Uncover The Hidden Truth: Were The Bakassi Boys Really Security Men Or Government Agents For Political Intimidation?


The Bakassi Boys has been used as security guards, including by government officials.

Patterns of human rights abuses and other individual cases

Summary executions
Setting themselves up as self-appointed judges, juries and executioners, the Bakassi Boys have killed scores of people after putting them through their own form of “trial,” resulting in apparently arbitrary decisions as to the individual’s guilt or innocence, often on the basis of fabricated evidence, evidence extracted under torture, or no evidence at all. The Bakassi Boys claim to use “magic” to ascertain whether individuals are guilty or innocent; the premises from which they operate are adorned with symbols and objects related to this belief. The chairman of the Abia Vigilante Services, Onwuchekwa Ulu, told CLEEN that they had foolproof, secret methods of finding out who was a criminal.66 Some of those “judged” to be innocent were released, although several, such as Chief Okonkwo, were later re-arrested and killed. Many of those “judged” to be guilty were brutally murdered without any other form of process, sometimes in public, in front of large crowds. One of the most publicised “catches” by the Bakassi Boys was an alleged armed robber in Onitsha, Okwudili Ndiwe, also known as Derico Nwamama; he was detained by the Bakassi Boys on July 3, 2001 and executed six days later, on July 9. In cases described to Human Rights Watch and CLEEN, the Bakassi Boys often mutilated and burned their victims, decapitated or dismembered them.

Public summary and arbitrary executions have also been carried out with impunity by the Bakassi Boys in Imo State. The Bakassi Boys started executing people as soon as they began their operations in Imo, as described in an article in Newswatch: “They showed everyone that `the real Bakassi Boys’ had arrived by slaughtering two persons believed to be criminals on the major streets, apparently to send a warning signal to all criminals in the state. Newswatch gathered information in Owerri that the two persons slaughtered had been undergoing trial in a Bakassi detention camp outside the state. The two people were convicted by the Bakassi Boys and therefore summarily executed in line with their operations in other states especially Abia and Anambra.”67 Executions in Imo were carried out particularly along the Owerri-Port Harcourt Express Road, where around ten people were reported by the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) to have been killed by the Bakassi Boys in July 2001. Among those executed there were a man nicknamed Commotion, who had been detained by the Bakassi Boys for almost one month; he was killed and burnt, along with three other people.68

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch and CLEEN how people were regularly taken out of the Bakassi Boys’ cells for execution. There was no doubt in their minds as to the fate that awaited such prisoners. A man who was detained in Onitsha in November 2000 said: “They were killing people there. They would come into the cell, take about ten people out, beat them and bring them back in. Sometimes they would chain someone and take them out. Those ones never came back. We presumed they had been killed. Sometimes they would even say they were going to kill the ones they took out.”69 Another former detainee held in Onitsha supported this account: “Everyday they came and took people out, sometimes as many as eight. They would take them away. They never came back. There was a man called Ike that they took outside. We never saw him again. I presume he was killed. The day I was arrested, they took eight people out. They tied them with rope: that means they will be killed. When the Bakassi returned they had blood on their knives.”70 A man who was detained in Onitsha in March 2000 also stated that detainees were called out, apparently for execution, and were never seen again.

Some detainees personally witnessed others being killed. A man who was detained by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha in August 2000 stated: “While I was detained they brought a man out and killed him in front of me. He was about seventeen or twenty years old. They killed him with a knife, a matchet and a big stick. They cut him up in one or two minutes.”71

The Bakassi Boys’ victims have included women. In Anambra, for example, a mother of five and a caterer who had become a successful trader in buildings materials was killed by the Bakassi Boys in August 2000. There were different theories about the motive for her killing: one was that she had been accused of killing her husband’s first wife; the other was that she was friendly with a man who was an armed robber, whom the Bakassi Boys were hunting down, and that they killed both of them as they found him in her company. It was also alleged that the Bakassi Boys accused her of having guns and training criminals, but there was never any criminal investigation into these allegations.72

Human Rights Watch and CLEEN are particularly concerned about the fate of the lesser- known victims of the Bakassi Boys, as their cases are rarely reported. Although it is impossible to estimate the number of people killed, the Bakassi Boys are certainly responsible for scores of murders, perhaps hundreds. The majority of victims are young men and boys, some under the age of eighteen, who come from poor backgrounds; they have no one to report on their behalf to the authorities about these abuses, and, unlike some of the Bakassi Boys’ more prominent victims, no possibility of appealing to any authorities to intervene to save their lives. Their deaths have also gone mostly unreported by the media. In some cases, the victims were street-boys or orphans whose names were not even known and who had no one to identify their bodies after they were killed. Some may have participated in minor, petty offences but never had a chance to present their side of the story. Others may well have been innocent of any offense. From the testimonies of former detainees, it would appear that these “anonymous” victims constitute the bulk of those picked up and killed by the Bakassi Boys.73

Residents of all three states where the Bakassi Boys operate told Human Rights Watch and CLEEN that unidentified, dead bodies lying on the roadside were a common sight. For example, one man stated: “There are lots of cases. In about March this year [2001], I saw two dead bodies on the road in Umuahia. Their bodies were burnt. Tyres had also been burnt around them. There were Bakassi Boys parading around.”74 A woman said: “They play football with people’s heads in the market in Onitsha. Children watch and cheer.”75 A man described a particularly gruesome period in late 1999-2000 when OTA was responsible for many killings in and around Onitsha. He said that he would regularly see between six and twelve dead bodies on the streets in Onitsha town, Obosi, Nkpor and Ogbaru. Most of the victims had their arms tied behind their backs and had been shot with rifles.76

