Godwin Stephen, also known as Steve Winners, a 27-year-old entertainer and event planner based in Rivers State who was arrested and remanded in prison for three years for using the photo of a child he found online for publicity for his birthday, chronicles his experience with GODFREY GEORGE.
You were remanded in prison for three years. What led to your arrest?
I was arrested on March 24, 2018, at the Obio Akpor Local Government secretariat, Rivers State.
What were you doing at the secretariat and why were you arrested?
In December 2017, I held an event in Port Harcourt tagged ‘Iyokoko Comic Fiesta and Award Night’. While we were planning for this event, we got a business proposal from a tea company, based in London but with a branch in Port Harcourt. They came to me to organise a tea party for them which was slated for May 2018. In 2018, I thought it wise to celebrate my birthday with orphans in Rivers State. February 25 was my birthday but I chose to celebrate it in the next month, being March, so I’d have a lot of time to prepare. The reason I decided to celebrate with orphans was because I wanted them to join me in praying for the tea party which was to come up in May in that same year. The tea party would be one of the biggest events I’d have handled in my entire career as an event planner, so I needed all the spiritual support I could get. For birthday fliers, I went on the Internet and downloaded some pictures of orphans to use to further illustrate.
How did you know the pictures you got online were pictures of orphans?
I went online and searched for ‘hungry orphans in Africa and Nigeria’ and a lot of pictures popped up. I selected and downloaded about 20 pictures to use on the flier and social media. That same week, I was interviewed on Wazobia Fm, Port Harcourt, to talk about the orphan’s event/birthday party. The party was finally slated to take place on Saturday, March 24, 2018. Before that time, I met the Chairman of the Obio Akpor Local Government Area to request his permission to use the secretariat as the venue for this party. I also took permission from the Rivers State Secretary of Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Nigeria, a government parastatal, to seek permission to allow the orphans with them to celebrate with me. I was granted permission. I wrote to about seven orphanage homes for the same event and they promised to come. I began to make arrangements for mobility and feeding, to be sure they’d be taken care of.
It was meant to be a big celebration. How did you get funding for it?
I had sponsors from iTel, a bottled water company, some private schools and some individuals. I went to them, sold the idea to them and they bought it and decided to pull in some funds.
Something happened a week before the event. I got a call from a certain Anglican bishop based in Port Harcourt. He told me he loved the idea of the event I was about to host and would love to be part of it. He asked me whether the children coming for the event were the same ones found on the fliers and I told him I got them from the internet, that the children coming for the event were the orphans in Rivers State. He then told me he’d send some delegates from his church to come to meet me and he’d love to partner me.
Did you know this bishop before then?
Well, he was an Anglican bishop who was well-known in Port Harcourt, so telling me he wanted to partner with me for the event was such a big deal for me. I suspected no foul play. A few days later, I got another phone call from an unknown number and the caller told me he was from the bishop and he would love to meet with me. So, I directed them to stop in front of my church. I am Catholic and I worship in St John’s Catholic Church, Rumuokwurishi, Port Harcourt. The caller also said he was coming with other delegates. So, a few moments later, a Sienna vehicle drove into the church’s premises and my secretary and I went out to greet them. I joined them in their car and they drove off.
Why did you join them in the car? Was it part of the plan?
They said the bishop wanted them to follow me to some of the orphanages I had invited so they would see some of these orphans and also let them know they were partnering with me for the event. Since they said they were from the bishop, I didn’t feel there was any need to further probe their mission. When I entered the car, I saw a woman with a young girl of about four or five years old. I saw one other person who dressed like a cleric. It was strange, but I convinced myself they were from the bishop. I took them to some of the orphanage homes and they told the orphanage management the same thing they had told me. I didn’t know they were looking for a missing child. They visited again the next day and we toured around the other orphanages. When they left that day, I called the bishop and told him how the tour went and he told me he’d get back to me with his own contribution towards the success of the event. But days later, there was no message from him. I had to take out some money from the tea party to make sure the event did not fail.
On the day of the event, we arrived at the venue to set it up and we saw the same delegates from the bishop seated. We had to quickly rush the preparations and kick-start the event. I gave them the floor to deliver the bishop’s message even though I was not happy they didn’t reach out to me as promised. They took over the floor and said the same things they had been saying before leaving.
Did they give any cash gift or any gift at all to the orphans?
No. They did not. They only made promises. As I saw them leaving, I rushed off to see them off and thank them for coming. On our way, one of them asked me how I got the pictures I used for the fliers of the event. I told them the same thing I told the bishop, that I downloaded them from the internet. That was when they opened up to say they were from the Imo State Police Command and they showed me their identity card. A clear conscience fears no accusation, so I still thanked them for coming. They said they would like to see me for another five minutes, so I told them to hold on so I informed my secretary, but they said it won’t take time and it was unnecessary. So, we walked out of the secretariat and they got close to where their vehicle was packed. Before I knew what was happening, they dragged me to a police station very close to the secretariat. I was confused. I asked them what I had done and why I was being taken to the police station. Even the police officers in the station, too, asked to know what happened and why I was being manhandled in their station. As I wanted to explain, they told me to come out and do so. As I did, two of them dragged me into a Toyota Hilux and zoomed off. I was shouting, but it didn’t help at all. I sensed danger and I told them to allow me to call my manager, but they refused as they seized my phone. It was much later I found out that they were taking me to Imo State.
