INSIDE KANU’S KINGDOM: The unresolved disappearances and untold story of imprisoned IPOB members
Since September last year, when the Nigerian army launched Operation Python Dance II – a military offensive in the South East region aimed at quelling the growing agitation for an independent Biafran state by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), the leader of the group, Nnamdi Kanu and his parents were never seen again after a group of soldiers invaded their home.
Also, more than ten IPOB members and supporters were reportedly killed in his compound during the invasion. Many believe Kanu and his parents may have been killed during the invasion and their bodies taken away by the soldiers. In the midst of these developments, the story of a large number of IPOB members who were arrested and imprisoned at Aba federal prisons since last year after the military operation, has never been told.
In this special report, Ripples Nigeria reporter, PATRICK EGWU travels to Kanu’s home town in Isiama, Afarakwu in Umuahia, Abia state to unravel the truth and secret behind Kanu’s disappearance and members of IPOB who are languishing in prison after the military operation.
Inside Afaraukwu kingdom
It was 1:45pm, a sunny afternoon when this reporter arrived Isiama, Afarukwu, Umuahia, Abia state. About 20 meters from the untarred road leading to the house where Kanu once lived, is a security post of a team of armed uniform security men – six of them gazing and surveilling the area close to a waiting pick-up truck.
It is the palace of Eze Isreal Okwu Kanu – Kanu’s father who was until the military invasion, the paramount ruler of the community.
This reporter headed towards the direction of the house. Everywhere was silent aside one or two passersby who walked pretty fast as though someone was coming behind them. Neighbours who live on both sides of the road were either seen going in or coming outside to pick up something.
This was however, a different scene to what this reporter had experienced in May 2017 when he, alongside some select journalists, visited Kanu for an interview when he was granted bail from prison. Then, the road leading to his compound was very busy like a pilgrimage centre – young men, women adorned in all black ensemble with red berets, keeping guard and hoisting Biafran flags and waiting to have a glimpse of Kanu. Now everywhere seemed deserted, like a graveyard.
Once in front of the tall black gate with barbed wire, this reporter knocked repeatedly. No response. More knocks came afterwards. Ten minutes later, a bearded young man gently opened the gate, peeped and demanded to know who he was looking for.
“Shalom,” he greeted. “Who are you looking for?”, he queried.
After this reporter had introduced himself, he demanded for an ID which was handed to him. “Wait here,” he said, jamming the gate almost immediately. Returning about 5 minutes later, he asked this reporter to come inside.
As this reporter entered the compound, he saw men, women, young boys and children between 2 – 6 years old moving about the place. Except for a few, all of them were putting on their white Jewish robes and tallit – a Jewish shawl worn over outer clothes during morning prayers and kippah – a small cap placed on the head. The compound was decorated with Jewish-Israeli and Biafran flags and with small hand flags tucked on window and door sides leading to a small Jewish synagogue in the compound.
Before this reporter was asked to sit, he was directed to wash his hands, using a yellow plastic cup placed on top of a white bucket close to the gate.
What is this about?” this reporter gently asked, looking at his host who was giving the rules. “It is a ritual before you enter any Jewish community or temple. This is how we do it here,” the young man said.
He proceeded and showed him how he would wash his hands three times using the cup to scoop water from the bucket and pouring on both hands. This reporter did the same and used the cup to scoop water from the bucket, washed his hands three times like his host had just done. After this, a visitor’s form was given to this reporter to fill.
Scenes from Eze Kanu’s compound
“What about your leader,” this reporter asked. “She is inside and will join you soon. We have informed her that you are here,” said Immanuel who later disclosed his name.
After waiting for 1 hour 15 minutes, their leader emerged from one of the rooms and came to where this reporter was seated under the shade of mango trees and joined in.
“Shalom,” Ima Alleluia Nwachukwu, leader of the Jewish community in Nigeria said, taking a seat close to sit. This reporter responded.
