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10 min readFeatured | Home | ReadAwkuzu SARS Part I: The Two-Faced SARS Veteran

For over 15 years, James Nwafor’s name has sent shivers down the spine of many, due to his controversial affiliation with the SARS unit in Awkuzu.

In 2012, James Nwafor became the head of The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in  Awkuzu. He had a notorious pedigree, which came to prominence in 2006. Around that time, the governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, had issued a ‘shoot-at-sight’ order against members of the  Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) –  a separatist group.

In what many felt was a dictatorial approach, Awkuzu SARS helmed, by Nwafor, played a major role in suppressing MASSOB dissidents. 

Nwafor reportedly shortened the period for investigation and allegedly killed many suspects before the truth of their cases went public. For all that, he earned the alias ‘Obata Obie’, which translates to ‘one whose presence brings an end’. Indeed, a number of civil society groups  observed large scale human right abuses in the way the tactical police unit (SARS) at Awkuzu conducted its operations. 

“He (Nwafor) slaughtered them (MASSOB members) like goats,” a source tells this reporter. 

Survivors are still traumatized from their encounters with Awkuzu SARS. People who had a cause to visit their centers, on occasions when it was inevitable, learnt to conduct their manners and appearance modestly: No misplaced words, no whiff of self-worth. This pattern of slavish attitude, which became a routine overtime, appeased the ego of Nwafor. People found out that it was rather too risky to act in ways that seemed to threaten his authority. 

On Boventure Mokwe’s  second day in captivity at Awkuzu SARS, at the darkest time of the night, during that quiet moment when it was easy to discern the snores of sleeping prisoners, Nwafor felt out of sorts. He was a man with unpredictable mood swings – often swinging between high, loud joy to low solitary sadness. But it was those moments of short sadness that were long and often remembered. 

In those low moments, Nwafor would crave for anything to break his own silence; even a casual cough would do. He was set and the inmates knew, as did other officers, that their conduct had to be perfect. There must be no errors, murmur, noise or careless smacking of the palms. 

“He loves the aura of being feared…and being known as (the) dreaded O.C. (Officer in Charge) of Awkuzu Sars,” Mokwe told me. 

On this particular dark night, faintly illuminated by a torchlight, Nwafor drew up a list of 17 names on a piece of paper.  These names were read at the door of the condemned people’s cell. The labeled  inmates were set apart from the rest, moved to the courtyard and five minutes later, all 17 of them were allegedly killed.

Nwafor is now thoroughly shrouded by ill publicity from his time in Awkuzu. He became a renewed subject of agitation when young people, in historic nationwide protests against police brutality, pressed for his prosecution a year ago. 

The protesters saw the freedom and perhaps “protection” of Nwafor by authorities as unjust. Nwafor was appointed as the Special Assistant to the governor of Anambra State. Although the government claims to have sacked Nwafor during the protest, the youth still want outright prosecution

Like every other time his name dominated reports and petitions before, he survived it. Just as he similarly did with several controversies in his career. In 2013, for example, when Awkuzu SARS was indicted for the killing and dumping of around 35 bodies in the Ezu River, he did not resign or bow out in shame. He withstood that storm, and became a symbol of a man who has seen it all, fought it all and won.  

Mokwe believes Nwafor became an instrument of the elites, used to fight discreet wars, to exert vengeance, to eliminate dissenting voices and to silence critics. In return they shielded and enriched him, proving the widely held notion that a few loyal elites are worth more than a million noisy peasants whose emotions are disposable.

By the end of 2020, the Judicial Panel in Anambra State set up as a reaction to the #EndSARS protest had received more than 300 petitions.

Many families fingered Nwafor in the death, torture and dissapperance of their loved ones. Some ex-inmates of Awkuzu SARS estimate that Nwafor has killed more than 200 persons. Nwafor neither appeared in any of the panel’s meetings nor faced prosecution. This led to the youth representatives resigning from the panel, describing the exercise as a “charade” and “lip service.”  

The call for the prosecution of Nwafor has been ongoing for over  a decade. Somehow, he treats these public outcries as a mother would treat a child who is quick to tears.  

There were times when the press wrote critical pieces about him; times when rumors made waves. He never responded, never for once writing back by way of rebuttals or apologies or empathy. This kind of gesture has fuelled some popular myths about his person; ‘Does his silence connote innocence?’ ‘Is he moved, even slightly, by all the killings and protests and tears?’ ‘How does he even sleep at night?’ 