At least nine people, including several teenagers, were killed in Onitsha on April 10, 2000. The perpetrators are believed to have been members of OTA, the predecessor to the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha, assisted by policemen; according to witnesses, they arrived in police vans and in vehicles of the Anambra State Vigilante Services. Most of the victims were young men, including at least three local government employees-Vincent Ogbuli, aged twenty, Chuka Bosah, aged nineteen, and Chilo Chukurah, aged twenty-four- and two school students, Stephen Chukwurah, aged fifteen, and Obiora Okechukwu, aged thirteen; a thirteen-year-old girl and a pregnant woman were reportedly also killed. Their bodies are believed to have been thrown into the Niger river, but were never recovered. OTA’s claims that all the victims were criminals were contradicted by local sources who knew the victims well. Some of their families complained to the authorities, requesting an explanation and compensation for their deaths, but relatives of others did not dare to do so.77

In August 2001, Christian Onwuma, a twenty-year-old okada (motorbike taxi) driver, and three other men were abducted and killed by the Bakassi Boys in Nkpor, near Onitsha, at a location sometimes used for marijuana-dealing. Christian Onwuma, who worked in Onitsha but was originally from Nsukka, in Enugu State, was described by friends and neighbours as a quiet, hard-working young man who had never been a thief or a criminal. A lawyer acting for the family stated: “The only offence he was believed to have ever committed was to smoke marijuana. But it is not the duty of the Bakassi Boys to arrest drug-takers. It is the duty of the National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency. […] They were killed in public. People shouted that Christian should not be killed, but they were told to keep back. The Bakassi alleged that they had found guns in the marijuana dealing site.”78

A childhood friend and colleague of Christian Onwuma explained what had happened:

That Tuesday, at about 2 p.m.at the okada park, I saw the Bakassi driving away, with Christian and three other young men: twin brothers (one okada boy and one trader who sold beverages and marijuana) and another man. There were about five Bakassi Boys. They were in an Isuzu pick-up van; I know their car. I saw they were carrying knives and guns. The men had been beaten and injured with knives. They had their arms tied behind their backs. The next day their relatives went to the Bakassi office. They were told to come back the following day (Thursday).

But on the Wednesday the Bakassi drove the four victims to the junction and killed them. Some fellow drivers came to tell me. We went there and saw the corpses. All four corpses were together. They had been killed with matchets and burnt together. They were badly burnt but still recognizable. They had cut off their heads and legs, but the heads were still lying there. People looked, then everyone just went his or her own way. The bodies stayed there for four or five days. I don’t know who removed them.

I’ve seen other people who’ve been killed but not people who have been close to me. I feel the loss very much. The family is also very affected. We knew each other when we were little. Christian used to be a motorcycle mechanic. He was easy-going, not quarrelsome. He never stole anything. After his death, his relatives tried to get his bike back. The Bakassi made them pay 5,000 naira [approximately U.S.$38]for it.79

On May 29, 2001, in one of the most serious cases, thirty-six alleged armed robbers were killed by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha. Some of them had reportedly been detained for several weeks beforehand. They were publicly killed with axes and machetes, mutilated and set on fire, in several different locations.80 A woman who happened to be passing by the place where their mutilated bodies were found described what she saw: “It was on the road going from Onitsha towards Delta state, at the spot where they normally burn the bodies. I saw a pile of human remains. They had cut people up with matchets and put them in a container. There were piles of body parts which had been set on fire. The bodies had been cut up into small pieces like in a butcher’s shop. They use very sharp matchets. You can’t even recognize what part of the body it is.”81 Nigerian human rights organizations, including the CLO, appealed to the government to publish a complete list of the victims’ names, but to date, there is no known confirmation of the names and identity of the victims.

In March 2002, an Amnesty International delegation visiting Anambra State witnessed an attempted summary execution by the Bakassi Boys inside the compound of the state government in Awka, Anambra State, some one hundred metres away from the governor’s office. The Amnesty International delegates described how about twelve Bakassi Boys armed with automatic weapons and machetes were surrounding a man in his fifties, who had his arms tied behind his back and was bleeding profusely, apparently as a result of beatings. “AVS members were pouring petrol over the man’s body with the clear intention of setting him on fire. When they realised that there were strangers watching the scene, they bundled the victim into a van, loaded the vehicle with machetes and guns, and drove away.” The identity of the victim and his fate remain unknown.82

On July 9, 1999, two young men, Sergeant Okechukwu Madukwe and Chukwudozie Nwachukwu, both in their twenties, were killed by the Bakassi Boys in Umuahia, Abia State. Chukwudozie Nwachukwu, a twenty-nine-year-old man who worked as an operational manager in a seafood company, had traveled from Lagos to Umuahia to visit his family. When he arrived at the family house, his parents were not there, so he went to wait in a restaurant in the centre of town, known as the Safari restaurant. According to eye-witness testimonies and members of the family, a few minutes after Chukwudozie Nwachukwu arrived in the bar, a group of about ten armed men entered the bar. They identified themselves explicitly as Bakassi Boys and said they had been sent from Aba by the state government to stop criminals.

Soon after they entered the bar, the Bakassi Boys got into an argument with the bar boy. The argument escalated and the Bakassi Boys hit the bar boy with a broken bottle. When Chukwudozie Nwachukwu intervened and asked what was happening, the Bakassi Boys began attacking him with knives. Another man who was in the bar, Sgt Okechukwu Madukwe, approached when he saw Chukwudozie Nwachukwu lying in a pool of blood, surrounded by armed men. The Bakassi Boys then set upon him too. They accused Chukwudozie Nwachukwu and Sgt Okechukwu Madukwe of being robbers, after discovering that they were carrying money. Within a short time, they had killed both of them, using machetes and guns. They took their bodies outside, poured fuel over them and set them on fire. Okechukwu Madukwe’s brother, who was also in the bar, was attacked with machetes, tied up and put inside a vehicle; he was injured, but survived after being saved by the police.

