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One Thursday over 20 years ago, on the 19th of September 1996, during the brutal regime of the late General Sani Abacha, something happened in Nigeria that shocked the entire world. In the usually calm and serene city of Owerri, capital of the country’s southeastern state of Imo, an 11-year-old boy named Anthony Ikechukwu Okoronkwo was meandering his way through the streets of the city with his precious tray of merchandise playfully balanced on his head. The little boy was hawking boiled groundnuts, which was his routine, the same condemned destiny for millions of other Nigerian kids today. But in his infantile innocence, the little boy was only doing what he was ordered to do by his parents. He strolled along, selling his groundnuts for peanuts to whoever wanted to buy. When he got to Amakohia area of Owerri, his eyes lit up with joy as a customer beckoned on him to approach. That ‘customer’ was named Innocent Ekeanyanwu, aged 32.
The boy was called into the famous Otokoto Hotel and the little groundnut seller was visibly very excited, since it was a hotel, it meant that the new ‘customer’ would probably be buying plenty groundnuts which will mean more money to take home to make his parents happy and assist his struggling family. As he sauntered into the central lobby and reception area of the hotel, he must have given a cute boyish smile as he was told to sit and wait a bit. While waiting, the boy was treated like a guest, he was given a bottle of Coca-Cola to cool off from the punishing heat of tropical Africa. As every innocent boy of his age would react, he quickly took the bottle of Coke and gulped it down with relish.
For many Nigerian kids, drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola inside the lobby of a hotel was more than a dream come true. Made to feel at home, he must have been wondering how nice his new and unusually receptive customers were. As he was sipping his soft drink and taking a look at the glittering surrounding of the hotel, he could have imagined having a hotel of his own too later in the future. As he was dreaming, his vision became blurry and the sounds around him became muzzled and dull. In a matter of minutes, he dozed off, never to wake up again. His tray full of groundnuts was lying in a corner.
Observing the boy from a safe distance was the man who had called him to buy his groundnuts. He had spiked the boy’s drink and once he saw he was asleep, he took the limp body of the drugged lad into one of the hotel rooms and what followed next remains one of the most evil things anyone can ever dream up. A sharp cutlass emerged from nowhere and the boy’s head was severed from his body. He was beheaded in a matter of minutes. Passersby outside the hotel had absolutely no idea of what was going on inside the ‘high-brow’ hotel. After the boy’s head was cut off, they proceeded to disembowel his torso and removed his liver and other parts they needed. They were not done yet, his genitals were not spared as well. After he was done butchering the boy, he sorted out the organs, packed his head inside a polythene bag and they made a shallow grave where they hurriedly buried his mangled remains. Of course, the boy’s parents somewhere in the city had no idea their little boy had just been gruesomely murdered. Ekeanyanwu then took the polythene bag containing the head and headed for the next destination: to the house of the man who needed the fresh head.
THE OTOKOTO HOTEL
At the time of its existence, Otokoto Hotel was located in an upscale area of Owerri, specifically the Amakohia side, and it was a favourite location for the rich and wealthy youths to meet, drink and have all manners of fun. Duru’s hotel was made up of three buildings, (three, five and six stories each, one behind the other). It was owned by Chief Vincent Duru, the father of Obidiozor Duru, the leader of the Black Scorpions secret cult responsible for a spate of robberies and kidnapping of children in the state. All of Owerri placed the Durus under their radar and surveillance, with rumours all over the place about their nefarious activities.
