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How Amnesty International turns blind eye to human rights abuses in Nigeria, bullies staff 

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Following a report published by West Africa Weekly about the secret alliance between Amnesty International Nigeria (AIN) and the Department of State Services (DSS), The ICIR digs deeper, reaching out to the current and old staff of the AIN, board of directors, activists, security agents, lawyers and victims of human rights violations in Nigeria.

Report by Ajibola AMZAT, Managing Editor;  Gbenga ADANIKIN  Head of Investigation and Lukman   ABOLADE, Investigative Reporter.

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A CIVIL servant, Desmond Nunugwo, 50, was arrested by EFCC operatives on June 9, 2016, over a fraudulent business transaction allegation. The following day, the man died.

The deceased’s wife, Susan Nunugwo, said her husband was neither ill nor diagnosed with sickness before the EFCC took him away.

She then visited Amnesty International Nigeria, AIN, seeking help to get justice for her late husband.

The AIN interim Country Director, Makmid Kamara, a Sierra Leonean, instructed the staff to design a campaign plan since the Nigerian authorities had ignored calls to investigate Nunugwo’s death.

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A renowned pathologist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital was contacted, and he agreed to carry out an autopsy on the body.

Nunugwo’s family was happy with AIN’s plan and looking forward to getting justice.

Then a change of guard at Amnesty Nigeria brought Osai Ojigho as the new Country Director. And that was when things began to fall apart.

“Osai started playing games with the family, giving them excuses and stopped them from seeing her on several occasions. One day, she calmly advised Desmond’s widow to go home and bury her husband,” a former staff of AIN who knew about the case told The ICIR.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in its decision dated November 10,  2019, also confirmed Amnesty’s curious withdrawal from the case.

Six years down the line, the family is yet to find closure to the mystery of Desmond’s death.

In May 2018, a human rights lawyer and activist, Frank Tietie, wrote a dispiriting letter to Kamara, who had returned to work at Amnesty International Secretariat in London as Deputy Director Global Issues and Head of ESCR Team.

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In the letter, Tietie, Executive Director, Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights, expressed disappointment at the state of human rights observation and enforcement in Nigeria and blamed Ojigho’s management style at AIN.

“It is more worrisome to me that the Director of Amnesty International, Nigeria, Osai Ojigho is more eager to find justifications for neither responding nor interfering in the grave but trending human rights issues of serious national concern, in Nigeria, on the grounds that such issues are outside the set thematic areas of Amnesty International for 2018,” he wrote.

Agnès Callamard
Dr. Agnès Callamard, Secretary General at Amnesty International

One of such cases Tietie complained about was that of married women sacked by GLOBACOM, a Nigerian telecom company. The women were fired because they were married and no longer looked “sexy” to be effective marketers. Globacom refuted the claim though.

Etitie believed such a decision by a corporate organisation is a gender-based human rights violation against the provision of Article 11 of CEDAW. The law forbids discrimination against women in the field of employment.

He wanted AIN to make a strong statement against such discrimination, but Ojigho was uninterested.

“She literally snapped at me saying Amnesty International had its set issues already for the year and did not include issues of such,” Tietie wrote in the mail.


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An attempt for a meeting to explain why Amnesty should be interested in the case was rebuffed. Tietie said the incident rocked his relationship with Amnesty Nigeria.

Tietie, told The ICIR that in the last five years the situation between Ojigho and himself has greatly improved “with a lot of highly positive understanding” since the incident.

Another human rights lawyer who severed a relationship with Amnesty Nigeria is Justus Ijeoma.

The lawyer reported to the AIN the case of Gift Oyinyechi, the widow of Collins Ezenwa. The latter was killed on the kidnapping allegation by the Intelligence Response Team, IRT, led by the disgraced police officer, Abba Kyari.

After Ezenwa’s death, Kyari and his team allegedly seized the deceased’s properties and began to deplete them after warning the wife to stay away.

The lawyer, Ijeoma, reported the case to National Human Right Commission and Amnesty, Nigeria.

“For two weeks, the widow was detained in Lagos, despite losing her husband. We reached out to Amnesty, and they promised to help. They asked the widow to come to their office in Abuja, and after the engagement, they promised to get back to us, they never did.   We presented our case at the panel raised by Vice President Osinbajo, but Amnesty backed out without explanation.,” he told The ICIR during a phone conversation.

