. To determine whether the Police should comply with the said Judgment by re-absorbing the Plaintiff into the Force or not. It is noted that, the Police did not appeal against the said judgment. And where a court judgment is not appealed against, the affected party is expected to comply with such judgment. It will be unreasonable for an affected party to go on appeal when there is no good ground for appeal.
“That the time allowed for appeal against a judgment of this sort is limited to three months. And also noted in this case that the judgment in respect of this matter was delivered on October 29, 2010, and from October 2010 to present date is approximately twenty-one (21) months and this is far more than the three months allowed by law for appeal. Since the time of appeal has elapsed, the Police have no option than to comply with the court judgment.
“After giving serious consideration to the issues raised in the above paragraphs, I am of the opinion that the Police have no any legal option than to comply with the court judgment in this case. The above legal advice is presented for your consideration please.”
The IGP never complied with the advice of his own legal department.
Senate Ethics’ Committee hearing
From 2012 to 2017, nothing was done over the matter despite several petitions forwarded to the IGP within the period.
Human Rights lawyer, Dr. Monday Ubani took the matter before the Senate Committee on Ethics and Privileges. The committee during its hearing in December 2017, summoned the IGP who was represented by a CP and instructed him to ensure that the court orders reinstating Inspector Okorie was obeyed.
The Senate instruction was never complied with. In 2019, under IGP Mohammed Adamu’s administration, Okorie petitioned the police again over the matter. In response, Adamu sought advice from the force legal department over the matter.
In a letter dated July 6, 2020 and signed by Commissioner of Police, Legal, Amienbo Assayomo, the IGP was advised to obey the 22-year-old judgment. CP Assayomo further recommended that Inspector Okorie be made to undergo a refresher course having been away from service for a long time.
Police impunity continues
As is now the pattern in Inspector Okorie’s case, nothing was done by the IGP. In the last quarter of 2021, the visibly demoralised Okorie spent most part of his time moving from one police officer to the other, pleading for his case to be given attention. Frustrated and shattered, he returned to his residence in Lagos before Christmas to spend time with his family.
Narrating his harrowing experience in the last 25 years, Inspector Okorie fought back tears as he shared his ordeal with Encounter.
“It has been a nightmare for me in the last 25 years suffering for doing my official duty. I have suffered a lot. I joined the police with the zeal to fight crime and injustice but here I am, suffering injustice in the hand of the Police. All I did was obey lawful order to carry out an assignment, duly endorsed by IGP to the CP and down to my team leader and here I am, fighting for my life. My mates in the police are now very senior officers but look at me! With this kind of injustice, do you think anyone would want to serve his nation with patriotism?
Odd jobs for survival
Since the unfortunate ‘suspension’ from the police, Okorie has been engaged in different odd jobs to care for his family. The little money from the odd jobs has been used to engage lawyers for his nearly three-decades struggle for justice.
For want of any good job, Okorie became a bus conductor in Lagos. From there, he graduated to owning and driving his own bus. After an encounter with a Lagos State Traffic Taskforce team where he was beaten mercilessly for challenging his arrest, Okorie decided to quit commercial bus driving business. He later joined spare parts sales business where he manages to make ends meet.
Despite the little income from his business, the crave for justice still burns within Inspector Okorie.
Despite the injustice meted to him, Inspector Okorie’s simple request is to be reinstated into the Police Force with his two accounts unfrozen and all his entitlements paid.
“All I want is justice. It has been 25 years of horror for me but all I want is to return to my duty post and my two frozen accounts opened. I also want all my entitlements paid since I am still a serving police officer. I don’t think this is a big request for anybody to make,” he concluded.