Friday, January 29, 2021

Amnesty accuses Nigeria of covering up killing of protesters

Amnesty International accused the Nigerian government on Thursday of attempting to cover up the killing of a dozen citizens during peaceful protests in Lagos last October.

Youth-led demonstrations in Nigeria began against police abuse, quickly spiralling into broader calls for reform.

But they ended weeks later when security forces shot at demonstrators in Lagos – killing at least 12 people, according to the rights group.

At a judicial panel, the army denied using live rounds but the government promised to disband the much-hated police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which had been the main target of protests over brutality.

“Nigerian authorities have failed to bring to justice those suspected to be responsible for the brutal crackdown by security forces on peaceful #EndSARS protesters at Lekki toll gate and Alausa in Lagos in October 2020 and have brazenly attempted to cover up the violence,” Amnesty said.

“Since the assault by security forces, which killed at least 12 people, Nigerian authorities have targeted supporters of the protests against police brutality by the disbanded SARS,” Amnesty’s country director Osai Ojigho said in the statement, released to mark 100 days since the shootings.

She said some of the movement’s supporters have had their bank accounts frozen.

The London-based rights body challenged the Nigerian government to suspend accused officials, pending investigations, and to ensure victims access to justice.

In November, the Lagos State government set up a panel of inquiry to investigate the bloodshed and wider allegations of abuses by SARS featuring testimony by the army that presented videos to back its claims.

The government has promised a string of reforms in response to the protests, and disbanded SARS, replacing it with Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) forces.

Nigeria, where the median age is 18, is a tinderbox of deep economic and social grievances, and the demonstrations snowballed from anger over police violence to broader demands.

Al Jazeera

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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Nigerian President Buhari replaces top military commanders

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has replaced the country’s top military commanders after months of pressure over his response to the worsening security situation in the country.

Leo Irabor was named to the powerful Chief of Defence Staff post, which oversees the main military branches, the spokesman for the presidency said, while I Attahiru, A Z Gambo and I O Amao would command the army, navy and air force respectively.

“President Buhari thanks the outgoing service chiefs for what he calls their ‘overwhelming achievements in our efforts at bringing enduring peace to our dear country’,” the presidency spokesman said, telling Reuters news agency that some of the chiefs had resigned while others retired.

The statement did not give any reasons for the overhaul of the country’s top-ranked commanders.

Buhari, a former army general first elected in 2015, came to power promising to tackle Nigeria’s security problems.

Since 2009, at least 36,000 people have been killed in armed conflicts in Nigeria and violence has spread into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting the formation of a regional military coalition.

Diverse security issues

Hopes were high after initial successes pushing back the armed Boko Haram group in 2015 and 2016, but with the rise of ISIL’s (ISIS) West African branch, formerly part of Boko Haram, the military ceded many of its gains.

Now, swaths of the northeast of Africa’s most populous country and biggest oil producer are out of government control, with soldiers hunkered down in defensive positions and regularly attacked by fighters while on patrol.

Armed gangs have surged through Nigeria’s northwest and kidnappers patrol many of the country’s roads.

In the Gulf of Guinea, where Nigeria’s offshore oil wealth is concentrated, piracy is on the rise.

The country is also struggling with a widening conflict over land and resources between mainly Christian farmers and nomadic mostly Muslim herders in which thousands have died over the past years.

Al Jazeera

Gunmen abduct 8 children from Nigerian orphanage

Gunmen abducted eight children and two adults from an orphanage in Nigeria's federal capital, Abuja, a spokesman for the orphanage told CNN.

The kidnappers have threatened to "waste" the children if the board fails to pay a ransom of 10 million naira (US$26,230), said board member Alaje Odewu.

They broke into the orphanage, which housed 17 minors, early Saturday.

"(They were) wielding their rifles at the kids, they selected the older ones and took them away along with their matron who was carrying a less than 1-year-old baby and another adult worker," said Odewu.

The matron was subsequently released along with the baby and another girl.

When the abductors called to demand the ransom, they insulted the board for not paying immediately. The orphanage told the abductors it does not have the money and is asking for people to pray for the safe return of the children.