In a similar pattern, Ojigho allegedly turned a blind eye several times to the gross violation of human rights in northeast Nigeria.

In his letter of resignation, Malik Samuel, an AIN conflict researcher, noted that Amnesty International, despite all available information, kept silent as the Nigerian military forcibly displaced an entire Borno town of about 10,000 civilians on suspicion of aiding and abetting Boko Haram.

A screenshot of Malik’s letter.

And when the military shut down Daily Trust newspaper’s offices in Abuja and Maiduguri a month to the presidential election in 2019 and arrested workers, Ojigho ignored the call of her staff members who advised that Amnesty should make a public statement.

“We did not respond and only tweeted after the siege had ended, even though we had all the information about one hour after the attack started,” Malik wrote in his goodbye letter, which was shared with other staff.

Also, when Amnesty Nigeria documented the Rann attack of January 27, 2019, by Boko Haram that left about 60 civilians dead, Ojigho allegedly removed a significant part of the report that questioned the role of the military even though the evidence of negligence has been established and carefully verified by LawPol, a department of the Amnesty International in London that vets report before publication.

Those familiar with Amnesty’s dithering, self-censorship and apparent aloofness have begun to wonder about what could have gone wrong.

“This is not Amnesty International that we used to know,” said Ijeoma, the Executive Director, International Human Rights and Equity Defense Foundation (I-REF).

Amnesty International: A hypocritical global force for good?

Amnesty International describes itself as a global movement that takes injustice personally.

“We are campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all,” Amnesty International declares on its website.

The organisation started in 1961 when two Portuguese students were jailed just for raising a toast to freedom. A British lawyer Peter Benenson was outraged and wrote an article that launched a global campaign and built solidarity for justice and freedom.

More than 60 years after, the movement has spread to 70 countries, including those in Africa.

Amnesty International markets manifesto for a better world, but happenings in its Nigeria office contradicts the values it publicly espouses.

Information obtained from Amnesty’s staff and human rights community in Nigeria show that AIN frequently dismisses and drops cases of human rights violations, bullies staff who hold the organisation accountable to its own principles, runs a poorly transparent accounting system and betrays hopes of victims of injustice who look up to it.

The situation in Amnesty International Nigeria is disappointing, “especially for those of us dealing with the Amnesty International before the Nigerian office was set up, said Ijeoma.

“We know the amount of effort we put in before Amnesty Nigeria was set up in Nigeria. We think it is going to help the human rights community in Nigeria. Now the organisation has derailed. Amnesty has become a dog that barks without biting.”

A journalist, Peter Nkanga who anchored one of BBC’s documentary holds a similar view about AIN.

In 2019, the journalist and activist wrote a letter to the Amnesty International Secretariat in London, complaining about how Ojigho-led Amnesty ignored calls to help a dying journalist, Olomofe, who was attacked by suspected smugglers aided by the Nigerian Custom officers.

Senior ranking Customs officers had invited Olomofe to their offices at Seme to discuss allegations that customs officers were complicit in corruption and smuggling activities at the border. In the presence of Custom personnel, over a dozen men beat Olomofe into a coma, and he later became bed-ridden and has been in the death throes since then.

Nkanga reported the matter to Amnesty, but nothing was done.

In another instance, he recounted how Amnesty Nigeria jumped ship at the last hour from the peaceful protests planned with the Coalition of Nigerian Media and Civil Society Groups. The procession was scheduled to hold at the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Abuja over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“With no explanations given till date, AI-Nigeria did not show up for the protest,” Ikanga wrote in the letter copied to the Secretary-General Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo; former Director of People and Organisational Development, Debby Morrell; Senior Director of Global Operations at Amnesty International, Minar Pimple; Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry; and Africa Director, Research and Advocacy, Netsanet Belay.

Rights activists who spoke to The ICIR recall the days when Amnesty International was churning out powerful reports about human rights violations in Nigeria, such as “Welcome to Hellfire,” a September 2014 publication that revealed the experiences of former detainees who have been tortured in police and military custody and the failure of the Nigerian government to prevent such violations or to bring suspected perpetrators to justice.

