JOS, Nigeria—For embattled Christians in Nigeria’s Plateau state, the best hope for many is a civil rights attorney with a knack for cheating death.
Barrister Gyang Zi, 43, is no stranger to controversy in court or to danger in the northern Nigerian city of Jos.
The attorney, who earns less than $5,000 annually, is among 254 lawyers in Plateau state using personal finances to fight on behalf of victims of violations, said Panmak Lere, the leader of the Christian Lawyers Fellowship of Nigeria (CLASFON) in Plateau state.
“The cases range from religious freedom cases for converts undergoing persecution; molestations and government recklessness; appeals against judgments or trials that are unjust or perverse, intervening for widows, orphans, indigents, inmates without legal representation, IDPs, as well as victims of injustice and religious violence,” Lere said.
Zi has won lawsuits for more than 500 victims of violations, mostly against the Muslim-dominated Nigerian military, according to his partner, Solomon Dalyop.
“The latest was a suit between the Army and 28 villagers arrested over the disappearance of an Army general in September 2018,” Dalyop said.
“There was an attack in [Sept. 11] 2018 in Lopandet village, a Christian community on the outskirts of Jos, and 13 people were killed on the spot, while three people died in the hospital. The following day, one [Major] General [Idris] Alkali was reported missing, and a group of people from nowhere said it was the people of that community that killed the general.
“The army headquarters was moved completely to that village. People were arrested randomly from the street, from their houses and business locations. Even journalists were arrested. There were more than 60 [detainees]. Many had to flee from their homes, but Zi challenged the army authorities. He brought some of us in, and we kept writing to the general officer commanding the Third Division of the Nigerian army [in Jos] where they were detained.
“About 40 were later released, while 28 were arraigned before the State High Court, and we stood for them. The case is still ongoing, but by the grace of God, before he [Zi] handed the defense to the Christian Lawyers Federation of Nigeria (CLASFON), we filed several bail applications, and as of February this year, all of them were released.”
Zi recently hinted to friends of plans to sue local authorities over the killing of more than 70 people in northern Plateau under the watch of the military. The attacks from July 31 to Aug. 2 near Third Division headquarters of the Nigerian army were jointly carried out by soldiers and Fulani terrorists, which would be a risky case to try, Zi said, but “I don’t have any option.”
“Whether I like it or not, one day I will give way, one day I will die. The only thing that will speak for us when we leave this earth is our deeds,” he said.
“By the grace of God, I am over 40. I do not have any reason to back down from doing right simply because I am afraid of what will happen.”
The attorney had a close encounter with death during his own kidnapping less than a month ago.
The last thing on his mind on July 15, he says, as he neared his driveway in an urban neighborhood, was being kidnapped by killer bandits. But in an instant, life came at him fast.
It was 7 p.m., and he was driving home, just a stone’s throw from the state’s government house.
“I’d heard of many kidnap cases and prosecuted some, but never knew what it felt like to be in the hands of fierce-looking, gun-wielding terrorists in the middle of nowhere,” Zi told The Epoch Times. “They were calling me by name.
“I got to the junction which is just by the fence of the government house. I saw two people with guns approaching me, so immediately I put the car in reverse gear. I was trying to check the rear to see if there was clearance to accelerate, and I saw two more people. So the car was in the middle. At that point, I had no option but to stop, and they ordered me to come down from the car.
“They knew much about me, including my family and cars. In fact, they had my complete profile. They said, ‘Barrister, we’ve been sent to eliminate you, so you just have to cooperate with us.’
“I was still a bit bold, and I asked who sent them. I told them I didn’t have issues with anyone, but they said nothing. They dragged me into a nearby corn farm and started whistling. Others came out from the bush. We walked a little distance and a Golf 3 wagon came, and they ordered me in and blindfolded me. We drove for a long time and after the drive, I just found myself in the middle of the bush.
“Meanwhile, of the eight terrorists that picked me up, all of them had rifles. After we drove some two hours or so into the bush, we trekked for quite some time—from about 9 p.m. to midnight. It was the longest walk of my life at that time of the night and in that kind of place. Then they took me to some mountains and into a cave, where they planned to slaughter me and dispose of my body.”
Zi summoned all of his lawyerly skills to plead the case of his life.
“I pleaded that I had helped distressed people from their tribe and religion, which they confirmed by calling an old Fulani acquaintance in my phone contacts,” he said. “He was even the one that argued on my behalf. They talked on the phone in their dialect, and after about 24 hours, they told me they had been paid N15 million ($72,810.78) to kill me and that I had a chance to buy back my life by refunding that money. We kept pleading until they agreed to slash the price to N8million ($19,436.86).”
Zi credits his friendship with the Fulani man for saving his life.
The trauma of being held captive by the terrorists nearly put the 43-year-old in a hospital bed following his release, but while in their custody, all that mattered to him was the human rights cases he had yet to complete, he said.
“For every second I was with them, it was like a year. I was just wondering what will happen. Even when they assured me that they wouldn’t harm me after talking to my friend, I was still wondering if they were just trying to calm me down and surprisingly execute me. It was a situation where you are looking at your life going right before you, and you cannot do anything. I was at their mercy.
“But while I was with them, all that crossed my mind was what would happen to the cases and the oppressed people of God,” he said. “I was confident that God will still bring up people to carry on, but still I was a bit worried that some things would suffer setbacks.”