Gone: The lost victims of Nigeria’s ‘most brutal’ police station

For more than a decade, young men have disappeared or lost their lives at the hands of Awkuzu SARS, a notorious police station in southeastern Nigeria. For victims and their families, it is an arduous road to justice.

Ukamaka Obasi lost three of her sons, allegedly at the hands of Awkuzu SARS police officers [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Ukamaka Obasi lost three of her sons, allegedly at the hands of Awkuzu SARS police officers [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

Awkuzu, Nigeria – Behind a metal gate on the southern flank of the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, stands a boxy hay-coloured building set in the dense clay earth of Awkuzu town.

For more than 10 years, it has been at the centre of incredulous tales of torture and extrajudicial killings in this part of southeastern Nigeria’s Anambra State – tales that have spread beyond the region and across the country. Throughout the building’s dark history, blood stained its floors and guttural screams from those detained there rang out deep into the night.

Today, a gloomy aura hovers over the building as cars and pedestrians pass by.

The building originally belonged to the local chapter of a national political party set up during one of Nigeria’s military regimes in the early 1990s, but was later converted to the local headquarters of the police force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Although SARS was disbanded on October 11, 2020, after nationwide protests against it, the building is still used by the Nigerian Police Force.

Popularly known as “Awkuzu SARS”, people in the area say it was not a normal police station. Some describe it as the most brutal in Nigeria. There is a saying about Awkuzu SARS that captures the station’s chilling reputation: if you’re taken there, you may never come out.

Protesting for her brother

In early October 2020, thousands of young Nigerians began pouring onto streets across the nation to demand the Nigerian government dismantle SARS. Twenty-five-year-old Obianuju Iloanya felt compelled to join them. The NGO worker wanted to speak out for her older brother, Chijioke Iloanya, who was 20 years old when police officers arrested him in November 2012. He was handed over to Awkuzu SARS and has not been seen or heard from since.

SARS was a tactical police unit created in 1992 following a spate of crimes in Lagos. Before the head of the Nigerian Police Force announced the unit would be dissolved in response to the #EndSARS protests, it had operated in all 36 of Nigeria’s states and in the federal capital, Abuja. Rights groups had long accused it of carrying out unlawful arrests, extortion, rape, torture and murder.

“The police are the true criminals of Nigeria,” Obianuju says, sitting in the corridor of her family’s quaint bungalow set on the edge of a sandy, unpaved road in Anambra State.

Obianuju continues, determined to speak through her frustration. “What is this? What is the worth of human life in Nigeria? What do you have to do to not be killed?”

Obianuju Iloanya says her brother Chijioke was a victim of police brutality [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
She marched alongside #EndSARS campaigners in Abuja, where she has lived since 2018 after graduating from university. She stood in front of the crowds shouting “End SARS” into a megaphone. Armed young men later ambushed protesters with clubs and knives.

In horror, Obianuju watched the mob running towards them, clenching their weapons. She also saw government security agents.

“They used water cannons on us while throwing tear gas on us,” she says with a sigh of exasperation. “I was in the eye of the storm and I was really scared. I know the Nigerian government; they don’t play nice.”

But she had already resolved to be there – for Chijioke. At one point, she even laid her body flat in the middle of a street in Abuja’s Asokoro district, directly in front of the headquarters of the Nigerian Police Force.

What happened to Chijioke?

Meanwhile, about 450km (280 miles) south of Abuja, more protesters gathered in Obianuju’s home state of Anambra to condemn the local Awkuzu SARS.

Obianuju grew up in a community less than 25km (15 miles) from the post. Throughout her childhood, she shared a bedroom with her two sisters. But she had a special bond with her older brother Chijioke. The two were so close they told people they were twins. She never imagined her brother would end up inside Awkuzu SARS.

Chijioke Iloanya, born in 1992, was waiting to start university at the time he was arrested [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Over the course of three days in November, Al Jazeera met with the Iloanya family – father, Emmanuel; mother, Hope; son, Ebuka; and daughters, Kosisochukwu and Obianuju – in their hometown, where they recounted what had happened to Chijioke.

On the evening of November 29, 2012, Chijioke Iloanya went out to a small party in the courtyard of his friend’s flat to celebrate the birth of the friend’s first child.

He was popular in the community. People knew him by his nickname – 50 Cents, an ironic nod to the American rapper because he was not a huge fan of his music. He was more interested in fashion, with a particular fondness for stylish shoes.

“Chijioke was a shoe guy,” says his older brother, 30-year-old Ebuka, smiling. “He was into Converse, sneakers, sportswear, all-purpose shoes. He even taught me about shoe fashion. He can even dress up on a non-eventful day and just be shining with his shoes.”