“Stars on their Shoulders: Blood on their Hands” was also published in June 2015. The report documented how the Nigerian military forces have extrajudicially executed more than 1,200 people; arbitrarily arrested at least 20,000 people, primarily young men and boys; and committed countless acts of torture.

The following year, “You Have Signed Your Death Warrant” was published. The report chronicled the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

All these reports were published before Ojigho became the country director.

“Since Osai took over, what reasonable work has the Amnesty Nigeria done,” asked Ijeoma during a telephone interview with The ICIR.

Before he left in April 2019, Malik also expressed his frustration about the quality of work under Ojigho.

“I find our lack of urgency in responding to human rights abuses, especially in the northeast, in great contrast with the Amnesty International I knew, and this is very frustrating. There have been too several incidents where my research was not used, watered down, or I was told not strategic to speak out.”

Months later, another former staff of AIN, Damian Ugwu, in his testimony recounted how Ojigho nearly revoked the status of prisoners of conscience earlier granted to Omoyele Sowore, Olawale Bakare and Agba Jalingo, who were then in detention.

A screenshot of the public statement by AIN that was almost revoked.

Amnesty Programme Director Seun Bakare, then acting as a country director while Ojigho was on leave, approved the public statement declaring the activists as prisoners of conscience. Osai returned from leave to stop the announcement, though her intervention came a little late. But, she succeeded in preventing AIN from undertaking further campaigns seeking the release of the activists.

Seun Bakare
Seun Bakare

Sowore, in messages sent to this reporter via Facebook messenger, confirmed that Amnesty Nigeria several times had worked against the interest of human rights activists in the country.

“This is very true. They have done lots of harm to human rights causes. One of it was caught in the report. She [Ojigho] stalled all efforts to keep supporting our cause. It was her way of killing our cause,” he said.

 Moles in Amnesty Nigeria

After noticing frequent dithering and half-measured engagement with human rights issues, partners and other stakeholders began to raise questions about the commitment of the Amnesty office to the human rights struggle in Nigeria. Could it be that the Nigerian government has succeeded in cowering the leadership of Amnesty Nigeria after the embarrassment suffered due to the previous reports? Some have started to ask.

“At the partners’ meeting held in October 2020 in Lagos, I asked: ‘Has the Nigerian bug caught up with the Amnesty International. That question has not been answered to date,”  Ijeoma said.

Some of the Amnesty staff who spoke to The ICIR believed there is a mole in the Nigerian office of Amnesty International.

The first person to raise the alarm over the internal security in the Amnesty was Ugwu.

In a memo dated January 29, Ugwu, a researcher for the Amnesty for over a decade, long before the organisation was established in Nigeria, alleged that a senior management member is secretly in touch with the Department of State Services (DSS).

Someone who knew about the meeting between the AIN official and DSS warned Ugwu that the secret police are aware of the itinerary of every staff of AIN, including their travel schedule.

In addition, Ugwu alleged that a staff named Jubril Matins is one of the moles providing information to the secret police. He anchored his claim on the suspicious activities of Martins, a Front Office and Admin Officer employed in 2018.

Before his employment, Martins was seconded to AIN as security guard by Deep Cover Guards Limited, a security outfit owned by a retired General, Abdulkadir Shehu. But the management claimed he was a volunteer even though he was receiving N45,000 per month.

Nearly a year later, AIN gave him a full-time job. One of his colleagues was surprised that a former security officer was allowed to take an administrative position in an account/admin department where he has access to the office laptops, internet and password.

Not long after he became full staff, colleagues began to suspect Martin’s furtive behaviour.

“He was always peeping at the keyhole to the programme’s office and eavesdropping on conversations, especially when Amnesty International (AI) from the International Secretariat are in AI Nigeria’s office for official assignment,” Ugwu stated in a petition he later wrote against him.

A screenshot of Damian’s petition letter

In a letter dated September 10, 2020, Uloma Obike, a Research and Campaigns Assistant at AIN, confirmed the finding of Ugwu. “I agree with Damian and any other colleague that shares the same concern; Jubril has a habit of eavesdropping on the programs staff conversations rather than coming into the office to discuss with us.”