Chukwudozie Nwachukwu’s father was at work when his son was killed: “I was in the office. Someone came in and said: `Come and see what’s happening in the Safari restaurant! Your son has been fighting.” I said that was not possible. I took off immediately. I reached the restaurant. There were crowds there. I saw the boys’ bodies on fire. Blood was flowing. The Bakassi were still there, with their weapons. They had two guns and many matchets. They were searching the vehicle of the spy sergeant [Sgt Okechukwu Madkuwe]; they found nothing. My son had been shot on the neck and shoulder. They had cut off his feet. I was so dazed I couldn’t react. I had to leave. I then went to the police with my wife to report it. The body was left there overnight. The police helped us remove it the next day. We had a big funeral.”83

Unusually in a case involving the Bakassi Boys, the police came to the scene quickly, arrested six of the Bakassi Boys and took them to the police station. The police then received instructions from Government House, described as follows in the police findings and recommendations on the case: “Shortly after the arrest of these people directives came from the Government House that the suspects should be brought to Government House. At the Government House, the deputy Commissioner of police, Abia State police command was instructed to release the suspects by the governor. Based on the instruction, the suspects were released few hours after having recorded their statements.”84 Following a public outcry at their release, the police re-arrested four of them a few days later; this time, they remained in detention and, in one of the very few cases of its kind, they were actually charged and tried. Court proceedings began in Umuahia, on June 21, 2000, but the trial did not commence until February 14, 2001. By April 2002, it has still not concluded, following repeated adjournments.

The police’s initial investigations into this case in Abia State were reportedly obstructed by the state government, so the investigation was transferred to the police in Lagos. According to the police findings in the case, at least two Abia State government officials-the secretary to the state government and the protocol officer-had called the Bakassi Boys to Umuahia on July 9. However, the reasons and motives for the killings remained unclear. The police findings state: “On 9th July, 1999, at about 1400 hours members of a vigilante group based in Aba, Abia State popularly known as `Bakassi’ invaded Safari Restaurant […]. Members of this gang with their office at block C4 Ariaria market Aba were invited by the Secretary to Abia State Government Dr E.J.Nwogbo through one Ndukwe Okereke, a Protocol Officer attached to the Government House on behalf of the State Government. The Deputy Governor in his statement confirmed that they i.e. the Governor, himself and the Secretary to the State Government on 9th July 1999 held a meeting bordering on the activities of the Bakassi group. He asserted that after their deliberation an arrangement was reached to invite the group. Ndukwe Okereke a Protocol Officer was dispatched from Umuahia to Aba to invite this group and on his return trip with the gang numbering about (10) ten men went straight to the Abia State Government House, Umuahia. At the Government House, Ndukwe and the Chairman of the group by name Ezeji Oguikpe called at the office of the Secretary to the State Government, Dr E. J. Nwogbo. The SSC had some discussions with the Chairman of the group after which Ndukwe Okereke led them to Safari Restaurant […]” The police report then goes on todescribe the killings and confirms that the two victims were not criminals or armed robbers.85

The victims’ relatives believe it was a case of mistaken identity. They asked the government to admit publicly that it was a mistake and to state for the record that the men were innocent. The government refused to do so.86 In an interview with the magazine Insider Weekly two years after the deaths of the two men, in which he was asked about the case, Abia State governor Orji Kalu simply said: “Well, there is nothing I could have done because the case is before a court of competent jurisdiction and government was directly not involved.”87

Arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention
In many cases, it was not clear why particular individuals were picked up by the Bakassi Boys. Even those arrested often had no idea of the reason or basis for their detention. Many of those arrested and detained by the Bakassi Boys were people who were not known to have a criminal record and who had not been apprehended in the course of carrying out any criminal activity.

Under international law and the Nigerian constitution, all suspects have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Even those who are suspected of having perpetrated the most brutal crimes have the right to be informed of the reason for their arrest, to have access to a lawyer, and to be charged and tried by the competent authorities, according to due process. Vigilante groups have no judicial status and no powers to detain, charge, try or judge, even less to administer punishments, including death.

Contrary to statements made by government authorities and vigorous denials by the Bakassi Boys’ leaders themselves, the Bakassi Boys were always armed when carrying out the arrests reported to Human Rights Watch and CLEEN, usually with guns and machetes. They rarely informed people of the specific reason for their arrest, apart from general, unsubstantiated accusations of criminality. Arrests were not covert operations: the Bakassi Boys usually identified themselves explicitly, sometimes even stating that they had been sent by the government. Their victims were almost always badly beaten at the time of arrest; most sustained serious injuries from machete blows in particular. The Bakassi Boys often intimidated and threatened other people who happened to be present at the time of arrest, for example by firing into the air, or by arbitrarily arresting and ill-treating onlookers and neighbors, as well as relatives of their main victims. Typically they then forced those arrested into their vehicles, often with their arms tied behind their back with rope or cable, and took them to the Bakassi Boys’ headquarters where they were detained.

The official leaders of the Bakassi Boys have denied that they have been responsible for unlawful detention. When Human Rights Watch and CLEEN met the chairman of the Abia Vigilante Services, Onwuchekwa Ulu, and the former and current chairmen of the Anambra Vigilante Services, Gilbert Okoye and Camillus Ebekue, they all claimed that they always handed over the suspects they apprehended to the police, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Camillus Ebekue denied that the AVS had any detention centers and told us: “I have never seen any cell.”88

Conditions of detention
In Onitsha, detainees were usually held at the Bakassi Boys’ headquarters known as the White House, located in the central market. In Aba, they were held in a detention center in the Ariaria market. In Owerri, many were held in a detention center behind the Concord Hotel.

