Chilling tales of SARS brutality; the Awkuzu ‘’Abattoir’
By OBINNA EZUGWU
“Welcome to Hell!” reads a bold inscription that ushers you into the torture chambers of the headquarters of police Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) in Awkuzu, Anambra State.
Awkuzu SARS, as it is widely known, was by many accounts, indeed where inmates saw hell, and shook hands with the devil in uniform. But the stories of Awkuzu SARS, horrifying as they were, never prompted an investigation by the authorities.
Amid the ongoing protests against the now disbanded notorious unit, and against police brutality in general, many have once again, begun to call attention to the atrocious events that happened behind its walls, and they are stories that send the jitters down the spine.
SARS brutality is common occurrence in most of Southern Nigeria and Abuja, the federal capital territory. Over the past few years, tens of youths have been killed; others, like a young woman identified simply as Esther, either had to pay huge amounts of money to regain freedom, or spend years in detention for crimes never committed.
Last week, wife of General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, Pastor Mrs. F. A. Adeboye, shared a video in which Esther, who at 17, found herself in detention where she spent three years, arrested by SARS officers in Lagos, just for walking out of her parents house.
“My mom sent me on an errand, she runs a provision store; she sent me to get the things she sells in the shop. Outside the compound, there was a van there; there were other people in the van. They just pushed you inside without answering us,” Esther said in the widely shared video.
“We were asking questions, why? What was happening? But nobody was talking to us. Then, my parents started looking for me. They were told what happened and they came to the police station. As time went on, they were asking for a certain amount of money from my parents. My parents being Christians, insisted that they were not going to pay because they were sure their daughter didn’t do anything wrong.
“They then took us to state CID, Panti (Yaba). Immediately we got there, they took us to a room that looks like a staff room, asked my parents to wait outside, that they just wanted to ask me some questions. Then they took me to another room, an open hall, and asked me to undress. I refused because I didn’t know why. Then they subjected me to electric shock, and when I woke up, I was naked in front of policemen, and they started torturing me.
“I was tied, my hands and my legs at the back together, and I was being tortured. They just wanted me to say, Yes, I did it. Of course, I didn’t do anything, I was just 17 at that time, and I was not ready to say I did it. But the torture was too much, I couldn’t stand anymore. I had to agree that yes, I did it. Because that was the only way they said they would stop torturing me.
“The social action team came in; I had been in prison for three years, because my case was dumped in a court that was not sitting. So, they helped me to pick it up and transfer it to a court that was sitting. And they were paying my lawyer to hasten up the case. That was how I was discharged and acquitted.”
Esther’s account is one of many, and the bulk of such happened in Anambra, particularly in Awkuzu, where activists say, is the ground zero of SARS brutality in the country.
It was January 2013, and a gory site of dead bodies numbering between 35 and 50 floating in Ezu River, a small river within the boundary of Anambra and Enugu states in Eastern Nigeria, all male and apparently in their prime before their death, jolted many and attracted global headlines.
Amid the outrage, the police promised an investigation. But not many expected that the institution fingered by many in the killings, could possibly come out with report indicting itself for what was apparently a barbaric act of extrajudicial execution. Nothing came out of the investigation.
Officially, the source of the floating corpses remained a mystery. In the closets, however, people swore it was the Anambra police command. It was not until four years later in 2017, that a civil society group, Intersociety released a report indicting the police for the murders.
The bodies, it was alleged, were dumped by Awkuzu SARS, the notorious unit then headed by now 59-year-old Ezza North, Ebonyi State born CSP James Nwafor (rtd), a man whose reputation for brutal torture and executions, earned the alias, “Butcher.”
The ongoing protests against SARS, a now disbanded police squad formed to tackle the menace of armed robbery, but which subsequently evolved practically into a terror squad terrorising mostly Nigeria’s youth population, have brought fresh attention to Awkuzu SARS, and to Nwafor who headed it between 2012 and 2016, within which period some allege, at least a thousand people were killed, many of them innocent young men.
Many have been recounting stories of their horrendous experiences, and calls for arrest and trial of Nwafor have grown loud.
For many who had encounters with Nwafor, there are only stories of pain, torture and brutal deaths. Awkuzu SARS, many have said, is an abattoir, not for slaughter of cattle or sheep, but where human parts are dismantled, butchered and even sold. They read like scenes from tormenting horror movies, except they are real life experiences lived, as told by survivors, on behalf of the estimated others dead.
An account by Bonaventure Chokwebundu Mokwe, a hotelier who was set up and consequently detained at the facility is a long read, but provides insights into what life was like behind the walls of Awkuzu SARS.
