Three years ago, Jude Bela wouldn’t have foreseen what his life would become down the line. If he had, he would have included “May Nigeria never happen to me” in his prayer points.
Jude Bela, a young Nigerian YouTuber, told FIJ his harrowing ordeal with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) since 2019.
An early starter as a YouTube content creator, he always wanted to make a name for himself in the Nigerian media space.
“I found YouTube in my final year when I was at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi. I needed money at the time so I decided to learn everything about YouTube,” Bela said.
“After a while of being consistent with what I did, my YouTube channel blew up, so I scaled up the social ladder by buying a car, properties and even got married.
“I even started a supermarket business with part of the money I made from YouTube. With the media, I started a challenge called the ‘million naira’, challenge where people would discuss the ideas they have and a winner would be selected.
“To me, that was a way of giving back; I thought I was helping my community.”
Bela didn’t anticipate the subsequent course of events as his account was frozen on the orders of the EFCC.
THE PHONE CALL THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
“On March 8, 2019, I suddenly got a call from my bank that my account had been frozen. The first question the bank official asked was if I had a quarrel with anyone and I responded in the negative,” Bela told FIJ.
“According to a friend of mine who was a manager in the bank, he said the order for my accounts to be frozen came from Johnson Babalola, the head of the EFCC Makurdi Zonal Office.
“I didn’t believe what was going on because I knew I hadn’t committed any offence. However, when I couldn’t access any of my accounts I knew it was real and had to call a lawyer.”
Because the freeze order came on a Friday, Bela had to wait till the following Monday to go to the EFCC office with his statement of accounts and other relevant documents.
“It was the longest weekend of my entire life as I kept questioning myself time and again thinking I had unknowingly committed a financial crime,” the youtuber narrated.
“My lawyer and I both went to the EFCC Makurdi Zonal office that Monday, March 11. The EFCC officials started questioning me at a point; they continued the questioning for over five hours.
“I was tired and wanted to go home when Mr. Iyke, the investigative officer, said I was being investigated for fraud and money laundering. They also said they got an order to remand me in their cell but they would search my house for more evidence.
“I was terrified and had no words to say. Before I knew what was going on, I was put into their van and driven back to my house.”
THE HUMILIATING SEARCH
Bela narrated his humiliating experience with the EFCC thereafter.
“They searched through my whole house while turning it upside down. They even searched through my wife’s undies. It was so humiliating. My neighbours stared at me as though I was a criminal,” Bela said.
“They took away all my documents like my car documents and land papers including my MacBook for forensic check. I was taken back to their office and was locked up in one of their cells. The first night of being locked up was horrifying as I didn’t know what I was doing there.
“The next morning, the investigative officers came for me and took me for more interrogations. The EFCC panel of four started bombarding me with questions whilst trying to intimidate me.
“I explained everything about how my channel worked and the adverts which I was been paid for. I even showed them the videos I made, which were mostly about politics and injustice.
“They already convicted me for a crime I didn’t commit. The next thing I knew was one of them telling me they needed to get my gang and if I could whistle-blow on my friends, they would let me go.”
“I wondered what they were saying because I only run a Youtube channel. I don’t need a gang to run Youtube videos for crying out loud,” Bela exclaimed.
“At a point, they called my friends to come to their office and they came thinking they were there to help me; they got locked up also. Two of my friends even missed their exams in the university because they were locked up for two days.
“I called for my dad and brother at a point to help me file for bail but it was futile as the officers told them that they were ready to teach me and my friends a lesson.
“Even my investigative officer confided in me that they had no incriminating evidence on me and that he had informed the Zonal Head who kept telling him to find something. He even asked to release me but the Zonal Head said not to.”
“On the third day, I got a new lawyer who advised me to stay silent. He then filed for bail but it was denied at first but after some pressure by the lawyer, the bail was finally granted. I spent a total of four days locked up in their cell and got released on Thursday, March 14,” Bela said.
“However, the intimidation and harassments from EFCC never stopped, as they kept calling me at odd hours to ask me about things I had already told them about. They even forced my wife to come in for questioning to verify everything I had said.”
Due to the intimidation he suffered at the hands of the EFCC officials, Bela resolved to sue them to unfreeze his account and also release his property in their custody.
“I thought the court case would be easy but it wasn’t as I was faced with different oppositions. After each court hearing, I would get calls and texts from friends and random people that I should not go against the system,” Bela told FIJ.
“EFCC’s defence was that I was making a lot of money and I couldn’t defend the source. According to them, my bank activities were suspicious for my age so I had to prove to them that I was not into fraud.
THE REQUEST FOR KICKBACKS
Bela went on to say officials of the commission would later start demanding for bribe from him.
“During the hearing, an agent of the EFCC visited me in my house and advised me to settle it out of court as there was no way I could win a lawsuit against them.
“On another occasion, I got a call from a man who claimed to be a Mr. Jerry, working at the EFCC headquarters in Abuja, who said he had picked an interest in my case. He said he was one of the guys tasked to check my laptop for forensic evidence. He tried to bargain with me to tip them $5,000 and they would unfreeze my account and release my properties but I refused.”
“After three months in court, the judge upheld the decision in my favour that the EFCC couldn’t freeze an account for more than 72 hours. Mine was frozen for three months without a court order and for no just cause. She ordered them to unfreeze my accounts, release my properties and awarded me some damages,” Bela said.
“I was awarded N5 million by the court at first instance. Then I started getting calls from different individuals…I wasn’t feeling safe again so my wife and I relocated to Abuja.
“I later received another summons from the Court of Appeal as the awards granted to me were disputed by all parties. I had not even been paid yet and I was being asked to spend afresh to defend the case again. The appeal court dragged the case from 2019 till 2022.
“The higher court upheld the decision of the high court but slashed the awarded sum to N1.5 million. It didn’t even cover half the cost I had incurred while pursuing the case.”
“I lost everything. I lost my business because of lack of funds. I lost my peace because I was constantly been targeted that I had to relocate. I lost some friendships because the case took a toll on me,” Bela said.
“I even lost the YouTube channel that started all these in the first place, as my channel was taken down.
“Did I really get justice after all is said and done? The agents that did all these to me are still out there and nothing was done to them as the awards granted by the courts have not been honoured yet.”
FIJ called the EFCC several times, but the calls went unanswered. They had also not responded to a mail sent to them at press time.