As the presiding magistrate of an Evboriaria magistrate court in Benin City, Edo State, D. Adamaigbo, handed down a 21-year jail term to Jacob Alonge, a native doctor who for over three years raped and impregnated his under-aged daughter Gift, tears streamed down the cheeks of Priscilla Usiobaifo, whose NGO, BraveHeart Initiative for Youth and Women, BHI, championed the course of justice for the victim. They were tears of sadness and joy – sadness that justice in the case came at great cost – the loss of four promising lives, including that of Gift, who did not live to see his father punished for his abominable act; and joy that the deceased persons, including two staff of BHI, did not die in vain. In this interview with Adekunbi Ero, executive editor, Usiobaifo, 35, and graduate of political science from Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, tells a horrific story of the heart-wrenching ordeals of Gift who died at age 17 with over six months pregnancy, and the curious accident that almost wiped out all the key witnesses in the case.
You have just succeeded in securing a conviction in the rape case involving Jacob Alonge and his now deceased 17-year-old daughter, Gift. Can you share with us the genesis of the case which has culminated in the sentencing of the incestuous father to a 21-year jail term?
My name is Priscilla Ikos Usiobaifo. I am the founder and executive director of BraveHeart Initiative for Youth and Women. We are popularly known as BHI. We are situated at Igarra, the headquarters of Akoko-Edo local government area of Edo State, Nigeria. Over the years, we’re known to advance the young people’s sexual reproductive health and rights, and also promote women’s rights issues in Nigeria and across Africa. About seven to eight years ago, we started intervention in sexual abuse cases. We started with our local government. In December 2018, we got a report about a rape incident that occurred at Ososo community in Akoko-Edo local government, and we did our due diligence; visited the Ososo police division, as well as the vigilante team in Ososo. We discovered that it was an incestuous rape; it was actually the biological father of the child.
What was the involvement of the vigilante in this case?
In the past five years, we decided to do what we call community systems strengthening for justice and we discovered that the vigilante team in Akoko-Edo was very key stakeholders that were often ignored, often marginalized, often unrecognized for the work that they do. So, we started working with the vigilante team; we use some of them as informants, we train them, we build their capacities and we even provide technical and other forms of support for them. For example, two, three years ago, we had a similar case of sexual abuse where the vigilante apprehended the suspect and they were taking him to the police station and he jumped off the motor cycle. So when they reported to us, they advocated and requested us to provide them with handcuffs. So, because the vigilante may not be the official security agency, we had to officially approach the Igarra police division to get approval and permission to hand over handcuffs to them which we did to assist them. We’ve also given them financial support; we do moral support, and give them other materials to aid their logistics. For this particular case, the community members trust the vigilante far more than they even trust the police, so they reported to the vigilante. It was therefore the vigilante that apprehended the suspect who is now a convict, Jacob Alonge, and took him to the palace.
So, what they normally do is to first get to the palace and see if it’s a civil matter that the palace can handle at their own end. If it’s a criminal matter, then the palace would advise on what to do. So, they took him to the palace and the Olososo of Ososo, the traditional ruler, is also someone whom we’ve worked with over the years. So, he gave him a listening ear; but the man, during his presentation at the palace, was unrepentant. He was recalcitrant, and he showed disrespect even to the palace. The traditional ruler had no option than to direct the vigilante team to hand him over to the police. And right in Ososo police division, he confessed to the crime; so the case was moved to the state CID and we assisted in all those processes.
When the case got to us, first, we had to meet the girl to hear from her. We did counseling, and we referred her for medical check-up. So, she was attended to by the chief medical director of the General Hospital in Igarra, Dr. Bello Rhema who did all the examination, ran series of tests; and she was already five months gone as at December 18 last year. So, a week later, we registered her for ante-natal in the primary health centre in her community which is Ososo. We also made a promise of monthly stipend for her up-keep. Because we are of the opinion that if you went through an incestuous rape, you shouldn’t remain in the same house where your father is violating you, especially now that litigation is in place, we approached the family – please, is there any of you willing to accommodate Gift for this period? Gift Alonge is the name of this victim. Gift’s maternal uncle, Mr. Adagbogu Ukere agreed to accommodate her. So, she was there when the case was transferred to Benin accompanied by two of my staff, Rhoda Braimoh, and Promise Ezekiel. Rhoda was our out-reach officer, and Promise was the advocacy officer for the office. They got to Benin, presented the matter at the state CID. Some officers were assigned to visit the scene of crime.