“They came here and destroyed everything,” she recalls. “They desecrated the temple and removed the Israeli flags which is an abomination. Look at the building, they destroyed it with bullet. You can see it on the walls. Our leader (Kanu) is a Jewish man,” she said adjusting her white and blue shawl across her shoulders.
When this reporter asked where Kanu was, she furiously responded: “Are they (army) not the ones that kidnapped him? It is Nigeria that kidnapped him. We have not seen him and his parents ever since. We don’t know whether they have killed him or he is still alive,” she said.
“They granted Kanu bail and asked a Jewish man to serve as his surety because Kanu is a Jewish man and they came and attacked him,” she said.
“You are asking of IPOB, I’m I not in the compound of IPOB leader,” she said when this reporter asked if she is a member of IPOB. “We are all members because the IPOB leader is a Jewish man and the head in the whole of Africa. That’s why we are here.”
Recently, there was a clampdown on the Jewish community at Kanu’s house. On May 13, nine people were arrested and taken away by the police. IPOB said those arrested are Jewish worshippers but police insist they are suspected members of the outlawed IPOB. They were charged to court and a magistrate court in Umuahia remanded nine of them in prison.
“They just came here and attacked us, shooting, destroyed our place of worship and took away nine elders of our community and tagged us terrorists because we are practicing our religion. Many are dead, others are in the hospital,” Nwachukwu said.
Nnamdi Kanu dead?
Since September 14, 2017, Kanu has been missing after the military invaded his parent’s ancestral home in Isiama, Afarakwu where he lived. The whereabouts of his parents too has remained unknown ever since, prompting speculations that they may have been killed in the military offensive.
Ever since, controversies have surrounded Kanu’s status – whether he is dead or abducted since the military invasion. In February, Kanu and his wife were reportedly spotted in Ghana.
However, no official statement from IPOB or other pro-Biafran groups has confirmed this. Instead, the group refuted the claims in a statement and called on the federal government and the army to produce Kanu dead or alive.
“All we know is that the last time we saw him was before they invaded our home,” Emmanuel, Kanu’s younger brother told Ripples Nigeria. “No one has seen him ever since despite our efforts to reach him. I mean no one. I personally have not set my eyes on him neither has there been any form of communication,” he said.
Asked if he thinks Kanu was killed or abducted during the military operation, he said: “I think that question is better directed to the combined security agents who invaded our house, South East governors and Ohaneze group who aided and abetted them.
“That is the same question we have been asking them because we don’t know. If they have killed him, they should give us his body for proper funeral but if not, they should release him”.
“Everybody is aware,” he snapped when asked if he has reached out to the hierarchy of IPOB both in Nigeria and abroad to find out if they know his whereabouts.
“IPOB is not in a position to answer these question because you are aware that General Buratai sent his soldiers to his compound to kill him and members of his family,” Emma Powerful, IPOB’s spokesperson said when Ripples Nigeria reached out to him for comments on Kanu’s whereabouts.
“It will be good for the press to summon courage and ask Ohaneze Ndigbo, South East governors and Buratai the whereabouts of Nnamdi Kanu and his parents not IPOB. What should be of reasonable concern is to demand what the army did with the body of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and his parents,” Powerful said.
“I can’t say if he is still alive or not. I believe the army can explain better because Nnamdi Kanu was at his home before the military invaded and started shooting,” said Emeka Gift, one of the coordinators of IPOB based in Cote d’Ivoire. “We have the video evidence and everything to confirm this. We want them to produce him whether dead or alive,” said Gift.
“The army should tell us where he is since they invaded his home without any provocation. I hope he is just alive wherever he is,” Mark Eze, an IPOB mobilization officer in Anambra state said. “It has never happened in any part of the world that the government deploys the military with armored personnel carriers to go and fight its own civilian population. This government needs to have a rethink.”
Bullet riddled windows and walls of Kanu’s house
An expert in peace and counter-terrorism at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Dr Kingsley Udegbunam believes Kanu is not dead. He said if he was, pro-Biafra supporters and sympathizers would have embarked on large-scale violent protests in the country and elsewhere.