That day, he was wearing a sleek pair of dark brown sneakers, a white polo shirt beneath a long-sleeved shirt and jeans.

The party was in the town of Ajali, 40km (25 miles) southeast. At the time, stories about police officers, particularly from SARS, busting into beer parlours, hotels and outdoor gatherings to arrest people were rife.

But Chijioke went out anyway and at about six in the evening, his mother called him on his mobile phone to ask why he was out past the family’s curfew. Hope is a conservative woman who does not like her children out after sunset, and she had good reason to be worried. The streets were not safe. Armed groups were kidnapping people in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Violence between gangsters and cultists led to dead bodies being left on roadsides and fields across the region. Police officers were busting fraudsters for duping people on the internet. Hope, like many parents, was on edge.

Chijioke assured her that he was on his way back home. He was going to hop on a bus, he said. But he never made it to the bus stop.

“That was the last we heard from him,” says Obianuju, shrugging her shoulders. She speaks in a matter-of-fact tone, trying not to cry. “The next thing, we got a call from some guy telling us that the child dedication [party] was raided and that the boys were arrested by the police.”

Chijioke’s father, Emmanuel, and his sister, Obianuju, at the family home [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Officers from the Ajali police station had crashed the event that night, arresting a few people including the landlady of the apartment building and the mother of the newborn child.

The following day, Hope went to the Ajali police station and tried to bail her son out but the officers said she could not because she is a woman. She called her husband. The police prepared to transfer Chijioke to Awkuzu SARS.

“When my dad heard, he got worried because Awkuzu SARS is a terrible place, it’s a very scary place to be,” says Obianuju. “Awkuzu SARS is known for killing young people. It’s very rare for a young person to be arrested by Awkuzu SARS and they’ll be out alive or still complete. You can lose a limb or something before you’re out,” she explains.

Emmanuel, a stout man with a husky voice and a relaxed gait, says he and his wife went to Awkuzu SARS looking for their son that same day, but the authorities told them Chijioke was not there. When Emmanuel and Hope went back the next day, they saw their son being led to a cell. They yelled his name and Chijioke looked at them.

Emmanuel pleaded for the police officers to tell them what their son had done to warrant being arrested.

“But the SARS people chased us out of that place,” he says, adding that the then-commander of Awkuzu SARS, James Nwafor, the chief superintendent of police, pushed his wife.

Emmanuel and Hope went back to the Awkuzu SARS several times that week to speak to Nwafor, Obianuju explains. Nwafor told them that he had already killed their son and there was nothing they could do about it, she says. Hope fainted and Emmanuel took her to the hospital.

“That was what prompted my parents to go to the commissioner of police,” Obianuju says.

The then-commissioner of police of Anambra State, Bala Nasarawa, supervised police activities across the state. Emmanuel says that he and his wife went to see him and told him about what had happened to Chijioke, but nothing came of it.

Emmanuel and Hope Iloanya, married in 1989, have made multiple attempts over the years to find their son Chijioke [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Emmanuel and Hope tried to believe that Nwafor was bluffing about killing their son and that he was still alive.

“When he disappeared, we went everywhere. We spent everything looking for him,” Hope says. Her face stiff with grief, she speaks at a slow, measured pace, with long pauses. They spent the next few years going to other SARS police posts and seeking help in different states across Nigeria.

They went looking for lawyers who could help them and asked activists to speak out about their case. But they could not get any leads. There was no court hearing. The police never presented an official charge to the Iloanyas and never went to their home to investigate – not even informally.

They heard of former detainees being freed after their families allegedly paid the police.

Ebuka, who says he first started hearing about Awkuzu SARS in around 2007 and for a while was hesitant to even go near the building, is sitting on the edge of an armchair in the living room. His eyes grow wider and his voice gets louder as he says, “When someone you know is being arrested by Awkuzu SARS, if that person comes back it’s a miracle, total miracle.”

So, the Iloanya family started praying for a miracle. But they had to pay for it first.

Emmanuel and Hope struggled to raise money. A part-time real estate agent, Emmanuel sold properties worth at least $90,000, receiving 5 percent commissions on them. He used the funds to pay legal advisers and pastors who promised to pray to God on their behalf for a miracle. They also paid police officers loitering outside the Awkuzu SARS post to go in and find out if Chijioke was there. That never yielded any solid information.

“After paying all these things you realise how much you have spent,” Emmanuel says.