"They told me they knew that the kids were orphans," he said. "I feel so sad that because these are just little innocent kids; the oldest among them is just 16 years old and most of the others are between the ages of 5 and 6,'' said Odewu.

The culprits have not yet been identified, but the police are on their trail, he said, adding that kidnappings like this one are "not new in the community."

Hundreds of students were abducted in December by gunmen in Katsina State in northwestern Nigeria. They were missing for nearly a week before the Nigerian military rescued them from bandits masquerading as the Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram.

While kidnapping for ransom by criminal elements in Katsina State have seen a disturbing increase, an abduction on this scale has not been reported previously. It recalls the kidnapping of 276 girls from Chibok in 2014. More than 100 of those girls never returned home.

By Isaac Abrak


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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Nigeria confirms cases of COVID-19 variant discovered in Britain while expecting vaccines

Nigeria recorded four cases of the highly contagious COVID-19 variant B117, first reported in Britain, while still expecting vaccines against the virus, the Nigerian government said on Monday.

Three cases were found in Nigerians who had traveled out of the country and one is a resident, said Boss Mustapha, secretary to the government of the federation and chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, at a daily news conference.

Mustapha said that over the last few weeks, the PTF had been closely following the rising number of infections reported daily in Nigeria while scientists were sequencing the variants of the virus.

"When they were tested, this strain was found in them within a week of returning to Nigeria. This was reported to us through the international health regulations and it is most unlikely this strain was acquired in Nigeria," said Chikwe Ihekweazu, director-general of the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), while shedding more light on the new development at the same news conference on Monday.

Ihekweazu said his agency would keep intensifying genomics surveillance and sequencing in collaboration with its partners, as shutting down international travel would not achieve much so long as the virus was still ravaging in other countries.

Meanwhile, 1,430 new COVID-19 cases were reported late Monday, bringing the total number of infections in the most populous African country to 122,996, according to the NCDC.

The new infections were reported from 18 states, including Lagos, the economic hub, and Abuja, the federal capital territory.

Three additional deaths were recorded, bringing the total to 1,507 nationwide since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in the country on Feb. 27, 2020.

Nigeria has so far tested 1,270,523 people since the onset of the pandemic, the PTF said.

"The management of cases is gradually improving with the availability of medical oxygen. The government is also fast-tracking the rehabilitation of existing plants and construction of new ones as approved by the president," Mustapha told reporters, adding there is currently a review of the guidelines on the implementation of phase three of the eased lockdown which expired on Monday.

Nigeria is expected to receive 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines early next month, with the efforts to deploy them underway, the official said.

"We wish to assure all Nigerians that the vaccines will be safe and effective when eventually it is deployed. We enjoin everyone to join in the campaign to eliminate vaccine hesitancy," he said.

Health Minister Osagie Ehanire said at the news conference on Monday the government is exploring all options to ensure the vaccination of 70 percent of the Nigerian population within two years.

"With an eye on value-for-money, we are negotiating with many parties and planning for flawless execution using recent experience from polio eradication in the face of a global scramble for vaccines," Ehanire added.

By Olatunji Saliu


Monday, January 25, 2021

Video - Nigeria Plateau COVID-19 Crisis


The CAF Confederations Cup clash between Nigeria's River United and Bloemfontein Celtic from South Africa had to be shifted to the Republic of Benin due to COVID-19 related reasons. But as CGTN's Deji Badmus reports, the decision had serious implications for the teams.

Pirates kidnap 15 sailors in attack on Turkish container ship off coast of Nigeria

Pirates off Nigeria's coast kidnapped 15 sailors from a Turkish container ship on Saturday, in a brazen and violent attack that was farther from shore than usual.

One sailor, an Azerbaijani citizen, was killed in the raid, while those kidnapped are from Turkey, according to the respective governments and a crew list seen by Reuters.

Accounts from crew, family members and security sources described a sophisticated and well-orchestrated attack, in which armed pirates boarded the ship and breached its protective citadel, possibly with explosives.

Three sailors remain on the Mozart ship, which by Sunday evening was receiving assistance in Gabonese waters off central Africa.

"The ship is in our waters and our sailors are assisting a few nautical miles from Port Gentil," said Gabon's presidency spokesman Jessye Ella Ekogha, without providing further detail.