Another staff said the same thing: “On the first occasion, I was in the office when I decided to step out. I opened the door, and Jubril Martins was right in front of me. I dismissed the awkwardness because he immediately walked into the office and said something to Uloma. The second occasion was during my induction days. The programmes Manager had invited me to his office for a meeting. He was taking me through a list of HRE coordinators across the movement. In the middle of our conversation, he received a phone call, and I assumed it was private. I got up and signalled to him that I would return at a later time. As soon as I opened the door, I was startled to see Mr. Martins again, right in front of me. This time, he did not walk into Mr. Bakare’s office. He went straight to the water dispenser. I remember mentioning this to Mr. Bakare when I returned to his office.”

The ICIR interviewed other ex-staff of the Amnesty who confirmed Martins’s penchant for eavesdropping on the discussion of programme staff.

“I am really scared of our security as it appears that he may be spying for someone. Recall that we have experienced several incidents in the office that suggested the presence of a mole in the office. This includes the disappearance of my external drive in early 2019 as well as the loss of the office’s external drive, which contained very sensitive information,” Ugwu told the panel set by Amnesty.

But in his letter of defence, Martins denied all allegations. “I am not and can never be a spy.”

He said there is no way he could have been peeping through the keyhole because he is visually impaired.

“I will only do more harm than good to my eyes I’m managing,” he wrote in his defence letter.

Ugwu also raised concern about the employment of Abba Aminu Jnr,   a graduate of Bayero University, Kano, with a PhD in Strategic Studies from Universiti Utara, Malaysia.

First, his official documents showed Abba Aminu, but his public name on Facebook is Aminu Hayatu, but that is not a problem. The red flag was his Facebook post of March 27 2018, where he thanked the DSS alongside his family and others for supporting him to complete his doctorate programme.

Aminu Hayatu
A screenshop of Aminu’s facebook page. (Credit: West Africa Weekly)
A screenshop of Aminu’s facebook post. (Credit: West Africa Weekly)

 

Scrrenshot of Aminu’s post, thanking DSS.

Second, AIN staff observed that though his work schedule is focused on the conflict in the north, he has a particular interest in IPOB.

Third, his selection was suspicious, considering that he was not subjected to the usual competitive recruitment process stipulated by AIN policy compared to 350 other candidates who applied for the same position.

The ICIR reached out to Aminu to verify the claim and his true identity.

He denied the allegations and the issue of double identity, describing it as blackmail.

“Actually, all those claims about me are false. I chose to ignore the calumny campaign, for it was sponsored by a liar who was desperate to blackmail others and score cheap political goals.”

“I can never be a mole! I never was one,” he said.

The ICIR contacted the spokesperson of the DSS, Peter Afunanya, who responded in a text message describing the allegations as gossip.  

“The DSS does not engage in rumours and gossips.” 

Meeting with Kaduna state official ahead of publication 

The report further indicted Ojigho of meeting with an official of the Kaduna state government Samuel Aruwan ahead of Amnesty International’s publication on freedom of expression in Nigeria. 

Aruwan was said to have visited the Amnesty International office in Abuja to seek the removal of Stephen Kefa’s name from the publication. 

In 2019, Kefa, a journalist and human rights activist, was arrested for sharing an article. 

The ICIR’s check shows that Kefa’s name was not included in Amnesty International’s report later released in October 2019. 

Although Kefa’s situation attracted rights groups and the media attention, it did not make it into Amnesty International’s publication released in October 2019. 

When The ICIR contacted Aruwan over his visit to Amnesty International on the day, he confirmed that it was true. 

He, however, noted that the visit was not to influence or compromise the details of the intended publication by Amnesty International.

He explained that he visits media houses and human rights organisations as Commissioner for Internal Security and Home Affairs, either to disseminate security reports or present the Kaduna State government’s position on human rights violation investigations.

 Bully-in-chief

Amnesty Nigeria is not the only country office notorious for toxic work culture. The practice spreads across Amnesty offices in several regions. In January 2019, KonTerra Group published a Staff Wellbeing Review for Amnesty International following suicide committed by some former staff in 2018.

