An elite crime-busting police squad has come under fire from human rights organisations for its treatment of the family, and takeover of multi-billion naira properties of a suspected kidnapper who was killed by the police a year ago.
The Intelligence Response Team is now scrambling to extricate itself after being accused in separate petitions by the Nigeria Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International of gross human rights abuses and illegal expropriation of suspected proceeds of crime.
The NHRC said in an October 2018 petition to then-Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris that the the IRT, led by Abba Kyari, a deputy police commissioner, had been illegally depleting the asset of Collins Ezenwa, a suspected kidnapper who was gunned down in January 2018.
Mr Kyari denied the allegations, warning PREMIUM TIMES not to publish the complaints because Mr Ezenwa was a notorious kidnapper who had committed untold atrocities before he was killed.
The police in Imo State accused Mr Ezenwa, a former police corporal, of leading a syndicate of deadly abductors. He was killed during an exchange of gunfire along Enugu-Owerri Expressway.
Mr Ezenwa was riding in a vehicle with two of his cousins when he was killed, and the police accused the trio of being kidnappers and circulated gory images of their brutal killings on the Internet.
The NHRC disputed the account of the police on how Mr Ezenwa was killed in its petition to Mr Idris, who left office last week, but the country’s rights institution acknowledged Mr Ezenwa’s wealth was inexplicable and mind-boggling.
It was unclear how Mr Ezenwa hit his fortune. He resigned from the police as a corporal on N47,000 a month salary in November 2017, and travelled to Malaysia for only a month. But soon as he returned from Malaysia, he embarked on a spending spree, purchasing houses and businesses in nine figures.
There are other accounts that said Mr Ezenwa had been travelling to Malaysia since at least 2014, but kept the trips away from his wife and family members, and continued to work as a police corporal. He joined the police in 2009, and was 31 at the time he was killed on January 27, 2018.
The suggestion that Mr Ezenwa had been travelling to Malaysia since 2014 could mean that he had been doing suspicious businesses even while in the police. He resigned from the force on November 17, 2017, long after he had become popular across the Southeast as a stupendously wealthy young man nicknamed ‘E-Money!’
One NHRC official told PREMIUM TIMES that due to his “obscene” lavishness, Mr Ezenwa was advised by senior police officers, many of whom he had been allegedly generous to, to formally resign from the police rather than being declared absent-without-leave.
A video uploaded on YouTube in June 2016 depicted Mr Ezenwa in primitive spraying of the national currency. This appeared to show that the deceased had other sources of income far bigger than his salaries and allowances as a non-commissioned police officer.
In 2017, the police detailed two officers to provide security for Mr Ezenwa on expensive subscription basis, according to his family and rights experts investigating the circumstances preceding his death.
A hotel linked to Mr Ezenwa in Enugu was estimated at N220,000,000. He also had two duplexes and eight blocks of flats worth a combined N180 million, according to the NHRC petition. These were the properties that were identified as of the time the petition was sent to Mr Idris on October 23, 2018, and they did not include a fleet of exotic vehicles that Mr Ezenwa owned.
Nosa Uhumwangho, a police prosecutor working on the matter, told PREMIUM TIMES Sunday night other properties linked to Mr Ezenwa have also been identified in Imo and Abia States, estimating his worth in billions.
In a follow-on petition which Amnesty International separately sent to Mr Idris days before his retirement on January 15, the rights group accused Mr Kyari and his team of victimising Gift Ezenwa, the deceased’s widow, and other members of the family, while also depleting the properties he left behind without any court order whatsoever.
Mr Idris did not act on the petition before his retirement.
Sharing the spoils
Both NHRC and Amnesty International told PREMIUM TIMES Mr Ezenwa was killed by the police special anti-robbery squad in Imo State, and Mr Kyari’s IRT only took over the matter in a desperate plot to take over his properties.
The IRT has earned special recognition for its ability to track and apprehend high-profile crime suspects. The June 2017 arrest of Chukwudimeme ‘Evans’ Onwuamadike marked perhaps the highest point for Mr Kyari and his team. In April 2018, he was promoted as a deputy police commissioner from an assistant police commissioner only a few months before.
But Mr Kyari’s interest in Mr Ezenwa’s matter after he had already been killed has “greatly unsettled” the two rights groups working to curtail the “excesses” of the police in the matter, one activist said.
Damian Ugwu, a researcher with Amnesty International who worked on the case, told PREMIUM TIMES IRT personnel started aiming for Mr Ezenwa’s properties immediately after they took over the case from the Imo State police command.
The IRT was set up by the inspector-general, and it has a vast jurisdiction on police activities across the country. Personnel attached to the squad are allowed to make arrests in any state in the country without recourse to the sitting state police commissioner.
“Because of their unlimited powers in the police, they dubiously took over the case from Imo State command and started identifying possible assets of Mr Ezenwa shortly after he was killed,” Mr Ugwu said. “They threw his wife and infant son out of some of his properties, including his hotel, and started collecting rents from them.”
“More than a year later, they have not approached any court for an order to confiscate the properties,” Mr Ugwu said. “Our findings showed that they were just collecting rents and putting the money in private accounts for their own use.”
