Ekweremadu and the price of parts
By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 8 May, 2023)
The one who hasn’t been hit by war calls himself a man (Eni ìjà ò bá níí pe ‘ra è l’ókùnrin). The word for ‘fight’ in Yoruba is ‘ija’; but ‘ija’ is much more than ‘fight’. It means battle; it is also war. If you’ve never been caught up in or overtaken by war, it is possible you yell and tell the world that you are more manly than man. But, there is really no ‘man’ anywhere. In luster and bravery, people rise and fall in the battle of life. That is one big lesson in the Ike Ekweremadu tragedy. He is not the first wealthy man to die in the backyard of the wretched; he won’t be the last. In this world, in all lands and across oceans, from the Atlantic through the Pacific to the Arctic, the Indian to the Antarctic, everyone is fighting a battle; visible for some, invisible for many.
A judge in London declared on Friday that Ekweremadu’s conviction and sentencing for an attempt at organ harvesting represented “a significant fall from grace.” What does that mean?
Ekweremadu was a council chairman in 1997; he was a private-practice lawyer in 1998/99 who wanted again to be a local government chairman; he lost that council election bid but was made Chief of Staff by Governor Chimaroke Nnamani in June 1999. His unrelenting stars fought hard and soon convinced Governor Nnamani to carry him further upstairs. He was made the Secretary to the Enugu State Government. He got that big post but his chi was still not done with him. In 2003, re-elected Governor Nnamani thought it was time for his Ike Ekweremadu to play in the Abuja big boys’ league. The all-powerful governor proceeded to make Ekweremadu senator to represent Enugu West. Since then, Ekweremadu has remained a senator of the Federal Republic. He will be there till June 2023, even in absentia. The UK judge’s fall-from-grace statement was very heavy. It was a reminder that everything achieved since 1999 by Ekweremadu did not matter again. The judge was right. Ike is in jail in a foreign land and will remain there for the equivalent of two of his five terms in the Senate.
There is no permanent victor in life. People rise, people fall; some in defeat at the battlefield; some in victory at the home front. Remember that there was a Senate president called Evan(s) Enwerem. He was temperate and restrained in behaviour but he still saw war and fell. There was another called Chuba Okadigbo, the one who called the great Zik a “ranting ant” twenty years earlier. He too became Senate president, saw war and fell. Adolphus Wabara was another solemn Senate president who met his own war and fell in battle. These great people fell in tragic succession, then Governor Chimaroke Nnamani, in April 2005, stepped in. He thought Ekweremadu should become Senate president. He moved from Enugu to Abuja; from the Villa to Apo to everywhere, he walked and crawled for Ike’s sake but senators and their Senate were unanimous: they wanted another Nnamani called Ken as their leader. Ken made it; Ekweremadu lost in that bid but he survived all his victorious brothers to remain perpetually in that house of power. Ike Ekweremadu’s contemporaries, like feckless dew on afternoon leaves, evaporated long ago. The man kept rising and riding high. He even rose to become deputy Senate president for many years while his benefactor, Chimaroke, sat in that same Senate as a floor member. Ike will be ending his twenty-year reign in the Senate next month on the floor, inside the opposite of freedom.
If you have been following the stories around you, you will know that it is not only the Ekweremadus who are in trouble and fighting a bewildering war. In the Ekweremadu case, every Nigerian is a casualty; including the asylum-seeking David who told the white man that his Nigeria is now one hell that no longer offers him security. The young man apparently wants to stay forever in that beautiful country where the sun never sets. Now, what is in a name? ‘Ike’ is the Igbo word for strength. The young ‘nobody’ who captured Ike, the strongman, is named David (full name: David Nwamini Ukpo). There is a David in the Bible who, with tentative fingers, slew both lion and bear, added mighty Goliath to his victims and proceeded to have permanent residency in the heart of God. Someone also said that if the David in the Ekweremadu story is an Izzi-Igbo man from Ebonyi State, his Nwamini name will mean Child-born-while-it-is-raining – a child of blessing. Whatever he is, he is one young hunter who has killed an elephant with his hat. He has his eyes on permanent residency in King Charles’s country. Like the biblical David, the odds are on his side.
But this case has got Nigerians, as usual, very divided. I can see three groups: the first group condemns Ekweremadu; it says Ike is a wicked and selfish big man who wanted to use a poor boy as a sacrifice to keep his own daughter alive. The second group sees the matter this way: How do you console a farmer who throws his cutlass at a rabbit, rabbit escapes, cutlass can’t be found? That is a very bad situation but it is not as bad as that of a hunter who has a big snail for supper but abortively uses it as stone to kill a bird. Bird escapes; snail escapes; hunter is empty-handed. This second group sympathizes with Ekweremadu and his family and prays that his daughter gets well; that they do not lose everything like the hunter in the above story. The third group is aghast that Nigerians and the world are hypocritical, pretentious in their reaction to this Ekweremadu/David guy’s matter. They are surprised at the drama all around as if this attempt at illegal organ harvesting is the index case.