The Bakassi Boys’ detention centers consist of overcrowded and dirty cells, with no hygiene or other facilities. Detainees would be deprived of food and drink for several days.

An elderly man who was detained at the White House in Onitsha in November 2000 described the conditions there:89

They crammed us all into one room. There were thirty of us in the cell. We were not given anything to eat or drink. They came with knives and threatened to kill anyone who looked at them. They brought us a bucket to urinate in. We couldn’t go outside the cell at all. All the time while we were held there they were beating us and threatening us. […] In the cell it was difficult to talk. We would whisper to those who were close but we didn’t dare raise our voices. We were locked in there with a big padlock. They just left us there. Some detainees had money in their pockets and would send someone to fetch water. We would share one or two sachets. We were not given food for a week.

Another former detainee in Onitsha stated: “There were many people, thirty-eight men and three women, young and old, all in the same cell. We were all crammed in, sitting between each other’s knees. We couldn’t lie down or stand up. When they brought in new detainees, they would ask them for money. Once in a while we were able to ask a kind-hearted Bakassi to buy us a sachet of water or bread, once every three days. We had nothing else to eat at all.” 90

Another man detained in Onitsha in October 2000 said: “The cell was dirty with blood on the floor and it smelled bad. There were about forty other men detained there; some had cuts on their hands. There wasn’t enough room to lie down; we had to sleep sitting up.”91

Detainees in Owerri were held in similar conditions: “There were eight or nine people in the cell. The wall and the floor were splattered in blood. People had cuts. One old man was groaning, pleading his innocence, saying no one had interrogated him. He had knife cuts on his body. […] Another man had cuts on his hands. […] There was a terrible smell, a smell of blood. It was an unbearable stench. […] They didn’t allow us to go outside to urinate.”92

Torture and ill-treatment
Several people who survived detention and torture at the hands of the Bakassi Boys testified to Human Rights Watch and CLEEN about their ordeal. Their testimonies illustrate certain patterns in the methods used by the Bakassi Boys. Torture and ill-treatment were systematic during detention. Detainees were stripped naked, severely beaten, often with rifle butts, flogged, kicked, and cut with machetes and knives, often resulting in severe injuries. They were also subjected to various forms of psychological torture, abuse, and humiliation.93

A man who was tortured by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha in October 2000 told Human Rights Watch: “The Bakassi called me out. They said they would kill me and eat me, starting with my heart. Once when they called me out, I was alone facing about thirty Bakassi. They beat me badly with their matchets; I have scars on my legs, my chest and my back. They scraped my back and wrote their inscriptions on me; they beat me with hammers. They accused me of sponsoring armed robbers and trading in weapons.”94

Torture was often inflicted with the intention of extracting confessions of guilt. The Bakassi Boys have actively fuelled the myth that they have magical ways of ascertaining guilt or innocence; a particular belief is that they hold a machete over the individual, and that if the blade turns red, it means that the individual is guilty. A man who was detained and tortured by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha in March 2000 stated: “People actually believe that the Bakassi Boys have magical powers through which they detect criminals, but my experience has taught me that that there is nothing like that. They will just continue torturing you till you confess you are guilty.”95 Likewise, a detainee held with Eddie Okeke in Onitsha said that when Eddie Okeke offered to have his guilt or innocence “tested” by the Bakassi Boys, the Bakassi Boys asked him whether he had any instrument to test people’s innocence, thereby indicating that they did not have, or even pretend to have, any such instrument. Instead, they beat him and tortured him.96

One of the most prominent victims of torture by the Bakassi Boys in Imo State was Bishop Alex Ezeugo Ekewuba, founder of the Overcomers Church in Owerri, who was detained and tortured on June 8, 2001. He appears to have been targeted as a perceived political opponent of the state government. Bishop Ekewuba recounted his experience at the hands of the Bakassi Boys to Human Rights Watch and CLEEN:97

They came believing that Rochas Okorocha was a member of this church. Rochas Okorocha is a famous, popular man. He ran against the governor before, in the primaries, in 1999. But he isn’t a member of this church. I don’t even know him. There is fear in the government. They see this church as a threat as we are very powerful, popular and populous. They see us as a security risk because we have a mass following. They think I am too vocal.

On 8 June 2001, they came and first arrested a young man, “A”,98 who is a member of this church […] They arrested him in his house, along with his younger brother and his mother, who is about sixty years old. They stripped all of them naked, including the mother. They brought them to the church and accused “A” of fronting for Rochas. They claimed Rochas had given him money to fight against the governor. He denied it; he is just a security man.

They smashed up chairs and attacked people who happened to be in the church. One woman had her collarbone cut with a knife. Another boy was slashed on his back with a knife. “A” had knife cuts on his head and arms. His brother was beaten and they tied his hands and feet. His mother had a knife cut on her shoulder. They picked up a gun and accused the church of using it for armed robbery.

Then they came to my house, at about 2 a.m. They fired shots and shouted: “We’re Bakassi!” I asked whether I could come to their office in the morning. They said: “No, open the door or we’ll break it.” They scaled the wall and came into the compound. They jumped upstairs and pointed their gun at my wife through the window and asked her for my gun.

They stripped me naked and beat me with their gunbutts, on my chest and shoulder-blade. They broke my rib. I asked for time to pray, but they refused. They dumped me in the boot of their car and took me for interrogation. They had slapped me, beaten me and kicked me all over. They also wanted to take my sixteen-year-old son. I pleaded with them not to. My son hid under the bed. They said they would come back for him.

