After Nigerian police took their son away, 'merchants of hope' took all their money too

Hope Iloanya holds a photo of her son Chijioke Iloanya, whom she last saw in 2012 when he disappeared at age 20 after being in police custody.
Hope Iloanya holds a photo of her son Chijioke Iloanya, whom she last saw in 2012 when he disappeared at age 20 after being in police custody.PHOTO: NYTIMES

AWKA, NIGERIA (NYTIMES) - In the small family portrait gallery hanging above the television in the cosy home of the Iloanya family, only two framed photographs remain that include the youngest son, Chijioke.

He disappeared eight years ago. His parents, Ms Hope and Mr Emmanuel Iloanya, last saw him in handcuffs in a police station run by the feared unit known as SARS - the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

They have been searching for him ever since, along the way encountering an industry of merchants peddling hope: lawyers, human rights groups and the churches and pastors who asked for the photographs of Mr Chijioke Iloanya, promising to pray over them and help bring him back.

"They give you a prophecy that he will come back," said Ms Iloanya, a devout woman of 53, staring at the gaps on her salmon-pink wall.

"Whatever they tell you to do, you do it."

The Iloanyas are just one of many families in Nigeria whose children have disappeared in police custody.

For years, police officers in the West African nation have tortured, killed and extorted young people, accusing them of being criminals, according to many testimonies in hearings and studies.

The country's young people finally had enough, and in October, the biggest protests in a generation erupted. The protests, known as #EndSARS, were against Nigeria's police and armed forces, against its leaders and the system.

In the Iloanyas' home state of Anambra, in Nigeria's south-east, so many have disappeared that some smelled a business opportunity, wringing money from desperate families who often have already paid large bribes to the police.

Human rights groups offer to get information. Lawyers promise justice. Pastors, spiritual intervention.

They wrangled roughly US$60,000 (S$79,700) from the Iloanyas as family members tried everything they could to help their son.

Mr Chijioke Iloanya was 20 when he disappeared. He had an almost unmanageable roster of friends, who called him "50 Cent"; his sense of style drew comparisons with the rapper. They would duck in and out of his family's home, where laundry blows on a line in the driveway and lizards run along the walls.

Four boys at a time would squeeze into his tiny room, eating cereal and playing cards. He was good at maths and drawing and played drums at church. He teased his little sister, Obianuju, giving her nicknames that even today she refuses to repeat.

She adored him.

The family had already been through one tragedy. The Iloanyas' middle daughter, Peace, inexplicably collapsed and died one day in 2010, at age 13. They buried her in her father's village.

Peace Iloanya's death left a hole in the Iloanyas' house and at Hope Relaxation Spot, her mother's restaurant on a busy street in Awka, their hometown.

The children helped out at the restaurant after school. The place was always full.

In November 2012, while Mr Chijioke Iloanya was attending a baby's naming ceremony, he and six others were arrested, including the mother and the baby being named.

The mother and baby and another woman were soon released, but Mr Chijioke Iloanya remained in detention with no reason given.

Mr Emmanuel and Ms Hope Iloanya rushed to the SARS station in the nearby town of Awkuzu. Police officers claimed he wasn't there. But then Ms Hope Iloanya glimpsed her son in handcuffs.

"Chijioke!" she screamed. "Yes, Daddy, Ma, I'm here!" he called out.

SARS officers pushed them out the door. They never saw their son again.

Awkuzu SARS, where Mr Chijioke Iloanya was taken, was the "headquarters of human rights violations", including torture and executions, according to reports by Amnesty International.

Officers arrest young men on non-existent or trumped up charges, according to many survivors' accounts, torturing out false confessions and demanding money - sometimes tens of thousands of dollars - to release them. Those who cannot pay often vanish.

Until 2018, the officer in charge of Awkuzu SARS was Mr James Nwafor.

A heavyset man with a big gold watch, a collection of dubious human rights awards and a penchant for flashy cars, Mr Nwafor bragged about personally killing suspects, said those who know him.

"James Nwafor told me simply, 'I've killed him,'" said Mr Justus Ijeoma, a human rights lawyer who first approached Mr Nwafor a decade ago to ask what had happened to a client of his, a bus driver.

"He didn't hide it. The man was so audacious."

"The killing is wanton," said Mr Bonaventure Mokwe, a businessman held for two months in Awkuzu SARS in 2013. He described Mr Nwafor killing a prisoner who had contradicted him.

"He pulled a silver pistol and shot the person," he said. "I saw it with my naked eye."

Ms Hope and Mr Emmanuel Iloanya kept returning to Awkuzu SARS, begging for information.

A week after the arrest, they met Mr Nwafor. He told them outright that he had killed their son.

"'I've wasted your son' - that's the language he used," Mr Emmanuel Iloanya said. "I've wasted your son. You can't do anything."

Mr Nwafor did not respond to repeated calls or e-mails setting out the allegations in this article.

When New York Times journalists looked for him at Awkuzu SARS headquarters on a recent afternoon, his former colleagues picked up their guns and ordered them to leave.

Mr Nwafor's statement that he had killed Mr Chijioke Iloanya was so brazen, so heartless, that the Iloanyas didn't know whether to believe it.

