Bonaventure Mokwe found himself in a precarious position; defending his illustrious family name in the midst of cruel intimidation from the James Nwafor-led Awkuzu SARS (Picture Credit: Vanguard News)
On the first day of August 2013, in the second year of the reign of James Nwafor as the head of SARS in Awkuzu, Bonaventure Mokwe was arrested.
It was a time when the ruthless attitude of Awkuzu’s tactical police unit was at its peak. Mokwe read about them in the news. He cared less. “I wasn’t a criminal,” he thought. “So there was no reason to worry about the police.”
But the infamous Awkuzu SARS terrified young people – innocent or not. Some were allegedly killed. Others survived with memorable scars.
Samuel Akpakpan, a clinical psychologist, tells me families resorted to practices they believed to be helpful to help them heal – practices like spiritualism. New firebrand pentecostal church, which branches across southern Nigeria, teaches that “vengeance (and the battle) is the Lord’s.”
Mokwe, however, does not share these values. His convictions have not ruled out the necessity of retribution in the absolute sense. Quite frankly, he is sort of a spiritual man himself, having inherited the creed of his forefathers, rooted in ọfò n’ogu.
This creed doesn’t surrender a man’s fight to his gods. It supports a man taking the fight to his foe, after careful deliberations with the gods and elders, as well as soul searching in which such a man must carefully examine the worthiness of his cause.
The morning before his arrest, Mokwe was away on business when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was a man, one of his workers, speaking in a muffled voice.
As he recalls this dreadful experience, the initial shock is still palpable.
The police claimed that Mokwe’s Upper Class Hotel was involved in a murder. “The police had found two rotten old skulls and two unserviceable AK47 rifles planted by one of the guests,” Mokwe revealed.
James Nwafor led the police team that invaded Mokwe’s hotel. Sitting close to Mokwe and taking full pleasure in the extent of his powers, Nwafor allegedly told Mokwe: “I will kill you, and if you are innocent, let your blood be on my descendants.”
Mokwe remembers staring at Nwafor, and not finding his appearance appealing. Here was a short dark man, with bulgy eyes, threatening the mighty Mokwe.
Nwafor continued the threats, but Mokwe’s mind was fully engaged elsewhere.
Roughly two hours from Mokwe’s time of arrest, a bulldozer arrived at his hotel. It signaled the beginning of an end, but Mokwe was at peace. He had imagined that a long investigation would make his “innocence” apparent.
The blades of the bulldozer began to chew at the walls of the hotel, eating deep into the flesh of each room, slowly crushing the bar and wine bottles, restaurant utensils and beddings. The Upper Class hotel was built in 1974, four years after the Biafran civil war.
The arrival of Mokwe at Awkuzu SARS was ceremonial. Unlike the many others, who are led in with teary eyes, Mokwe didn’t approach the prison with a bowed head. He didn’t tremble at the sight of chains and guns.
He replied to every hard blow with stillness. He placed his hands apart when they wanted it together. In response to his defiance, he was chained to a concrete dumbbell, behind the torture hall.
When Mokwe regained alertness, after he was unconscious for several hours, his body was limp on the floor, his back leaning on a wall in a dark cell called condemned people’s cell. Bruises reversed the fair-complexioned skin of his neck to red, and clothed him with blood.
A bloody wound was daringly obvious where the officers had passed Mokwe’s own cloth around his neck, with a rope, pulling from both ends to cut off air supply to his lungs.
When he lost consciousness, the officers wrote an incriminating statement and stamped it with Mokwe’s thumbprint. “I was lifeless at that moment,” Mokwe explained in his addendum.
Mokwe also mentioned that anyone kept at the condemned people’s cell could be “executed anytime”. “It is a point blank execution,” Mokwe claimed. “No food. No water…nothing in the cell, just people crying about dying.”
Mokwe was detained in Awkuzu SARS for 82 days.
When Mokwe regained consciousness, it came with a dose of humility. His initial toughness softened in the face of his realization that his case wasn’t a fight between two brave rivals, but rather a fight between a brave man and another who has no conscience.
He began to observe life in the cell when it was possible. He learnt to conceal his bitterness. There were times when he sat in conversation with Nwafor while nursing inward bitterness but emotting warmth instead. And because of his famous family name, life almost normalized for him .
“It was almost like I was free at some point,” Mokwe says. “My surname – which is powerful – was talking.”
The fame of the Mokwe dynasty dates back nearly a century. George Mokwe, Bonaventure’s father, had attained wealth through commerce – as was the pattern of many Igbos. The wealth took the family name to distant clans, and brought on substantial weight and honor.
Mokwe was sent to Canada to study, partly a process of preparing him to become a man of his own legacy or at least, one capable of progressing the legacy of his father.
