By Godwin Onyeacholem
To say it wasn’t foreseen would be for one an absurd indulgence in self-denial. Last month’s compulsory retirement of Captain Emmanuel Ekpe Owen of the Nigerian Navy marked yet another act of horrendous injustice that has become more of a permanent feature in both public and private sector governance in the country. The wicked behaviour manifests in various forms but none comes close in its egregiousness than the impunity enjoyed by top government officials in the workplace.
More often when such officials are caught in one form of barefaced wrongdoing or another, they get away unpunished using their privileged status to browbeat those trying to hold them accountable, then finagle their way to total freedom. And in the end, through a sordid connivance of state apparatchik, it’s the ones asking the questions and demanding that things be done the right way for the good of society whose fingers get severely burnt on the open flame grill. It’s a measure of the extent of a systemic rot in which a sense of consequence for wrongdoing is heartbreakingly absent.
Owen happens to be the latest victim in this saga of unfairness, his story an unequivocal taxonomy of dread in the relentless wave of corruption roiling through Nigeria. His problem began overseas in the mid-90s, in the heat of conflict aboard NNS AMBE, a warship Nigeria had deployed to Liberia as part of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) contingent to save the latter from a brutal civil war, and coursed through a series of frustrating encounters with different layers of authorities which culminated in his forced retirement in July.
The ship was commanded by Dada Labinjo, then a commander, who was also coincidentally controversially retired as captain some years back. The immediate past chief of naval staff, vice admiral Ibok-Ette Ibas, then a lieutenant-commander, was his second-in-command (Executive Officer). Owen, then a lieutenant, was the Watch Keeping Duty Officer in addition to being the Watch Deck Officer and Supply Officer. As supply officer, he was responsible for feeding and catering to the administrative needs of the ship’s complement of 85 personnel comprising 12 officers and 73 ratings.
In one of the ship’s trips back to Nigeria for “backloading of military ordnance,” 40 of the crew members, comprising 5 officers and 35 ratings were dropped and 45 were left on board and returned to Monrovia for continuation of ECOMOG duties. Ibas, as the executive officer then, happened to be the one who kept possession of the file containing the quarterly allowances in various sums for the crew. One day, the payment file was mistakenly sent to the ship’s secretariat, and while flipping through Owen discovered that although the 45 naval staff on the ship were paid their allowances, money was collected for the original 85 that took the first trip. This meant that Ibas received money for the 40 staff who were dropped when the ship returned to Nigeria, which was wrong.
The young officer summoned the guts and confronted his boss on the discrepancy, and that was the beginning of his trouble. The reprisals came swiftly. In his petition to President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2019, Owen recalled of Ibas: “His looks and attitude towards me were strange and unfriendly when I told him that the development could land the ship in trouble and also an embarrassment to the Nigerian Navy.”
Determined to punish him for daring to point out a superior’s wrongdoing, Ibas came up with the ridiculous charge that the officer came down from the ship to receive food items and other supplies for the ship, a task that was originally part of the officer’s duty as the ship’s supply officer. After pressing this funny allegation, he ordered that Owen be locked up in a disused “heads” (toilet in a ship) with no ventilation. He slept on the floor of the toilet for six days and contracted an undiagnosed ailment. On the seventh day, despite his ill-health, the accuser arranged a summary trial on the ship’s bridge where he was also the prosecutor. But Owen opposed the trial because due process was not followed, and so it was stood down.
Under armed escort, he was taken to the ECOMOG field hospital where he was diagnosed with lung infection that required his immediate evacuation to Nigeria. Away from the vengeful eyes of his boss, Owen felt relieved until Ibas was appointed chief of naval staff in July 2015, and then the persecution returned in full force and lasted beyond the chief’s departure.
All the letters of appeal for justice Owen wrote to Buhari were also received by all those who matter in military and defence circles in the country, but no action was taken. At every level, all efforts to seek redress were frustrated.
In his own letter to Buhari, Pelumi Olajengbesi, a human rights lawyer, acting on behalf of Owen, noted, “The CNS (referring to Ibas) has channeled all his resources both official and unofficial to make life as a naval officer unbearable for Captain Owen….” He recalled that thrice he was denied promotion and his records tampered with, relieved of his appointment as Assistant Director in charge of Procurement in Defence Intelligence Agency and made redundant, among many other forms of punishment, until he was retired.
For a resourceful, vibrant officer who committed no offence and still has five years left before exiting public service, Olajengbesi has described Owen’s compulsory retirement as “wrongful.”
One of the major drawbacks of the fight against corruption is the failure to protect citizens who make efforts to ensure accountability and transparency in the system from victimization and punish the perpetrators of fraud and other kinds of wrongdoing to deter others. In this particular case, rather than query the bad behaviour of a senior officer who rose to become the head of one of the units of the armed forces, government not only conspired in the scheme to cover up his misconduct, but it also went on to reward him with a diplomatic posting. Meanwhile, the junior officer, the real patriot, who exposed his boss’ fraudulent act is the one who gets severely punished with government’s full backing.
Unless government retraces its steps by acting firmly on the side of justice for citizens suffering reprisals for reporting wrongdoing or demanding accountability, Owen’s experience will not encourage anyone in the military, least of all the Nigerian Navy, to join the war against widespread corruption in the country.
(Onyeacholem is Senior Programme Officer at the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) and Coordinator of the Whistleblowing Project, Corruption Anonymous (CORA))