“My coming in contact with the outfit started on August 1st 2013, when my Upper Class Hotel was demolished. On the very date, I drove into my hotel from my residence at around 7.30 in the morning. Minutes after that, a truck load of Police men arrived and surrendered my hotel. It did not take long before the crowd started gathering outside of the hotel as I looked through my office window,” Mokwe narrated.
“It took sometime before some of the police officers walked into my office with Dr Justin Nwankwo. My other hotel staff has already been beaten to a pulp down stairs. I introduced myself and they said that they wanted to search the whole of the hotel premises and I said no problem.
“We started from the last floor of the hotel, room after room and most of the rooms were occupied by guests that were mostly traders from Cameroon. We finally got to the first floor but before then, one of the officers had demanded that we show them room 102.
“When we got to room 102, the door was locked and I turned and asked Dr. Nwankwo Justin whether a guest paid for the room the day before and he said yes.
“I asked about the manifest of the hotel lodging and he said that he had submitted the police copy to SCIB at the Central Police station Onitsha which every hotel is obligated to do before 7a.m. every day. I instructed him to bring our own copy which he hurriedly did and we showed it to the police.
”The guest gave his name as John Obi. The officers insisted on breaking the door and I pleaded with them to wait for the guest for some time, the customers of Upper class hotel are predominantly traders from Cameron and Niger republic and that they carry a lot of cash with them.
“That has been the case since 1974 when the hotel was built because of its nearness to main market Onitsha.
“Before I could finish, they broke the door and entered the room. We saw black polyethylene bags (waterproof) all over the room with an open suitcase. The officers then opened the wardrobe and brought out a bag. Inside the bag were two human skulls with sand all over them and two rusted and unserviceable AK47 guns.
“I was promptly leg chained on both legs and Dr. Justin Nwankwo was handcuffed. I was taken to the outside corridor of the hotel and made to kneel down while holding the exhibits and they took pictures. At that point, from the faces I saw amongst the crowd with axes and matches, I then knew where the whole incident came from, hazard of land business along with motor park duel.
“By the time I was led downstairs, practically most of the police officers have all headed back to the station with the exception of the ones that accompanied me. The crowd was surging to clearly mob me, luckily for me, I came to the office with my Q56 infinity SUV and the leg chain gave me some space to drive.
“As I entered my SUV and started the engine and pushed down the vehicle auxiliary, I turned around to the police officers and told them that I already know what happened and that if the crowd rushes at me, I will fill up the mortuary at the general hospital Onitsha including myself. As I surged on, one of the police officers opened the vehicle door and started firing rapidly in the air. That pretty well saved me and some of those people.
“From the Area command Onitsha, we headed to Awkuzu SARS with CSP James Nwafor and his team. Dr Justin Nwankwo and the staff were packed in one vehicle while I myself, CSP James Nwafor and three other SARS officers were in another vehicle.
“When we got to the present Road Safety office along the Enugu/Onitsha, before you get to Awkuzu SARS, James Nwafor turned around and said to me: “You will never see that hotel again”, he he will kill me whether I am innocent or not and that, if I am innocent, may my blood be on him and his children”.
“When we then entered Awkuzu proper, Dr. Justin Nwankwo was kept in their torture hall while I was taken behind the torture hall where James Nwafor mostly does his killing. Behind the very torture hall, I was chained to a local weight lifting device.
“After some period James Nwafor came back with some officers along with one other officer I later discovered to be his deputy by name CSP Sunday Okpe.
“Sunday Okpe inspected the exhibits for some time and asked me the following questions:
1. Where the exhibits recovered in my office and I said no, it was recovered in a guest room.
2. Do we have hotel manifest and I answered yes that we submitted the police copy early in the morning but that my manager has a duplicate copy.
“He inspected the exhibits yet again and said that the skulls look old and that the guns have not been in use for a long time; why all in one bag he asked, while the rest looks on. As a turned to leave, he muttered; this looks like mago mago.
“His observation did not stop James Nwafor. Not long after that, one of the officers came back with an already written statement and I was asked to sign. I refused saying that I am quite capable of writing my own statement.
“My torture commenced immediately. I was overpowered and my shirt was removed from me. They then wrapped my neck with the shirt and then followed it will a green rope and they started pulling from both ends. Gentlemen I was gone. They then appended my thumb-print on the prepared statement that substantiated the allegations against me.
“Meanwhile Dr. Justin Nwankwo was seeing hell in the torture hall.
