By Sadiq Obanoyen
On June 23, this year, the global media was awash with reports of the arrest in London of former Deputy President of the Nigerian Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, and his wife, Beatrice, for allegedly conspiring to traffic a homeless 15-year-old Nigerian to the United Kingdom to harvest his organs for their daughter, who had kidney failure. The London Metropolitan Police went on to state that the “child”, now known as David Ukpo Nwamini, was under the care of safeguarding authorities.
Since then, the couple has appeared before Uxbridge Magistrate’s Court, Westminster Magistrate’s Court, and are currently standing trial at the Old Bailey Court for alleged offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
But even before the real trial, the couple and Nigeria were initially subjected to trial in the court of global public opinion given the police’s initial presentation of Nwamini as a homeless orphan and trafficked minor. The prevailing righteous indignation of Nigerians towards their successive political leaderships did not also help Ekweremadu’s case. It even took clarifications by the likes of Prof. Farouq Kperogi for many uninformed Nigerians to understand that he was not being held for attempted ritual or organ trading.
Yet, amid the initial opprobrium, there were many who insisted that something must be wrong somewhere, as the narrative did not fit into the character, person and antecedents of the lawmaker. Today, these people are gaining steady vindication as those claims by Nwamini, which the Metropolitan Police relied on, are falling apart by the day.
Following Nwamini’s confession and admission of the prosecutors, the court has ruled that he was not a minor, but a 21 years old adult. The court has consequently lifted Nwamini’s initial exemption from court appearance and discourse by UK media. Again, it has been established that Nwamini’s father, Mr. Nwamini Ukpo, and mother, Mrs. Mary Ukpo, are alive and are living in their native home at Izzida, Nduofia village, in Ebonyi State, Nigeria.
Equally, from a June 26, 2022, report by Vanguard newspaper, one of Nigeria’s leading dailies, which interviewed Nwamini’s brother, Jonathan, the young man could not have been homeless and was engaged in phone accessories business before his London trip.
Furthermore, Ekweremadu, in a letter supporting Nwamini’s medical visa application, made full disclosure to the UK High Commission, which is a representative of the British sovereign in Nigeria. He explicitly disclosed the daughter’s illness, purpose of Nwamini’s visit and the London hospital for the medical procedure. So, Nwamini travelled to London on “Type D” or medical visa. He couldn’t have travelled for study or promise of “good life” in the UK on medical visa, which requires some strident processes before issuance.
It is now equally known that Nwamini’s visa was issued in January 2022 and he travelled to London in February where he stayed till May. You would suppose that a man (not a child) held and exploited against his will (modern slavery) would have reported to the UK authorities in February or March or April, and not wait till May when he was supposed to return to Nigeria.
While the trial to determine the culpability or otherwise of Ekweremadu and wife goes on, it is not out of place to say that the investigating police officer (IPO) acted most hastily, even irresponsibly and unprofessionally, in misleading the Metropolitan Police in the handling of the matter. It is very awful and a disrespect to Nigeria for the Metropolitan Police to disregard the information contained in Nwamini’s international passport issued by Nigerian government after due diligence to believe Nwamini’s claim of being a 15-year-old minor and go to town and court with such without the slightest investigation that pointed to the contrary. Ditto the other tales by moonlight by Nwamini to gain the sympathy of the UK authorities. This was in spite of the fact that they were dealing with a Nigerian senator who was ordinarily deserving of some benefit of the doubt. Could this have to do with the colour of his skin? Could UK authorities have treated a European or American parliamentarian in like manner? One would also be interested in knowing how the UK government intends to handle the goof and unprofessionalism of the IPO, who misled the authorities into hasty conclusions on Nwamini’s age, among others.
Whereas one cannot claim expertise in international relations and diplomacy, one wonders if it was not unconscionable on the part of the British government to issue Nwamini a visa following full disclosure by the senator that Nwamini was travelling to the UK for organ donation, but only to do a 360-degrees turnaround and charge the senator and his wife for facilitating illegality. Would it not have been fair and just to refuse the visa in the first place, citing the UK modern slavery legislation, especially as the UK is never known to be generous with visas to Nigerians?
Today, not only is Ekweremadu denied bail, the trial of a senior official of the Nigerian government is enjoying protracted adjournments and he continues to remain in custody till October 31, while the real trial starts in 2023.
Meanwhile, as the world continues to ponder the oddities in the arrest and ongoing trial of the Ekweremadus, including what many see as grave assaults on the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations regarding persons bearing diplomatic passport, and the general breach of international standards and due process, one is compelled to wonder, why is it always leaders of developing countries that suffer the fate of arrest in breaches of such conventions? And imagine if a British citizen was at the receiving end in Nigeria.