The Liberian-flagged vessel was headed to Cape Town from Lagos when it was attacked in the Gulf of Guinea, 160 kilometers (100 miles) off Sao Tome island on Saturday, maritime reports showed.
The ship's fourth captain, Furkan Yaren, had been "cruising blindly" toward Gabon with damage to the ship's controls and only the radar working, according to state-run news agency Anadolu. The pirates beat crew members, and left him with an injured leg while another still aboard the ship had shrapnel wounds, Yaren said.
Turkish media cited Istanbul-based ship owner Boden company as saying the owners and operators of the vessel were abducted at gunpoint. Boden was not immediately available.
Ambrey, a security company, said four armed men boarded the Mozart and entered the citadel -- where crew are advised to hide in any attack -- from a deck atop the cabin.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's office said on Sunday he was orchestrating officials in the "rescue of kidnapped ship personnel." Erdogan spoke twice by phone with Yaren, who remained aboard after the attack, his office said.
Edward Yeibo, a Nigerian Navy commander, said he was not aware of the attack and was seeking details. The Lagos naval command office and a spokesman for Nigeria's maritime regulator were not immediately available.

Game changer

Pirates in the Gulf, which borders more than a dozen countries, kidnapped 130 sailors in 22 incidents last year, accounting for all but five of those seized worldwide, according to an International Maritime Bureau report.

The attack on the Mozart could raise international pressure on Nigeria to do more to protect shippers, which have called for tougher action in recent weeks, analysts said.

"The fact that someone died, the number of people taken and the apparent use of explosives to breach the ship's citadel means it is a potential game-changer," said David Johnson, CEO of the UK-based EOS Risk Group.

"It's clearly quite sophisticated and if pirates have decided to use munitions it's a big move," he said. There is "no doubt" those kidnapped will be taken back to Nigeria's Delta and Turkey will have little hope stopping it, he added.

Turkey's foreign ministry said the pirates had not made any contact with Ankara.

Seyit Kaya, brother of the ship's kidnapped 42-year-old captain Mustafa Kaya, a father of two, said in an interview he awaited details from the ship's owner on any possible ransom.

"Since that area is where many attacks take place, they take cautions against pirates," said Kaya, who is also a sailor.


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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Nigerian Catholic priest killed after abduction

Fr. John Gbakaan’s lifeless body was discovered on Saturday, a day after armed men kidnapped him.

Nigeria's Fr. John Gbakaan, parish priest of the Saint Anthony Church in Gulu, in the Diocese of Minna, was kidnapped on 15 January along the Lambata road to Lapai in the state of Niger, reports the Catholic wire service, Agenzia Fides.

The parish priest of St. Theresa in Madala, Fr. John Jatau, confirmed that Fr. Gbakaan, together with his brother and another priest, had gone to Makurdi in the state of Benue on 14 January to visit his mother.

Demand for ransom

On 15 January, the priest and his brother were ambushed by gunmen. The attack took place around 9 p.m. near the village of Tufa. The two brothers were abducted by armed men who then sought ransom from the Diocese of Minna. Initially, the kidnappers demanded a sum of thirty million naira, which they later reduced to five million naira.

The priest’s body was found near the site of the kidnapping. Father Gbakaan was executed with a machete in such a brutal and horrific manner that identification was hardly possible. The vehicle that the priest was travelling in was found in a nearby bush. There is still no news of the priest’s brother, who is said to be still in the hands of the kidnappers.

Shocking and painful

The Christian Association of Nigeria, (CAN), has asked the Federal Government to end the abductions and killing of religious persons by bandits in the country. CAN’s Vice Chairman (Northern region), Rev. John Hayab, made the call when he spoke to the Lagos-based daily, Vanguard. Rev. Hayab described the Catholic priest’s killing as “shocking and painful,” stating that insecurity in the North of Nigeria had assumed a much more alarming dimension.