“I wouldn’t know but in the course of my interview with some IPOB members, he is alive. In fact, that is why you have not seen much violent protest because they know he is alive,” Udegbunam who is currently conducting research on the activities of the group since inception said.
For Elochukwu Nicholas Ohagi, a Biafran activist in Anambra state, he does not want to believe that Kanu is dead but said the military should be held responsible.
“I don’t want to believe that he is dead. The people that should tell us better is the Nigerian government and military because before they invaded his house in September, he was there. But they came and attacked, killing people including his cousin and dog. He was last seen before the invasion and that was it,” he said.
‘We want our king back’
Since the military invasion of the palace of Kanu’s father, him and his wife were never seen again. Investigations by Ripples Nigeria shows that even family members and fellow kings from neighbouring communities don’t know their status – whether dead or alive.
More so, the palace remained deserted after the invasion last year until some Jewish worshippers moved in a month ago.
“I don’t know. Nobody knows where they are,” Emmanuel said when asked about his parents. “I mean my brother and parents,” he said.
“No, please don’t drag me into this,” Eze Godwin Chionye, the deputy chairman of traditional rulers in the state told this reporter when asked about the status of Kanu’s father. “I am a member of this government and as far as I am concerned, I won’t discuss anything about this. Please count me out. I thought you wanted to talk about the anniversary of the governor or the state. Please count me out,” he said.
When this reporter pressed further with another question, urging him to react since Eze Kanu is one of them as a king in the state, Chionye said “That’s all I can say for now”
“Since the army invaded his house, I have not seen him nor his children,” said Eze Edward Ibeabuchi, the traditional ruler of Okwulaga – a neighboring community with Kanu’s. “We are all feeling pained about this including his fellow kings. I don’t know how I will talk now and the government will be angry. He is a king and the state government should have investigated to know where he is. We don’t know whether he is dead or alive and it is painful for our community because he is a king and one of us,” he said, sitting back on a sofa in his balcony.
Perhaps, the most devastating is the “desecration of the palace” according to Ibeabuchi which he said has brought bad occurrences in the community. Ibeabuchi who is the second most senior king in Afarakwu after Kanu, said he cannot enter the palace even if he returns until it is cleansed and sanctified again.
“He cannot enter there because many people were killed and it was desecrated and should be cleansed because he cannot enter there again as a king. I don’t know what the army are saying but all I know is that they killed many people there. I went there and saw dead people lying on the ground including their chef. So I am asking if anyone knows where he is, or how he can be brought back to his palace, should do so. But the whole place must be cleansed.”
The council of traditional rulers, according to him, have sent a delegation to the government and written letters but no one wants to help.
“We the rulers-in council have asked them to go and see the government but no one wants to help. They are scared of the federal government. We want peace to reign here. Kanu is my brother and fellow king. Before the military invaded, he was not feeling too well even his wife. He just returned from the hospital before they came,” said Ibeabuchi who was one of the signatories to a letter sent to the government.
“The disappearance of our monarch has been a shock to every member of our community because it has kept us in the dark and we really don’t know what to do,” said Ikechukwu Ndubueze, the President-General of the community. “It is not easy for you to just wake up and not see a member of your family. So it has been so hard for us and we want our monarch back.”
He continued: “We have tried often to reach the government most especially the state government to know the position of our monarch since we strongly believe that the government is aware of what happened in our palace.”
Activities in the kingdom, according to him, have been paralyzed ever since the invasion with mass movement of residents leaving the community for safety reasons.
“Due to the invasion, most of our tenants moved out and economic activities got crumpled because people became afraid and can’t come out. Many people died as a result of the shock of gun shots,” he told Ripples Nigeria.
Ndubueze corroborated Ibeabuchi’s stand on cleansing the palace. “Many people died as a result of gunshot injuries and our palace was defiled and desecrated because so much blood was split there. Since then, we have been experiencing so many calamities. We tried to inquire and they said it is as a result of the innocent blood that was shed in our place and rituals must be performed to cleanse the land,” he said.