With the financial demands growing ever greater, Emmanuel and Hope could barely cope. Emmanuel began to consider the unthinkable – selling the plot of land where his daughter Peace was buried after she died mysteriously in 2010.

Double tragedy

Emmanuel and Hope have been married for 31 years. Attracted to “her beauty and character”, Emmanuel fell in love with his wife the first time he saw her, he says. He built a modest three-bedroom bungalow in Hope’s hometown in Anambra State. There, they raised their children: Ebuka, Chijioke, Obianuju, Peace and the last born, Kosisochukwu.

They lived a middle-class lifestyle. Hope ran a small canteen on a busy road not too far from the house. She cooked rice dishes and hearty soups for a steady stream of customers. Emmanuel, an electrician, went out to look for work installing and repairing house wiring. They earned just enough money to keep everything going and made sure all their children went to school.

Obianuju and Peace had just returned home from school together one day in March 2010 when Peace started complaining that she was hot. She went outside to splash cool water on her body. But then she started gasping for breath and, all of a sudden, slumped over. She was 13 years old and had no known health problems. Her parents rushed her to a hospital but the medical professionals told them Peace was dead. They did not believe it so they carried her body to another hospital. The health workers there told them the same thing. Emmanuel and Hope took their daughter to a third hospital hoping to hear something different.

But Peace was gone.

A framed photograph of Peace Iloanya, who died in 2010 when she was 13 years old [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
They brought her body back home and laid her on the floor. Chijioke was beside her holding her hand. Hope sat praying beside her little girl all night. Emmanuel looked at Peace’s still figure as it grew colder.

“I think that’s the only time I’ve seen him cry,” Obianuju says.

Emmanuel chuckles sadly.

“That was the first time he had lost control as a dad,” she remarks.

“My favourite,” Emmanuel says, remembering how Peace’s face and stature resembled his mother’s. “When she was born, I thought she was a reincarnation of my mother.”

They buried Peace on a plot of land that Emmanuel had inherited from his father.

Hope started seeing a therapist to help her cope with the excruciating pain of losing her daughter.

“I was just recovering from the shock of losing Peace when Chijioke’s case happened,” she says, the corners of her lips turned downwards in a deep frown.

Chijioke’s arrest, two years and eight months after Peace died, threw the family into shock, again, and forced Emmanuel to make a tough choice: sell Peace’s burial ground to pay for Chijioke’s release or find another way to get enough money. Emmanuel brewed over the dilemma and finally decided to sell it for 5 million naira ($31,847) and offered 3 million naira ($19,108) to the police. He says they told him it was not enough.

Emmanuel does not want to say anything more about it. It is a painful topic for him.

Emmanuel regrets selling the land where his daughter Peace is buried [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
“It was a double tragedy,” Obianuju says as tears slip down her cheeks. “Cause it was like we sold Peace to get Chijioke and we didn’t get either.”

Many Nigerians perceive the police force to be the most corrupt institution in the country, according to 2019 reports from a local legal rights advocacy group and Transparency International.

Obianuju says that in Nigeria, justice is bought by the highest bidder.

“Rich people in Nigeria do not have these kinds of tragedies,” she says. Her father grunts in agreement, his thoughts turning to Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian billionaire tycoon and the wealthiest man in Africa.

“If I’m rich like Dangote, nothing will happen to my son,” he says.

A river of bodies

In January 2013, Emmanuel heard about something that stirred his hope – dead bodies in a river.

That month, local communities were abuzz with disturbing news that more than a dozen bodies had been found floating in the Ezu River, a tributary of West Africa’s longest, the Niger.

At the time, police cited at least 18 corpses, but local human rights activists put the number at between 25 and 50. They claimed that Awkuzu SARS was responsible for the deaths, alleging that the victims were suspected to be members of a controversial ethno-nationalist secessionist organisation, known as the Movement For the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), which was calling for the southeastern region to break away from Nigeria and form a new country called Biafra.

MASSOB members, accusing the federal government of historically marginalising southeastern Nigeria and discriminating against people from the region, were being arrested and executed after repeated clashes with police and allegedly attacking officials. The founder had been charged with treason.

Reporters and townspeople flocked to the river to get a glimpse of the decomposing bodies. Emmanuel could think of only one thing: Chijioke.

The Ezu River, where, in January 2013, more than a dozen corpses were found [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Emmanuel jumped into his green 1996 Mercedes-Benz 230, started the engine and drove the 10 minutes to the river.

When he got to the muddy bank, other people were there, too, trying to see if they could recognise any of the bodies. Emmanuel took off his shoes and waded into the water. He began flipping over bloated corpses. He did not pay much attention to the faces – they were already rotting. He was looking for a dull scar that Chijioke had on his chest, something like a birthmark.

