Since the matter broke out in the past few weeks, women groups including lawyers across the nation have been protesting in black dresses over the death of a 13 year old. Nigeria’s social media and airwaves have been awash with posts, tweets and commentaries calling attention to, and protesting the sad death of Elizabeth Ogbanje, aka Ochanya Ochiya, a pupil who had been allegedly raped by a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Catering and Hotel Management, Benue State Polytechnic, Ugbokolo, alongside his runaway undergraduate son, Victor.
In one of the further sad twists that have since accompanied the tale, Elizabeth died from health complications at the Otukpo General Hospital in Benue State where she had been admitted for VVF (vesico vagina fistula) treatment. Before her passage, the victim was a Junior Secondary School 1 pupil at the Federal Government College, Gboko.
Arising from her untimely death, the lecturer, Andrew Ogbuja and his son, Victor, were declared wanted for reportedly defiling the victim since she was eight, who had been brought to live with them by her aunt, Felicia Ogbuja, who is the lecturer’s wife. The elder Ogbuja was arrested while Victor has remained at large.
In August 2018, Mr Ogbuja was arraigned before a Makurdi Upper Area Court after which he was ordered to be remanded in prison custody. A twist however emerged when Andrew Ogbuja subsequently disappeared from prison.
But for the dogged follow-up activity mounted by women, girls’ rights and other civil society organisations, with the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Benue State chapter as a notable champion, the case was almost becoming one of those very sad occasions where very damning allegations would be made but with the accompanying prosecution being inconclusive.
To be sure, the case under consideration clearly underscores the abuse girls and children continue to face in Nigeria. And capping the irony of ironies is that for almost a decade now, efforts at giving life to a Child Rights Act that would more systematically deal with this burgeoning challenge have continued to be stymied at the feet of interests and forces that insist on kowtowing to jaded and anachronistic religious and cultural value systems and constructs.
On another plank also, the controversial release from prison custody of Citizen Ogbuja also raises other questions about the efficacy and integrity of our criminal justice system, and more notably, its penal component. In a land awash with incredulous rumours about how high-level suspects and convicts routinely pay officials for them to stay out of court-designated detention facilities, it brings to the fore once again the equally old aphorism that there is indeed almost no rumour without a preliminary fact-base!
In the instance of the present case, one notable emerging puzzle would be to determine how the duly remanded Andrew Ogbuja got to be out of jail in the first place until fresh objections and protests led to his re-arrest and the commencement of fresh prosecution?
While Ogbuja is reportedly claiming that he was released by the court, the father of the victim, Mr Michael Ogbanje and civil society crusaders, quoting a statement allegedly made by the police prosecutor, are insisting that no such court session was held to the best of their knowledge where the question of Ogbuja being granted bail was mentioned, discussed and granted. So what exactly is going on here?
Also notable is the alleged influence peddled by several political and ecclesiastical top brass that had helped facilitate the ‘kangaroo bail’ for Mr Ogbuja. In our view, these are issues that are plainly begging for a comprehensive inquiry as part of efforts to restore trust and credibility to the criminal justice system.
On the positive side, it is reassuring that the Benue State Government has presently risen to the occasion and rolled out the justice machinery to ensure that the case is more robustly prosecuted now. Equally also, we note that two other counts of criminal conspiracy and culpable homicide have now been added as grounds of trial in the case of The State vs Andrew Ogbuja.
In the interest of all that is good and fair, we urge the Benue authorities not to drop the ball. Equally fitting is the fact that Ogbuja’s employers, the Benue State Polytechnic, Ugbokolo, have presently reportedly bowed to public pressure and placed him on suspension.
We also hope that Ogbuja who has been ordered remanded in custody once again would not suddenly find wings to fly out of his court-defined abode outside of the strict provisions of the law.
Relatedly is the need to call attention once again to the dangers inherent in the sadly yet prevalent practice of exposing young children, and particularly girls at that, to early sexual activity. Giving indisputable evidence that such situations predispose the victims to Vesico Vagina Fistula (VVF) complications, we think it is high time that everything be done to ensure that such travesty is not allowed to fester any longer in the interest of public health and human dignity.
We look forward to the resumption of trial on the next adjourned date of November 29, 2018 as well as the speedy determination of the matter, overall.