Investigations by Ripples Nigeria showed that the community is the host of the state government housing the government house, ministries, government establishments and departments and banks. Yet, Ndubueze wondered why they were treated the way they did.
“Even the state government or any delegation has never visited us to see how this can be resolved despite the fact that we are their host. We gave them our land but they turned around and started killing us,” he said.
The future for Biafra amidst proscription
Following IPOB’s proscription as a terrorist organization by the federal government in September last year, the future of the group and the Biafran struggle leaves many questions than answers. Many analysts believe that the proscription will have a negative effect on the future goals of the group while others say the group is losing its influence.
“The influence of IPOB is waning. You see, they thrived on hate speech propagated by somebody whom they saw as not being afraid to die. So that motivated them in their behaviours. Even on social media, their broadcast is becoming scanty, responses on the issues no longer attract traffic as it did before the designation as a terrorist organization,” Udegbunam said.
“We have sustained a heightened sense of international awareness through a series of high diplomatic contacts which we are not at liberty to make public,” Powerful said when asked of the future plans of IPOB amidst terrorism ban by the government. “Our modus operandi is not a secret. We remain on the path of our avowed civil disobedience until referendum is called.”
He continued: “We have high profile and very international lobbyists in three continents of the world working for IPOB day and night. Our preparations for the first of our two referenda is coming up later this year,” said Powerful, making reference to the referendum proposed by the group as a way of actualizing Biafra. “We are unrelenting in our pursuit for Biafra emancipation of which the absence of our leader has brought an added impetus rather than diminish it.”
When this reporter asked him on speculations that Kanu might have ran away, Powerful said “These are lies peddled by Ohaneze Ndigbo and Igbo governors in collaboration with their Fulani masters in order to deflect attention away from the invasion of the home of our leader. We consider these speculations as mere waste of time and a calculated attempt to deceive into the lies the government is feeding them,” he said.
When this reporter further asked him on the allegations that Kanu is in the Biafran struggle through IPOB because he is enriching himself from the funds he is getting from rich Igbo sons and elites, he said “What do you mean by remaining in the struggle? Do you know where he is? Please if you do, tell us. This is the most ridiculous assertion no doubt peddled by those that have been resoundingly defeated by the great movement of IPOB. There is no Igbo man rich enough to fund IPOB and no one has ever contributed funds to IPOB and that is why we are independent,” he said.
“MASSOB is a pro-Biafra group whereas IPOB is the people of Biafra. Between a people and a group who will break away from the other?”, Powerful queried this reporter when asked to comment on stories making the rounds in some quarters that Kanu’s IPOB broke away from the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) led by Ralph Uwazuruike over leadership tussle and betrayal.
“What has money got to do with freedom fighting that every success of IPOB must be equated to some monetary gain or financially rewarding outcome? MASSOB has nothing to do with IPOB. Everybody wants to associate with IPOB because it is the largest, most disciplined freedom fighting outfit in the world,” he said.
Udegbunam further said the clash of superiority and other developments such as mistrust between IPOB and some Igbo political elites who are not in support of the agitation, has polarized membership.
Killed for wearing a Biafran wrist band
On September 12, 2017, Ifechukwu Agbayisi, 35, had just had a nice time with his wife Chizoba and three children. He bade them farewell and set for work in the city of Aba, Abia State, South East Nigeria.
An hour later, he phoned his wife, that he was heading to Isiama Afaraukwu – Nnamdi Kanu’s home in Umuahia, Abia State. He never returned.
After about 45 minutes later, Chizoba called him to know if he arrived safely but he was not picking up even as the phone rang several times.
“He told me that they were going to Nnamdi Kanu’s house in Umuahia some minutes after he had left the house,” Chizoba said looking downcast. “When I later called him back, he was not picking up his phone and I was surprised and uncomfortable because he doesn’t behave that way,” she said, her eyes fixed on a photograph of her husband wearing Biafran styled hat and muffler.