He wanted his son’s body. He desperately needed a body to put into the ground. He needed the body for closure. The body was essential. His Igbo culture demands a body. He wanted his son’s spirit to rest in peace. He wanted the ancestors to know that he had carried out the proper burial rites. He was looking for his son’s body in a river of decaying bodies, turning over the corpses one by one until there were no more to turn.

Emmanuel left without his son’s body.

A family mourns in silence

With Chijioke gone, the Iloanyas decided to keep his story to themselves. They did not bring it up with people outside the family. Still, some people heard gossip about Chijioke being an armed robber and stopped visiting the family. In Nigeria, families whose loved ones are taken by law enforcement officials often experience a deep shame, even when the person is innocent. There is a stigma associated with having your relative arrested and the Iloanya family felt it.

So they kept quiet, year after year, as Chijioke never came back.

“So you start asking me, ‘How is your brother’? ‘He’s fine.’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘He’s no longer in the country,’” Ebuka says. “That’s what I normally tell people. It’s just a way to tell them to leave me alone.”

They have tried to move on with their lives: go to work, keep the house clean, watch television. But there is sadness and they have each had to find a way to live with it.

‘I cannot say for sure if he’s alive. I cannot say for sure if he’s dead,’ Emmanuel Iloanya says of his son Chijioke [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
For Emmanuel, going out to socialise with people in the neighbourhood helps him.

“Whenever, I’m alone. I’m not comfortable,” he says.

The day the police rejected the money he had offered after selling his daughter’s burial ground, Emmanuel went home with thoughts of regret, hopelessness and frustration tormenting his mind.

Ebuka shared a bedroom with Chijioke for almost 20 years. They went to the same schools. Like millions of Nigerians, they followed the British Premier Football League and Chijioke, a Tottenham fan, used to tease Ebuka whenever Manchester United, his favourite team, lost a game.

“You have a brother and all of a sudden, you don’t have a brother.”

Ebuka, two years older than Chijioke, said his brother could light up a room with his charming personality [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Obianuju says she and Chijioke were always together. They shared secrets. He covered for her whenever she did not do her household chores. Whenever she eats something salty these days, she thinks of Chijioke. He used to sprinkle extra salt on his food. It is these sorts of memories that Obianuju battles with.

She got angry at God, disappointed by Peace’s death and again, for what happened to Chijioke.

“It’s difficult for me to reconcile that with my faith. The Bible says whatever you ask of God, he will do for you … why should I be praying for justice when it should be a basic thing?” she asks. She admits that she turned away from God.

A mother’s despair

Obianuju and Ebuka say that of all the people in the family, it is their mother, Hope, who is having the hardest time.

Hope had finally crawled her way out of misery after Peace died. But what happened to Chijioke pushed her back in. She stopped going to social events and even avoided going to the market because she said people would point or look at her sympathetically.

“I just went inside and locked myself up,” the exhausted 53-year-old explains.

Hope has found it difficult to cope since her son Chijioke disappeared [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
A devout Christian, she searched for God. She continued to go to church, but even there, she would think of Chijioke, who played drums for the church’s band.

Hope went deeper into her spirituality and fell into a frantic ritual of looking for prophets to help bring Chijioke back, taking photographs of Chijioke to altars, paying offerings, fasting and praying for hours at a time. She hopped from one evangelical ministry to another, across states. She went as far as Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub more than 500km (310 miles) away, to visit Synagogue Church of All Nations, known across Africa for its charismatic televangelist TB Joshua. Obianuju clenches her jaw and furrows her eyebrows when she remembers this. She believes pastors exploited her mother.

“I took them as frauds. Because there’s no reason why you should be lying to a woman who is looking for her child and you say that you would pray today and in 30 days a miracle would happen,” Obianuju says. “You just take money from her.”

Hope paid less attention to her canteen. At times, she could not muster the strength to go to work, so the business suffered. She is hardly making any profit now and has lost customers. Some days, she shuts down, staying in the house and barely speaking. She is running on auto-pilot: wake up, pray, bathe, make breakfast, maybe go to the shop, maybe not, cook, come back home, sleep. Her face is patched in shadows and fine lines cut into her skin below eyes that weep with sorrow.

Her husband and children are trying to help her. But they do not quite know how.

“Most nights, you wake up and you see her crying,” Ebuka says.

The Iloanya family, from left to right, Ebuka, Obianuju, Emmanuel, Hope and Kosisochukwu have been searching for answers since Chijioke disappeared [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

Inside Awkuzu SARS

“Welcome to Hell Fire” was what Justin Nwankwo saw etched on a wall in black paint when he entered Awkuzu SARS.