Then people who said they knew Mr Nwafor approached them, saying, "Oh, he's lying," or, "That's how he talks." They offered help.

In a dilapidated building in central Awka, at the office of a local human rights group, the Prime Advocacy for Human Rights Preservers Initiative, cartoon posters of angry judges glare down from the walls.

Mr Emmanuel Iloanya, 63, an electrician, said he paid nearly US$9,000 to its chair, who said he had military connections and could talk to Mr Nwafor.

Nothing happened. The chair's successor said that he didn't know about this case but that he charges victims only for the organisation's travel costs.

Pastors and prayer groups asked Ms Hope Iloanya for her son's clothes as well as his photographs and exhorted her to strengthen her faith. For this, they charged.

"Even to see the priest you have to pay," she said. "You go to see a prophet, you pay."

One of those prophets was Mr Gideon Ajekwe, founder of the Good News Of Christ Baptist Church, located in a lush, steep valley full of churches with competing sound systems.

"Prayer is my business," he said in an interview. For his prayers, he asked Ms Hope Iloanya for a donation for his evangelistic radio show. She gave him US$60.

Lawyers came to the Iloanyas' house too. "A lot of lawyers," said Ms Obianuju Iloanya, the sister, now a 26-year-old.

Until Mr Chijioke Iloanya's arrest, she had planned to study law, but changed direction after seeing how lawyers took her parents' money. She became a social justice campaigner instead. "I began to think of lawyers as vultures," she said.

The family tried everything.

When Mr Emmanuel Iloanya heard about some corpses dumped in a nearby river, he said, he drove there, waded in and used sticks to turn the bodies face up. No Chijioke Iloanya.

Mr Emmanuel Iloanya complained to the state police commissioner, who raised Mr Chijioke Iloanya's case with Mr Nwafor. He denied killing anyone.

Mr Emmanuel Iloanya returned to Mr Nwafor, offering him US$19,000 - all the money he had managed to raise. Mr Nwafor dismissed it as "chicken change", the family said.

The Iloanyas were not the only ones to raise the alarm about Mr Nwafor and Awkuzu SARS.

Human rights lawyers, survivors and researchers released reports, wrote letters to state governors and the president, complained to police headquarters and sued.

But officers at Awkuzu SARS were never prosecuted or sanctioned.

Instead, in 2018, the year he retired from Awkuzu SARS, Mr Nwafor was nominated for a human rights award.

And then the state governor, Mr Willie Obiano, promptly hired him as a special adviser on security.

The abuses at Awkuzu SARS did not stop when Mr Nwafor retired.

Mr Sunday Ibeh, 34, a medical equipment supplier and father of three, was arrested this September, accused of planning to buy a stolen car.

He said officers tied him up, suspended him from a pole and put heavy weights on his back, almost breaking it.

He was released just before the #EndSARS protests, an explosion of anger that showed how common his experience was in Africa's most populous nation.

Nigeria badly needs good policing. Boko Haram terrorises the north-east. Bandits attack in the north-west. Farmers clash with herdsmen in the centre.

But the Nigerian police have a long history of violence and impunity. The institution grew out of British imperial forces, and despite decades-long efforts, reform has been painfully slow.

Chronic underfunding - a junior officer's monthly salary is around US$130 - leads police officers to extort the public or serve those with money or power.

The governor fired Mr Nwafor during the protests, and the President dissolved and replaced SARS. But few saw this rebranding as evidence that the government wanted systemic change.

"There are other units twice as deadly as SARS," said Mr Ijeoma. "SARS is a metaphor for all the violence perpetrated by Nigerian police."

The police are too useful politically to be held to account, said Mr Okechukwu Nwanguma, the executive director of the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre.

Successive governments "want the police to be guided by the dictates of the regime", rather than by law, he said.

Standing in her turquoise dress behind Hope Relaxation Spot's counter, Ms Hope Iloanya peeled an onion for moimoi steamed beancakes.

Before her son disappeared, she served proper meals. But travelling to churches took all her time and energy. And money. The family sold almost everything, including the land where Peace Iloanya is buried.

The churches never gave Ms Hope Iloanya her photographs back. In the precious few she has left, Mr Chijioke Iloanya studiously avoids looking at the camera or smiling. He flashes a peace sign.

Mr Chijioke Iloanya's sister, Obianuju, testified before a judicial panel investigating police brutality. Mr Nwafor was summoned but did not show up.

On Twitter, Mr Nwafor claimed that Mr Chijioke Iloanya had robbed a gas station.

A police representative told the panel a different story - that he was killed in a shoot-out. But Mr Chijioke Iloanya's family says such allegations are absurd. They have abandoned hope of finding him alive.

In 2019, they finally gave away his shoes. They unlocked his room and painted it bright blue. Their youngest, Ruth Iloanya, moved in. Seeking justice is what the family has left.

Ms Obianuju Iloanya, the sister, went just a few weeks ago to Awkuzu SARS to drop off a copy of her testimony.

Mr Nwafor was there, she said, sitting under a tree. He didn't introduce himself, but she recognised him from photographs.

She approached him. He smiled and asked if she would recognise Mr James Nwafor if she ever saw him. Then he said that justice could go either way; it could be for or against her.

"Let the court decide," she replied, and walked out.