How UK police busted Nigerian senator’s organ harvesting plot at the last minute: ‘It was like a movie’
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 on to 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.
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 the 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.
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 the 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.
“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.