Gaëtan Mootoo, Researcher for West Africa, died in May 2018, and Rosalind McGregor, an intern in the International Advocacy Programme in Geneva, died in July 2018. The report found that the management of Amnesty International routinely used bullying and public humiliation.

The staff of Amnesty Nigeria, who spoke to The ICIR, confirmed this trend in the local office. They said Ojigho also uses bullying as a way to stay in control. In fact, a former staff member described Osai as a ‘bully –in-chief’.

In a goodbye letter sent by one of the former staff which The ICIR obtained, the letter reads: “After working at AIN, I’m just horrified and disappointed. The way AIN operates does not reflect what AI stands for at all, and that is sad. And the reality is that this is well understood by programs staff, other CSOs and even former interns from the American University Washington – African Justice Initiative (so much so that the African Justice Initiative have effectively ended its internship programme with AIN).”

The American student referred to was Caroline McGroder, who was supposed to spend six months’ internship at AIN Nigeria but left after three weeks citing security reasons.

The ex-staff said Caroline left because she was uncomfortable with the nature of AIN’s relationship with the Nigerian government, which is different in America where she came from.

“Given that relationship, she did not feel secure working at AIN on a tourist visa.”

In another goodbye letter from another former staff, the person mentioned ‘serious bullying’ as her reason for leaving.

“I reported to the IS [International Secretariat], global HR and regional offices. The country director (Mrs Osai Ojigho) and FMO (Ms. Bededicta Ofili) both drove me to a sad state of mind. They made work really difficult and also compromised my security while in the field.”

Benedita Ofili
Benedita Ofili, Finance Officer at AIN

The ex-staff who quit her job in December 2021 said she left not because she had another employment elsewhere but because she could not see an end to the mistreatment of staff at AIN.

Another former staff in the accounting department has this to say in her letter to the London office:

“During my last meeting with Osai before my exit, she asked how I wanted my exit to be, whether I wanted to go quietly or if the staff should be informed that I was leaving because it was shameful and disgraceful. I wondered why she would say such a thing and asked if the auditors found anything wrong with my work. She said no, so I told her to inform staff why I was leaving. She said I could not complain to anybody because she had the backing of Colm and the IS [International Secretariat], and no one would believe me if I complained about my departure. She said Rachael and Makmid employed me wrongly, so I had to leave. The past five months have been really tough, both emotionally and psychologically, and I lost my mum in June. I was only able to see her after leaving Amnesty International.”

Low standard of financial propriety

Some staff members have also raised concerns about untidy financial accounting processes at AIN.

A former account officer had once complained about backdating of checks as a way of claiming unspent funds.

“In January 2018, I was informed by the FOM [Elizabeth] to backdate cheques of all transactions for the month to December 2017. After backdating some and I realised that it was not supposed to be, I told her that it was wrong, and if she insisted on me backdating the cheques, she should send me a memo to that effect. She threatened that if I did not want to lose my job, I should do as she said. I decided to find a way of avoiding that by saying I was busy with some other work, so she decided to do it herself.”

Months later, the staff lost her job because her contract was not renewed even though she got a positive review from colleagues. Employees said Ojigho prefers to give short-term tenured jobs so that she could kick out staff that are not ‘loyal’. Country directors are allowed to exercise such discretion to keep the independence of the regional office. But Osai uses that privilege to weed out staff who disagrees with her, said a former staff whom colleagues described as an asset to AIN. She fell out with Osai for being critical of her leadership style.

Amnesty Denmark saw through the sloppy accounting system of its Nigerian counterpart and raised questions concerning the implementation of a project called the Civil Society in Development[CISU] project.

In a letter dated June 9, 2021, Ojigho’s counterpart in Denmark, Michel Banz, noted that budget lines without approval are cleverly inserted in the project. And some reported spending does not fit with the agreed budget. Banz noted that such sharp practice could affect Amnesty’s reputation.

Here is part of his letter: “During the first phase of the project, we can see that there have been challenges in relation to budgeting and in relation to the financial accounting processes. In some cases, new budget lines have been added without appropriate approval, and also costs have been reported that does not fit with the agreed budget. We are concerned about the accountability and transparency in the financial management and how this will affect Amnesty’s reputation with donors, including CISU.”

Banz made it clear that AI Denmark would not continue with AIN on the project until a solution was found to the challenge.

