The Army said the man, Andrew Anthony, was killed late August when soldiers raided a hideout of militants in Rivers State ahead of the formal launch of “Operation Crocodile Smile”.But a PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation showed that soldiers who went for the operation knew Mr. Anthony was a kidnap victim, yet the Army, in its official statement, circulated his photograph to the media as one of five top militants killed in the area.
Mr. Anthony was abducted by gunmen outside his home at Ada George Road in Port Harcourt on August 18, this newspaper confirmed after weeks of examining the case. His family had contacted PREMIUM TIMES and requested the case be investigated.
Our findings refute the Army’s claim, and shed light on the complexities of militant activities in the oil-rich region.
Mr. Anthony was returning to his residence after a church programme when he was attacked by gunmen, his family said.
Ambassadors Glory Churches International, founded by Mr. Anthony in 2007, has over 1000 members now, with branches in Abuja and Bayelsa State.
Armed men swooped on the pastor as he waited for his wife to open the gate to his residence. The assailants bundled him into the trunk of a waiting vehicle and drove off into the night. The time was about 7:00 p.m.
“Everything happened within seconds,” his wife, Becky Anthony, told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview. “I couldn’t even say where they emerged from.”
Mr. Anthony’s twin brother, John Anthony, said the family reported the matter the same night at the police divisional headquarters along Ada George Road. They also filed a complaint at the Port Harcourt field office of the State Security Service, SSS, where officials promised action.
Police step in
The spokesperson for the Rivers State Police Command, Omoni Nnamdi, told PREMIUM TIMES that the command deployed its Anti-Kidnapping Unit to fish out the abductors and secure Mr. Anthony’s release.
Working alongside the family, the detectives established the first contact with Mr. Anthony’s captors three days after. The kidnappers demanded ₦10 million, but the family offered ₦3 million.
The kidnappers promised to revert after considering the offer. Then, things went silent for another three days, leaving the family wondering what might have gone wrong.
“Something could have happened in their hideout? No, we thought they were smarter than that,” Mr. Anthony said.
Police told the distraught family the prolonged silence was unusual with kidnappers. Nonetheless, the anti-kidnapping operatives remained on standby should the all-important call come in, the police spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Anthony’s family members said they worked on raising their offer should their initial bid be rejected. Mr. Anthony contacted his friends for help.
“We decided to prepare ₦5 million because it could be that they were arguing about money in their hideout,” Mr. Anthony. “We didn’t want to take any chances.”
More days went by, no further information still. Then on August 28, Mr. Anthony said he received a phone call from a relative who asked him to return the call immediately.
Felicia Obi, his in-law, said she had seen a photo showing Mr. Anthony’s body on the internet.
Ms. Obi had stumbled on a story published by PREMIUM TIMES, based on a press statement distributed by the Nigerian Army. The statement and the accompanying photograph were sourced from the News Agency of Nigeria.
“The Nigerian Army says at least five suspected members of the Niger Delta militants group were killed in Rivers State and a large cache of arms recovered by troops involved in ‘Exercise Crocodile Smile’, which commenced on Saturday,” the opening paragraph of the August 27 story said. The report was published at 7:34 p.m.
Direct quotes from the Army statement, which was signed by its spokesman, Sani Usman, read:
“The 133 Special Forces Battalion of Nigerian Army troops have carried out a precursor operation to Exercise CROCODILE SMILE aimed at getting rid of all forms of criminal activities in the Niger Delta geo-political region of Nigeria.
“In the course of the operation, five militants that attacked the troops were killed in action, while numerous others were injured and 23 suspects were arrested,” Mr. Usman, a colonel, said.
While the statement did not mention the names of militants killed in the operation, Ms. Obi immediately recognised Mr. Anthony’s body , published alongside the statement, as one of the militants.
“I knew him very well and was aware that the family had been looking for him since he was kidnapped,” Ms. Obi told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr. Anthony, a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja, said he printed the story on August 29 before driving to the Nigerian Army 2nd Brigade Headquarters at Bori Camp, Port Harcourt.