The place they took me to was behind the Concord Hotel in Owerri. […] They tied my arms and legs with electric cable. They tried to cut my hand but I struggled, so it was only scratched. There were rounds of interrogation. They threw me on the floor. It was filthy. I asked to sit up. They dragged me and hit my head against the wall. They hit me repeatedly and asked how much Rochas had paid me. I kept saying: “I don’t know him.” They accused me of training armed robbers.

During the night, the Bakassi were arguing over which one of them should be allowed to cut my neck. One of them, nicknamed Tufiakwa [“abomination”] put his fingers into my eyes. He was arguing with another one. He said: “It’s my turn to cut off this man’s neck. You did the other one a few days ago.” The argument carried on until the morning.

Later they claimed that “A” had said Rochas had given him fifteen guns. They made him read a statement saying: “He gave me fifteen pump-action guns.” They just put a microphone in front of him, then brought out the statement as evidence. “A” and his brother were held in another cell. Their hands were tied behind their back and their feet were tied in a crossed position; they were tied with cable. Four men kept lifting him up and dropping him, to try to break his backbone. When they do that, there is no blood.

The next morning at about 6 a.m., my wife came to try to rescue me. They chased her away. She went to the minority leader in the House of Assembly. He went to the Bakassi and told them they should release me. He arrived just at the same time as the Bakassi leader.

They released me the next morning. “A”‘s brother was released two days later; “A” himself was released a week later. I went to the police and to the hospital. They had injured me on the jaw with the butt of their gun. I wrote to the governor. He has still not replied. I wanted to explain to him that I was not fighting against him. The absence of a reply from him was the most painful thing. It was more painful than the physical injuries. The police took my statement but there was no action, no arrests.

At around the same period as Bishop Alex Ezeugo Ekewuba , another man was arrested and tortured with machetes by the Bakassi Boys of Imo State because his mother was accused of having affiliations with the same political opponent of the government, Rochas Okorocha. He was later released.99

A combination of superstitution and fear has led to situations where some individuals have offered or agreed to submit themselves to the Bakassi “test” to prove their innocence, in full knowledge of the associated risks of detention, torture or death. The alternative is to refuse to do so and risk being presumed guilty. The price of taking that risk is considered too high. Effectively, anyone facing accusations of guilt-whether founded or not-is caught in a trap. For example, a twenty-seven-year old trader in buildings materials from Nsukka, Enugu State, described how he and his colleague were tortured by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha, in March 2000, after they were wrongly accused of stealing money:100

On March 15, 2000, a colleague and I were sent to Aba market by our traders’ union to buy goods there worth 850,000 naira. It is the practice here that two people are always sent to buy goods for the rest. On this particular day, the two of us set out to Aba with the sum of 850,000 naira. When we got to Aba, we boarded a cab with one other person; together with the driver, there were four in all. It was at around 5 p.m.

On the way the vehicle jerked and stopped. The driver pleaded with us to help in pushing the vehicle. We all disembarked except the other passenger who told us that he was sick. While we were pushing the vehicle, the driver suddenly kicked the vehicle and sped off with our bags containing the money. We raised the alarm but it was futile. We went home that evening to report the incident to the other traders. We did not go to the police because of the fear of being detained. The other traders called a meeting to deliberate on the matter. While some accepted our story, others insisted that it was a cooked-up story. It was then that the chairman of the association suggested that we should be taken to the Bakassi White House at Onitsha in order to ascertain our innocence.

We got to the White House at Onitsha on March 20. We were accompanied by two members of our association who handed us over to the Bakassi leader, who they call “the Boss,” after explaining their mission. We were ushered into a one room cell with little ventilation and no light. We may have been around twenty to thirty people in the cell. The next day, we were called out to state our side of the story, which we did. There were three Bakassi men on the table facing us including the Boss. The Boss warned us sternly that the price for our insisting on lying is death, that it is better for us to say the truth. We insisted that we were innocent.

Then they took me to the interrogation room. I was stripped naked and made to lie on the floor. My hands were tied on my back and I was repeatedly flogged on the back and buttocks with a matchet. All the while one of them was asking me to tell the truth so that I could be saved from the torture, but I insisted that I was innocent. The torture lasted for about four hours. I was taken back to the cell. The next day the same process was repeated. Meanwhile my colleague was undergoing the same process. They did not interrogate us on the third day. But on the fourth day, the interrogation was intense and more brutal. They then decided to release us after failing to extract any confession from us. I was told later that that our association had made a payment of 20,000 naira to the Bakassi Boys.

When we came back, our people had given up hope of seeing us alive.

During his arrest and detention in Onitsha in August 2000, Ifeanyi Ibegbu came across several other people who had been victims of severe ill-treatment by the Bakassi Boys. For example, when the Bakassi Boys arrested him and forced him into their van, “I noticed the presence of another brutalized youth, who I could not recognise because his head was covered with blood from what was obviously a matchete blow.” Later, within the Bakassi Boys’ headquarters, Ifeanyi Ibegbu was tied up and dumped in a corridor where he saw a man he recognized: “[He was] similarly trussed up there in the corridor. I know him to be a school teacher and a former local government councilor. He is a man of advancing years, over sixty.”101 The reason for the arrest and detention of these other individuals was not known to Ifeanyi Ibegbu.