Pleading with the Federal Government

“Today in Northern Nigeria, many people live in fear, and many young people are afraid to become pastors because pastors’ lives are in great danger,” said Rev. Hayab. He continued, “When Bandits or Kidnappers realise that their victim is a priest or pastor it seems a violent spirit takes over their hearts to demand more ransom and, in some cases, go to the extent of killing the victim. We are simply pleading with the Federal Government and all security agencies to do whatever it will take to bring this evil to a stop,” the CAN representative said.

Vatican News

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

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?”

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.

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.”

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 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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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…”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

By Chika Oduah

Al Jazeera

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Nigeria's exhausted medics keep waiting for COVID-19 vaccines

Dr Oluwajoba Oroge braced for the week ahead - another long line of coronavirus patients at Abuja's EHA clinic, and another long wait for news of a vaccine.

Europe has been inoculating its people since December - but African health authorities say it could still be weeks, even months, until they get their first shots.

Every day, said Dr. Oroge, cases are mounting, stocks of protective gear are dwindling and the number of his colleagues with the energy and health to keep fighting is falling.

"The cases will continue to rise if we don't have a vaccine," the 30-year-old told Reuters after seeing a patient. "That continues to mean more work stress, more mental stress, more stress on all the resources."

More than 2,600 Nigerian physicians have contracted COVID-19 and dozens of them have died, said Dr Adetunji Adenekan, chairman of the Lagos state branch of the Nigerian Medical Association. "We are depleted every day by the minute."

Nigeria's health minister Osagie Ehanire said last month he was hoping to see the fist vaccines arrive through the global COVAX scheme in January, though he gave no details on precise timing, or which shot Nigeria would get.

African states have accused richer regions of cornering most of the supplies. The head of the World Health Organization - Ethiopia's Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus - said last week the world was on the brink of "catastrophic moral failure" when it came to sharing out shots.

Daily tallies of confirmed cases hit record levels across Africa this month, and the second wave is infecting twice as many people per day as the height of last year's first, according to the African Union's Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Nigeria has reported 110,387 confirmed cases, and 1,435 deaths, though African officials have warned that low testing could mask more cases.

Privately, some doctors say they worry that when vaccines arrive in Nigeria, they will go first to the rich and powerful.

Dr Ndaeyo Iwot, acting executive secretary of primary health care in Abuja, said the government would track doses to clamp down on any corruption. "It will go through the system," he said.

(Reporting By Abraham Achirga in Abuja and Nneka Chile in Lagos; Additional reporting and writing by Libby George in Lagos; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

By Abraham Achirga and Nneka Chile 


Related stories: Nigeria requests 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from African Union

Nigerians say no to another lockdown

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Nigeria requests 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from African Union

Nigeria has written to the African Union to request 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to supplement the COVAX programme and has allocated $26 million for licensed vaccine production, the health minister said on Monday.

Nigeria, like other countries across Africa, is grappling with a second wave of the novel coronavirus. As of Monday, Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country of 200 million inhabitants, had 110,387 confirmed cases and 1,435 deaths.

The African Union has secured a provisional 270 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from manufacturers for member states, its chair South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week.

“Nigeria has written to express interest in 10 million doses of the viral vector vaccine, which could be supplied as from March 2021,” Health Minister Osagie Ehanire told reporters in the capital Abuja. “This vaccine does not require deep freezers.” Ehanire did not mention the name of the vaccine.

He also said the ministry of finance had released 10 billion naira ($26.27 million) to support domestic vaccine output as Nigeria was exploring options of “licensed production in collaboration with recognised institutions”. The government is already in talks with “one or two producers”, he said.

Last week the finance minister said the government was working on the type and quantity of COVID-19 vaccines to procure and would make financial provision for them.

Nigerian authorities have said the country is working with the COVAX programme backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) that aims to secure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries, and expects to receive its first doses in late January and early February.

WHO Africa director Matshidiso Moeti last week said African countries could start to receive the first doses from COVAX by the end of March, with larger deliveries by June.

By Felix Onuah


Related story: Nigerians say no to another lockdown

'The system is rigged': Seun Kuti on reviving Fela's political party

The musician and youngest son of the Afrobeat legend has been galvanised to act after police brutality in Nigeria

“For 60 years nothing has really been solved in this country,” Seun Kuti says. “Healthcare, education, electricity, transportation, welfare – nothing has been accomplished.”