Mrs Ezenwa was four months pregnant when her husband was killed. She gave birth on June 17 to a male child. She was arrested less than two months later on August 11 and taken to Lagos by Mr Kyari’s team, where she was detained for two weeks, she told PREMIUM TIMES. She spent two nights in a police custody in Enugu before being moved to Lagos, she said.
Ms Ezenwa said Mr Kyari ordered her release without charges on the grounds that she would bring all the original titles of the properties to them, a demand she found suspicious.
But even without giving the documents to Mr Kyari, the police chief ordered all identified properties confiscated.
De-Inglish Hotels and Resort in Enugu, estimated at N220 million, was taken over by the IRT, which had been receiving proceeds of lodging and other services to private bank accounts. Eight blocks of flats on 21, Edinburgh Road, New Layout, Enugu, which was also linked to Mr Ezenwa, is now being managed by the police squad.
PREMIUM TIMES obtained two bank accounts which the NHRC said earnings from the hotel and flats are being paid into. Tochukwu Okeke and Ozougwu Stanislaus were the names on two Zenith Bank accounts.
Both NHRC and Amnesty International have warned the police to cease further victimisation of Ms Ezenwa and demanded immediate return of her late husband’s properties to her until there is a court pronouncement on the matter.
“No one really knows how Mr Ezenwa made his money,” Mr Ugwu said. “But for a police team that has long portrayed itself being devoid of criminality to expropriate the properties he left behind without any court order is unfortunate.”
Mr Ugwu said several family members and associates of Mr Ezenwa were also arrested and victimised, triggering a slew of fundamental rights suit at various jurisdictions in the Southeast.
“All the cases about the matter in different courts have to do with police abuses and people begging the courts to save them from police harassment and confiscation of their properties without any evidence they were fully or partially-owned by Mr Ezenwa,” Mr Ugwu said. “But there is no single case that was instituted by the police for the confiscation of any of Mr Ezenwa’s properties or those of others that the police have taken over illegally.”
A vicious pushback
Mrs Ezenwa said all her bank accounts were frozen, leaving her in penury with her six-month-old baby. She accused the police of seizing the only N50,000 she had on her when she was picked up in August 2017 and put through a harrowing experience with her infant in an unkempt detention facility.
The Ezenwas’ case is one of scores of alleged human rights violations brought to the NHRC against the police and other security agencies by residents of the Southeast and South-South. A panel which NHRC constituted to hear the allegations began sitting last week in Abuja, and the Ezenwas may come up today, according to officials familiar with the schedules.
Mr Kyari, however, denied victimising Mrs Ezenwa and her child or seizing their properties without due process.
After stridently warning against any publication relating to the matter, the police officer later said he had the powers to confiscate the properties without a court order under Armed Robbery and Firearms Act, a process of government enrichment which rights advocates criticised as indistinguishable from robbery.
“He was a kidnapper as big as ‘Evans’,” Mr Kyari said by telephone Sunday evening. “We have been working to track other members of his syndicate since he was killed and we were called to take over the case.”
But there are no provisions granting the police the power to confiscate properties without recourse to the courts, either under the Armed Robbery and Firearms Act or any other Nigerian law, according to Abdul Mahmud, convener of the Public Interest Lawyers League (PILL).
“Section 42 of the Nigerian Constitution says only the court can deprive a citizen of a disputed property,” Mr Mahmud said. “The Armed Robbery and Firearms Act was inherited from the military era, even then, it cannot supersede the Nigerian Constitution.”
Mr Mahmud said the practice is very common in the Southeastern part of the country.
“It is either they accuse you of being an armed robber or a kidnapper,” Mr Mahmud said.
“The end is always that they take over people’s properties even when they have not proven that they were proceeds of criminal activities.”
The accused police commander, Mr Kyari, threatened to press defamation charges or “anything else” to clear his name if this story is published, saying it took him years to build a public image of a smart and hardworking officer. He has built a large social media following for some of his team’s exploits, which are often widely publicised by himself and the police media department.
Mr Ugwu, however, said the Ezenwas’ case was mild in comparison to other gross violations of citizens’ rights linked to Mr Kyari and other members of his squad. The police chief denied allegations of serial abuses and corruption.
Mr Kyari said Mrs Ezenwa was arrested and detained for weeks because she was a suspect in the alleged crimes of her late husband, and was granted tentative bail without charges as a nursing mother.
He was, however, unable to explain why his team could not secure a court order for forfeiture a year after Mr Ezenwa was killed. He also did not comment when PREMIUM TIMES sent him the two bank accounts where the earnings from the hotel and flats were going into and sought explanation for why incomes on properties said to have been taken over by the police were going into private hands.
Mr Kyari initially said his team had approached federal courts to seek forfeiture of Mr Ezenwa’s assets, and cited Mr Uhumwangho as the police lawyer handling the cases.
But although Mr Uhumwangho, an assistant superintendent of police, said he had filed for forfeiture of the asset at a federal court, he admitted first hearing would come until January 28, next week. He was unable to explain why it took the police so long to seek forfeiture of the property of a man they killed and labelled as a notorious kidnapper.
Although Mr Uhumwangho promised a response to our Sunday evening enquiries on the private bank accounts in which incomes from the properties are being deposited, he had not done so as of 4:09 p.m. Monday.
By Samuel Ogundipe, Premium Times