Most of those detained and tortured by the Bakassi Boys were men, some very young, others over sixty. However, former detainees have also testified to the presence of women in their cells. A man detained by the Bakassi Boys in their headquarters in Onitsha in August 2000 said that there were around twenty women detained there at the time. In Owerri, Human Rights Watch and CLEEN received reports of the detention and torture of women, including sexual abuse, by the Bakassi Boys. For example, in February 2001, a woman who was targeted because she allegedly owed money to another woman was whipped on her genital area by the Bakassi Boys, who also put a stick in her vagina.102

Targeting critics of the Bakassi Boys
The momentum created by the Bakassi Boys and their apparent popularity have created a climate where it is dangerous to denounce or criticize their abuses. In the words of a Lagos-based human rights activist, “people don’t feel able to say `we don’t want Bakassi.’ At best they say `we want Bakassi’ then may admit there are problems.”103

The Bakassi Boys have dealt ruthlessly with individuals who have dared to criticize or denounce their methods, or refused to make financial contributions to them. For example, it is clear that Ifeanyi Ibegbu, the minority leader of the Anambra State house of assembly whose case is described above, was targeted in large part because of his denunciation of vigilante violence. Other, less prominent individuals, have suffered a similar fate.

On 7 July 2000, Bonaventure Chiedozie Egbuawa, a human rights activist in his thirties, was detained by OTA in Onitsha, taken to their headquarters at the White House, tortured and killed. His body was never recovered. Bonaventure Chiedozie Egbuawa was well-known for publicly criticizing excesses and abuses, including the establishment and activities of vigilante groups. He would walk around the town, including the main market, with a megaphone, denouncing what he saw as injustices. A lawyer and human rights campaigner explained how Bonaventure’s activism cost him his life:104

On that day he was in the market condemning the activities of OTA in front of many traders. OTA men arrested him and took him to the White House. They tortured him with rifle butts, iron rods, kicked him, hit him deliberately in the eyes; his face was very badly injured. After torturing him they threw him from the staircase of the White House. He came out staggering. No one in the market was brave enough to help him. About 300 metres from the White House, OTA men came and shot him. They put him in a wheelbarrow and dumped him in the River Niger, in full view of everyone, in the daytime. They usually dumped victims in the river as they can’t be prosecuted for murder without the corpse. We called a press conference and demanded an inquiry, compensation and a trial. But only one member of his family was willing to come forward, and then they withdrew. There was too much fear and pressure on the family.

Patrick Odi Okaka Oquosa, a musician and artist in his thirties, was arrested and tortured by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha in October 2000. He had been outspoken about the abuses of the Bakassi Boys and in September 2000 had gone to speak personally to Gilbert Okoye, their chairman, to plead with him to stop the violence. Gilbert Okoye said he would speak to Chuma Nzeribe, the governor’s security adviser, and told him to return. On his second visit, he was told to return a third time, then again a fourth time. Meanwhile, members of a local church, with whom Odi Oquosa had had a disagreement, had secretly taped a conversation where he had denounced and criticized the Bakassi Boys and the governor of Anambra State, and gave a copy of the tape to the Bakassi Boys. On his fourth visit to the Bakassi Boys, on October 19, 2000, Odi Oquosa was detained. He was severely tortured; his torture was clearly linked to his criticisms of their activities. He told Human Rights Watch: “They were saying I had been shouting that the Bakassi were no good.”105

Odi Oquosa was detained for three days. He was released thanks to the intervention of relatives who called the police, the governor’s office, and Chuma Nzeribe. He stated that on the day of his release, Chuma Nzeribe was present at the Bakassi headquarters. When they released him, the Bakassi Boys told Odi Oquosa that he should stop writing against them and talking about them. He later returned to ask for his glasses and precious stones which they had taken from him; they returned his glasses only. They threatened him and warned him that he should not talk about what happened. He refused to be silenced and continued writing to the authorities denouncing the abuses of the Bakassi Boys. A year later, in October 2001, his office was burnt down and all his belongings destroyed.106

People who have objected to the levy which they have been required to pay for the upkeep of the Bakassi Boys have also been victimized. A shopkeeper in Umuahia who refused to pay the levy received a visit from the Bakassi Boys who stole his goods and tortured another person who happened to be present.107 In Owerri, in Imo State, on December 20, 2001, protests by traders and okada drivers who did not want to pay the Bakassi Boys a levy of 200 naira led to violent clashes, in which at least four people were reportedly killed and others seriously injured.108 A bus driver who questioned the legality of the levy was reportedly stopped by the Bakassi Boys from Aba; they made his passengers get out of the bus, beat the driver and forced him to lie flat on the ground in submission to the Bakassi Boys.109

Interventions in private disputes and civil matters
In a number of different situations, the Bakassi Boys have been called in, effectively as hired thugs, to intervene in private disputes and civil matters, ranging from debt collection and disputes between landlords and tenants, to conflicts over land ownership and even domestic disputes. Human Rights Watch and CLEEN were informed of several cases where landlords hired the Bakassi Boys to evict tenants who they claimed had not paid their rent, or who they wanted to move out for other reasons. Threats and intimidation by the Bakassi Boys, as well as physical violence, are also often used as a way of obtaining or extorting money.