Chizoba 32, said after she had tried getting through to her husband and was not successful, she became worried and feared that something bad had happened. Still deep in her thoughts, a young lady phoned her to confirm her fears.
“Later a young girl called me and said I should come to a mortuary in Umuahia. We went and shockingly he was the one. The lady told us that some soldiers brought his corpse here and said ‘he’s an Igbo man, keep him here’ and they left with other corpses in their truck,” she said, holding back tears from her eyes.
On September 12, 2017, following the commencement of Operation Python Dance II – a military offensive by the Nigerian military in the South East region, an announcement was aired on Radio Biafra and IPOB’s social media handles that all IPOB and Biafran supporters and sympathizers wherever they are, should head to Kanu’s house to protect him from the military invasion.
Agbayisi alongside others – eighteen of them, who are all members of the IPOB, had heeded to the call. Immediately, they left what they were doing in Aba and headed straight to Umuahia.
Barely 30 minutes on the road, a group of soldiers intercepted their vehicle and asked all of them to alight. In the midst of a stop-and-search operation to see if the group had any Biafran flag or insignia, a wrist band with Biafran colours was found on Agbayisi and a female military officer asked him to remove the wrist band and hand it to her. He refused demanding to know why he should hand her his property.
The officer insisted but the young Biafran didn’t flinch. In the midst of the argument, another soldier approached Agbayisi from behind, cocked his rifle and shot him on his left lap.
Agbayisi wailed, fell on the ground and was bleeding out. When his friends who had all been asked to start drinking muddy water along the path they were stopped, wanted to stand up and help their comrade who was obviously dying, the soldiers threatened to shoot anyone who dared. They remained still. Few minutes later, Agbayisi bled out and died on the spot – in the presence of his comrades.
“We lay in the mud water, drinking it from 10am – 4pm and watching while our brother bled to death in front of us,” said Anthony Williams, 48, who was in the same bus with Agbayisi when he was shot. “He did nothing, just because he was putting on a Biafran band on his wrist. That was why he was shot,” he said.
For Chizoba, her husband died for a just cause. “My husband died fighting for what he believed in,” she said in a muffled tone. “I know that one day his sacrifices and others who have died in the struggle will pay off. Biafra is here already.”
Soon after, the commander in charge of the soldiers came and instructed the detained IPOB members to say that Agbayisi was dragging the riffle from the officer and that was how he was shot so they could be released. But they refused – they wouldn’t betray their dead colleague.
“When we refused, they started hitting us with their guns and other dangerous weapons. They took us to their barracks from there to the police station where we were rejected because we had injuries all over our bodies. The police later accepted us, took pictures of us and our names,” said Williams who was just released from prison since he was imprisoned in September last year.
Six days after they were arrested and detained at Central Police Station, Umuahia, they were arraigned before a magistrate court from where they were sent to Aba prison on September 18, 2017. Since then, they have been in prison until some of them were released last month.
“My wife gave birth while I was in prison and the child died while I was in prison,” said Dandy Nwankwo who was released from prison on May 16. “I feel very bad because I was not able to see my child. Is it a crime to be free or fight for our own freedom?” he asked looking emotionally disturbed.
Agbayisi was not the only one who was killed by the soldiers during the Python Dance II operation by the military in the state. More than ten others were also killed when soldiers invaded the home of Kanu and have been buried in their different states of origin.
Last month, Chinedu Uwandu, a volunteer for IPOB and the only son of his parents was said to have been buried in Mbano, his hometown in Imo State, after he was allegedly killed during the military clampdown on the group.
According to one of his closest friends who spoke to Ripples Nigeria in confidence, Kanu had asked him to go and get some money for him at the bank. While coming back, he was allegedly shot and killed by the soldiers who were specifically targeting members of the group, just few meters away from Kanu’s house.
Not too long ago, Christian Anyanwu, another IPOB member who was also allegedly killed during the September 2017 invasion was buried in his home town in Mbano in Imo State.