Ekweremadu’s nemesis, David, has told his Lagos-to-UK story and the court believed him. Was it an isolated case? I don’t think many Nigerians think so. The unimaginable happens here so tragically regularly; and they are seen as quite normal. There must have been tens of other criminal harvest sessions (seasons) that have gone undetected or detected but not punished. Many more may be happening as we argue and contend over Ekweremadu and his judgement. On July 4, 2020, the newspaper I edit published a deep report on organ harvesting business in Lagos. I reproduce part of that report here: For the initiated, a ‘life giver’ in Katangua market, Lagos, is one who is into organ-harvesting business; a donor that has sold one of his two kidneys to a patient that required a kidney transplant. They are in their numbers in the market, Saturday Tribune was told. At Katangua, also known as ‘supermarket’, traders sell virtually all human needs. They sell shirts, trousers, blazers, jackets, shoes, cars, and food items; they also sell human kidneys, according to an informant, Ogor (not real name). All these come at affordable prices. Human kidney, according to Ogor, sells for between N750,000 and N1million, depending on the bargaining power of the ‘donor’. Obviously out of breath and exhausted, Ogor laid his body on a stall to get some fresh air with a few of his wares hanging loosely on his hands when Saturday Tribune walked up to him, having been linked up by a contact. Katangua is mostly known for Okrika but Ogor claimed that those who know the inner workings of the market know where the real money is. He was introduced to the deal. He said: “The guy who introduced me narrated to me how he sold his kidney and invested the money in his Okrika business. He also narrated how many traders in the market had gone through a similar process to expand their earnings. At first, I was nervous but when I thought about what lay ahead of me and the fact that there was nobody to lean on, I summoned courage. I later got to know the guy as Paul. He was an agent working for an organ vendor whom I later got to know as Obinna (real name). They both had sold their kidneys, too. Paul took me to Obinna’s house where we had a lengthy discussion. He told me I would be paid N850,000 after the whole exercise. He took me to a diagnostic centre in Oshodi (name withheld) where my kidneys were checked and certified healthy.
“I also got to know that Obinna had someone he worked for but I never got to meet him throughout the processing. He contacted someone in India and my travel documents and medical reports were ready within a short period. I was prepared to embark on a journey to sell my kidney to an unknown person in order to add value to my life. I never knew I was on the path of destruction. Obinna instructed me that if the doctors in India asked me any question, I should tell them that I didn’t understand the English language. And true to his instructions, doctors at the hospital in New Delhi asked many questions. They asked me if I was forced to donate my kidney. They asked if I would like to change my mind; they asked other questions. After the questioning session, a young black Nigerian woman was brought in. She lives in India. I was told she would act as my wife and she signed some documents on my behalf. We took pictures together and the doctors recorded us with their camera and after this, they embarked on the surgery to remove one of my kidneys. After the surgery, I spent about five months in India to recuperate before I returned to Lagos.
“Truly, I was not forced to sell my kidney but I did it out of poverty and hunger. I regret every step I took on that journey because I have been feeling unwell since I came back from India. When I started having health challenges, I went in search of Obinna at his residence but I was told that he had moved out of the place. He is still in Katangua where he sells Okrika to deceive the people. He lured innocent young Nigerians into the organ selling business. In fact, he has made many young traders in Katangua sell their kidneys, giving them little. Just walk round the market and ask to see their stomachs, you will be surprised at the cut marks you will see on them.” The (then) image maker of the state police command, Bala Elkana, in his reaction said what the traders did was “a punishable offence. It is against the human trafficking law in Nigeria.” End of story. Read again and come to your own judgement. There is nothing the desperately poor are not willing to sell; nothing is too sacred for the desperate rich to buy. The poorer people get, the more frantically stupid they become to escape poverty. It is the same when the rich and comfortable are in distress. They throw money at the problem; they do what the world takes to be silly, stupid things. Does this tell you anything about Ekweremadu? May God save us from desperate situations.
Human organs fail but modern medicine has said failure needn’t be fatal. Transplantation has evolved as a viable remedy to organ failure. But, are there no legal ways of getting these parts? If there is none, pioneers in this field, from Joseph E. Murray to Alexis Carrell and Thomas E. Starzl and others, home and abroad, would have laboured in vain. The truth is, there are lawful ways of doing it; the problem is with the rich; they avoid taking personal risks; they always cut corners.
Apart from the two gentlemen and a lady jailed in the UK on Friday in that David Nwamini case, who else was involved in that particular matter? We may never know. The depth of dark business is always deep. How entrenched is the ‘business’? Even the United Nations appears perplexed, without a clue yet. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) reported in August 2022 that its flagship 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons “indicated an increasing prevalence of reported cases of trafficking in persons for the purpose of organ removal (TIP for OR).” It added, however, that “existing barriers to reporting suggest that the full scale of this phenomenon is not yet known.” We may never know who else does this business, who has done it and who may do it despite the global odium in the Ekweremadu case. Do the buyers and sellers know that what they do is bad? “People sell their souls in such small quantities – a seemingly trivial compromise here, a rationalization of a minor evil there – that they don’t realize what they’re doing until it is too late” (Mike Klepper). How much really is the cost of evil? In August 2020, The Sun of UK published the story of a Malaysian reportedly involved in organ trafficking. He did his dark business by luring what the paper described as “poverty-stricken victims from around the world” to sell their organs. That is what he does for a living, and he boasted to the UK paper that he had masterminded 45 illicit kidney sales with more than 100 potential sellers on the queue. “They’re all serious. Nobody wants to sell their kidney if there is no financial problem,” the man told The Sun. The newspaper said the man initially charged its undercover reporters a fee of £55,000 for supplying a kidney and an additional £65,000 for payment to the clinic. They haggled and the man dropped the total fee to £85,000. How did he do it without his evil finding him out? The man who operated from Manila, Philippines, explained to the reporters that “in Manila, cash is king. Money talks.” Remove Manila in that boast and put Nigeria there; you will be very correct. Here, the rich buy everything; they buy anybody; the poor sell anything, from body to soul. The country is cash-and-carry. It will remain so until we bite the bullet and make a fresh start.