A man who had been detained by the Bakassi Boys in Owerri in June 2001 talked about some of the others detained there with him. One man, nick-named Abidjan because he had come from Côte d’Ivoire, had left Nigeria eight years earlier because of a land dispute. The day after his return to Nigeria, he was detained by the Bakassi Boys who had apparently been called by his enemies. The man had been injured and had cuts on his hands.110 In another case, in Anambra State, in around September 2001, a man called the Bakassi Boys to intervene because another man allegedly owed him money. The Bakassi Boys entered the house of the man who owed the money, injured him with machetes and detained him for three days. The police arrested the man who had called in the Bakassi Boys, as well as some of the Bakassi Boys themselves, but they were later released.111

The Bakassi Boys also intervened in a dispute in around September 2001 between rival transport workers’ unions in Onitsha, apparently supporting one side against the other. Several people died in a shoot-out between the Bakassi Boys and one of the unions. The police arrested four of the Bakassi Boys and they were charged with attempted murder. However, they were granted bail.112

Between October 27 and 30, 2001, in one of the most serious cases of involvement in civil matters, at least twenty-seven people, and possibly more, were killed after the Bakassi Boys clashed with market traders in Ariaria market in Aba, in Abia State. According to local human rights activists who visited Aba to investigate the case, the incident started when a landlord called in the Bakassi Boys to deal with a tenant, who was a shoemaker, who allegedly owed him two months’ rent. The Bakassi Boys attacked the tenant with machetes and pushed his wife. The shoemakers’ union then mobilized and complained to the Bakassi Boys about their ill-treatment of the tenant. The Bakassi Boys beat some of the protesting shoemakers. On October 27, the Bakassi Boys abducted at least fifteen traders and apprentices, including some teenagers, at the Powerline Shoe Plaza in Ariaria market, took them to their execution ground known as Burrow Pit, and killed them. They beheaded them and cut off their genitals and brought their headless corpses back to the Shoe Plaza. In response, the shoemakers returned to the Bakassi Boys’ headquarters the following day and burned and vandalized their building. They also destroyed part of the residence of the Bakassi Boys’ leader, as well as the house of the landlord whose invitation to bring in the Bakassi Boys had sparked off the incident.

The Bakassi Boys then confronted the traders and a violent clash ensued. There were victims on both sides, as both the Bakassi Boys and the shoemakers were armed with guns and knives. The total number of casualties is not confirmed, but at least four Bakassi Boys and at least eight shoemakers were killed in the clash. Human rights activists who visited the area on October 31 reported that there were still bodies lying around in the market and in the streets. They saw a human head found in the premises of the Bakassi Boys’ office; the body could not be located. The Bakassi Boys were still parading around with guns and machetes, shooting sporadically; some were in official government vehicles, apparently coming from the state capital Umuahia.113

This incident, which took place in Ariaria market, the birthplace of the Bakassi Boys, illustrates how far the situation has spun out of control and how the actions of the Bakassi Boys have ended up pitting them against their original sponsors, the shoemakers. One human rights activist described it as the culmination of a struggle for supremacy between the section of traders who founded the Bakassi Boys and the Bakassi Boys themselves, as the Bakassi Boys had become too powerful.

The Bakassi Boys and OTA have also carried out acts of gratuitous violence, with the apparent aim of terrorizing the population. For example, on April 30, 2000, a woman who was driving in Onitsha blew her horn for a group of people to move out of the road. Four men came out with guns and threatened to kill her; the men, who were members of OTA, beat her with rifle-butts and whips. She reported the assault to the OTA president, who said he would investigate and claimed that the perpetrators had been punished. However, when she asked for compensation, the OTA leader threatened to send the same men after her again.

In January 2002, in Aba, it was reported that the Bakassi Boys had abducted the chairman of the Nnewi vigilante group, Chief Agu Okonkwo, and refused to release him until a large ransom was paid. The Bakassi Boys reportedly claimed that the Nnewi community owed them money for the services they rendered.114 The Nnewi chairman was later released, after pressure from the local government chairman and a demonstration by local traders.

Increased political use of Bakassi Boys and other groups
As shown above, the Bakassi Boys have been used by state governors and their supporters to target perceived political opponents. There are already indications that this political use of vigilante groups will be intensified in the run-up to elections in 2003, and that it could generate other acts of violence on the part of rival election candidates and their supporters. For example in a recent development in Anambra State, a group known as the Anambra People’s Forum has been set up by supporters of a rival candidate to Governor Mbadinuju. One of the leaders of this group made the following statement: “We will not allow evil forces such as Mbadinuju to hold sway and go unchallenged. We are men and not cowards. Nobody is afraid of violence. If heads will roll, it’s people’s heads that will roll and it could be Mbadinuju’s head that will roll first.”115 It seems likely that unless preventive measures are taken, such groups are almost certain to engage in clashes with the Bakassi Boys as political tension increases.

In Abia State, there have been reports of the Bakassi Boys being used against members of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), a group created in 1999 which advocates autonomy for the Igbo people. MASSOB members have previously been targeted by government authorities, as well as the police, throughout 2000 and 2001; their meetings have been repeatedly and violently broken up by the police, their offices raided, hundreds of their members arrested and detained, and at least ten summarily executed by the police in Okigwe, in February 2001. According to MASSOB’s own records, at least fifty-three MASSOB members have been killed by the Bakassi Boys in Abia State since 2000.116 Tensions appeared to increase in 2001. In the second half of 2001, several MASSOB members were injured by the Bakassi Boys. In October 2001, there were violent clashes between the two groups; both sides were armed with guns and machetes. MASSOB leaders claimed that the governor had instigated the violence and was using the Bakassi Boys against MASSOB because they were not supporting his policies.117

The Bakassi Boys have sometimes been used as security guards, including by government officials. In December 2000, for example, the Bakassi Boys were openly seen carrying machetes in public gatherings. They were also invited as security guards and bouncers at parties and social functions, especially by members of the state government, including the speaker.118

45 See testimony of Joyce Okeke, below.

46 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews in Onitsha and Nawgu, October 2001.

47 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Nawgu, October 10, 2001.

48 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Nawgu, October 10, 2001.

49 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews, Nawgu, October 10, 2001.

50 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews, Nawgu, October 10, 2001.

51 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews in Nawgu and Onitsha, October 2001.

52 Interview in the Weekend Vanguard, March 10, 2001.

53 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews in Nnewi, October 14, 2001.