Before this horrible incident, the people of Owerri (Ndi Owerre) were already very mad at the bizarre actions of some loud, extremely powerful and obscenely wealthy individuals in the state. These people were highly-connected and oppressed everyone where they went. Rumours were all over the place as to their very dark dealings and even the possibility of ritual murders and killings but no one really had any hard evidence yet or probably those who had it were too jittery to say anything. Whatever the case, these rich people who had no really tangible or easily traceable sources of wealth kept on living large and instilling an atmosphere of terror and fear on the Owerri populace. This was how Owerri was described at that time:
‘Luxurious commodities also became available in Owerri during the early 1990s, but mostly through a set of exclusive shops. These shops catered to members of their owners’ class: the newly affluent and generally youthful social elites of the town. Besides the arrival of airplanes in Owerri’s skies for the first time since Federalist bombing attacks during the late 1960s, the town’s bicycles and decrepit Peugeot 504 taxis now shared its potholed streets with the extraordinarily expensive automobiles and sports utility vehicles of the nouveaux riches. While the poorest Owerri indigenes listened to Igbo-languages programs on their radios and visited more wealthy relatives to watch frequently disrupted local television programming or videos, the town’s mansions were equipped with generators providing constant power, satellite dishes, video discs, and giant-screen televisions showing current international news, business reports, dramas, sitcoms, and music and movie programming from Great Britain and the United States.
By 1996, Ndi Owerre (Owerri indigenes) could, indeed, see what they had been missing before airport prosperity, but for most of them this was little more than a glimpse through the ornate gates of elite mansions or into shops whose goods had price tags the equivalent of several months’ earnings. Since a number of the town’s parvenu millionaires were not ndi owerre themselves, old ideals of reciprocity between wealthy and poorer clan members did not seem to apply under the new regime. This lack of reciprocity was especially felt as the young elites took titles and demonstrated their dollar/naira power at public, ‘cultural’ events like masquerade outings, weddings and funerals. Successful business entrepreneurship in 1990s….build lavish houses, and flaunt their riches in the faces of their suffering neighbours. When the question was posed about the origins of such untoward wealth, two possibilities beyond legitimate entrepreneurship presented themselves to the Owerri imaginary. First, the money could be the ill-gotten gains of Nigeria’s emerging culture of drug couriership and weapons sales. Second, and even more frighteningly, the money could be the product of the worst type of crime: the direct exploitation of children, whether as targets for parental extortion or as targets for money magic, a practice otherwise known in Nigerian Anglophone circles as’ritual murder’.’
That was a description of the atmosphere of Owerri of that time. And yes, the oppression by the wealthy was real. They flaunted their questionable wealth in the most nauseating manner, took all the chieftaincy titles, moved around with armed teams of police and soldiers harassing everyone on the roads, their cars had special and customized plates and any motorist who dared to protest got the beating of his life. These gods were virtually untouchable until everything scattered.
When the people heard of what happened inside the hotel to the boy, Owerri exploded with anger and resentment that had been piling up for years. For two straight days, the people of Owerri trooped out in their thousands, protesting and rioting. Not even the strong-arm tactics of the Imo State military administrator, Colonel Tanko Zubair, could stop them (the administration of the former military governor Navy Captain James Aneke was already seen as corrupt, 419-based and even complicit in the protection of the Otokoto men while he was in office). They simply ran amok and the national and international media focused on the Owerri riots of 24th and 25th of September, 1996, also known as the Otokoto riots, the people felt they had had more than enough.
Any property suspected to belong to the ’Otokoto men’ were set ablaze, from posh hotels to luxury supermarkets, their flashy automobiles, palatial mansions, everything was destroyed and burnt to the ground. A more detailed description of the riots is given in the subsequent sections. Any suspected member of the Otokoto gang was lynched. Prior to the riots, the youthful members of the Otokoto gang and other secret societies (believed to be offshoots of campus secret cults) involved in ritual killings went everywhere oppressing others with their ill-gotten wealth making other hardworking youths look clueless and silly. The mob action of the Owerri people was described thus by Declan Okpalaeke in the Echoes of Otokoto below:
‘Members of the irate mob arrogated to themselves the power of the judge and jury. It was for them, apparently, an opportunity for a putsch, for a cleansing of their once peaceful town. And they went about it with maddening fury. They pointed out magnificent buildings within the city suspected to belong to fraudsters and kidnappers. And once fingered, such buildings were marched upon were marched upon and torched with exotic cars and other properties destroyed, their owners pronounced guilty by the mob. As the crowd moved from one part of the town to another, more people joined in the act of fury and more victims fell to its jungle justice.’
