Battle for man’s corpse tears family apart three years after his death
By Olisemeka Obeche & Jude Chinedu
Residents of Obinagu Isikwe community in Achi, Oji-River local government area of Enugu state witnessed a rarely seen drama on July 13, 2019 when some youths, security agents and council health officials, mobilised by Mr. Ikechukwu Uzochukwu, tried to exhume the body of his late brother, Benjamin Uzochukwu. They were stopped midway following an ‘order from above’.
Orient Weekend gathered that Ikechukwu wanted to exhume the body of the former councillor, who died August 2016 under suspicious circumstances, and give it a befitting burial when police officers stormed the building to stop them.
An eye witness disclosed that, before police could stop them, Ikechukwu and others had excavated the floors of three rooms in the building in search of the grave.
Orient Weekend reliably gathered that Ikechukwu, his mother, Abigail Uzochukwu and other siblings (Nnamdi, Chuks and Patrick) had procured a court order and the backing of some village elders in their desperate bid to find the remains before the exercise and subsequent police order.
According to Barrister Obinna Onuigbo, legal counsel to the deceased’s children and wife, Ikechukwu’s desperation was such that he used the name of his aged mother to secure a court order, citing the Deaths and Burials Law of Enugu State, 2004 against burying people inside a living house.
He explained: “So they took the order to the commissioner of police who minuted to the Area Commander and, through that, they got police protection to. They broke into the house looking for where the man was buried.”
“When we got wind of it, we cried out, made contacts, got to the commissioner of police, we even got to the inspector general of police, and they asked them to stop, and go back to the area command.
According to Onuigbo, the battle for the corpse was still in two courts. “The matter in the magistrate court is still on going. We also have a case at the High court and another on fundamental rights.
“There was a petition from one of the witnesses. After interrogation and statements, they were released same day. We are even at the court of appeal because of the same burial. And still they went behind to exhume the body.
“They are asking for order to exhume the corpse and re-bury; that he was buried inside a living room against their tradition, a lie we have investigated and saw that other persons had been buried in their houses,” Onuigbo stressed.
Why we want our brother’s corpse
Ikechukwu told Orient Weekend that the family received a speculative report about their brother’s death in August 2016 but had not been able to confirm it hence the quest to exhume his corpse.
Speaking through his counsel, Barrister Ajana Ejikeme, Ikechukwu disclosed that when the family approached the deceased’s wife, Irene, and her children on death, they affirmed it but would not offer meaningful explanation on their failure to properly inform the family, thus raising suspicions around the death.
“They said that if truly the man was dead, they would want to see the corpse. So, every effort made by the siblings and the mother of the deceased proved abortive”, Ejikeme said.
According to him, the custom of Obinagu Isikwu-achi, was to properly inform the relatives, especially the surviving mother and siblings, and show them the corpse to pay their last respects.
“They disobeyed the kindred. They shunned the Igwe-in-council who summoned them. The Igwe, however, still directed them to show the deceased’s mother and siblings the corpse but they ignored the directive”, Ejikeme claimed.
They equally shunned even the intervention and same directive from the vicar of their church, St Bartholomew Anglican Church.
The crisis took a dramatic twist when some hired labourers reportedly arrived the village to prepare a grave for Mr. Uzochukwu’s burial slated for October 28, 2016 without the consent of the family and community. Aggrieved family members reportedly complained to the Oji River police and the burial was stopped.
The family later obtained an injunction from the Oji River Magistrate’s Court restraining the defendants from burying the deceased until the entire family had seen Mr Uzochukwu’s corpse. There was a twist when the widow and children ignored the court order, went to a high court with an ex parte motion asking for a review of the lower court order. Armed with another court order to proceed with the funeral, the defendants reportedly conducted a secret burial of the deceased.
“At this point, these children brandished the high court order. The Igwe, thinking it was a real high court order, allowed them. They went inside, dug a grave in a room in that apartment and buried this man and sealed it with tiles.”
Ejikeme said he later discovered that it was a fake court order, hence their continued quest to ensure that justice was served on the matter.
“The court was disappointed. We filed a motion for exhumation but the court did not grant it, saying the court order was fraudulent,” he adds.
Why we refused them access to the corpse
The deceased’s son, Chiemerie, disclosed that they denied all access to the corpse because they suspected ulterior motive as the family, including Ikechukwu, failed to help his father when he was ill.
He alleged: “He even promised to fly my father to India but, at the dying minutes, he said those that took him to hospital should pay his bills of over N2m. My father called him again and begged for his assistance but he refused. We borrowed money to pay the bills.
“When my father returned from hospital, he never visited to see him. What he did was to seal the small gate that connects our house to his. He also sent people to collect all his land and property receipts because my father helped in acquiring most of them for him.”
Hear him: “The morning we were to go the mortuary, the mortician called me that somebody came with Okada with a woman, claiming that I sent him to see the corpse. It was then obvious they wanted to do something for which they didn’t want me to be there.
“We had fixed a date with the church for October 28, 2016. He insisted that the burial would not hold. We all went to the church and it was agreed that we all should work together for the burial. I was also told to take them to the mortuary.
“The next thing we saw was that we were served a court order restraining us from holding the burial. We went to the court and vacated the order for the burial to still hold on October 28.”
“On the said date he mobilized thugs and surrounded the mortuary not knowing that the corpse had been moved. They also blocked our compound and roads leading to the compound ensuring that nobody accessed our house for the burial.
“The family was able to get SARS Enugu who stormed the scene and arrested 13 of the boys and took them to SARS office Enugu. The same SARS police squad escorted the corpse to our compound and he was buried.
“Since then he has been fighting to exhume the body. In the course of the struggle we have been arrested and detained in several police cells including Lagos and Abuja.”
Orient Weekend learnt that both parties met with Enugu State Commissioner of Police Mr Sulaiman Balarabe on July 15 where the police reportedly explained that they were not properly briefed on the matter before erroneously giving the nod for the exhumation. The CP was also quoted as saying he didn’t know about the case just as he ordered that status quo be maintained.
The commissioner, this paper learnt, had asked the parties to the dispute to return to court to thrash out the case, warning that police would deal decisively with anybody that attempts to exhume the body until the case is dispensed.
Next battle line
Barrister Onuigbo insisted that they would file charges against his clients’ traducers over the destruction of the deceased’s house during the search for the corpse.
Nevertheless, Barrister Ejikeme, counsel to the aggrieved family, was confident of victory, saying they had done nothing against the law.
“Why should we deny the mother access to the son’s corpse? Even at today, the woman is still crying – if my son is alive let me see him, if he is dead show me the corpse, let me go and rest.”
On the rationale for exhuming the corpse buried almost 28 months ago, Ejikeme said it would help to satisfy all curiosity surrounding Ngozi’s death and prepare the family to pay their last respect.