So, they went to Ososo. One key statement that came from Gift’s testimony was the fact that the father made her swear an oath and the items used for the oath were the hair on her head, the hair from her armpit, hair from her pubic area, fingernails; and then they did cutting of hand to exchange blood – blood covenant. She said the father threw it somewhere in a rock. So, when the investigating police officers from the state CID arrived – I accompanied them to the scene of crime – and we actually found the nylon where all the items were tied, and that was retrieved as an evidence in the case. So, by the time they got to Benin, the matter was charged to court. He pleaded guilty and they fixed a date for judgment which was January 16, 2019. We started preparing towards the judgment. On the morning of the judgment, I reached out to my team in Akoko-Edo; they told me they had taken off. I wished them a safe trip, and about three hours later, precisely between eight and nine o’clock, I got a phone call from my eldest sister that an accident had happened and my team was involved, and that some of them were actually confirmed dead as at that time; but we didn’t know the number. So, by the end of the day, we discovered that Promise Ezekiel, our advocacy officer, had died on the spot; Gift Alonge, who was the victim, and had a six months, five days old pregnancy, also died on the spot. Her maternal uncle who accompanied her to Benin being a minor at 17, because we needed an elderly person from the family to go with her, also died on the spot. And the driver, Paul Opashi, an Igarra man, whom we have been working with for several years, also died. So, only two people got to the Teaching Hospital in Irrua which is Rhoda Braimoh, our out-reach officer, and the case manager for this particular case – the head of vigilante who arrested Jacob. They did series of operations for Rhoda, fought the battle to save her, but on Saturday, January 19, Rhoda also gave up, making Roland Aiyejina, the head of vigilante, the only survivor from this accident.
While the accident happened, the court process was on and they kept on waiting for them to arrive in court. So, when the magistrate didn’t see them and hearing that an accident had happened, in the spirit of empathy she adjourned the case to the following week for judgment. But on appearing in court, Jacob Alonge came with a lawyer from the defence counsel to support him and he changed his plea from guilty, to not guilty. So, the implication was that the case had to start afresh, and judgment could not hold. And that news came with a reverberating trauma not just to BraveHeart, but to the families of my girls that we lost in the process of the case. Because the two girls were quite young, they were buried as soon as they died. Promise was just 26, and Rhoda who died later, was 23 years old. Rhoda just gained admission for her HND. Promise was supposed to be in NYSC camp as we speak now because she just graduated; she should have been in this batch just mobilized. So, the families became worried that oh, we didn’t mind our children dying in the line of duty; but hearing that the man who committed the crime has opportunity of walking scot-free, was inconceivable. They believe he’s changing his plea because he sensed that all the key witnesses in the case were dead. At that point, I had to think deeply because I was working with John Hopkins Centre for Communication Programme in Abuja on a project on family planning. So, I tendered my resignation amidst several advises that I should not. At least, the establishment was nice enough to offer me leave days. But I didn’t want a conflict of interest. I had resigned officially from BraveHeart as the executive director despite the fact that I was the founder. But this team is my team; I may be in Abuja, but my mind was not at rest. So, in March, I left the place, and I relocated fully to Edo State and initiated the process of supporting the families to pick their life up again. And it wasn’t just the families of my staff now. Even Gift’s maternal uncle who died left a widow with seven children. So, we also needed to reach out to them. The vigilante head who survived still had medical issues, complications with regular visits to the hospital. Then my team of staff that had been working with Rhoda who all of a sudden their colleagues were all gone over-night; so, it was a traumatic experience. And as the team leader, I needed to be there at such a critical moment of their life to help put the team back on track.
So, actually, we shut down the office and I was like what’s the essence of working when the staff on the field had died. How much are NGO workers paid? Rhoda was just on #20,000; it was even far less than the minimum wage. But that’s what we could afford as an organization, then, she would die; so I had shut it down. But I had calls from other places to encourage me to say you know what, it’s bad that at your age, at 35, you are going through such an experience. But the struggle continues, and you need the office to also push this case. So, we reopened March 16 and we started reaching out to people we felt could be of assistance us in the case. Luckily for us, we got Dr. Osagie Obayuwana of Osagie Obayuwana Chambers to take up the case, pro bono. The ministry of women affairs also reached out to the ministry of justice, which assigned family lawyers from DPP to also offer to prosecute. So, at the end of the day, the ministry of justice did the prosecution of the case while Obayuwana Chambers did watching brief. We had several other lawyers, FIDA and other NGOs who rendered support in this process. CSOs network within Edo State all rallied round us and showed immense solidarity. We were able to field four witnesses – the medical doctor who assessed her, the investigating police officer from Ososo police division, the investigating police officer from the state police headquarters in Benin, and lastly, the head of vigilante who not only knew how the case started, but was also in the accident. It wasn’t easy to get him because a lot of the community members said ah, if he (the convict) waited for you before, he can wait for you again because a lot of people in the community believed that the man had spiritual involvement in the accident, though we know that it was a truck that ran into the vehicle on that day.