Upon arrival at Bori Camp, he sought an audience with the public relations officer there, but he was told the PRO was not in the office. He requested to see the commandant but was also rebuffed, he recalled to PREMIUM TIMES.
After waiting for about an hour with little progress, he contacted a friend, a senior military official, to assist.
“He was the one who then put me through to the commandant at the Air Force Base along Aba Road, Port Harcourt,” Mr. Anthony said.
“When I got there, a female flying officer met me at the entrance and took me straight to see the commandant. I narrated my story and showed him the news printout; he was shocked.”
It was at the base that Mr. Anthony learnt for the first time that the operation was jointly carried out by the Army and the Air Force.
“He told me it was a joint operation by the Army and the Air Force,” he said.
The Air Force official followed him back to Bori Camp.
“Immediately, he said we should go to Bori Camp. An Army commandant said the soldiers that carried out the operation were not around, but we said we’ll wait.
Hours later, he was introduced to an officer who reportedly led the operation, who politely introduced himself and began chatting with Mr. Anthony.
PREMIUM TIMES has listened to an audio recording of that conversation Mr. Anthony said he obtained discreetly, and has withheld sensitive details, including the name of the officer.
“He told me that when they got a tip from the SSS that kidnappers were holding people hostage in the Ogbogoro bush, they worked out an operation to drive them out,” the victim’s brother said.
In the recording, the officer could be heard giving detailed narration of the operation.
“On getting to that camp, they were making noise in that camp. You understand? Your brother, they tied him with his hands to the back and tied his eyes. They kept him under a tent, he was lying down when we got there,” he said.
Although the Army officially said its troops killed five militants, and published Mr. Anthony’s photo as one of them, the officer said the man was killed by the kidnappers, not by soldiers.
The Army spokesperson, Mr. Usman, did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ requests for comment. He promised to get back to us within days, but did not do so for weeks.
Choba River has been a popular waterway in Port Harcourt since the 1970s when it served as a major trading and fishing route. Choba town hosts the University of Port Harcourt, established in 1977.
When Port Harcourt became the centre of Nigeria’s petroleum business, oil and gas executives travelling through what is now the East-West Road, patronised locals of the communities along the river.
One of such communities, next to Choba, is Ogbogoro.
In the last decade, with rampant kidnapping in the Niger Delta, criminals who carry out abductions for ransoms, found a haven in the forests surrounding Choba and Ogbogoro.
The misfortune of the communities was compounded by the withdrawal of Willbros Group, an American firm, from Choba.
Willbros, which is amongst the world’s largest oil contracting firms, helped the local economy there until 2006 when it pulled out. Before then, the firm had been caught in the high-wire oil politics and militancy, and its workers were frequently abducted.
It was the forest surrounding Choba and Ogbogoro that Mr. Anthony was taken to after he was abducted on August 18, his family later found out from police and other security agencies.
Residents there say kidnappers regularly blindfold their victims and cruise them in the water in a loop for some time, to give the victim a false sense of their location.
The Buhari administration recently ordered a military operation in the Niger Delta as militancy flared again, at some time, forcing multinationals like Shell and Chevron, to suspend activities.
Searching for Mr. Anthony
After obtaining from the army officer details of how and where the missing pastor could be found, Mr. Anthony went to Ogbogoro on August 31, accompanied by Samuel Mariere, a childhood friend and member of Delta State House of Assembly, from Ughelli.
Also on the journey were eight other men. They arrived at 9:00 a.m. in a convoy of four SUVs to search for and possibly retrieve Mr. Anthony’s remains.
Although 10 of them had made the trip, they could not proceed to the forest on their own.
“We were made to understand that a lot of terrible activities were going on in the bush and we cannot go in without being properly armed and escorted,” Mr. Anthony said.
Mr. Anthony said they approached the youth in the community for support.
After over two hours of negotiation, about 120 youth agreed to participate in the mission for ₦750, 000, Mr. Anthony said.
“And we gave them ₦500, 000 in advance payment before they followed us,” he said.
For several hours, they combed the forests for Mr. Anthony. The sky was clear.
