A senior Nigerian politician has been sentenced to nine years and eight months in prison in the UK for being the “driving force” in a plot to harvest a kidney for his sick daughter from a young man he had trafficked to London.
Ike Ekweremadu, 60, a former deputy president of the Nigerian senate, his wife, Beatrice, 56, and Dr Obinna Obeta, 51, were found guilty by an Old Bailey jury in March in the first organ trafficking conviction under the Modern Slavery Act.
They were found to have conspired to bring a 21-year-old Lagos street trader to a private renal unit at London’s Royal Free hospital as a potential kidney donor for Ekweremadu’s daughter Sonia.
In his sentencing remarks on Friday, Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson, said all three conspirators played a part in a “despicable trade”. He said: “The harvesting of human organs is a form of slavery. It treats human beings and their bodies as commodities to be bought and sold.”
Mr Justice Johnson pointed out that Ike Ekweremadu had been part of the Nigerian senate when it outlawed organ trafficking.
Addressing Ekweremadu the judge said: “You played a leading role in the offending. You did so in order to secure the material advantage, namely a human kidney for your daughter. I am sure that you were the driving force throughout.” He added: “Your conviction represents a very substantial fall from grace.”
In reference to the bribing of a medical secretary at the Royal Free, the judge said: “You were involved in the corruption of a member of hospital staff.” The judge said Ekweremadu must serve two-thirds of his sentence in prison and the remainder released under licence.
Nigeria’s senate and the Economic Community of West African States had urged the judge to show clemency to Ekweremadu, a political ally of the former president Goodluck Jonathan.
Beatrice Ekweremadu was sentenced to four years and six months, with half spent in custody. Obeta, who helped organise the organ harvesting plot after himself receiving a kidney transplant at the Royal Free in July 2021 from another man allegedly trafficked from Nigeria, was sentenced to 10 years, two-thirds of which must be served in prison.
The attempted transplant by the Ekweremadus was rejected by the hospital in March 2022. The plot was discovered when the male victim, referred to as C in the court, went to the police in May in fear of his life because he believed he was being lined up by Obeta for another transplant in Nigeria.
C cannot be named because the identity of victims of modern slavery is protected. In a victim’s statement read to the court he said he remained fearful of reprisals against him and his family, and was worried that his father had been approached to drop the case. He said: “I can’t think about going home to Nigeria. These people are extremely powerful and I’m worried for my safety.”
He also refused legal compensation from the defendants because he said “receiving anything from the bad people would be cursed”, the court heard.
The prosecutor Hugh Davies KC said: “Kidney donation for reward is a substantial, internationally prohibited commercial industry that exploits economically vulnerable individuals.”
He told the sentencing hearing that Ike Ekweremadu “played a significant role in the 2014 legislation that prohibited the very activity he then engaged in. This legislation was specifically directed at protecting economically vulnerable people in Nigeria, from exploitation by those such as him with power and wealth.”
Davies added: “He was an active and essential part of this conspiracy. He knew and approved a high degree of economic and physical control that was used against [the victim] throughout … He was totally indifferent to aftercare for [the victim].”
DI Esther Richardson, from the Metropolitan police’s modern slavery team, said: “He showed tremendous courage to come forward to give evidence against powerful people. He is innocent and naive. Having never been on a flight, he was petrified the plane would fall from the sky. When he fled Obeta’s flat, he slept on the streets fearing that snakes might bite him.”
The victim is being supported by Justice and Care, a charity that campaigns for the victims of modern slavery.
Richardson said the sentences should send a signal that powerful people are not above the law.
She said: “Our victim was treated as a commodity and this was a transactional process just like any drugs or firearms deal. Had this been successful, the victim would have had long-term medical implications and may even have had the requirement for dialysis.
“The welfare and wellbeing of the victim was of little consequence to Sonia getting a kidney. The sentences send a message globally that no matter your power and entitlements, you are not above the law and that we listen to victims and safeguard them.”
Det Supt Andy Furphy, who heads the Met’s modern slavery team, told a media briefing that the convictions were his “proudest moment in 25 years of policing”.
The prosecution’s case was built around WhatsApp messages between Obeta and the Ekweremadu family, including one that mentioned an illegal “donor fee”.
DS Andy Owen said the case would have been “much more difficult” if the accused had deleted their WhatsApp messages. He said: “It was irrefutable evidence. It was really hard for them to argue against those messages. Could we have done it without them? I like to say yes.”