But even more important are questions like: What holy anger has Nigeria expressed about it? What is Nigeria doing about it? How is Nigeria exploring diplomatic channels to resolve the matter, especially since all individuals involved are Nigerians, while Nigeria and the UK enjoy longstanding cordial relations? What steps have the South East Governors Forum, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Igbo leaders, and Ekweremadu’s party, the Peoples Democratic Party, taken to push for government’s diplomatic interventions? More so when Ekweremadu cannot be accused of ever abandoning his people and partymen in distress.
One is honestly not in a position to answer these. However, it needs to be underscored, as a matter of fact, that serious diplomatic interventions have been deployed by nations, including the UK, United States and even Nigeria, in securing reprieve for their citizens in foreign lands. A few examples will suffice.
The President Joe Biden administration is seriously intervening in the case of US basketball star, Brittney Griner, accused of possession of cannabis oil in Russia. Despite prevailing cold relations between both countries, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said America had offered a deal to Russia to facilitate the release of Griner and Paul Whelan. Whelan is serving a 16-year prison term in Russia for spying.
Also, according to CNN, sources familiar with the follow-up talks between Bliken and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, revealed that Russia demands inclusion in the deal the release of Vadim Krasikov, a murder convict and former colonel in Russia’s domestic spy agency, FSB, serving life sentence in Germany since 2021.
Worthy of note is that Biden and Americans are aggressively pushing for Griner’s release even when over 40,000 people are presently doing prison terms in various parts of USA for the same charge owing to some state laws. But to them, it is about an American in a foreign land.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of 2016 failed coup against President Recep Erdogan, an American pastor and resident of Turkey, Andrew Brunson, was arrested for alleged espionage and association with the Gulenist Terror Group and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). While talks were on, Trump sanctioned some Turkish government officials and hiked tariff on Turkish products. To save face under the diplomatic and economic heat, Turkey hurriedly convicted Brunson on charge of aiding terrorism, but sentenced him only to the period already spent in detention, and quickly released him to the U.S. It is a fact that worse fate awaited Brunson but for U.S’ intervention.
In 2004, a former UK army officer, Simon Mann, was arrested alongside 69 mercenaries over planned overthrow of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. Mann was arrested during a stopover at Harare airport, Zimbabwe, where they were to be stocked with weapons and equipment for the coup. Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister, was later implicated in the plot for paying for helicopter charter services for the coup. However, his lawyers maintained that he thought the helicopter was for humanitarian purposes.
While everyone is entitled to believe or not believe him, the bottom line is that the eventual outcomes of Mann and Thatcher’s cases were evidently fruits of the British diplomatic pressures and interventions. Mark got $506,000 fine and suspended jail sentence by the High Court of South Africa where he lived. In 2009, President Obiang granted Mann “a complete pardon on humanitarian grounds” as opposed to the initial 34-year jail sentence handed him in 2008.
Interestingly, even on a matter as serious as coup plot, the UK Parliament weighed in heavily in favour of their citizens. Mann’s issue was raised at the floor of Parliament vide Written Questions by Rt. Hon. Henry Bellingham (who later became Parliamentary Under-secretary for Africa in David Cameron’s government), Sir Peter Bottomley; Rt. Hon. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown; and Rt. Hon. George Iain Smith. Upon Mann’s extradition to Equatorial Guinea by Robert Mugabe, his representative, Rt. Hon. Jullian Lewis, told Parliament: “Quiet diplomacy has failed and we now have to save Mr. Mann, whatever he has or has not done”.
In 2008, a British citizen, Samantha Orobator, was arrested in Lao for trafficking in heroine. Not only was she eventually spared death sentence and handed a life imprisonment, she was equally sent back to Britain to serve her sentence based on a treaty for the transfer of prisoners, which Britain entered into with Lao in the course of Orobator’s trial. Also, Lord Justice Dyson and Mr. Justice Tugendhat held that 18 months was an appropriate period, which she must spend in jail before her possible freedom.
In December 2018, a Jigawa State lady, Zainab Aliyu, was arrested upon arrival in Saudi Arabia for lesser hajj after prohibited drug was found in a luggage bearing her nametag. It is fresh on the mind how Nigerian government pulled all the diplomatic strings to save her from a brutal fate. Nigeria eventually convinced the Saudi authorities that a drug cartel operating at the Kano and Saudi airports indeed inserted the drug in her luggage without her knowledge. She was released in April 2019.
Given the foregoing instances, do not Ekweremadu and wife, who were only making efforts to save a sick daughter and did their best in making full disclosures to the UK High Commission deserve better, especially given the longstanding Nigeria-UK relations and the fact that the Ekweremadus and Nwamini are all Nigerians? Besides, none of the individuals have any prior criminal conviction in Nigeria.
Lastly, Ekweremadu is a renowned Igbo and opposition leader. It suffices to add that how the Federal Government handles this matter will be a subject of various interpretations, especially as to whether it is different strokes for different folks.
•Obanoyen, an Architect and public affairs analyst, writes from Akure, Ondo State