The killing of Chief Ezeodumegwu G. Okonkwo
Chief Ezeodumegwu G. Okonkwo, a politician and musician, and chairman of the All People’s Party (APP) for the local government of Nnewi South, in Anambra State, was abducted and killed by the Bakassi Boys in February 2001. Aged forty-one, he had three wives and eleven children. He was a well-known political figure in his local area and was unafraid of denouncing abuses, including those committed by powerful figures in the community. His case illustrates the political dimension of the Bakassi Boys’ activities, as well as the escalation of a local dispute into one which ended up involving the state authorities.
According to members of his family, Chief Okonkwo’s problems started in Nnewi, several years earlier. First, in 1996, members of the town union executive were displeased when a candidate to the local council elections who was sponsored by Chief Okonkwo won the elections against a candidate sponsored by the town union executive. Then, in 1997, Chief Okonkwo was indirectly involved in a dispute between members of the same town union executive and a man who had refused to give money to them. The man fled to Chief Okonkwo’s house for protection after security men, sent by the town union executive, came to his house to try to arrest him and confiscate his property. Chief Okonkwo gave the man a note to report to the problem to the police. The police arrested two members of the town union and threatened to arrest others. The leader of the town union executive paid to get his security men released, but thereafter began inciting members of the community against Chief Okonkwo. In August 1997, five members of the town union executive wrote to the police, alleging that Chief Okonkwo was a criminal and an arms dealer and that he trained armed robbers. The police arrested Chief Okonkwo but released him after three days as their investigations did not produce any evidence against him. Chief Okonkwo filed a civil suit against the five people who had accused him, and another against the security men hired by the town union for abuses they had carried out against him and other people in the village.
In 2000, the town union wrote another letter about Chief Okonkwo, this time to the Bakassi Boys who had recently begun operating in Nnewi. On July 14, 2000, seven men armed with guns and double-edged swords burst into his house, announcing themselves as Bakassi Boys, and detained him. Eye-witnesses told Human Rights Watch and CLEEN how the Bakassi Boys beat him and fired at the walls and ceiling.53 They tied his hands behind his back and drove him away in their vehicle. They detained him overnight and released him the next day, after declaring him innocent.
A second assault was made on December 28, 2000, this time by the Bakassi Boys from Onitsha. Adolphus Anyaso, one of the main financial backers of the town union, and his son were with the Bakassi Boys when they came to Chief Okonkwo’s house to arrest him on December 28. The Bakassi Boys struck Chief Okonkwo with their machetes and injured him on his hand and stomach. They also tried to hit his wife. Eye-witnesses said Adolphus Anyaso’s son threatened to cut off Chief Okonkwo’s head and use it as a football.54 The Bakassi Boys then drove Chief Okonkwo to their detention center in Onitsha. As before, he was held overnight, then released. The Bakassi Boys brought him back to his village for a public “trial” where they asked the villagers to testify as to whether Chief Okonkwo was a criminal, vowing that they would kill him if he was. The villagers protested his innocence, and he was released.
The third and final attempt to abduct Chief Okonkwo took place on the morning of February 18, 2001. This time, the abduction was followed by murder. Five men, who introduced themselves as AVS (Anambra Vigilante Services), led by the AVS treasurer, Emmanuel Udegbunam, arrived at Chief Okonkwo’s house, firing into the air. They tied his hands behind his back and put him in the boot of their vehicle, which witnesses described as a station wagon which used to belong to OTA. They drove off to an unknown destination.55
Chief Okonkwo’s relatives then set about trying to find him and alerted the authorities. A family member explained:56
We lodged an official complaint with the police area commander in Nnewi, then we went to the AVS headquarters in Onitsha. The camp boys wouldn’t talk to us; they said we should talk to their leader. We had also reported it to the Bakassi at Nnewi, who said they didn’t have him and we should check with the Bakassi in Onitsha. At Onitsha, we met their camp leader, Okpompi. He told us to go to the AVS chairman, Gilbert Okoye, Ntu.57 We met Ntu. He said Chief Okonkwo was a criminal. When we realized he was privy to the abduction, we went to government house at Awka. We met the principal secretary there, Hez Nnukwe, who knows Chief Okonkwo. He gave us a letter addressed to Okoye asking for his release. We went back to Ntu with the letter. This time, he denied that his boys were holding Chief Okonkwo. He told us to return the next day at 10 a.m. and that he would look for him in their four camps in Anambra State.
The next day, Monday 19 February, we went to see him again. He said he had to consult the governor first. Hez Nnukwe had also phoned Nzeribe asking for his release.
On Tuesday morning we phoned the principal secretary again. He said that Nzeribe had told him that by the time he’d reached the camp in Onitsha on Monday, they had already killed Chief Okonkwo. That day, on 20 February, his three wives wrote a petition to the inspector general of police reporting this. Nzeribe gave the family an appointment for Tuesday. They went there Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, from 20 to 25 February. He gave them the assurance that he would secure Chief Okonkwo’s release.
On 25 February we realized he was not sincere. On 26 February we went to the Bakassi headquarters at Aba. We discovered that when the state government had taken over the Bakassi, they had sacked many of the original Bakassi Boys from Aba. We saw the Bakassi who had screened Chief Okonkwo twice, who were now back in Aba, including their local chief known as “Boss.” They told us that they had refused to be party to his assassination and had refused to carry out the governor’s instructions. A Bakassi Boy from Onitsha had told them that when Chief Okonkwo was arrested, they had taken him straight to the outskirts of Onitsha and murdered him at about 10.00 a.m., at Junction Niger CAT in 33 area of Onitsha, Nsugbe Road. A junior Bakassi Boy had participated in the killing. They set his corpse on fire, then came later and got rid of the corpse.
We went there on Sunday to check the spot. We asked around. People described Chief Okonkwo and said he was dragged there in the boot of the car, shouting that he was innocent.
In March, the police arrested seven people, including Gilbert Okoye, Adolphus Anyaso, and Emmanuel Udegbunam, and charged them with murder, conspiracy to murder, and kidnapping of Chief Okonkwo. They were released some weeks later. Gilbert Okoye was detained for three months then was granted bail.
Chief Okonwko’s family told Human Rights Watch and CLEEN that in a newspaper interview, the governor had denied seeing any letter asking for Chief Okonkwo’s release, and that when asked whether the government would compensate the family for his death, he said: “They don’t recognize me” (that is, since they were not his supporters, he did not feel the need to take any action). Chuma Nzeribe was quoted in a newspaper as stating: “I have no hand whatsoever in the murder [of Chief Okonkwo]. The members of the Anambra State Vigilante Services have no hand in the case. I have not met the man all my life.” He then went on to question the “benefit in harming the man for political reasons [especially as]he is no threat to the government of Anambra State.”58When CLEEN met Gilbert Okoye in October 2001, he said he knew nothing about the death of Chief Okonkwo, did not know him and had never met him. 59 Camillus Ebekue, who took over the chairmanship of the AVS in May 2001, also told Human Rights Watch and CLEEN that there was no trace of AVS involvement in the death of Chief Okonkwo.