Flashing a warm grin as she walked slowly towards the reporter, her body movement and facial expression betrayed all that she had been through over the last 20 years. Pausing at intervals to raise and wave her right hand as she made for one of the plastic chairs within the auditorium, the excitement in her soul could be felt even from metres away. By the time she finally uttered a word on sitting next to the reporter, they were words that matched her every movement.
“The joy I feel inside is like a stream rushing through a rock,” she said, gently pulling off her glasses to wipe her teary eyes with a small towel. “The excitement is so intense that sometimes I fear this happiness will consume me. I have never felt this way all my life,” she added, before reaching for a plastic bag containing some books on her left hand.
But excited as the elderly woman was that morning, life has not always been that ‘sweet’ for her. At 85, Mrs. Eno Carol-Effiong, a retired nurse, has indeed passed through the valley of the shadow of death. Orphaned before she could even learn to speak her first words, the Itam, Akwa Ibom State-born octogenarian, experienced hardship in its cruelest form as a growing child. First living with her paternal grandfather after the death of her parents before being shipped to continue her formative development under the roof of an uncle, who had three wives and several children, young Eno was deprived of things many children her age enjoyed in abundance. While many of her peers aspired to become doctors, lawyers and engineers as a result of their parents’ care and financial support, there was nothing to dream about in the future for her at the time.
“I had no reason to nurse any dream whatsoever considering my situation at the time,” Effiong told our correspondent. “I was an orphan who was lucky to be accepted by an uncle who had three wives and several children, some of them saw me as a threat and treated me badly occasionally. I never even thought I was ever going to get education as a result of this but God surprised me in many ways,” she said.
A high-flying pupil, who emerged overall third best student by the time she managed to finish primary school in her native Itam, the 85-year-old’s academic exploits saw her being accepted into the teachers’ training college in the community. It was the most sensible route to take at the time especially with sponsorship for further education proving a bit difficult. But fate had other things in stock for Madam Effiong as she is fondly called these days. She looks back today with some bit of nostalgia.
“Adverts were placed in the newspaper for people to apply for training in nursing in my community. Even though I had only finished primary school, I applied to take the exam. By the grace of God, I passed the exam and was selected even above university graduates to gain admission into the nursing school. I was quite young at the time. I had already been taken by the teachers’ training school but my uncle insisted that I go for the nursing school.
“Upon completing my training at the nursing school, I was retained and worked there for a while before coming to Lagos. I applied for a job with the Federal Ministry of Health in Lagos and I was selected. We were later converted to workers under the Lagos State Government after the city established its own health ministry,” she said.
Effiong arrived in Lagos to a completely different life. Even though they had known each other from their hometown in Akwa Ibom, the love she shared with her policeman-lover, Peter, soared immensely on moving into the city. In a matter of months they transited from ordinary lovers to become man and wife with their union enjoying rapid bliss especially with the arrival of their daughter and only child, Carol. Things moved from good to better for the young couple with the future ahead holding even bigger promises. But five years later around 1965, against all expectations, tragedy struck. A promising journey was halted right in the middle of life’s highway.
“My husband suddenly fell sick and had to be admitted at the hospital for some time,” the elderly woman explained, her voice laced with regret. “I was always there by his side at the hospital before his relatives moved him to our hometown where he eventually died. It was a very terrible period for me. I thought the world had ended. For me, there was no hope in sight,” she added.
Eventually forced to move out of the barracks with her little daughter shortly after the tragedy, the days and weeks that followed tested Effiong’s resolve in no small measure. Apart from dealing with the menace and pressure of men trying to take advantage of her situation, getting a decent roof over her head and daughter’s posed a huge challenge.
“Accommodation became a major issue after he died,” she cut in sharply, taking a deep breath before continuing. “We were asked to leave the barracks and had nowhere to stay. A lot of men came professing fake love to me just to take advantage of me but I managed to turn them away through the grace of God. The love I shared with my husband was so strong that I never wished to be with another man after he died no matter the situation I found myself.
“Eventually I had to struggle to raise some money to rent a small apartment at Ajegunle where I lived for several years with my daughter,” she revealed.
However, around 1978, things took a different turn for the Akwa Ibom native after her bid for one of the apartment buildings and block of flats built by the Federal Government the previous year while the nation hosted the Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, was selected among successful entries. It was the beginning of an entirely new journey for the 85-year-old woman.
“After the houses were advertised in the papers and members of the public were asked to submit bids, I sent my late nephew to buy the form and submit for me after filling it. When the result came out, I was lucky to be among the winners.
“But we did not move into the house immediately. I was shown only the land where the house was to be built even though I had started paying gradually for the place. I went there every month to check the progress of the building and it took about another two years before it was eventually completed.
“I felt like I was dreaming the first day I stepped into the house considering where I was coming from. My landlord and neighbours from Ajegunle all came to FESTAC to see the building and celebrate with me. They told me how lucky I was. But I never imagined that some years later, things would turn upside down. It was very unfortunate,” she said, fighting back tears.