Galvanised by the brutality meted out by Nigerian police against protesters in October last year, the 37-year-old Grammy-nominated musician and youngest son of the Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti resurrected his father’s socialist political party, the Movement of the People. Against a backdrop of widespread and mounting frustration over how Nigeria is run, he hopes the MOP can be a vehicle for change in 2021.

The “weird” past year was, he says, compounded by peculiarly Nigerian challenges. In October Kuti marched alongside thousands of others in the #EndSars protests against police brutality, nursing the wounds of shot demonstrators. The protests, some of the largest in Nigeria for decades, erupted after footage emerged of police brutality by the notorious Sars unit. But the underlying causes were broader, Kuti says. “The people made it known that EndSars was a slogan. How I interpreted it was they wanted an end to oppression, not just a manifestation of it that is Sars.”

More recently, he lost his band leader, Dave Obayendo. “We couldn’t even tell whether it was Covid or not, he wasn’t tested,” Kuti says. “The hospital turned him back. Before they took him to the next hospital, he died in the car.” The rejection of patients by hospitals is rife, he says, sometimes for issues such as a lack of adequate equipment.

The MOP was founded in 1979 by Fela before his sole, failed presidential bid, one episode of an extraordinary life of music and resistance during which he faced near-endless violence and suppression by Nigerian authorities.

According to Kuti, the prospects for anti-establishment parties, though still remote, are better now. “Today it will be easier for such a message to reach the core of Nigerian people than it was in the 70s. The problems are so glaring,” he says. “Elites have imposed this sinister, anti-poor capitalist system, going on for years and years, but are people really in favour of it? How can you be a capitalist with no capital? You’ll begin to see that the system is rigged.”

Kuti hopes the new version of the MOP, which brings together an array of small leftwing activist groups, will more effectively articulate these issues, “giving the masses a voice and building class consciousness”. But he scoffs at the prospect of a presidential run and says the group’s aims are long-term. “No, that’s not me. I’m an artist. But we will have candidates across the country for sure,” he says.

“The military hierarchy has consistently made sure that they are the ones in power, we have to put an end to it. We have to build a mass movement from the grassroots up, giving ordinary Nigerians a platform.”

A bleak sense of deja vu feels hard to ignore in Nigeria. In the 1980s Muhammadu Buhari, who is now the president, was a military dictator and a prime target of Fela’s ceaselessly political songwriting. Then as now, economic suffering, a weakening currency and a flailing anti-corruption campaign were causing widespread dismay.

The killing of scores of protesters by army and police officials in October, including at the Lekki tollgate area of Lagos, was one of several episodes where protesters and critics were attacked, arrested or met with state aggression.

“During one protest a guy came to my house who had a gunshot wound in his side like this,” Kuti says, gesturing to his torso. “People talk about the Lekki massacre but they shot people everywhere, people were shot to death all over Lagos.”

MOP’s first meeting was due to be held in December at Fela’s old club, Afrika Shrine, a bohemian enclave where he often performed. But scores of armed police surrounded the building and banned them from organising, so the meeting was held elsewhere.

“It just shows that they [the authorities] are spooked,” Kuti says. “They are trying to send a message, but they can’t stop what we’re doing.”

Rolling joints with his own self-branded rolling paper, Kuti describes how the absence of touring over the last year has been hard. “I miss my band, we had plans last year that were cancelled, but I’m hopeful we’ll start things up again this year,” he says. Playing his saxophone, he says, brings him joy.

Although music, family, and new business ventures to offset the lack of performing are time-consuming, political change is front of mind.

“Maybe it can be hard to be hopeful but I’m hopeful, Kuti says. “We want to set up different ways of reaching out to the masses because frankly they are ignored. We can’t bring change without the people, so giving them a voice is the most important thing.”

By Emmanuel Akinwotu

The Guardian

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Can the Milkmaid win Nigeria’s first Oscar?

When the Nigerian Official Selection Committee sat down to select Nigeria’s nominee for the 2021 Academy Awards last December, the jury voted overwhelmingly for Desmond Ovbiagele’s film The Milkmaid over the sex-trafficking drama Oloture and film festival toast Eyimofe.