54 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews in Nnewi, October 14, 2001.

55 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews in Nnewi, October 14, 2001.

56 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview in Nnewi, October 14, 2001.

57 Gilbert Okoye is known as Ntu (the Nail).

58 See article entitled “Bakassi Boys: panic in Igboland,” in Weekend Vanguard (Lagos), March 17, 2001.

59 CLEEN interview with Gilbert Okoye, former chairman of the Anambra Vigilante Services, Awka, October 18, 2001.

60 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview with Camillus Ebekue, chairman of the Anambra Vigilante Services, Awka, October 16, 2001.

61 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Awka, October 9, 2001. See also Ifeanyi Ibegbu’s written statement about his arrest and torture, entitled “An account of my ordeal at the hands of the `Onitsha Vigilante Services’ also known as `Bakassi Boys,’ ” August 28, 2000.

62 Ifeanyi Ibegbu’s written statement about his arrest and torture, entitled “An account of my ordeal at the hands of the `Onitsha Vigilante Services’ also known as `Bakassi Boys,’ ” August 28, 2000.

63 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Awka, October 9, 2001.

64 Summary of submissions in “Report of the select committee investigating the arrest and detention of Hon.Ifeanyi Ibegbu.”

65 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview with Camillus Ebekue, chairman of the Anambra Vigilante Services, Awka, October 16, 2001.

66 Ibid.

67 “Bakassi Boys storm Imo State,” Newswatch, January 22, 2001.

68 Report by the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Southeast Zone, August 1, 2001.

69 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 10, 2001.

70 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 10, 2001.

71 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Awka, October 9,2001.

72 Human Rights Watch interviews in Enugu, October 2001.

73 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews with former detainees, October 2001.

74 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Umuahia, October 16, 2001.

75 Human Rights Watch interview, Enugu, October 8, 2001.

76 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 12, 2001.

77 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Awka, October 9, 2001. Some of these cases are also described in The Eye, newsletter of the Onitsha Youth Development Organisation, May 2000, and in a letter to the inspector general of police in Abuja from the Onitsha Youth Development Organisation, April 13, 2000.

78 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 12, 2001.

79 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 13, 2001.

80 Report by the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Southeast Zone, August 1, 2001.

81 Human Rights Watch interview, Enugu, October 8, 2001.

82 See Amnesty International news release “Nigeria: Amnesty International witnesses attempted summary execution by Anambra Government Security Force,” April 10, 2002.

83 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Umuahia, October 16, 2001.

84 Police findings and recommendations reproduced in the CLO’s Human Rights Call: “The extrajudicial killing of citizens by the Bakassi Boys,” October 2, 2000. The more detailed police report is also reproduced in Insider Weekly, July 16, 2001.

85 Police findings and recommendations, reproduced in the CLO’s Human Rights Call: “The extrajudicial killing of citizens by the Bakassi Boys,” October 2, 2000. The involvement of the Abia State government in this case is also documented in “Orji Kalu’s murder gang,” in Insider Weekly, July 16, 2001.

86 Case information summarized from Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interviews in Umuahia and Enugu, October 2001, and articles in Insider Weekly and Tell magazines.

87 Insider Weekly, July 16, 2001.

88 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview with Camillus Ebekue, chairman of the Anambra Vigilante Services, Awka, October 16, 2001.

89 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 10, 2001.

90 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 10,2001.

91 Human Rights Watch interview, London, February 18, 2002.

92 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Owerri, October 17,2001.

93 The various forms of physical and psychological suffering inflicted by the Bakassi Boys on their victims are considered as acts of torture, as the existence and activities of the Bakassi Boys are endorsed by government authorities. Article 1 of the U.N.Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman , or Degrading Treatment or Punishment defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person […] when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

94 Human Rights Watch interview, London, February 18, 2002.

95 CLEEN interview, Nsukka, October 20, 2001.

96 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Nawgu, October 10, 2001.

97 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Owerri, October 17, 2001.

98 The names of some of the individuals are withheld for their own security.

99 Human Rights Watch interview with Civil Liberties Organisation, Enugu, October 17, 2001.

100 CLEEN interview, Nsukka, October 20, 2001.

101 Extracts from Ifeanyi Ibegbu’s written statement about his arrest and torture, entitled “An account of my ordeal at the hands of the `Onitsha Vigilante Services’ also known as `Bakassi Boys’,” August 28, 2000.

102 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Owerri, October 17,2001.

103 Human Rights Watch interview, Lagos, October 18, 2001.

104 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 12, 2001.

105 Human Rights Watch interview, London, February 18, 2002.

106 Human Rights Watch interview, London, February 18, 2002.

107 Human Rights Watch interview in Enugu, October 17, 2001.

108 “Four dead as traders, vigilantes clash in Nigeria,” Reuters, December 21, 2001.

109 See “Bakassi Boys hold Abia residents hostage”, in the Comet (Lagos), June 7, 2001.

110 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview in Owerri, October 17, 2001.

111 Human Rights Watch interview with Civil Liberties Organisation, Enugu, October 17, 2001.

112 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview in Onitsha, October 12, 2001.

113 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, November 7, 2001.

114 See “Kidnappers demand N3.9m ransom for Nnewi Vigilante Group leader”, in the Lagos-based The Vanguard, January 24, 2002.

115 Statement by Group Captain Nnamdi Nnorukah, leader of Anambra People’s Forum, in Tell magazine, March 11, 2002.

116 Human Rights Watch interview with Uche Okwukwu, MASSOB legal adviser, Port Harcourt, March 18, 2002.

117 CLEEN interviews, Aba, October , 2001.

118 Human Rights Watch interview in Enugu, October 17, 2001.


About Author

Comments are closed.