Innocent man's trauma as he is held behind bars for two years, and waits nine years for trial
He spent nine years awaiting trial for drug trafficking, only to be found innocent of all charges. In his first interview after the trial, Chukwudi Samuel Onyeabor tells Victor Paul Borg about the experience that almost broke him and the attitude that’s helping him bounce back.
The seventh day of June, 2017, was sunny and calm, but inside Tithe Samuel’s rib cage his heart was beating abnormally, timorously, fearfully.
After being kept in Malta against his will for nine years, after being in prison for nearly two of those years, after being “condemned before trial” by the justice system, after being terrified by the lump that grew bulgingly in his lower back, and after withstanding indignities and horrors – after all of that, even as Samuel boarded the plane that would take him back home, he still couldn’t believe that he was finally a free man, that his tormenters had allowed him to leave.
“I thought that at any moment I would be snatched off the plane,” he recalled. “That’s how traumatised I was after my experience.”
Samuel had pulled out of a previously arranged interview we had at the very last minute, as he was “getting dressed for it”. It was only last week, six months after having been acquitted of drug trafficking charges, that he finally felt ready to tell his story for publication.
“I was in a state of shock after being acquitted,” he said in a Skype call from the Netherlands. “After everything that happened, being free was very unreal. I needed time to process what happened, and to make sure that it’s real.”
His questioning of reality is telling: it demonstrates how the trauma of his tribulations may have preyed on his imagination. For example, he talked of having been watched in Malta, perhaps even by his neighbours, and of his watchers having wanted to make it known that he was being watched – all in a bid to drive him insane.
While the possibility that he was under surveillance cannot be dismissed, the idea he was being watched may also have been driven by a combination of trauma and profound distress, as well the conspicuousness and scorn he attracted as an African, all conjuring up the impression of persecution.
Samuel’s full name is Chukwudi Samuel Onyeabor. The 40-year-old Nigerian, who lost his father to a car accident in his teens, spent a couple of years studying in the US before returning to Nigeria and getting into university to study economics. He dropped out after three years, and eventually he met his Dutch wife, with whom he moved to the Netherlands in 2002. His first son was born in 2003.
In the Netherlands he did a range of jobs and got into the pattern of exporting a few cars from Holland to Nigeria twice or three times a year. He first came to Malta on holiday, in 2007, where he stumbled upon another Nigerian who had grown up in the same village, and they discussed a potential venture of importing minibuses into Nigeria.
That man, Ferdinand Onovo, made contact with him in February 2008 and urged him to come to Malta to clinch the deal.
As Samuel waited in his hotel room, little did he imagine the terrible ordeal that awaited him. When Mr Onovo walked in, the police pounced.
They had been led to the pair after arresting two drug carriers at the airport with nearly six kilos of cocaine having a street value of roughly half a million euros. According to court reports, Mr Onovo was the next to be arrested and he agreed to collaborate with the police to catch the “final consignee” of the imported drugs, whom they believed to be Samuel.
Last April, Mr Onovo pleaded guilty to having taking part in a drug trafficking ring and was imprisoned for 10 years. But for Samuel, the story was very different. At the end of April he was acquitted of trafficking drugs, by seven votes to two, in a trial by jury that lasted 10 days.
Nine years after his arrest, the prosecution had no hard evidence: no drugs had exchanged hands, no large sum of money had been found, no overheard discussion about ‘drugs’ had taken place between Onovo and Samuel.
Samuel’s acquittal stripped the case to its plain travesty: the investigation had been hasty and botched, the prosecution a farce.
After being arrested, the investigating inspector had told him that he “knew everything”, he recalled during the interview.
“I was happy when the inspector said that because it gave me the idea that he knew that I was not a criminal.”
On the contrary, he was assumed to be guilty. The police built their case on Mr Onovo’s story, apparently relying on assumptions and plausibility to clinch their case – mistakenly, as it turned out.
“As soon as I was arrested they made me feel like I was guilty,” Samuel mused. “I have no words for how I felt. Everyone in the system, including the prison guards, kept telling me that time spent under arrest would be deducted from the sentence; it was so hard being presumed guilty.
“There were court appearances that sapped my morale even more – my lawyers would not be present, no one would tell me what was going on, no one was looking after my interests.”
His feelings are all too familiar to many of those processed through the court system – the courts tend to strip away people’s dignity so, together with the notorious delays, no wonder they inspire so little confidence.
After 22 months in custody he was let out on bail to await trial. But years passed. Marooned in Malta, Samuel’s family broke apart. The relationship with his wife had become volatile and the incarceration in Malta ruined any chance of working things out. After four years of separation, Samuel’s wife got involved with someone else and formally left him.
That was the lowest point in his long agony, and he was lucky, a few months later, to meet his current girlfriend, an Estonian physiotherapist with whom he fathered a second son. He could prop himself on his new girlfriend, describing her as a strong woman.
Now they live separately in the Netherlands – both in a bedsit, a consequence of their financial ruination. Samuel frittered away all his money in the nine years he spent in Malta. And rebuilding his life in the Netherlands has proven harder than he imagined. He is not currently working and neither is his girlfriend.
During his time in Malta he did win a few concessions. He received social benefits for some time, although these were halted when he moved in with his girlfriend, and in 2015 he was awarded €5,000 by the Constitutional Court (he is not sure why) – small mercies in nine years of mental drudgery.
Last March he staged a one-man protest in front of the law courts against being forced to spend nine years here without a trial.
“I saw demons in Malta,” he said. “But I didn’t treat them as demons. That’s because when you struggle to exclude something from your life, it doesn’t work. Life is what it is, and different aspects of life – the beautiful and the ugly – have to be balanced. I learned that love can turn pain and anger into a beautiful flower.
“And I didn’t wallow in self-pity: that would have been the end for me,” he continued. “When it gets tough, I talk to God. I talk to the universe; I talk to the force, I say, ‘You are doing this.’ The Maltese, the justice system, it’s just a tool – this is my life journey, this is meant for me – so I made my ordeal my friend.”
He dabbled in creative outputs. In prison he started writing a novel. At one point he wrote a children’s book and he began working on a book called Keeping it Sane, a self-help book about coping mechanisms and attitudes in the face of adversities.
“The book is not finished yet, I have not worked on it since I came to the Netherlands,” he elaborated. “The book is not about the case, it’s about what I learned from my experience in Malta. The main theme is that you cannot think of yourself as a victim, you have to find ways of embracing the positive side-effects of a negative situation. It’s going to be awesome.”
Now he is preparing to file a lawsuit for compensation. He would probably have to return to Malta to fight that battle, but Malta is not all brooding for Samuel.
“I connected with nature during my time in Malta,” he said. “I looked at the sea, at the stars, at the sun, I could see that not all Maltese people are bad.”
Tithe Samuel has taken to crowdfunding in a bid to raise money to get on his two feet financially: you can make a donation at www.gofundme.com/help-me-go-home-after-9-years-hell.