He became both, capable of laying his own tracks without abandoning the values of his father. “I am not fighting to get money from the police,” he tells me. “I am fighting to exonerate the name of Mokwe. I inherited a clean family name and I want to pass that on to my children.”
Mokwe’s value for reputation has always been about the imprint for his clan. Other families often earn their name tag according to the virtues they portray: “the honest family of Okonkwo” , “the hardworking family of Okechukwu”, et al.
Inside the Awkuzu SARS holding, frequent gunshots rang out from time to time to disrupt Mokwe’s thoughts. Meanwhile, he also couldn’t accustom his mind’s eyes to the frequent corpses that littered the cells.
His nights were full of flashbacks. Sometimes, it was the unsteady steps of inmates, when their names were called by midnight, fully aware that death was at hand. Sometimes it was the echo of their pleas and prayers.
In Mokwe’s 25-page addendum, which looks in part like a diary of horror, he describes Awkuzu SARS as “hell.”
Some of those memories are still so clear. One day, a young teenage boy of about 17 was brought to the condemned people’s cell, Mokwe remembers. Mokwe took interest in this boy due to his age and innocent demeanor. The boy also leaned towards Mokwe for care and comfort.
One night, an officer tapped on their cell door and called a young boy’s name. This boy was so terrified, he could not muster a response. The officer’s ‘weird’ torch flashed across his face. The boy crawled behind ‘uncle’ Mokwe and coiled into his arms, crying, pleading. Mokwe watched as they took him away, alongside some others. Gunshots were heard minutes later. There were cries. And then, silence.
“It was the worst moment of my stay in Awkuzu,” Mokwe confessed. “If I had my way, I would have killed James (Nwafor) that night and owned up to it. James is a contract killer. Every other day or two, you would see the dead body of a young man at the back of the torture hall.”
Mokwe explains that Awkuzu SARS conducted their killings by outright shooting, strangulation or starvation.
According to Mokwe, the 17-year-old boy who was killed had been nursing the death of his father when his uncle began discussing the takeover of his father’s estate and land. The boy had tried to communicate his displeasure towards the entire plan. He had wanted his father’s wealth to be under the custody of his mother, who had no other child.
But his resistance irritated his ‘big man’ uncle, who reportedly made a deal with Nwafor to “eliminate” him. Nwafor and the boy’s uncle allegedly created a crime in his (the boy’s) name, in which he was labeled a kidnapper. Satisfied with the story, the police tracked and arrested the teenager, while in school. And, when it pleased Nwafor to end his life, he did so without repentance.
Meanwhile, after a long spell in the cell for Mokwe, the police had struggled to create a complainant, without which a court process wouldn’t commence.
Mokwe was later charged with murder, and remanded in prison alongside Justine Nwankwo, the manager of Upper Class hotel at the time of the case.
Mokwe has a broad chest, sharp wit, short temper and a certain disarming frankness when he speaks. He carries his self-worth and pride, cracking jokes and laughing loudly when pleased.
While in prison, Mokwe began to adjust, taking in the nature of the environment as a study. He dropped his “big man” aura and became humble to blend in with the so-called common “criminals”. Many of the inmates were members of the separatist group MASSOB (Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra).
One evening, Mokwe says he sat down and engaged some members of MASSOB in conversation. They shared their stories and also listened to his own account.
Mokwe mentioned to the MASSOB members that he had been framed for the murder of Nnaelue Okafor, an offence for which he was being locked up with Justine Nwankwo.
But some of the MASSOB members informed him that Mr. Nnaelue Okafor apparently wasn’t dead.
Actually, he was a widely known member of MASSOB, arrested by the police and held in custody.
The police had casually inserted Okafor’s name in their case as the man allegedly murdered by Mokwe and Nwankwo.
It took three days for the MASSOB inmates to return to Mokwe with the truth. They faithfully described Nnaelue Okafor, his address, town, nickname and background.
Mokwe sent these details to a journalist, a member of the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), and his team, to investigate the state of Okafor. He now had all the details to challenge his detention, including sworn affidavits from Okafor’s family, photographs, recordings and press clips.
Mokwe returned to the police fortified with fresh evidence by the end of 2013, after spending 14 days in prison.
The Department of Public Prosecution in Anambra State threw out the case made by Awkuzu SARS for lack of merit. Mokwe was freed.
It was that freedom, which should have marked the end of that case, that started a fresh chapter of legal battle. “I do not forgive,” Mokwe says. “I hate those who hate me. I am nice to those who like me.”
Mokwe has so far obtained court injunctions preventing the police from further harassing his workers or invading his properties.
But he wants more, including a public apology from the government of Anambra State, and a letter indicating that the “demolition of his hotel was in error”, as well as compensation for the demolished hotel.