“We will need to postpone the planned phase 2 application until proper solutions have been found to secure a better workflow, better financial management and accountability, staff well-being, and proper and timely acknowledgement of the needs of the target groups. Finding and agreeing on these solutions will need to be a condition for continuing the partnership. We would like to discuss this further with you, and hopefully, we can continue the work, albeit on a smaller scale to begin with.”

The AIN is headed by a three-member board consisting of the Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Ibrahim Musa (Rafsanjani), the board chairman, Director of Mother Health Foundation, a Reverend, Nnimmo Bassey and a lawyer, Adesina Oke.

Board members
AIN Board members

But where were the board members when the complaints against AIN and the country directors were flying around?

Insipid Board

Former staff said the board members were rather apathetic to happenings in the organisation. “They were good men though, but they were too distant from what happens in Amnesty,” said an ex-staff.

When AI Denmark flagged financial impropriety,  Rafsanjani, in a letter obtained by The ICIR, said there is no evidence to substantiate claims of fraud or financial impropriety. So they did not do anything, the staff said.

The ICIR queried Rafsanjani about the alleged authoritarian regime of Ojigho and his lacklustre leadership as the Board of AIN; he denied it.

First, he dismissed all claims in a report carried by a newsletter, the West Africa Weekly, and specifically faulted the inclusion of Anthony Ojigho, Osai’s debarred husband, from the whole controversy. “What has he got to do with the issue,” he queried.

He also distanced himself from the accusations of engaging in actions capable of undermining cardinal principles of the AIN.

Though he admitted knowing about the running battle between Osai and Ugwu that had lasted for nearly three years, he said all efforts to resolve the crisis failed.

In another breadth, he said the board was kept in the dark because Ugwu did not officially notify top executives of the organisation.

“The organisation has response mechanisms. If you [Ugwu] have any issue with any staff of the organisation, there is an internal mechanism that can handle your complaint; you are not to communicate it to the media or outsiders. But he has decided to go to the media houses…

“Damian [Ugwu] is so arrogant, full of himself and he is out there to destroy the image of the organisation and everybody.”

He said every organisation has a standard. And if Ugwu felt he could not work under Ojigho’s leadership due to whatever standard he holds, he could have resigned, or otherwise, comply with the AIN’s instructions.

The ICIR asked if any claim by Ugwu was true, especially the unfortunate incident that led to the death of two undergraduates of the Federal University, Oye-Ekiti (FUOYE) students, involving Bisi Adeleye- Fayemi, the Ekiti State first lady, and the Amnesty’s refusal to amplify the case.

Ugwu’s letter. (Credit: West Africa Weekly)

The CISLAC boss waived off the question, saying the AIN plans to make an official statement soon.

Bassey did not respond to the text message sent to him, and Oke was unreachable.

The response from Amnesty International Nigeria.
The response from Amnesty International Nigeria.

The ICIR also reached out to Ojigho and the Amnesty Media Manager, Isa Sanusi, but the two of them did not respond to messages.

Also, The ICIR reporters visited Amnesty’s office in Abuja; the receptionist said Ojigho and Sanusi were unavailable.  A few days later, Amnesty Nigeria released a  terse message, which failed to address issues of staff bullying, financial impropriety and secret alliance with the DSS.

The press release says, “the issues raised were entirely unfounded”, then goes ahead to catalogue its achievements some of which the human rights community has described as pedestrian.

UPDATE: Paragraph 21 was included to reflect the current state of the relationship between Tietie and Ojigho.

Paragraph 1 ‘West Africa Weekly’  was included to reflect the platform referenced in the link. Although this was already reflected in Paragraph 4 under  the sub-head ‘Insipid Board’.

Author profile

Olugbenga is an Investigative Reporter with The ICIR. Do you have a scoop? Shoot him an email at oadanikin@icirnigeria.org. Twitter Handle: @OluAdanikin

Author profile

Lukman Abolade is an Investigative reporter with The ICIR. Reach out to him via labolade@icirnigeria.org, on twitter @AboladeLAA and FB @Correction94

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2 COMMENTS

  1. But it is such a sad thing though that the agency expected to protect is unconcerned and the people in charge still REMAIN “in charge”.

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