In August 2013, Nwankwo was arrested from a popular hotel where he worked as a manager, along with the hotel’s owner and some of the staff. Nwafor and his officers had found a gun and two human skulls inside one of the guest rooms. Founded on fears over a 1996 case of an adolescent boy being beheaded in a hotel in a neighbouring state, the police discovery sparked rumours around town that the staff in the hotel were engaged in sacrificial killings.

Nwankwo spent 81 days in Awkuzu SARS, a “human abattoir” he calls it. He says towards the back of the station across the open courtyard, there is a torture hall with odd-looking metallic rings and bars hanging from the walls.

“I was hanged. I was beaten. Guns were sporadically shot around me … they used their boots to hit my scrotum,” he tells Al Jazeera. He saw people shot dead in his cell and heard inmates screaming for their mothers and fathers.

Nwankwo, who is now a university lecturer, said he passed out several times in the torture hall before he was taken to Cell 5, which is behind the counter near the entrance. It is known to be the worst cell.

Nwankwo drew a sketch of what the inside of the station looks like, noting that there are five cells in total. He says Cells 5 and 4 are pitch-black. Cell 3 is adjoined to 4 by a wall. Cell 2 is for women. Detainees in Cell 1 are usually asked to clean up the blood in the torture hall.

Justin Nwankwo’s sketch of inside the Awkuzu SARS police post [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
When he was released after receiving bail from a high court, he went for a medical checkup which revealed that he had internal bleeding, a ruptured scrotum and infections.

Human rights organisations have documented accounts of torture in Awkuzu SARS that corroborate Nwankwo’s.

The sister of a 27-year-old university student told Amnesty International that when she saw her brother two days after he was taken to Awkuzu SARS, he was limping, looked sick and had injuries on his shoulder, legs and torso. She said he told her that he was beaten, hung from a rope and forced to say that he was an armed robber.

“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,” a 33-year-old fuel attendant told Amnesty after he was imprisoned for two weeks in Awkuzu SARS in January 2015.

A trader narrated his account to Human Rights Watch: “They brought me out around seven [in the morning] and started tying a tube around my arms from my hand to my shoulder. After six hours they loosened it. They then tied my hands behind my back and put a cane through my arms, put two blocks on my back, and hung me for around two and a half hours.”

Civil rights campaigner Emeka Umeagbalasi of the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law has studied police brutality in Nigeria for years and attributes it to several factors.

“Crude and unprofessional policing,” he says. “The Nigerian police has continually adopted the policing of the yore, the policing of the Stone Age.” He also blames corruption, describing the Nigerian Police Force as a commercialised institution.

Nkiruka Ugochukwu agrees that police officers in Nigeria are after money. She believes that was why her 32-year-old son, Chimezie, a successful Angola-based businessman, was arrested in 2016 and taken to Awkuzu SARS. He had travelled from Angola back home to Anambra to see her and pay her hospital bill when she was unwell. But, days after he had arrived home, Ugochukwu found out that her son was missing. The police said he was driving a stolen Toyota Sienna minivan, even though an investigation proved that he had legitimately bought the car, Nweke Nweke, a local crime reporter who closely followed the story, tells Al Jazeera.

Ugochukwu, like many parents whose children were taken to Awkuzu SARS, never saw her son again. People have told her that he is dead, but she is not convinced.

“My spirit has not told me that my son is dead,” she says with a firm nod of her head.

Nkiruka Ugochukwu holds a newspaper clipping of her son’s story. She believes he is still alive [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Ukamaka Obasi, another mother, knows that all three of her sons are dead. They were allegedly killed in Awkuzu SARS between 2012 and 2014. The oldest, Ebuka, was 20 years old, when he was arrested in June 2012 and accused of being a MASSOB member; Obiora was arrested in August 2013 and accused of being pro-MASSOB. Chibuike, the last one, was accused of armed robbery.

Obasi had called Nweke to help her find out what was going on with her sons. Nweke, who knows his way around the Awkuzu SARS station, went there and saw Chibuike hanging from a rope.

“Somebody [an officer] was upstairs. The boy was down. They [police officers] were drawing him, as if they were drawing water from a well,” Nweke says. He has been on the crime beat for 38 years and has investigated countless cases of police brutality. He says that Obasi’s case is one of the saddest he has ever heard.

When the first of her sons was arrested and confined in Awkuzu SARS’s dreaded Cell 5, Obasi says she went regularly to buy food for him to eat. After about two weeks of going to pay to make sure he got food, one of the officials told her to stop bringing money because he “has travelled”.

