The 21-year-old victim was plucked from the streets of Lagos and promised a better life – but the reality was much different, as Thomas Kingsley reports
A Nigerian senator, a poor street trader and an £80,000 cross-continental plot to harvest organs – it “sounds like something out of a movie” – but for the 21-year-old victim, the ordeal was a very real nightmare that could have ended horribly.
Ike Ekweremadu, his wife Beatrice and medical “middleman” Dr Obinna Obeta were in March found guilty of conspiring to bring the young man to Britain to give his kidney to the politician’s sick daughter Sonia.
It was the first verdict of its kind under the Modern Slavery Act but when Detective Sergeant Andy Owen briefed his team on the details of the landmark investigation months earlier in June 2022, he expected it to go on for years.
Just hours later, his team boarded a plane, minutes after it touched down at Heathrow Airport, to arrest the pair after they arrived in the UK from medical tourism hotspot Turkey.
“We never thought the Ekweremadus would return to the UK,” Mr Owen said. “I received information that they were arriving in Heathrow Airport so I scrambled my team there and we were directed onto the runway and to the steps of the plane which was being held.
“Specialist officers embarked on the plane where they were both arrested. They had approximately £30,000 cash in dollars and naira,” Mr Owen, the Met’s Modern Slavery and Child Exploitation Lead said.
“It sounds like something out of a fiction book or a movie,” he added.
The swoop on the pair came a month after the 21-year-old street seller, from Lagos, had made a desperate plea for help to officers at Staines Police station. Having fled the London home of Obeta, 51, who was working with the Ekweremadus to secure the victim’s organs, he initially told police he was 15 years old so they would help him.
After his escape and before seeking help, he slept rough for three days in a country he didn’t know, able to speak little to no English. Before he was brought to the UK by the couple, he had never even seen a plane – officers said he believed the aircraft “would fall from the sky”, he was so petrified. It was a far cry from Lagos where he had spent his days selling mobile phone accessories from a wheelbarrow making as little as 50p a day as the main provider in a large family.
Ike Ekweremadu was the head a powerful family with national status
It was from those streets that the Ekweremadus approached him with a promise of work and a better life. Instead, he trafficked all over Nigeria for tests before being brought to the UK where he eventually found out the promise of a new life was actually a plot to have his kidney given to a stranger. He did not even touch his own passport.
When he arrived in London, the victim was housed with Obeta and spent his days going to and from Royal Free Hospital in north London where tests and interviews were conducted ahead of the prospective kidney transplant.
Obeta and Ike Ekweremadu paid an Igbo interpreter £1,500 to trick doctors into agreeing to perform the £80,000 surgery with a plan to give the kidney to Sonia Ekweremadu – the daughter of the politician who suffers from a rare kidney disease, FSGS Nephrotic Syndrome, and requires dialysis four times a week.
Sonia Ekweremadu posing with the trafficked victim who was almost her organ donor
However, despite their efforts, doctors deemed the victim to be unsuitable for the procedure after they learned he had undergone no counselling or received any advice about the risks of the surgery.
After returning to Obeta’s home the victim said some men came to examine him and pressed his stomach before he overheard a conversation appearing to suggest he would be sent back to Nigeria for the procedure to be done there.
Terrified, he fled and sought help from the police. He spent eight hours detailing what happened to him in interviews and, with help from the Home Office, it was revealed that the medical visa, on which he had travelled to the country, was sponsored by none other than wealthy Nigerian politician Ike Ekweremadu, 60.
The powerful senator was the head of a family with national status and one that was held in high esteem. Ironically, he played a key role in a 2014 law change prohibiting the very act for which he has now been convicted.
Nigerian politician Ike Ekweremadu is extremely wealthy owning several properties and had a staff of 80 people
“Ike Ekweremadu used middlemen to distance himself from this crime and to apportion blame on others,” detective inspector Esther Richardson said.
“Our victim was a commodity,” she added. “And this was a transactional process, just like any drugs or firearms deal. This type of crime is facilitated by organised criminal networks. Their motivation was always financial.”
Desperate to find a solution for Sonia’s deteriorating health, her parents had sought to arrange a transplant for her. But their crimes almost landed the Coventry University graduate behind bars as officers “made the difficult decision” to arrest her at her north-west London home on the same day her parents were detained.
Next, detectives secured a warrant to search Obeta’s home on 12 July 2022 where they found a copy of the victim’s birth certificate, and a high court affidavit falsely stating the victim and Sonia were biological cousins.
There was also “significant material evidence” pointing to trafficking and exploitation of the victim, including messages about recruitment, travel within Nigeria, testing, and the application for passport and visa documents. Crucially, they also found the £8,000 Obeta charged Ekweremadu as an “agent’s fee” for helping to facilitate the transplant in London and a “donor fee” for the victim.
Sonia Ekweremadu, 25, was cleared of any wrongdoing by the jury
The trio all denied charges against them.
At trial, Ike Ekweremadus’ lawyer’s tried to convince the jury that the politician acted “altruistically” – and that his kidney donation was a selfless act. But the prosecution rejected those claims and argued that the Ekweremadus and Obeta treated the victim as “disposable assets – spare parts for reward”.
Beatrice Ekweremadu, 56, however, who worked at the Nigerian auditor general’s office and has a PhD in accountancy, tried to shield herself from the charges. She claimed her husband took care of the household finances and denied being involved in the donor search.
Hugh Davies KC, prosecuting, said the Ekweremadus entered an “emotionally cold commercial transaction” with the man. He said evidence showed Ike Ekweremadu had called on his medically trained brother Diwe in the autumn of 2021, who made contact with his former classmate Obeta, who previously had a private kidney transplant at the Royal Free with a Nigerian doctor.
Dr Obeta then engaged with Dr Chris Agbo, of Vintage Health Group, a medical tourism company, as well as an agent to arrange a visa for the donor.
All three were convicted and sentenced for their part in the plot at a hearing on Friday. Ike Ekweremadu was jailed for 10 years and 8 months, while his wife was sentenced to 4 years and six months. Obeta wept as he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
A jury cleared Sonia of any wrongdoing and despite her parents’ crimes, she is still in search of a kidney.
In September 2022, while her parents were still in custody, the 25-year-old took to social media pleading for a donor to come forward to save her.
She wrote on her Instagram: “I, Sonia Ekweremadu, hereby appeal to the general public to come to my aid and save my life.
“I dropped out of my post-graduate studies at the University of Newcastle in 2019 when I was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease, FSGS Nephrotic Syndrome.
Beatrice Ekweremadu denied any knowledge of the plot
“The last three years have been extremely challenging. The charges being faced by my parents in London presently, are directly connected to my illness and have [been a] complicated matter for me and my family.”
In the appeal, Sonia said she was confident that the truth would prevail but her parents were found guilty of conspiracy to traffic a human to harvest their organs months later.
The victim is now being safeguarded in the UK but it is not yet clear if he will be able to remain here permanently.
Chief crown prosecutor, Joanne Jakymec, described the case as a “horrific plot to exploit a vulnerable victim” by trafficking him to the UK for the purpose of transplanting his kidney.
“The convicted defendants showed utter disregard for the victim’s welfare, health and wellbeing and used their considerable influence to a high degree of control throughout, with the victim having limited understanding of what was really going on here,” she said.
DI Esther Richardson, from the Metropolitan police’s modern slavery and exploitation command, said: “This is a landmark conviction and we commend the victim for his bravery in speaking against these offenders.”