“When I eventually regained consciousness, I found myself in their death chamber called cell 5. It is the cell that is reserved for those James Nwafor will kill – congested and extremely dirty. Food is not allowed in the very Cell unless periodic loafs of bread which is shared in slices; one bucket of water every day for drinking.
“The shock of my life happened on the second or the third day of being in the very cell 5. There is this small boy of between the age of 19 and 22, a second year Engineering student of FUTO. He calls me uncle. He told me that he is an only son of the mother and that his supremely rich uncle, based in Lagos wanted to annex his own father’s portion of family land and that his father is late. His resistance against the uncle landed him at SARS as a kidnapper and armed robber.
“Then, it was either in the second or third night of my staying in the condemned cell, the door of the cell opened late one night. What I saw was a torch light. Names were being called one after the other, 17 names in all including the small boy and they were ordered out and the door closed back.
“It did not take more than 15 minutes; gunshots filled the air, “Nne mo! nne mo!”, was all I could hear. The 17 young men were slaughtered in cold blood.
“I lost it that night. My system just shut down. It was either the 4th or 5th day that the door opened one morning and it was the same Sunday Okpe that called my name and told me to come out. No energy was left in me because I have not eaten real food except periodic slices of bread. He bought me something to eat along with a malt drink.
“I was subsequently transferred to cell 1. After some days, I was called into James Nwafor’s office to see my wife and my lawyer Professor Umenweke Nnama Meshach. I tried to get Dr. Justin Nwankwo to join me but they refused.
“As time went on, I discovered that the case has hung because there was no complainant. Even James Nwafor voiced out some frustration when he said, the hotel demolition was too fast. This is the same person that told me that I will never see the hotel again.
”He became unusually friendly towards me but I knew it was a damage control. The latitude then allowed me to study what truly obtains at the AWKUZU SARS. I witnessed some of the tortures and I became aware of some of their cases along with what really happens in the place.
“1. I witnessed an incident when a young trading apprentice was arrested by SARS on behalf of the master over a missing N250,000 or thereabout . He broke his spinal cord and died when he was subjected to what they call HANGING TORTURE. He was written off as an armed robber.
“2. I witnessed an incident during what they call verification exercise or something like that. All the inmates will be brought out in the open yard and all will be seated on the ground. When your name is called, you will stand up and answer some questions. There was this boy they called up and James Nwafor asked him; Are you from Ogidi ? Before the boy could finish saying no, James shot him with a silver colored pistol which is always with him. The boy bled to death right there.
“3. I also witnessed the practice of shifting inmates in the middle of the night to Nneni for the purposes of dodging official inspection of the place. Nneni SARS annex is another abattoir. Starvation of inmates and outright shooting is the rule there. If the government undertakes the excavation of the perimeter of the Nneni annex, The Ezu River will be a joke compared to what will be discovered.
“I saw other killings at the very place. Every morning, the inmates of CELL 1 will be called to carry a dead body or two behind the torture hall. Any individual that has been detained by SARS for an extended period of time will tell you exactly that.
“Let me clarify an issue here. CSP James Nwafor does not release proven kidnappers or armed robbers, he kills them but, with a negotiated huge amount of money, James will at most, charge the person to court. Outright release of the person is off as far as I know.
“What I also know is that, he can be bought to do a particular job, death inclusive, if the price is right.
“Let me stop here but there are more details. If the government of the day is desirous of appeasing the victims of SARS, the government should offer immunity to some officers that served under James Nwafor and they will lead investigators to the exact location of corpse dump in the vicinity of Nneni. Some of the SARS victims can at least recover the body of their loved ones for burial.”
Mokwe’s story, painful at it is epitomizes many that have come out in recent days. He unlike many others, made it out alive.
In 2012, Chijioke Iloanya, aged 20, was said to have been picked up at Ajali where he went for child dedication and allegedly taken to Awkuzu SARS. That would be the last time his parents, who were made to sell landed properties, spend millions of naira in the hope of getting him released, would hear of him.
A few weeks ago, his sister, Obianuju Iloanya, took to her Twitter handle, @Ada_mummyya to relieve the horror his family went through.
“I found out @CspJamesNwafor the man responsible for the disappearance (or possibly death) of my brother is on twitter. This beast kills for fun and claims he’s untouchable,” she wrote.
“Governor Willie Obiano must stop protecting this man so he can pay for his crimes! He claims that nothing can happen to him, he was responsible for dumping over 100 dead bodies of young men in the Ezu River at the borders of Enugu and Anambra in 2012. Had my father swimming in a river filled with dead bodies to see if he can find his son!