“They use the word, ‘travel’. That they have ‘travelled’ him. That’s the language they use. Immediately, once they say they’ve ‘travelled him’, we know [the person is dead]. That’s SARS,” Nweke explains and confirms that officers had also told him, as someone who was following the case, each time one of her sons had died.

Obasi says the same happened with Obiora and again with Chibuike. Each time after she brought money for their food for a few days, an official told her that there was no need to keep coming because the son she was feeding was already dead.

Ukamaka Obasi’s story of losing three sons, allegedly to Awkuzu SARS police officers, was picked up by a local newspaper [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Obasi has no living children now. At night, she says she hears them calling out to her in her dreams. Her husband could not handle the blow of losing all his children and went to his ancestral village to get away from it all, leaving her alone in the city to sell fruit and nuts on the street.

Breaking the silence

The Iloanyas had not spoken in public about Chijioke’s case for years, but in 2019, Obianuju broke the silence.

“I told myself I will no longer be held back by this culture of shame. If it will lose friends for me, then that’s fine. But now, I’m going to talk,” Obianuju explains.

She had just watched When They See Us, the award-winning American crime drama mini-series based on the true story of five innocent teenage boys charged with attacking a woman in New York City. She said the programme triggered her. It premiered in May 2019, and a month later, she went on Twitter to post her very first tweet about Chijioke. It was a six-part thread that would be the first of many.

“November 29th 2012, I got a call that #Sars arrested all the people that went for the child dedication at Ajali that day. Mum told you not to go but you insisted he was your friend’s first child. Where are you brother? We miss you? #WhenTheySeeUs #ENDSARS”

“It’s closure that we want. We simply want to know if Chijioke is alive or dead. If dead, why? We want answers. 7 years is a long while but we won’t stop asking for answers. We won’t lose hope. #WhenTheySeeUs #EndSARS”

In July 2020, James Nwafor, who headed Awkuzu SARS when Chijioke was arrested, posted a tweet about the case. It was the first public statement.

“The name of the deceased suspects are Chijioke Iloanya and Ebuka Okeke. The filling station they robbed is Cabard filling station…”

Obianuju Iloanya reads a tweet from James Nwafor, former police commander [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
The Iloanya family said they had never been told that Chijioke had been charged with robbing a petrol station. After years of waiting for some kind of information, Obianuju says she had to accept that her brother could really be dead. But she says Nwafor’s tweet also revealed that her brother may have been a victim of extrajudicial killing, due to Nwafor’s reference to “deceased suspects”.

“It means they were arrested, so what happened after the arrests that they became deceased?” she asks. “My brother was murdered in cold blood without access to justice. He was not given an opportunity to defend himself.”

Nwafor’s message raised more questions. The Iloanya family wants answers. Obianuju has taken charge of leading her family’s quest for justice for Chijioke.

She is not the only one. Across Nigeria, other families are breaking the code of silence. In response to the #EndSARS protests, 29 of Nigeria’s 36 states reportedly announced the creation of judicial panels, inviting the public to submit petitions on police brutality and extrajudicial killings. In Anambra State, to date, more than 310 petitions, including the Iloanyas’, have been submitted to the panel since it opened in mid-October. Nwafor’s name appears multiple times in the majority of them, Chijioke Ifediora, a member of the panel, confirmed to Al Jazeera.

Members of the Anambra State panel of inquiry on police brutality [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
Nwankwo also testified at the panel. He is demanding 50 million naira ($131,578) in compensation as well as a public apology from the Nigerian Police Force and for the state government to officially clear his name.

Nweke, the veteran local crime reporter, hired a lawyer to submit petitions on behalf of Ugochukwu, the mother whose Angola-based son was charged with driving a stolen vehicle, and Obasi, the mother of three sons who died after being taken to Awkuzu SARS.

On November 19, Emmanuel Iloanya appeared before the panel to testify. He told the story of what happened to Chijioke. He is demanding 150 million naira ($395,778) in compensation, but says nothing can ever bring back what he has lost.

“I have spent what this panel can give me, I want justice. Let the government bring these policemen here to tell me what my son did,” he said at the hearing.

The panel summoned Nwafor and the current inspector general of the Nigerian Police Force. Neither of them showed up.

Instead, the police submitted to the panel a document about Chijioke’s case. It stated that after interrogation, Chijioke confessed that he was an armed robber and had escorted police officers to his hideout in January 2013. There, criminals opened fire on the police and Chijioke was struck by a bullet and died in hospital.

