Otokoto Ritual Killing: Nigerian Supreme Court Frees Suspect 22 years after

After 22 years the Nigerian Supreme Court, on Friday, May 18, 2018 discharged and acquitted Alban Ajaegbu one of the suspects in the Imo State Ritual Killings of 1996 popularly called "Otokoto Ritual Killing". Mr. Alban Ajaegbu a gardener at Otokoto Hotel Owerri was among the accused persons in the 1996 scary ‘Otokoto’ ritual murder of 11-year-old Ikechukuwu Okoronkwo.
Innocent Ekeanyanwu (Top Right), Justice Chioma Nwosu Iheme (Bottom Center), Mr Duru alias Otokoto (Bottom Right)

Little Okoronkwo was on a groundnut selling errand when he was on September 19, 1996 lured into a hotel called Otokoko in Owerri, Imo State and gruesomely beheaded by Innocent Ekeanyanwu. Investigations had revealed that the victim became unconscious in the hotel after he drank a bottle of Coca-Cola that was spiked with drug, before he was killed.

 The crime was discovered when 32-year-old Innocent Ekeanyanwu left the hotel to deliver Okoronkwo’s head in a polythene bag to a client. An motorcycle rider popularly called "inaga" who was conveying Ekenyanwu to his destination discovered the fresh human head and alerted the police. Among those arrested over the ritual killing included the owner of the hotel, one Vincent Duru, who was popularly referred to as Chief Otokoto.

Besides beheading the victim, the suspects were said to have removed vital organs from his body, including his genitals, before burying the mutilated corpse in a shallow grave. All the seven suspects fingered in the ritual killing were all found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Meanwhile, Ajaegbu who was discharged and acquitted of the crime by the Supreme Court on Friday, was said to have worked at the hotel as a gardener.

The apex court, in a unanimous judgement by a five-man panel of Justices, held that circumstantial evidence the high court and appeal court relied upon to convict and sentence him to death by hanging, was not sufficient.

In a landmark ruling, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun who prepared the lead judgment, said; “It must be restated here that the appellant was charged with murder and the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt that it was the act of the appellant that caused the death of the deceased. “The appellant does not have the burden to prove his innocence. The lower court held that the defence of the appellant raised a lot of suspicion.

“The law is well settled that suspicion, no matter how grave, cannot take the place of proof.” She said that the assumption of the lower courts that because the appellant worked in the hotel for 17 years, he should have known who owed the farm that Okoronkwo was buried in, was fallacious. According to the apex court, “Suspicion cannot take the place of legal proof.

That the appellant worked in the hotel for 17 years and didn’t know who owed the farm cannot make him guilty. “The law is settled, that an accused person told lies does not make him guilty.” The apex court held that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond every reasonable doubt. Consequently, it set aside the judgment of the Owerri Court of Appeal of 2012 which upheld the death sentence of the trial court and acquitted and discharged Ajaegbo. The decision of the apex court was read by Justice Ejembi Eko.

Otokoto Ritual Saga and How it all started. The full story:

Governor Tanko Zubairo and Governer Aneke
In 1996, the police in Owerri, Imo State, Eastern Nigerian arrested a man, Innocent Ekeanyanwu, with the head of a young boy, Ikechukwu Okonkwo.

In the course of investigation, the police traced the buried torso of Ikechukwu to the premises of Otokoto Hotel, owned by a business man, Chief Vincent Duru, and uncovered a syndicate that specialised in ritual killing and the sale and procurement of human parts.

The Protests:

The horrifying discoveries sparked off violent protests in Owerri, which led to the burning and looting of properties belonging to suspected killers.

Following the protests in which both the police and the state’s military administration were accused of aiding and abetting the crime of ritual killing, the state government set up a panel headed by Justice P.C Onumajuru, to investigate the case.

The panel at the end of its assignment recommended the trial of the Otokoto syndicate members. The two sets of trials that went on for many years represented all that the state military administration had been able to do with the implementation of the Justice Onumajuru panel of inquiry.
Map of Imo State, Nigeria
Map of Imo State, Nigeria

But other important recommendations of the panel, especially the aspects that required trial of some highly placed people were discarded. Among those indicted by the panel was James Aneke, a navy captain and former military administrator of the state and David Abure, a former state commissioner and Onu Egwu Nwoke, the chairman of Imo council of traditional rulers whose palace was damaged by rioters.