“This man denied ever arresting my brother and while my parents were leaving his office, they saw him being led in and my parents identified him immediately. This man ordered that my parents be pushed out of his “compound”. Why lie?
“The next day this animal tells them point-blank that he had killed my brother and that they should do their worst! My mum collapsed immediately and was rushed to hospital, this animal deserves death!
“The scam started from there, lots of people told us he was bluffing and that we should bring money, we sold land to pay for his release and he kept upping the amount! We went to the commissioner of police Anambra state who said his hands were “tied”.
“The few people that ever left that cell said they saw my brother, we don’t know how true, we were willing to pay anything but this animal frustrated us, the human rights guys we met in Anambra (maybe works with him, I don’t know) scammed us too.
“However, as long as I live, this man must answer for my brother’s whereabouts one day! He must answer and that day will be soon. I won’t relent or rest. Dead or alive, he must give us answers.”
Iloanya further revealed that only recently, “Nwafor was called by a lawyer to ask him questions about my brother’s case and he said the lawyer should do his worst as nothing can happen to him.
“I’m asking simply that James Nwafor tells us what happened to my brother. If he was a criminal, isn’t it the right thing to take him to court and have him sentenced? Doesn’t a family deserve to know what happened to their child? At what point is it right to kill someone who was already arrested and in custody? Is Mr. James Nwafor above the law? Please help my family find justice, we want to know if my brother is alive or dead and if dead why?”
Few months ago, global human rights body, Amnesty International compiled a report of torture extrajudicial executions by SARS officers in different states of the country, Awkuzu, Uli and other SARS units in Anambra, stood out in the report as where the worst happens.
“They brought a plain sheet and asked me to sign. When I signed it, they told me I have signed my death warrant,” read testimony of a 33 year old fuel attendant who was detained for two weeks in SARS Awkuzu, in January 2015 as reported by Amnesty. “There were two policemen in the hall. They asked me if I knew how many people died there. They said that if I die, my blood will never be on their hands. They took me to the back of the building and tied my hands to the back.
“They also connected the rope to my legs, leaving me hanging on a suspended iron rod. They put the iron rod in the middle between my hands and the leg with my head facing the ground. My body ceased to function. I went limp. The IPO (Investigating Police Officer) came at intervals and told me to speak the truth. I lost consciousness.
When I was about to die they took me down and poured water on me to revive me. They brought people from the cell to carry me inside the cell. I was detained for two weeks.” The attendant was released on bail after two weeks of detention when a high court in Onitsha, ordered for his release. He counts himself lucky, only few are lucky to be taken to court; going to court is in itself victory.
“Azuamaka Victor Maduamago aged 24, was arrested in Onitsha on 20 August 2008. He was handed over to SARS Awkuzu, Anambra State,” Amnesty said in another account. “In October 2008, his family was informed that he had been transferred to Abuja. To date, his whereabouts are unknown.”
A certain Mr. Offor whose story is currently trending on social media, is one on of many that never had the opportunity to go to court, and never made it out of the Awkuzu SARS walls, not even as a corpse.
“In 2012, some people in Igboville Facebook group were discussing in their forum the case of one popular Facebook user, Mr. Offor. He lived in Malaysia before returning to settle in Lagos. He and his cousin and a friend were arrested in Lagos by SARS officers sent from Awkuzu, Anambra State. They were taken from Lagos to Anambra,” narrated a source who witnessed the events.
“The next thing was that they were tortured and badly beaten, and then paraded as armed robbers, kidnappers. But it was never indicated who they kidnapped or robbed, or where or when such kidnappings or robbery occurred.
“When the wife learned that they were being detained by James Nwafor at Awkuzu SARS, she went to see Nwafor. Nwafor took four million naira from her promising to release her husband. After collecting the money, he told the woman: ‘Your husband has been killed. Buy don’t worry. I will date you for some time and then I will arrange for one of my cousins to marry you. Forget your useless husband. You’re too good for him’.
“The wife met me and requested for help. It was impossible to go after James Nwafor then. He was a killer out of control. But now, we will resurrect that case. Nwafor is a cold-blooded mass murderer. He must be held accountable.”
Amnesty said its research also showed that SARS officers involved in the torture and other ill-treatment of detainees are rarely held to account and in some cases are transferred to another location. This knowledge that their actions had no consequences, activists say, largely contributes to heightened cases of abuses by SARS officers, who would typically tell their victims, “I will waste you and nothing will happen.”
Few months ago, reports emerged that Nwafor, now retired, was appointed special adviser on security matters by Governor Willie Obiano. A backlash that followed prompted officials of the state government to issue statements denying the appointment.