***

James Nwafor was born six decades ago, in the small farming village of Okworike, situated at the margin of the capital city of Abakaliki, in the southeastern state of Ebonyi. 

The village is a theater of green farm land, enveloped in calmness. The road is gnarled and narrow. Sometimes curly tongues of fire sparkle from hearths, letting their smoke slip through tiny inlets on thatched roofs. From time to time, the echo of a pounding pestle would be brought near to the ear by air, before it is rolled back into the distance. 

In Okworike, there is no contradiction about Nwafor’s personality. Here, he is simply a model, not a murderer. He is lavishly loved. Even more than love, there is veneration for his person. He personifies everything his kinsmen want in their sons and daughters. His very lifestyle constitutes anecdotes with which elders polish their conversations as well as advice and rebuke youth. 

It was in Okworike that Nwafor grew up, earning the love and admiration of peers and elders, for what they call his “calm spirit.” He spoke so little, in a measured way that conveyed modesty, allowing his voice to rise only when his comic-free spirit was tickled. They saw all these qualities in his blossoming teenage years and later, when he came of age as a man. 

On this first day of visit to Okworike in May, in the hour between morning and noon, 57-year-old Christian Eze sits on a wooden bench in front of a mud shop that wears a roof of rusted zinc. He has known Nwafor as a child, in school and in the village square that hosted their plays and childhood fights. 

“I read about the lies written regarding James,” he begins. “We, his people who know him well, don’t believe it. The James I know can’t kill, he can’t even kill an ant.”

The upbringing of Nwafor was turbulent. His father, the senior Nwafor, a peasant laborer, was constrained by penury. He spent his days in great labor across farms and built up debts, desirous to see his son get a good education. He did. 

Having risen from the threshold of scarcity, James Nwafor made his life a sacrifice to charity, says Uchenna Nwankwo, whose huge ambition is to meet Nwafor in person.

When Nwankwo settled into his new job as an okada rider in Okworike, less than two years ago, he began to hear gists and rumors about the “great son of Ezza” doing exploits abroad from fellow okada riders and market women. The stories of Nwafor were taking the form of myths, flavored into varied versions, twisted into thoroughly embellished accounts.

These myths built momentum, for which the arrival of Nwafor to his hometown became ceremonial. 

In the days of his homecoming, especially in the time of festivities, the news of his arrival travels from mouth to mouth into households and clans.  And when he comes eventually, he walks gloriously, returning salutations with the bowing of head, smiles and waving of hands. 

Soon after, a small crowd would form around his compound and the feast of his coming would commence. Widows would visit in a gesture of gratitude for past benevolence, others to put forward fresh petitions for assistance. 

His habit towards gifts is liberal. He would buy colorful wrappers for widows, in the quality of his taste, and add rice and oil and spices. He would entertain the stories of suffering families. A year ago,  he donated a bus and three motorcycles to the community to strengthen vigilante patrols and operations. 

All in all, his home would bubble until the exit gate is shut on the day of his departure. Then the people would take time to digest his visit, reminiscing on his manners, savoring his smiles, jokes and the very imprint of his steps. They would relive all these experiences over and again. 

Here in Okworike, in conversation circles, where exhausted men talk politics and personalities, Nwafor is a constant theme. This is according to Nwankwo. In fact, the people once wanted Nwafor as their new king. But he declined. 

During the #EndSARS protest, the people of Okworike were plunged into panic and prayers. The men stood ready, willing to fight for the life of Nwafor, if his survival would ever depend on their defense. The rumours were refreshed each day with some suggesting he was lynched. “James is irreplaceable,” Nwankwo tells me. “I believe the [#EndSARS] protests were sponsored by criminals who see James as an obstacle to their crime.”

A year ago, Nwafor turned his focus to a house of God here in Okworike. He was moved by its perilous state and small size. And when the building of the church started, during the memory of the birth of Christ, he made the largest donation  

This morning, as worship at St. Cosmas & Damian Catholic Church unfolds with songs and hymns, the priest and people pray for “the pillars of the church”, including James Nwafor. 

It is in moments like this, when the church is sourcing for money, that Nwafor is most missed. “He could have done something,” a church leader tells me. “He helped a lot in the building of the parish.”

“God continues raising him above his equals because he has a good heart,” Eze says. 

“His life is a good example to the church and community. He does not accept bribes. He doesn’t tolerate oppression.”