The Iloanyas were shocked to hear this new information. “I’m just tired,” Obianuju says.

Nwafor is facing intense public scrutiny. The years of allegations against him are coming to bear.

Anambra State residents say he was behind the most heinous abuses carried out at the Awkuzu SARS station when he led it from 2012 to 2018.

When he retired in 2018, the Anambra State government hired him as a security assistant to the governor. At the height of the #EndSARS protests in Anambra, campaigners stood in front of the governor’s office until the incumbent came out and told them that Nwafor’s appointment had been terminated.

Since then, Nwafor has been laying low, away from the public eye. But, people are looking for him. There was a WhatsApp group created to announce a reward for anyone who sights Nwafor. Al Jazeera made numerous attempts to communicate with Nwafor. He responded to say that he could not speak to the press.

Nwankwo describes Nwafor as a “pathological killer”. “He’s nearly insane,” he says, explaining that if Nwafor even touches his gun, it is because he intends to fire it at someone. “He cannot bring out his pistol and [have] it return back without sounding,” he says.

Nweke accuses Nwafor of sending assassins to try to kill him on account of his numerous reports on police brutality.

“A lot of people are afraid of Nwafor,” Ebuka says. “The killing is too much. If it’s just arrests and bailing, people may not actually be talking about it. But it’s the killing and the brutality.”

With Nwafor out of sight, #EndSARS campaigners made their way, en masse, to Awkuzu SARS on October 16. Ebuka was there, surrounded by hundreds of other young people. They came from various parts of Nigeria’s southeastern region, gathering in the Anambra State capital of Awka to commute in convoys for the 35-minute drive to Awkuzu.

When they arrived at the station, townspeople went out to join the protesters and their numbers swelled. Music celebrities were also in the crowd along with private security agents to protect the gatherers. For many people, it was the closest they had gotten to the station that they had heard so much about. The campaigners shouted and demanded that someone come out and address them. Their chants of “No More SARS” grew louder and louder until shots rang out.

No one was killed, but Awkuzu SARS police officers had come out and started firing. The youngsters ran for their lives. Ebuka went around helping people who had fallen before finally leaving the scene. His mother never wanted him there in the first place.

Steps towards reform?

The #EndSARS protests are considered to be the largest youth-led campaign against the Nigerian Police Force in the country’s history. Young Nigerians galvanised to confront an institution perceived as one of the worst in the world. Nigeria’s police force had the lowest score of 127 countries in a 2016 index that looked at how the police enforce the law, follows due process, deters corruption and is viewed by the public and other factors.

“I think we’ve really witnessed over the last years, deep-seated inaction from the authorities. There’s been no political will to look into this institution,” Anietie Ewang, the Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story.

The government called for psychological evaluations for officers from the now-defunct SARS and created a SWAT police unit.

But the police insist that they, too, are victims, overworked, underpaid and then targeted when armed men took over the streets in the aftermath of October’s #EndSARS protests.

“We came under sordid attacks by some hoodlums and criminal elements. Our stations were attacked and burned. Some were vandalised,” John Abang, the commissioner of police for Anambra State, tells Al Jazeera.

“Some officers paid the supreme price,” he says. “Of course, we’re human. We have parents, too. We have wives, we have cousins, we have nephews.”

Anambra State commissioner of police, John Abang, says that while every officer must observe human rights, some have had their own rights violated by Nigerian civilians [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
The Anambra State police command’s public relations officer, Haruna Mohammed, showed Al Jazeera a gory video on his mobile phone of a man on a motorbike holding the decapitated head of a police officer, who was later identified as Inspector John Okoh, as people rush around him to look at it and snap photos.

Abang, who took over as the state police commissioner in 2019, says he has heard stories about Nwafor but cannot comment on them and trusts that the judicial panel will handle the allegations. However, he credits Awkuzu SARS for tackling violent crime in Anambra State.

“There was a time in this state when kidnapping was a regular occurrence. Every other day, individuals were kidnapped for ransom, some were gruesomely murdered in the bushes even after collecting ransom,” he says, adding that commercial banks used to operate between eight in the morning to one in the afternoon for fear of being robbed.

“But SARS rose to the occasion and today, I can say that for several years now, the issue of kidnapping in Anambra State, like other states in the southeast, has been brought to a very bare minimum.”

Awkuzu SARS is now defunct and the building is in the service of the Anambra State Criminal Investigation Department of the Nigerian Police Force.

Praying for closure

It is about 6.30am on a Sunday morning in November and the Iloanya family is waking up. Emmanuel, Hope, Ebuka, Obianuju and Kosisochukwu shuffle into the living room. They come together to pray. It is a daily family ritual.