But some close sources in the Government House insisted that Nwafor was still serving as Obiano’s aid, and on Friday, protesters headed to Government House Awka to demand an explanation from the governor who addressed the protesters, promising to look into the allegations of extrajudicial killings by the SARS operatives, even as he admitted that although he employed Nwafor as he aid, he had been sacked and would be investigated.
“Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State this afternoon held a frank and candid discussion with a large number of Nigerian youths on the state of the nation, with particular attention on the experience of young people at the hands of security agents,” a statement by C. Don Adinuba, the commissioner for information said.
“The governor noted with dismay reports of inhuman treatment to the youth by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force, and consequently lauded President Muhammadu Buhari for disbanding SARS in accordance with the wishes of Nigerian youths and also for acceding to their four requests for a better police force.
“To create a more humane social order in Anambra State, Governor Obiano has decided to set up a broad-based panel to look into reports of abuse of human rights by the defunct SARS in the state over the years. Headed by The Hon. Justice V. N, Umeh, (retired) the panel will complete its job within 30 days. Members comprise the following:
(A) A representative of the Association of Anambra State Students;
(B) Three youth leaders from the three senatorial zones in the state;
(C) A member of the National Youth Service Corps in the state;
(D) Anambra State chairman, Civil Liberties Organisation;
(E) Chairman, Anambra Civil Society Network;
(F) Chairman of the Youth Council of Nigeria, Anambra State Chapter;
(G) A representative of the Youth Wing of the Ohaneze NdIgbo, Anambra State;
(H) Chairman of the Youth Wing of the Anambra Town Unions (ASATU);
(I) Chairman of the Christian Association, Anambra State;
(J) A nominee of the Archbishop of the Anglican Province of the Niger;
(K) A nominee of the Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha;
(L) A representative of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Anambra State;
(M)A representative of the Chairman of the Anambra State Traditional Rulers Council;
(N) The Attorney General & Commissioner for Justice;
(O) The Commissioner for Youth & Creative Economy;
(P) The two youngest members of the State Executive Council; and
(Q) The Special Adviser to the Governor on Creative Security.
“The panel will look, in particular, into allegations of extrajudicial killings by a former head of the SARS office in the state, Chief Superintendent of Police James Nwafor (retired), whose appointment as a Special Assistant to the Governor has since been terminated. He will face prosecution if found guilty of any of the alleged offences.
“Governor Obiano has also directed the Commissioner of Police to review all detentions in not just the SARS facilities in the state but also in all police formations to ensure that the freedoms and dignity of all citizens are upheld at all times.”
But many have insisted that the governor’s assurances were not satisfactory, even as calls for the arrest of Nwafor have grown louder, with some suggesting he has gone into hiding.
On Friday, protesters led by musicians, Flavour, Phyno, among others, went to the Awkuzu SARS headquarters to register their grievances over the torture happening behind its walls, but were dispersed by personnel who fired live rounds at them.
At the weekend, Obiano went himself to the headquarters, made a show of releasing three inmates, and although the personnel cleaned up the place, observers say it was still oozing with stench.
“Anambra is the ground zero of SARS abuses in Nigeria,” said human rights lawyer, Abdul Mahmud, “Refer to the statement issued by the NEC, specifically on the establishment of panels of inquiry by states. I find the one hurriedly set up by Gov. Willie Obiano worrying. I find the composition unwieldy and heavily packed with the establishment. What are serving commissioners doing there, when the AG is a member?
“Civil Liberties Organisation which represents the CSOs no longer exists. As a one-time Head of Legal, CLO, I’m in the position to assert the truth of the fact of its non-existence.”
Others have also wondered why the governor went ahead to appoint Nwafor as adviser, despite the allegations against him.
“James Nwafor, with all atrocities committed and many extrajudicial killings carried out by him, got appointed as SSA to the governor of Anambra,” said John Oyesile, @OyesileJohn. “Remember, a thorough background checks must have been run on him before being appointed.”
“I’m actually upset at Obiano saying he has sacked James Nwafor, seems like he’s taking us for idiots,” said Emeka Kalu, @Em3kaKalu. “You knew his atrocities but still appointed him as an aide and kept paying him with money of tax payers whose family members he must have killed. That’s an insult.”
For lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, Nwafor is well connected, and his arrest will take sustained campaign.
“The arrest and prosecution of Murderer CSP JAMES NWAFOR can only be achieved through a sustained trending of the subject here. During his criminal exploits @AWKUZUSARS Mr. Nwafor established powerful contacts with political heavyweights in Anambra, who are now at work to save him,” Ejiofor said.