At the root of Injustice in Nigeria is a culture of corruption and rent-seeking combined with a political elite out of touch with the daily struggles of the average Nigerian. The overlap between political and economic power bends the allocation of opportunities, income, and wealth to vested interests, and biases policy-making in favor of the rich.
Almost every historical account of injustice is accompanied by some form of rebellion. Riots may appear unproductive and unethical, but what else can Citizens do when every avenue to justice has been blocked by an obstinate establishment? The Owerri riots of September 1996, also known as the Otokoto riots was one example of a rebellion against the system. A riot is a complex and deeply rooted form of civil unrest resulting from numerous factors. In other words, a riot is often symptomatic of a larger, underlying problem, not the problem itself.
In September 1996, an 11-year old Groundnut hawker named Okoronkwo was lured into a hotel in Owerri and beheaded. Okoronkwo was hawking his wares outside the hotel called Otokoto when he was invited in and offered a drink. He was given a spiked bottle of Coca-Cola and later decapitated.
After he was beheaded, the culprits removed many other organs including his genitals before disposing the corpse in a shallow grave. Later that day, 32-year-old Innocent Ekeanyanwu, who beheaded Okoronko left the hotel to deliver the head to a ‘client’ in a polythene bag. Innocent’s client was reported to have been a local chieftain, Chief Leonard Unaogu. Chief Unaogu was the brother of Dr. Laz Unaogu, a serving minister in the General Sani Abacha Federal Executive Council. Ekeanyawu was discovered when the okada rider whom he paid for a ride discovered the severed head and alerted the police.
A popular photograph showing Ekeanyanwu holding the victim’s head was later released to the media, sparking the anger of Owerri residents and the infamous Otokoto Riot after the image was broadcast. During the riots, Otokoto hotel which belonged to Chief Vincent Duru was razed along with his home.
Duru was later arrested by the police in connection to the killings after the police discovered shallow graves containing Okoronkwo’s remains and other dismembered corpses at the hotel. Earning him the nickname ‘Chief Otokoto’ during the lengthy trial that followed his arrest.
Three days after his arrest, the prime suspect Innocent Ekeanyanwu was found dead in police custody. He was suspected to have been poisoned but no autopsy was carried out and the police released a statement denying foul play. Before he was killed, Ekeanyanwu mentioned Leonard Unaogu as the brain behind a ritual killing syndicate that specialized in the harvesting of human body parts.
In 2002 an Owerri high court sentenced three disgraced police officers to death by hanging for their roles in the death of Innocent, who was supposed to be the principal witness in the case.
While riots may not directly or immediately produce social change, they have the power to initiate much-needed conversations around societal problems. To understand rioting, we must look past the resulting violence and destruction and address the oppression that drives so many to take action. Collective action is a life-changing experience. To be in a sea of people demanding positive social change is empowering and exhilarating. Protests work because they sustain movements over the long term as participants bond during collective action.
Last modified: June 25, 2021