One morning in 1997, a year after she retired from active service, the octogenarian heard thunderous bangs on the gate to the 3-bedroom semi-detached duplex she occupied at FESTAC Town. Wielding guns and weapons of all kinds, policemen in company with court officials surrounded her entire building, throwing Effiong and her belongings out on the streets in a matter of minutes. The property she used her productive years and entire life’s earnings to acquire had been taken from her. Carol, her only child and daughter, had stolen the documents of the house from where she kept them and sold to a man at a ridiculously low amount. More than when she lost her husband and best friend, that day remains by far the saddest in her 85-year sojourn on earth.
“Even for my enemies, I do not wish for them to experience the pain and anguish I passed through that morning when I was thrown out of the house I laboured so much to acquire,” the retired nurse said in a quaking voice. The looks on her face would melt even a heart made of steel. It was the sight of a broken old woman pouring out her heart. “To make matters worse, I watched passersby steal my entire belongings and vital documents as the policemen flung everything I had onto the streets. Life became miserable for me,” she said.
After shaking the initial shock and confusion the incident left her, the elderly woman began the battle to retrieve her property through the court. Seeing all that she had been through, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, whose chambers Effiong had approached for help, took up her case without demanding a penny. Rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, under Fawehinmi’s tutelage at the time, was assigned the case. In 2009, 13 years after the matter was first brought before it, Lagos State High Court in a judgement delivered by Hon Justice Candide Johnson, ordered that the old woman be restored back into the house. But just before the wine popping and merriment could begin, the defendant filed an appeal, opening another epic chapter in the octogenarian’s quest for justice. While the case wore on and the occupant of the building at 21 Road, 2nd Avenue, E Close, House 22, FESTAC, carried on with life smoothly, the retired nurse slept from one church to another, becoming almost like a refugee in a land where she once reigned like a royal.
“Because I never wanted to inconvenience anyone, I had to move from one place to another seeking shelter and food. I slept in one Assemblies of God Church or the other over the last 20 years since I was thrown out of my house. I lived on the kindness of the church and some of the members.
“I never could have imagined that things would turn out this way or that my only child could do this to me. Though I still feel pained, I have forgiven her and pray every day for God’s forgiveness upon her as well.
“She has sent several people to beg me but I have forgiven her a long time ago. The last time I saw her was in the court some years back when she came with the people she sold the house to. Even though she greeted me, she didn’t have the courage to come closer to me. I have not seen her since then or know where she is,” she said.
But like a well-scripted Hollywood thriller, the narrative took an entirely new turn for Madam Effiong earlier in May 2017. On the third day of that month, the Court of Appeal sitting in Lagos delivered a landslide judgement in her favour. Led by Hon. Justice Yargata Nimpar, the court ordered that she be restored back to her property within a period of 90 days. The judges further advised the defendant against proceeding to the Supreme Court.
“Witnessing this judgement in my lifetime is the sweetest thing I could ever have asked for,” the Itam native said as she rose up swiftly from the plastic chair she had seated all along to wave her two hands to the heavens in appreciation of God’s goodness. “The person who took over the house thought I would have died a long time ago even before the case began. He had boasted to my face several times in the court that I would not be alive to finish this case. But the Almighty God whom I serve has put him to shame. God has kept me alive to prove to people like him that He is still God.
“I have lived the last 20 years as a beggar; this is not the life I ever wished for myself. It hurts whenever I look back on the suffering I have been through over this period.
“But I thank God for the victory He has given me. I have already prepared a fine dress and shoe I will wear to dance to my God on the day I finally step my foot into my house again. I will dance to God like David danced. I will sing till I lose my voice. I will invite the elderly and young to praise God with me on that day because He has indeed given me victory,” she said, before eventually succumbing to her emotions. Tears of joy cascading down her cheeks – 20 years after life threw a ruthless challenge on her path.
Describing the victory as a proof that God still listens to the cry of the poor and helpless, Adegboruwa told Saturday PUNCHthat the long period of justice highlighted clearly the flaws in Nigeria’s judicial system.
“This case highlights the sad state of legal practice in Nigeria that is calling for urgent transformation. It brings me to tears every time I see Madam Effiong struggling to walk.
“I will like to thank Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, even in death, for his magnanimity and caring heart. My gratitude also goes to Mr. Tayo Oyetibo (SAN), who accepted to lead me in the appeal at no single cost. I’m glad that she’s alive to read the judgment and reap the fruits of the long and slow wheels of justice.
“There are several other Madam Effiongs spread across Nigeria, who are being robbed of justice and their rights in law. Our leaders must do something urgent about the decaying state of facilities in the judiciary, appoint more judges, build more court rooms and promulgate new rules that will ensure speedy dispensation of justice.”
Effiong said that she wishes to clear all her debts before “going to be with the Lord”, said she plans to spend her final days in the land of her birth – Itam. – Culled from Punch.