A trip to Aba prison
The Aba federal prison is located in the city of Aba, sandwiched between popular markets and residential houses. Alongside other IPOB members who were on a daily visitation routine to their members who have been in the prison since September 18, 2017, this reporter joined in.
At first, the number of the IPOB members detained in the prison last year was 51. Last month, IPOB’s legal team secured the release of 32 with 19 still in detention.
After some security checks were conducted by armed prison officials, this reporter and the group of IPOB members were ushered to the waiting room of the prison. The poorly ventilated room only accommodates ten inmates and their visitors.
When Victor Okafor, 39, left his business in Port Harcourt to travel to Isiama, Afaraukwu – the home of Kanu in Umuahia, Abia State to protect their leader from the military invasion, he never knew what was lying in wait for him and his friends on their way.
Approaching Umuahia, a group of soldiers had stopped them on their way. After interrogation and when the soldiers realized that they were headed to the home of Kanu, they were rounded up and taken to the barracks.
“When we were told that soldiers were about invading the home of our leader, we gathered, entered the bus and started going to Umuahia. They wanted to kill our leader,” Okafor told this reporter, adjusting his torn green prison jacket. “They started beating us with their guns and said they won’t allow us to go because we are IPOB members,” he said, interlocking his fingers.
From there, they were taken to the barracks before they were transferred to the police station.
“We were still in their guardroom when they came with some pick-up trucks around 4am and loaded us in. From there, they took us to court before remanding us in prison. I don’t know if my children still go to school since I came here,” he said.
“We were severely beaten with their riffle and other objects before they forced us to drink mud water,” said Uchenna Onyema, showing this reporter a scar on his forehead. “After drinking the water we were forced to face the sunlight without turning. If you remove your eyes from the sun, they will hit you with their guns,” he said.
“My wife gave birth a month ago. She was pregnant when I came here. I don’t know who is taking care of them.”
When this reporter asked if he still believes in the Biafran struggle despite his trials, he giggled and said “There is no going back. I’m even more ready to die for the Biafran cause than before.”
Adanna Ude, 30, is the only female among the group in prison. Like others, she said her time in prison has strengthened her resolve the more in the struggle for the independence of Biafra.
“I am not going back in this struggle,” she said with a grin. “I don’t care how long I stay here so long our quest is achieved.”
A charge sheet from the Umuahia Magistrate court obtained by Ripples Nigeria showed that the imprisoned IPOB members were charged for kidnapping, terrorism, hostage taking, use of offensive weapons or explosives and other threatening behaviour.
“These are all trumped up charges and we all know that,” said Ibeh Gift, one of the legal representatives and welfare officers of the imprisoned IPOB members. “You can imagine those they are accusing of hostage taking and terrorism and other charges you have there. They are just seeking for ways to break their spirits but the people are very strong,” she said.
On granting them bail, she said “The magistrate court granted them bail. But anyone of them who is granted bail in the magistrate court without being granted bail at the State High Court based on these charges will not be released. Now they have two charges in two different courts. So if they are granted bail, we will still perfect it at the magistrate court and that of High court before they are released. That is how difficult it is. That is the type of failed judicial system you have here.”
Gift alleged that instead of admitting that there is no case against the IPOB members remanded in prison, the prosecutors used the opportunity to exploit their families.
“What Nigerian government does is to defraud them. The prosecutors from the ministry of justice go to their families, asking them to give them money so they can see what they will do to release them. So if you want to release them from prison why not come to the state High Court and say that you don’t have anything against these people instead of going to their poor parents and start demanding for money. We contribute money and feed them in prison because the food they serve them is very bad. Some of them are ill and they don’t even care,” she said.
She continued: “IPOB is the one taking care of their legal fees and everything. I think we will sue them for this because I can’t understand how people moving from Aba to Umuahia, you ask them to alight from the bus, beat them, force them to drink mud water, kill one of them in their presence and yet charge them for terrorism, kidnapping and what have you.”