Most of the journey was captured in a video seen by this newspaper. Young men could be seen scouring the bush with cutlasses. As they went deeper into the forest, they saw charred bodies of unknown men lying face down.
“We immediately concluded that they might have been other victims whose lives had also recently been wasted in the bush,” Mr. Anthony said.
A few metres away, they found Mr. Anthony’s corpse among a row of shacks rolled down from what appeared like a wooden bench, the decomposing body swarmed by large blowflies.
They also found items used by the kidnappers, including phones, charms, heating equipment and guns. Those items were later handed to the SSS.
After a few minutes, they approached the body and wrapped it in a synthetic fabric before carefully arranging it in a wooden casket.
By 4:00 p.m., they returned to Ogbogoro, where they settled the youth before proceeding to the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital to deposit the body. Some of the officers attached to the Anti-Kidnapping Unit who worked on case also joined at Ogbogoro.
Based on the evidence collected by Mr. Anthony and the team from the den, the SSS said it was able to make two arrests in connection with the abduction of Mr. Anthony, a father of three.
But the family’s request to have access to the detained men was denied, making it difficult to verify the claims.
PREMIUM TIMES’ efforts to get the state director of SSS in Rivers was unsuccessful. The secret police has not named a new official to take enquiries from the public since its last spokesperson, Marilyn Ogar, retired more than a year ago.
Mr. Anthony was born on January 29, 1948, in Takoradi, Ghana. His father was an employee of Ghana’s Post and Telecommunication Department until his retirement years ago. Mr. Anthony said they were all born in Ghana, where their younger siblings still live till today.
The future clergy won a scholarship to study theology from the Church of God Mission. He launched his missionary career after graduation.
His widow said she and their three children were relying on God for the future.
“We have no one but God,” she told PREMIUM TIMES. “No one but God.”
Mr. Anthony said he will not give up on getting the Army to take full responsibility for killing his brother —if only to secure the future of his children.
“They rained bullets on my brother when they could see he was tied down and couldn’t run,” Mr. Anthony said. “They then labelled him a kidnapper to justify their action and take glory in public.”
The Ambassadors Glory Churches International is now being run by church members.
The family plans Mr. Anthony’s burial for later this month. His body is expected to be moved from the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital to their home state of Bayelsa on November 26.
Transcript of recorded audio
Officer : We saw the body of your…
Mr. Anthony : My twin brother.
Officer : He’s your twin brother?
Mr. Anthony: Yes
Officer : We went for raid, they took him to a dead bit, I’m sure they kidnapped him around Ada George.
These people carry out all those kidnappings around Ada George area. That camp, they kidnap people. There’s a road they follow. They enter through erm this thing and they cross water. You understand?
Mr. Anthony: Hmm hmm.
Officer: They just cross water with the victim. They cross the water and they keep him at the edge of the water.
Nobody can access that bush until he crosses that water. So police don’t go there, nobody goes there.
If they take you to that camp, nobody can rescue you, you understand? Until they carry their boat and take you out by themselves. You understand?
So we got the information from the SSS and they gave us the specific information about that place. You understand?
So we planned operation and went. Kidnappers normally, if they kidnap a person and they’re negotiating. If you go with any force, they’ll kill the victim. That one is for sure. Not even these ones that are deadly kidnappers. You understand me?
When we got ….We trekked for three hours from Ogbogoro community. In fact, four hours, inside the mangrove before getting to that camp. You understand?
On getting to that camp, they were making noise in that camp. You understand? Your brother, they tied him with his hands from the back and tied his eyes. They kept him under a tent, he was lying down. When we got there. Immediately we surrounding the compound and wanted to enter and they heard our noise, they were shocked first and they shot him first.
Mr. Anthony: They shot him?
Officer: They shot him pow! pow!.Before our troops started returning fire. If he was standing, then we could say our troops fire that got him. But no, he was tied and he was on the ground. They tied his eye. If they’re shooting gun now and you lie down, there’s no way gun can hit you. You understand? They shot him and they escaped. In the process, while they were running, we too shot them. Most of them our fire gave them gunshot wounds and we’re sure they entered the bush and they died in the bush.