While the case was on, where was the convict?
He had been in prison custody. He wasn’t granted bail. So, at the end of the day, we presented our case the best way we could, and this morning, the magistrate of special grade, Chief Magistrate Adamaigbo delivered the judgment and he was given 21 years to be served consecutively. The three-count-charge – the first count, he got five years, second count, two years, and on the last count, 14 years.
Under what circumstance was the convict arrested?
He had actually impregnated the daughter two years earlier when she was 15 and crudely aborted the pregnancy. He gave her a concoction to drink and she was in pains for days. So, she got pregnant again for him and she was suspecting that he was going to force her to abort, so she escaped to her auntie’s place to complain to her that this is what is happening. Another of their neighbours who had seen her vomiting suspected that something may be wrong with her. So, it was that auntie she confided in who raised the alarm and other community members took the matter to the vigilante, and the vigilante took it to the palace.
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It’s obvious you are doing so much; you are involved in not just advocacy but also taking care of welfare of victims. How are you funded?
For all our cases over the years, we’ve never gotten any donor to support us like other NGOs that get money. What we do is go to face-book and other social media outlets and appeal for funds. But at the community level, we have concerned citizens who pledge to us. I, for example, have family and friends who on a monthly basis say Priscilla, we are giving you five thousand for your rape cases; we are giving you two thousand. We even have market women in Igarra who would say, oh, when our neighbour’s child was raped, you were the one who carried the matter on your head, so this is our own contribution to you. But they are not consistent. And few years ago, we even decided to open a dedicated account called ‘The Survivor Support Fund’ so that any money that is coming, you don’t need to go into the main account; you go specifically to that particular account. But when this accident happened, in fact, within the first two days of the accident, we got a group of women activists in Nigeria; some of them had a feminist group, another had a gender group which I belong to, and they raised over N700, 000 because Rhoda’s medical bills alone was about N500, 000 just in the three days she spent at the Teaching Hospital. So, with that money, we were able to offset the medical bills and burial. So, for the two families, we gave N100, 000 each as our own contribution towards their burials. We have also tried to support the families in a little way that we can. But we got an anonymous organization in Lagos which also reached out to us. They said okay because you are reopening the office in March, let’s support your work for March, April, and May because you are going to have your team put together, staffing and everything, and they did that support. Most of the donations have just been the goodwill of Nigerians.
Then the civil society network on HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, Edo State branch led by Dr. Bright Oniovokukor also was able to fund-raise money that was used for the candle light procession – because there was a big candle light procession in the state in honour of the two girls who died. So, civil society members did that fund- raising.
In the course of all these, where was Gift’s mother?
Gift’s mother is no longer married to the father; they separated years ago and she’s been mentally unstable. Even Gift used to live with the mother at a point, but because she wasn’t fine, that was why she came to live with the father. When this incident happened, we looked for her; till date, as I speak, we’ve not been able to find her. She’s not even within the community. But the man has a young wife from the South-eastern part of Nigeria. In fact, the wife’s room is like the next room to his before Gift’s own. So, he actually leaves the woman’s room and crosses over to Gift’s room to go and wake her to take her to where he was having sex with her. Strangely, he wasn’t having sex with her in the house. So, the day we went to visit the scene of crime, when we were walking out, I overheard the woman shouting at Gift behind me telling her that upon all the begging that they begged her as a family, she still went ahead to go and disgrace her husband to human right people which is me that she was referring to. She even made an attempt to assault Gift. So, I had to give her a warning that you as a mother, are supposed to show motherly support to this child but now you are taking sides with your husband against this child.
So, now that the case has come to a logical conclusion, and the criminal jailed, how do you feel?
Today, two things happened for me. When I started pursuing justice, I said this justice is for Gift Alonge; but it is victory for Rhoda Braimoh, Promise Ezekiel, I, Priscilla Usiobaifo, and my entire team. Then the judgment today is also consolation for the families of Rhoda and Promise knowing that their daughters did not die in vain. And one remarkable part of the judgment for me was the fact that there was no option of fine because we’ve had cases where there were options of fine and the convict would just pay and walk away. I’m really happy. It proves that even in death justice is not evasive.