TIME was when some people of sudden wealth took over the landscape of Imo State. They did whatever they liked, when, how and where they chose. Some even felt that spotting policemen as orderlies were no longer fashionable hence they settled for armed soldiers.
More often than not, they were seen blocking the roads completely, while chatting with their friends. Anybody that dared to protest got the severest beating of his life. The "bouncers" around them descended on motorists at will and even went as far as denting people's cars at the slightest "provocation". Nobody dared to call them names. They were gods of sorts.
They threw money at people with ease. Royal fathers fell over heels and wanted to outdo each other in their mad rush to hand out chieftaincy titles to this class of people. All these acts angered the people.
It was no wonder that people's anger boiled over in 1996, when they heard about the brutal beheading of 11-year old Innocent Okonkwo and his eventual burial in a shallow grave located in Otokoto Hotels, Amakohia, Owerri. That marked the limit of their endurance. They could take no more and the result was a mass protest in Owerri.
Angry residents of Owerri moved from point to the other in search of these people of very questionable wealth. Buildings belonging to such people were torched. Their personal effects were either burnt or looted by people. Cases of missing persons, dehumanization, brutalization, molestation and wanton destruction of property belonging to hapless and helpless citizens abated in the state.
The spontaneous agitation by the people gingered the security agencies into action. A lot of people were arrested and suffered serious deprivations as a result. A new vista of life commenced. Virtually all the people working in Otokoto Hotel, including the Hotel Manager, Mr. Ebenezer Egwuekwe, were arrested.
If residents of Owerri were given the opportunity, all the suspects would have been given summary trial by the mob and lynched. All the same, the suspects suffered varying levels of indignity. Members of their different families even had worse stories to tell than those cooling their heels in prison. A couple of those described by the police as "the prime suspects" were later arraigned in court. After a long tortuous criminal trial in Owerri, they were sentenced to death.
The convicts, including 62-year old Ebenezer Egwuekwe, were moved to Federal Prisons, Port Harcourt. However, armed with his stoic belief in his innocence, Egwuekwe appealed his death sentence. This battle for life lasted about 16 years! For the family, it remains a thing of joy that their bread winner did not die in prison while the legal battle lasted. They are also happy that 16 years after, the innocence of Egwuekwe has been upheld by the Court of Appeal.
His ordeal started when one of the staff of Otokoto Hotel was caught with a fresh human head at Eziama, in the Ikeduru Local Council Area. He was asked to report to police which he did. He was subsequently arrested and charged for murder.
Narrating his prison experience, Egwuekwe said he was moved from one prison to another. According to him, his worst experience was in Port Harcourt where he was treated like a condemned criminal. "If I had committed anything worthy of imprisonment, I would have accepted my fate but unfortunately, I did nothing to warrant 16 years of suffering. While in prison, all my friends deserted me and my wife and eight children passed through very difficult times," Egwuekwe said.
He recalled with grief that his few landed properties were sold to pay his legal fees and take care of his feeding. He stated that he cannot fully express the level of hardship his family passed through as he was the only bread winner of the family.
Egwuekwe was, however, thankful to God that despite his travails, he has been released and cleared of all the charges slammed on him. He however appealed to people of goodwill to assist him get back on his feet and be integrated into the free society again. He added:" I don't know where to start life again. I don't even know with what to start with again. My mates, who started the race with me, have since overtaken me."
Speaking also, his first son, Mr. Ifeanyi Egwuekwe, affirmed that the family passed through very hard times since their father was arrested and incarcerated.
"Besides spending a staggering N2.5 million as legal fees, the family also incurred other expenses. In all, we are very happy that our dear father has been reunited with the family", Ifeanyi said.