The Owerri public had no faith in the police and as a matter of fact, the commissioner of police at that time, David Abure, was seen as the personification of corruption who wined and dined with the evil ones. But how did the news of the brutal hotel killings leak out to the public?
After the grisly murder of the little Okoronkwo by Mr. Innocent Ekeanyanwu (what a name, innocent indeed), he left the hotel to deliver the head where it was needed. It was the motorcycle operator named Opara who took him to his destination in Eziama who realized that was his passenger was carrying inside the polythene bag was actually a fresh human head. It was still dripping with blood. When he alighted, the motorcyclist alerted the police who then intercepted Ekeanyanwu on his way back in a Peugeot 504 car, he was carrying the head with him in the polythene bag. Opara would later testify in court.
With the motorcycle he took earlier, he was going to the residence of a highly-influential figure named Chief Leonard Unaogu at Eziama, Ikeduru Local Council Area with the head but upon arriving, he was told Mr. Unaogu had gone to Lagos. So Ekeanyanwu had no other option but to return to Owerri with the boy’s head. When it was time to take the headless body of Ikechukwu to the local mortuary, Owerri residents trooped out of their homes, it was a massive procession and they protested all the way. They stayed around and within the hotel premises and waited for the police to confirm that it was indeed a ritual murder. Some other Owerri residents kept watch in front of the medical center, watching everything and also waiting for the confirmation of a ritual murder from either the morgue or the police. But the notice was to eventually come from the Imo State television station. Suspicion was already thick in the air and anyone could smell the tension. It was Owerri people versus some of the most devilish forms of humanity in their midst.
It was in this midst of this tension that the local media station made its miscalculation. They showed the image of Innocent Ekeanyanwu holding the head of his victim. The goal of the media was to assure the people, assuage public fear, ask the public to help identify the boy and show official transparency but what followed next was a catastrophe. All hell broke loose as the enraged people of Owerri went haywire after the image was first broadcast on the 24th of September. All Owerri residents abandoned their businesses and congregated at the town’s central marketplace. It was there they decided on the next plan of action and outlined their strategies to deal with the Otokoto ‘headhunters’. The news spread rapidly and before long, every home in Owerri had either of the news or seen the image of Okoronkwo’s head or his shallow grave. Unemployed and disgruntled young men took over the parks and issued threats to the Owerri millionaires. From the Owerri main market, the riots exploded and spread.
The pattern of destruction was neat. The rampaging crowd first went to the morgue and from there, they rushed to the Otokoto Hotel and burnt it to the ground. From there, they went to the nearby palatial mansion of Chief Vincent Duru and destroyed his property, his expensive cars were wrecked and Duru himself narrowly escaped. From there, the crowd split into attack groups and spread out to other sites of the priviledged elite and unleashed maximum destruction. The well-known Piano Plaza and Stores, alongside another hotel, Chibet Hotel, and various businesses linked to the Otokoto and their associates were utterly destroyed. The Zubairu-led government later confiscated all the property as recommended by the panel which was headed by Justice PC Onumajuru.
From there, they rushed to the palace of the traditional ruler and chairman of the state council of traditional rulers, Eze Onu Egwu Nwoke (later indicted alongside Aneke and Abure by the panel of inquiry) and burnt down his residence and his petrol station, they also destroyed the king’s 15 airconditioners and many of his cars. They were not done yet, from there, the crowd ‘troops’ headed for the residences of former Imo State officials. These administrators were targeted because of what was described as ‘their alleged unwillingness to properly tackle several cases of ritual murder, kidnapping and robbery while in office.’ The angry rioters only agreed to calm down when the military administrator (MILAD) assured them that a full, state-level investigation of the incident was going to be launched.
