Like many court judges in Nigeria, Presiding Judge, Court of Appeal, Owerri Division, Justice Rita Nosakhare Pemu has overseen many cases involving kidnapping and armed robbery.
Unknown to her that she would one day be a victim, she ensured that people who perpetrated such acts were severely punished according to the law. Last year, Justice Pemu tasted the horrendous experience of many kidnap victims when she was kidnapped along Ihiala road in Anambra State.
The judge who retired on March 6, 2023 after 45 years in judicial service, shares with ENCOUNTER her four-hour ordeal in kidnappers’ den and how she managed to escape. She also shares one of the most challenging moments in her career when she had to flee the country after delivering judgement in an appeal involving the alleged killers of Kudirat Abiola; Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, Rabo Lawal and others.
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Fear of road travel
I am the kind of person that always prefers to fly because of the insecurity in the country and the nature of my job. So on that particular occasion, February 20, 2022, I flew in from Lagos to Benin and told my supporting staff to go ahead of me in two cars.
My personal assistant, a housemaid and two drivers went ahead of me on the trip to Benin. One of the drivers was driving a Hilux and the other one was driving a minibus with Court of Appeal written on it. I told them to go ahead to Benin and we met when I flew into Benin. I finished what I had to do in Benin and decided to return to Owerri, Imo State.
As we prepared for the trip, my PA was a bit rattled because ordinarily, before then, I would have told him to make my flight arrangements. But I didn’t tell him anything and he wasn’t sure what was going on. After a while, it dawned on him that I wanted to travel by road and that was exactly what I did.
Simple dress saved the day
On the day of the trip, there was this fine dress that I decided to wear but as I prepared for the trip, I just tossed the dress aside and decided to wear something simple.
So I wore a very simple dress with a facial cap and a pair of slippers. I told my staff that I want to experience how it is to travel by road. They initially refused to allow me travel with them saying that the roads were bad and that the trip would not be comfortable for me.
But of course I had already made up my mind to go with them by road. Instead of entering the Hilux which was my official car, I decided to join my staff in the minibus.
Detour of danger
While on the trip, we got to a particular place and saw people doing a detour because there was an accident in front. So I gave the permission that we should follow other cars on the detour.
As we came out from the detour onto the expressway, suddenly a Hilux Jeep with fierce looking men all dressed in black t-shirts with AK-47 rifles cornered us. They came out of their car and said we should all come out.
They kept asking us where our boss was, but we didn’t respond. The free-flowing dress I wore obviously made me look like a maid, so they didn’t suspect that I was the boss.
They asked the minibus driver to show his identity card which he did. Immediately they started shooting sporadically in front of the car. We laid down on the terribly hot tarred road while they were shooting.
Something in me kept me confident throughout that ordeal because every time I raised my head and looked at their faces, they would avoid my eyes. There were five of them. As the gunshots were rattling the air, I told my staff to start pleading the blood of Jesus and they obeyed me.
They kept pleading the blood of Jesus and I told myself that even if we died in this experience, it would be better dying while pleading the blood of Jesus.
So we were chorusing the blood of Jesus and waiting to be shot. After some minutes, I asked my maid, where the kidnappers were and she said they had gone away.
Marched into cave
By the time I looked up, they were no longer there. As we got up, suddenly two of them returned and demanded to know why we got up. So we lay down again. They instructed us to march into a nearby cave.
We got into the cave but surprisingly they didn’t follow us into the cave. They just left us there but we kept hearing gunshots everywhere. I took a quick decision and told my staff that we should just begin to run before stray bullets hit us inside the cave.
Race for life
So we all began to run. I was far behind while my two staff that were obviouly younger were far ahead of me. I had a lot of bruises inside the bush while running. I have never ran such a race in my life.
Eventually, we got into a small village and people who saw us were surprised that the kidnappers did not kill us. They quickly helped us and put us on two okadas.
The okada man carrying me kept warning me to sit well to avoid him falling because I was just shaking on the okada. When we got to a point, we boarded a commercial tricycle popularly known as Keke Napep to Ihiala.
Driver, Hilux still missing
When the kidnap drama was unfolding, the kidnappers told my driver to come down from the Hilux but he refused. We were all shouting that he should come down but he refused. So they shot at the Hilux.
I don’t believe that they killed him because we saw him reversing the car. But up till today, the driver and my Hilux are still missing. That was all I knew until Police from Orlu came to pick us.
Harvest of dead bodies
I saw a number of dead persons that day particularly a man I later learnt was a chief executive officer of a company located in Port Harcourt. A bus coming behind us was also shot and the driver was killed. I also learnt five persons inside the bus were killed.
We were also told that many people were killed the following day in the same area. I got so disgusted in my spirit and felt the kidnappers could not be human beings with the way they killed people at will.
Experience captured in book
I dedicated a chapter of the book I just launched, Evidence of Grace, to the experience. I titled that chapter: The efficacy of the Blood of Jesus. I had to title that chapter so because I am a beneficiaryof the blood of Jesus. You can’t imagine the trauma of facing five fierce-looking men with AK-47 and still survive it.
That incident lasted from about 11:30am to 3:00pm. That was my first time of entering an okada and that ride meant a lot for me. I told my staff to take me a picture while inside the Keke Napep that took us to Orlu.
It was one of the greatest ordeals of my life and I am happy that I am alive to share the experience.
Resumes work next day
I came back to work the day after the incident and lawyers who appeared in my court were all shouting. The day after the incident, they had to use hot water to massage my body because that was my first time of running such long distance in my life.
I was literally flying like an Olympic athlete. Lawyers were shouting when I appeared in court the next day, and I continued sitting for three weeks at a stretch. When the lawyers keep demanding that I take time to rest, I told them that I preferred working so as to use it to forget the ordeal. When I am working, the experience takes backstage on my mind.
Why I fled Nigeria
When I delivered the judgment in Major Hamza Al-Mustapha and others’ appeal in 2013, there was a general outcry that I had taken bribe and that I am girlfriend to one big man. The outcry was huge but it was only Femi Fani-Kayode that said the judgment was beautiful and advised people to go and read it.
The pressure was so much that I had to run out of the country for six weeks. Luckily for me, by the time I came back, some newspapers had started serialising the judgement. It was a 75-page judgement and every day, the newspapers were serializing it.
I can tell you that by the time people read the complete judgement, the outcry stopped and not a single word was heard again on the issue. People read it and saw my reasoning. When you are aggrieved, you go upstairs but when you are aggrieved with the decision upstairs, who do you now go to?
Test of courage
We have to continue to do our job with courage and if you find that you have passed the test of courage then you will surely be regarded as virtuous.
We must continue to be courageous and do the right things despite all odds and no matter whose ox is gored.