The panel indicted the Imo council of traditional rulers, as one of the remote causes of the riot. It said: “Chieftaincy titles which hitherto were veritable means of according recognition, and to some extent, giving reward for hard work, honesty and selfless service became bastardised and were conferred indiscriminately on all manner of persons, backgrounds and antecedents. Some were said to have encouraged fraudsters (419) and other anti-social activities for material gains, while others even engaged in such practices, thus lending social and traditional legitimacy to corrupt and rotten enrichment in society.”

The biggest challenges before Colonel Tanko Zubairu, Aneke’s successor as military administrator of Imo State was what to do with Aneke, his predecessor. The Onumajulu commission identified several alleged malpractices and fraudulent acts carried out by the Aneke administration. It said:”The immediate past administration of Aneke was very unpopular with the people of Imo State.”

The trials:

Vincent Duru, the proprietor of Otokoto Hotel, Owerri, and five others were put on trial over the Otokoto saga. They were detained at the Owerri federal prisons and charged with the murder of 11-year-old Okoronkwo whose headless corpse was exhumed in the premises of his hotel.

The other suspects are Leonard Unaogu, Alban Ajaegbu, Sampson Nnanito, Ebenezer Egwueke and Lawrence Ebo. Nine people initially testified before Justice S. O. Ekpe, who took over from Justice Gabriel Ojiako, the retired chief judge of Imo State, in the course of the trial. The trial started on December 9, 1996, with Hillary Ngozi Opara, the first prosecution witness. The court admitted the confessional statement of Innocent Ekeanyanwu, a gardener with Otokoto Hotel who later died in police custody. Ekeanyanwu was arrested with Okoronkwo’s head at Ikeduru. In his statement, Ekeanyanwu was said to have confessed to killing Okoronkwo and also implicated his boss, Duru, in the murder.

Ekeanyanwu’s statement, according to Ambrose Nnah, a police sergeant who recorded it, was voluntarily made in Igbo. Nnah, who testified in court, June 17, 1998 as a witness, said that the statement was recorded in English and read over to Ekeanyanwu in Igbo before he thumb-printed it.

Counsel to Duru and Unaogu objected to the admission of the statement on the grounds that the late Ekeanyanwu was said to have made it in Igbo, as there was nothing on the face of the statement to show that it was interpreted to him in Igbo, after being recorded in English.

Tony Mogboh, SAN, and counsel to Unaogu, further objected on the grounds that the document was different from the one attached to the proof of evidence served on his client. He said the Igbo version ought also to be attached to avoid distortion.

Ekpe over-ruled the objections. “There is no evidence before me that the statement was not made voluntarily. And if a statement is made voluntarily, it is admissible in evidence. The objections are therefore overruled. I rule that the statement is admissible in law and should therefore be admitted as exhibit II,” he ruled.

Statements from the nine witnesses who testified thus gave insights into how the crime was committed. From the evidence of the prosecution witnesses, it was not a wine tapper who reported seeing Ekeanyanwu by a stream, cleaning up his palms stained by blood from the fresh human head. It was Opara, a motorcyclist who alerted the police about the possession of a fresh human head by Ekeanyanwu.

Opara told the court that he took Ekeanyanwu to Eziama, Ikeduru, on his motorcycle. He said Ekeanyanwu told him that he was visiting a relation. Opara said he discovered in the course of the journey that what Ekeanyanwu carried in a polythene bag was a human head, so he alerted the police at Eziama when Ekeanyanwu alighted.

Ekeanyanwu was intercepted by the police on his way back in a 504 car and the human head was found in his bag. A receptionist in the hotel Margaret Acholonu told the court that Duru was actually in the hotel on September 19, 1996, the day Okoronkwo was beheaded. She also said two spots were dug at the hotel premises, adding that it was in the second spot that the body of Okoronkwo was exhumed. She also said that she saw Ekeanyanwu on the 19th of September with a black bag and that Ekeanyanwu told her that he was going to his village in Eziama.