Unlike Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart which the Academy disqualified from the international feature film category last year for having English as the main language of the script, The Milkmaid fulfils the requirement for a predominantly non-English dialogue track. It conveys authenticity with Hausa, Fulfulde and Arabic, three languages hermetically spoken throughout the film.

The film follows the story of two sisters, Aisha (Anthonieta Kalunta) and Zainab (Maryam Booth), who get separated when insurgents attack their village. Aisha is determined to rescue Zainab from her captors and traces her whereabouts to an enemy camp, where she is enslaved and treated inhumanely.

A sophomore feature from Ovbiagele after his 2014 crime thriller debut Return to Caesar, The Milkmaid is a compellingly superior entry into Nollywood’s Boko Haram-themed cinema.

The genre is relatively new, inspired by the Boko Haram insurgency in Northern Nigeria, which began its deadly uprising in 2009 and has claimed the lives of more than 37,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. Most of these films are not made to be box office hits as they usually employ largely unknown actors, so they sail under the radar.

But with Joel Kachi Benson’s Daughters of Chibok winning a Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and Netflix picking up Adekunle Adejuyigbe’s The Delivery Boy a year later, the genre is slowly occupying an expanding space in the public imagination and has set off some conversations about violence in society.

Tackling such sensitive issues as religious extremism and violence, The Milkmaid has predictably faced censorship at home. The Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), the government agency whose mandate is to regulate the creation, distribution and exhibition of films and video products by rating them, denied the film classification because it felt it portrayed Islam as an enabler of religious extremism.

To obtain a classification for pubic screening in Nigeria, 24-minutes-worth of footage was cut from the director’s original version. “We had to remove everything – costume, dialogue, language that was an authentic depiction of a particular religion, even though there is nothing in the film that states that the religion was directly responsible for violence,” Ovbiagele said in a December 2020 interview.

The Milkmaid’s censorship was to be expected, considering the NFVCB’s history of stifling artistic freedom and paranoia that films can threaten national unity. The film does not suggest Islam inspires extremism and it also does not glorify terrorists and whatever their motivations are. Rather it exhumes the traumatic experiences of women and girls in a world blighted by insurgency. Although the film is yet to do a wide release, the response from the members of the Muslim community who have seen it at private viewings has been positive.

Because of censorship at home, The Milkmaid turned to Cameroon and Zimbabwe for its theatrical release in November, then went on a limited run with its toned-down cut in select Nigerian cinemas in afterwards. Garnering local buzz, the motion picture swept last year’s Africa Movie Academy Awards with eight nominations and four awards, including Best Film.

For the Oscars, Ovbiagele sent the film’s original version, which contains all the elements of a potential winner: a compelling story, captivating actors’ performance and masterful cinematography.

Through Ovbiagele’s deft handling of the camera, audiences can see how beauty tightly intertwines with violence, creating a stunning artistic patchwork. This visual language is defined by the crisp cinematography of Yinka Edwards whose technical detailing does not just dwell on scenery but also within interpersonal spaces.

At the core of that is a feminine reckoning with extremism and its fallouts – the abduction of women and girls, violence and enslavement.

There is something particularly auspicious about The Milkmaid’s Oscar campaign footprint. But will it appeal to the Academy?

Aside from its obvious artistic merit, the Oscar fate of The Milkmaid will be determined by how the Academy voters – representing the American audience – see anti-terrorism messaging almost 20 years after the start of the US “war on terror”.

Like Nollywood, Hollywood too has experienced a boom in the production of films inspired by the themes of extremism and insurgency. A few have even made it to the Oscars and won.

The genre has successfully propelled the US government narrative of its forces fighting foreign terrorism and restoring stability to faraway conflict-torn regions and has done little to illuminate the disastrous consequences of US anti-terror-driven imperialism.

Although it does not tackle the international aspect of the Boko Haram insurgency, The Milkmaid fits well into this mainstream US narrative about terrorism. Its story would feed into the American viewers’ self-righteous disdain for overseas terrorist groups and will probably be well received. Whether this is what the Academy will be looking for in this year’s international film feature category remains to be seen.

By Bernard Dayo

Al Jazeera

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