When did that happen?
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We left Port Harcourt at about 3:30pm and got to Imo State at about 7pm. Along the line, they gave me my phone to reach my manager, but before I could even say anything, they took the phone away from me and threatened to take action if I was not cooperating.
What happened after that?
They drove me to the Owerri North police station in Imo State. When we went in, they brought out some pictures and told me they were looking for a particular one. They pointed at the picture. I recognised the picture because it was one of the ones I used for my birthday flier. I told them I got it from the internet. They told me that they have been looking for the child since 2017 and the woman I saw with them in Port Harcourt was the mother of the missing child and the five-year-old was the twin sister. I told them I didn’t know anything about the child because I got them from the internet. I showed them the picture and my phone showed it was a downloaded document, but they refused to listen to me. I came up with a suggestion for them to link up with the Catholic Church where I worshipped, the orphanages I invited and other NGOs so we could start searching for the child, but they told me I could not teach them their job and I was dumped in the cell that day. I shouted and cried like a mad man, but there was no hope forthcoming.
What happened the next day?
The next day, I met the Divisional Police Officer. I told him that his men came to Rivers State to kidnap me and had refused to let me go, but the DPO said I should confess, that he was sure I knew the whereabouts of the child. I spent four days there (Owerri North police station) before I was transferred to the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, Owerri. On one of those days, the mother of the missing child brought food for me to eat because the Investigative Police Officer rejected her food. Why would a complainant bring food for someone she claimed stole her child? The family unit of the SCIID was handling the matter. We went back to Port Harcourt for investigations and all the things I told them they found out were true. When we got back, they told me the child went missing on October 1, 2017, at St John’s Anglican Church, Owerri, and that while the priest asked them to close their eyes for prayers, she did and by the time she opened her eyes, one of her twins was gone. The IPO, one Sergeant Victor, when I was taken to the then Imo State Commissioner of Police, told him that he had found nothing against me from all investigations and was not ready to continue with the matter, but the commissioner told me they would take me to the Scorpion Squad where I would be properly tortured. The commissioner told me that my legs needed to be broken so I would tell them where I kept the child. I asked to be granted bail, that I would appear for any court sitting, but they said I was telling stories.
When we arrived at Scorpion Squad, they beat me and told me I used the child for rituals and that that was how I got the money to celebrate my birthday with the orphans. They tagged it ‘ritual murder’.
Were you able to contact your family?
I reached out to a lawyer in Port Harcourt, Catherine Okoro, and she came to Owerri to see me. I linked her up to my parents as well. We brought in the human rights department that was to take me to court the next week, but the police took me to court a week before the human rights department did without letting my lawyer know. So, I went to court without a defence, despite having a lawyer. Before all this, my parents reached out to a lot of people who were to help grant me bail, but when they called the police, the police would tell them that I had promised to confess to the crime, so there was no need for them to bother bailing a criminal. They took me to the Magistrates’ Court, Owerri, and that was how I found myself in the prison.
They went to court with a case of a missing child, but the magistrate told them that there must be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. But I was remanded at the correctional centre, Owerri. The magistrate later transferred the case to the High Court, Owerri. At the High Court, the case was changed to ‘abduction and fraud’. The complainant said I was using the child to beg for money. In 2019, the judge went on retirement, so we were waiting for the next judge to take over the case. For almost a year, I didn’t go to church. There was an online campaign with the hashtag, #FreeSteveWinners, which a blogger, Linda Ikeji, also joined. But when COVID-19 came up, everything drastically died down.
There was a jailbreak sometime in April, 2021. We were over 1,000 prisoners at the correctional centre and everyone ran away except 36 persons, me inclusive, who didn’t run. Most of us that did not run were old and sick inmates who couldn’t move.
I ran out initially, but when I thought about the fact that I would be a fugitive for the rest of my life, I returned on my own. I was the very first prisoner who came back on my own. The next day, the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, came and promised every prisoner who didn’t run a presidential pardon. Up until I left the prison, no one heard from him again. In fact, a couple was sentenced to death by hanging a few weeks before I left the prison. They were part of the inmates who returned after the jailbreak. They are currently at the Condemned Convict Block in Port Harcourt. I was so afraid I was going to die.
How were you released?
Well, it was a miracle. I don’t know how God did it. Finally, we met bail conditions last week’s Friday, August 20, 2021, and here I am. I am so thankful to God. It seems so surreal that I was released.
What lessons did the whole experience teach you?
The internet is good, but it is also bad, but one must be very careful not to fall into trouble. About downloads, it is always good to be sure of the sites you are downloading from and every detail, in case of any issues that may arise. We must be very careful of the internet and be mindful of what we post so one cannot be implicated for what they do not know about. I hope everyone learns from my story. I have seen myself as a sacrificial lamb. Let those who have ears hear.