Sunday Onwuchekwa, a police sergeant, further told the court that he was in the office at the police headquarters, Owerri, on September 20, 1996, when Ekeanyanwu was brought with a fresh human head by the Divisional Police Officer, DPO, in charge of Iho police station, in Ikeduru. He said Ekeanyanwu was taken to Ifeanyi Anozie, an assistant police commissioner, at the CID, Owerri. According to him, Anozie directed that Onwuchekwa, ASP Aguobi, ASP Obasi Chukwu, leader of the team, DSP, C Nmezi and other ranks should investigate the matter.

Onwucheka told the court that before the police took Ekeanyanwu to Otokoto hotel, he confessed to killing the boy at Mba River in Ikeduru and dumped the body inside the river. The police search team did not find anything at Mba River, according to Onwuchekwa. They returned to Owerri at about 7 p.m. September 20, 1996.

The following Monday, the police team continued with their investigation, taking Ekeanyanwu to Otokoto hotel. The headless body of the boy had already been identified at the hotel before the police team arrived.

Onwuchekwa said the corpse was covered with red mud, emitting offensive odour and that the mud was not fresh, but rather looked like it had stayed up to four or five days since it was dug. He also said that part of the sand had been removed and that one of the police officers used a stick to feel the inside, in the process of which he found a shallow grave where a headless body in a decomposing state was found. He said also that they discovered a stick tied with a cloth and that it was Ferguson Okoronkwo, a guardian of the deceased who identified the corpse to be that of Okoronkwo.

When the case resumed, February 18 1998, J. C. Uwazuruonye, counsel to Duru objected to the admission of the stick with a cloth as exhibit in court. He said that he objected on the ground on pages 13A and 13 D of proof of evidence, the purported stick was not listed as one of the exhibit to be tendered. “The stick had doubtfully validity which cannot be tendered,” he said. The court agreed with him, so the stick was not tendered.

On March 24, Onwuchekwa was cross-examined by F. A. Onwuzulike and B. N Chukwu, both defence lawyers recruited by the legal aid council for some of the accused who could not hire private lawyers. He admitted that Ekeanyanwu made a statement; he also made an oral statement. He said also that an investigation team came from Lagos while they were still investigating.

The police officer said Duru came out while he was standing with Ekeanyanwu and shouted at Ekeanyanwu, “Have you implicated me?” Uwazuruonye reminded him that it was not for him to say whether it was reflected or not.

Asked if he drew the attention of Anozie to Duru’s statement, he answered “yes.” Asked again if Duru’s statement was contained in the report of the police investigation team, he said ‘no’, explaining that he only saw the report after the case was charged to court.

A number of other witnesses testified for the prosecution. They included Laeticia Okoronkwo, mother of Ikechukwu, Sulaiman Idris Ibe, a retired inspector of police who claimed to have been on duty at Eziama police station when Opara reported the matter. A police photographer who took the shot of the head and body testified as PW7. He tendered negatives and photographs of the head as exhibit D and D1. He also tendered photographs and negative of the headless body as exhibit F1 and F2. Ralph Nwaiwu, the doctor who performed the autopsy on Ikechukwu testified as PW8. He admitted on cross-examination that he was not a specialist on pathology.

On August 20, 1997, a different trial also began at a senior magistrate’s court in Owerri. In the dock are nine police officers accused of complicity in the murder of Ekeanyanwu. They are Ifeanyi Anozie, an assistant commissioner of police and Chukwu Obasi, an assistant superintendent of police. The others are Kevin Ezirim, Christian Nnazi, Clifford Odiaka, Felix Nnorom, Christopher Aguobi, Ignatius Igwe, James Ibezere and Josephat Nwosu. The white paper on the Otokoto crisis had recommended their dismissal and trial.

In 1997, six persons were executed by firing squad following a judgment of Justice Emmanuel Nnodim. Duru’s son, Obidiozor, was one of them.

In 2002, Justice Lawrence Alinor also sentenced three police officers to death by hanging at the Owerri High Court for roles they played in the death of Innocent Ekeanyanwu, principal witness in the Otokoto case.

From the time the matter was taken to court on October 14, 1997, a year after the incident, the case suffered many adjournments, ranging from occasional absence of lawyers, the suspects, the presiding judge and even the transfer or retirement of judges. The then federal solicitor- general wrote a letter dated May 16, 1997, to the Imo State attorney-general ordering the accused persons to be released. He claimed that no prima facie case had been established against them.