Following the arrest of Ekeanyanwu, he was remanded in police custody while awaiting trial. But while he was in the police custody, magic happened as usual, he was killed by food poisoning. He killed the boy on Thursday and by Sunday morning, the 22nd of September, he was found dead in police custody and by Monday morning, the news of his death was already spreading throughout Owerri.
But luckily for the interrogators, before he was killed, Ekeanyanwu confessed and mentioned Leonard Unaogu as the brain behind the ritual killing syndicate. He confessed that the ritual killing ring was a well-organized machine that specialized in the harvesting of human body parts and sold them to those interested in using them for rituals and all the usual nonsense they claimed to be using them for. He also said it was Unaogu who ordered him to get a human head.
Some reports indicate that the Otokoto saga (as the ritual killing came to be known) had been in place as far back as 1976. Confessional statements also show that no one was spared at the Otokoto Hotel. Innocent guests and unsuspecting travellers who lodged at the hotel were drugged or attacked in the middle of their sleep and hacked to death after which they were cut into pieces for sale.
Police officers who swooped upon the hotel discovered not only the shallow grave containing that of the little boy but also graves containing other victims with their decomposing and dismembered corpses. No one knows the exact number of bodies exhumed at Otokoto Hotel, with figures varying from 8 to two dozen. Some were buried at inconspicuous locations such as under the flowerbeds. Such evil, such horror!
The man that Ekeanyanwu mentioned before he was poisoned to death, Leonard Unaogu, was known in the society as a business tycoon. Everyone knew him. But that was not all. His junior brother, Laz Unaogu, was a serving minister under the General Abacha regime. The brother of a serving federal minister was implicated in the beheading of a poor boy, it was a classic case of the rich against the oppressed and poor Nigerian majority. Leonard Unaogu was eventually arrested by the police when Duru claimed that police officers had told him that the late Ekeanyanwu had confessed that Unaogu commissioned the killing. He was arrested and made to face the judicial commission of inquiry and eventually held in prison, charged with murder. It seemed the government really wanted the culprits or at least someone punished because the people of Owerri were ready to pounce on anyone should they be released to go free.
But the people of Owerri made their voices heard, they pursued the case till the very end. In fact, the Otokoto case can be seen as the case of the Owerri people versus the Otokoto Seven (as the seven principal suspects were called). The police arrested Unaogu and when he was quizzed, he lied with a straight face that he never knew anyone called Innocent Ekeanyanwu and that he was not even in Owerri when the crime was committed, saying he was in Lagos. He would later say the same thing in court only for the presiding judge to brush it aside as nonsense saying his location when the offence was committed was irrelevant to the matter at hand.
Ekeanyanwu, who murdered the boy, was aged 32 and he worked as a gardener inside the Otokoto Hotel. When he died of food poisoning, the Imo State Police Commissioner released a press statement with the speed of light saying the police knew nothing about it saying there was no foul play. This irresponsible talk from the police chief enraged the Owerri youths, who promptly returned to streets demanding justice for the slain boy. This time around, they were determined more than ever to find their own evidence of ritual murder.
They invaded the homes of ‘suspected dealers in human body parts’ sniffing around for hard evidence which they reportedly found in one of the houses. The churches were not spared too, especially the new-breed evangelical churches, with their main target being the Overcomers Christian Mission along Wetheral where it was rumoured that human skulls were discovered with charms and amulets but the police later said what was found there were various animal skulls, pots full of vulture and other feathers, chalk, red candles, books on mystic subjects, photographs, cowries, objects shaped like human beings and bottles that contained unspecified powders and herbal preparations.
Energized by their success at this discovery, the protesters marched on other churches, a lodge and even an ashram. All the churches popular with the millionaires of Owerri were attacked and destroyed. Only Winners Chapel narrowly escaped as it had been surrounded by battle-ready police officers. By the time the storm calmed on the 27th of September, 26 buildings and several cars had been destroyed. It was a barbarous scene and the savagery mixed with the brutality was clearly evident in the destruction. All the Otokoto suspects were remanded in the Owerri federal prisons during trial.