Outside, a gentle Harmattan breeze blows around the frame of the small house. The sun has not come up yet and the room is dim. The leather couch cushions sag under sleepy bodies. The family starts with a rhythm, clapping their hands in unison. Then, they sing a spiritual song in the Igbo language:

N’ụtụtụ, eji m ekele ya. N’ihu onyenwe m n’abalị, ka m kwere y ana nkwa. (In the morning, I greet Him. Before my Lord in the night, I promise him.)

Obianuju sits on a couch below the window, keeping her voice low. She has found her way back to God, in her own way. She is now able to spend more time with her family because she no longer has a job back in Abuja. She says she felt that her boss was pressuring her to quit, uncomfortable with Obianuju’s prominence in the #EndSARS movement. Obianuju says she is happy that she left and that on grounds of principle, she refuses to work with someone who opposes her advocacy for her brother. Losing her job is not the only price she is paying for her activism. Like other #EndSARS protesters, she believes the Nigerian federal government is following her.

“They’re now tracking us to kill us,” she says.

One protester told Al Jazeera that government agents ransacked his home and office. Some snuck out of the country. Others found their bank accounts blocked. The Central Bank of Nigeria claims that accounts were being used to “finance terrorism”. Obianuju uses a VPN to browse the internet, travels in secret and when she is back in Abuja, stays with friends. But she says she will be fine. A political science graduate, she is looking for a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree and wants to work in human rights or civic engagement.

After years of never speaking in public about Chijioke, Ebuka finally did. He went to a nighttime candlelight service during the #EndSARS protest where gatherers spoke the names of people who had died.

When the announcer on the stage said “Chijioke Iloanya” hundreds of people responded: “We remember!” Ebuka’s voice wailed above the others, trailing just a little longer. He stood up in front of everyone and told them his brother’s story.

“I don’t know what happened to me that night,” Ebuka says, still overwhelmed with emotions. “I was just saying anything without holding anything back.” He says that night freed him.

Nonetheless, he is still angry and wants to leave Nigeria. After Nigerian soldiers fired shots during an #EndSARS protest in Lagos on October 20, now known as Bloody Tuesday, young Nigerians went on social media to vent their frustration with the government; many said they want to move abroad. Ebuka, a psychology graduate who works as a part-time driver and a DJ, wants to leave as early as possible to “any place that is not Nigeria”.

Emmanuel will stay. His family needs him and he needs them. He says they are “the back of his bone”. He is immensely proud of Obianuju for taking initiative in the family’s journey for justice.

Hope looks in a mirror as her daughter Obianuju styles her hair [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]
In the morning prayer session, Kosisochukwu sings in a dainty soprano voice, closing her eyes, sitting next to Ebuka. At 20 years old, she is the youngest in the family and has been helping her mother, Hope, in the canteen when not attending university classes. Hope still needs all the support she can get from her family. She says she wants to be strong and healthy, for whenever Chijioke comes back, but at the same time, she is beginning to think that he may really be dead. She just wants closure; they all do.

She is going out more these days. Her children hope it is a sign that she is getting better. The previous day, she went out for a social event, dressed up in a scarlet blouse with gold embroidery and a matching skirt of George fabric. She put on a pair of drop earrings and even cracked a smile when Obianuju stood behind her, plaiting a braid down her back. Mother and daughter looked at the mirror together, sharing a tender moment.

Hope leads the family to recite Psalms 23. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want …” And when it is over, Hope, her eyes bloodshot and puffy from crying earlier, does what she does every morning: she says his name.

Chijioke’s face looks down from fading photos leaning on the far wall of the living room above the television set.

Behind the parlour, the sunlight begins to stream into the corridor, pouring light into the dark rooms. One of them is where Chijioke used to sleep. After his arrest, Hope locked up the room and kept everything in its place for when he returned. No one was allowed to go in, except to clean it. She did not want people messing with his stuff, so his bedroom stayed put throughout 2013, 2014.

Then in 2015, Obianuju, Kosisochukwu and Ebuka decided among themselves that it was time to give the room to Kosisochukwu because no one was using it and she needed her own space. But Hope was not ready. So the room remained still from 2016, 2017, 2018. Hope was finally ready to give up the room in 2019. The family started the difficult process of giving away Chijioke’s belongings. They gave them to neighbours, cousins, people in need. His clothes, hats, textbooks – they gave practically everything away. There is hardly anything left of Chijioke’s now, although last month, Obianuju found a plaid shirt and a belt.

His beloved shoes are gone.

Source: Al Jazeera

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