But Imo indigenes that got wind of the plan to release the suspects raised the alarm and another tension enveloped Owerri city before it was put under control, through the assurance by the state government in a radio broadcast that all the suspects would appear in court.

The first appearance of the seven suspects in court was greeted by criticism from human rights activists in Owerri. Unaogu was given VIP treatment. He was conveyed in a new station wagon from the prison to court. Vincent Duru and other suspects were handcuffed into Black Maria from the prison to the court. Duru protested Unaogu’s VIP treatment. Imo indigenes attributed the VIP treatment to the influence of his brother, Laz, who was a minister then.

Several judges handled the case. First was Gabriel Ojiaku, who later went on retirement in 1997. Simeon Ekpe, who replaced him continued. In fact, the prosecution was almost closing its case when Ekpe was elevated to the Court of Appeal. The case was stalled. Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme finally took over April 28, 1999.

Final judgement:

And finally, an Owerri High Court presided over by Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme, sentenced seven persons including Chief Duru, alias Otokoto and Chief Leonard Unaogu to death, for their involvement in the brutal murder of Okoronkwo on September 19, 1996, at Otokoto Hotels Owerri. Also condemned to death for the same offence were Alban Ajaegbu, Sampson Nnamito, Ebenezer Egwuekwe, Rufus Anyanwu and Lawrence Eboh. In her over three-hour judgement, Justice Nwosu-Iheme described Chief Duru as “a hardened and unrepentant murderer.”

Nwosu-Iheme said she found it extremely difficult to believe the stories told by Chief Duru to the effect that Chief Unaogu and himself did not know each other before this ugly incident nor ever regarded themselves as close friends.

On judgement day, It took the presence of a special squad of combat-ready police men to keep the huge crowd that gathered within the premises of the Owerri High Court, in check. The atmosphere was charged.

Justice Nwosu-Iheme’s judgment lasted for about three and half hours and was summed up this way: “The soul that sinneth shall die,” as she sentenced the seven men to death by hanging.

The judge explained that the weight of evidence was heavily against all the accused. “This is a typical case when a circumstantial evidence has proved a case of murder with the accuracy surpassing that of mathematics. It has left no one in doubt, of the connection between one accused person and others. It is to me a syndicated arrangement with clear division of labour,” she said.

Singling out Unaogu, she said: “the sixth accused person, Leonard Unaogu could be described as essential part of the actor who orders for the heads of human beings as if he is ordering for goat heads. It is indeed an unfortunate case, a very intelligent man who chose to channel his intelligence the wrong way. The blood of Ikechukwu Okonkwo must be a very strong and powerful one that cried to God in high heavens.”

“It is indeed condemnable, even God Himself condemned it when he said in Ezekiel chapter 8 verse 20 that “the soul that sinneth shall die.” The accused have demonstrated specie of wickedness surpassing those of Jezebel. The law is very clear on the consequences of these acts and the perpetrators will go in for it,” the judge proclaimed.

Nwosu-Iheme said the prosecution had proved the case against all the seven accused persons and therefore found each of them guilty. The state counsel and defence lawyers concluded their addresses in October last year. The prosecuting counsel maintained that all the accused persons were principal offenders and should be convicted of murder as charged while defence lawyers especially J. C. Uwazuruonye for Vincent Duru and Amadi Obi for Leonard Unaogu, prayed the court to free their respective clients.

Unaogu hurriedly told newsmen following the death sentence passed on him: “I am dying because I helped the less-privileged and widows in the society.” Then Duru said: “This is not a thorough judgment,” As for Anyanwu, “History will see the judgment as it is.”

The death sentences ended the Otokoto saga. Relations of the condemned men burst into tears. But some other persons were happy.

Unaogu’s two wives wept uncontrollably while Rufus Anyanwu’s wife fainted and was carried out of the scene by sympathisers. Uche Durueke, chairman of the South- East branch of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, which monitored the court proceedings said: “the course of the law might be slow. The day of judgment cometh. Today it has come.”

But Uwazuruonye, defence counsel to Duru, said his client would go all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure that justice was done.

The verdict brought the number of convicts on the Otokoto saga to 16.

No comments:

Post a Comment