Exclusive: Former US intelligence analyst says he warned authorities about activities of Ike Ekweremadu
A former US intelligence analyst warned the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) to investigate the activities of a senior Nigerian politician before he trafficked a man to London in an attempt to harvest his kidney, the Guardian can reveal.
On Friday, Ike Ekweremadu was sentenced to more than nine years in prison for being the driving force in a plot to harvest a kidney for his sick daughter in the first organ trafficking conviction under the Modern Slavery Act.
Matthew Page, a Nigeria expert at the US state department’s bureau of intelligence and research from 2012 t0 2016 and now an associate fellow at the Chatham House thinktank, said the plot could have been foiled if UK authorities had acted on his warnings about Ekweremadu and a dossier of material about his activities in Britain.
He said the trafficking conspiracy showed what could happen if such documented suspicions about corruption were ignored.
“Clearly the UK authorities had ample opportunity to scrutinise Ekweremadu’s UK activities before things reached the point of people-trafficking or organ harvesting,” he said.
In research partly funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, Page examined how Nigerian politicians including Ekweremadu used unexplained wealth to buy millions of pounds’ worth of properties in the UK and fund expensive private education for their children.
He found that in a 12-year period, Ekweremadu would have made about £339,000 as a political office holder, including his stint as deputy president of the Nigerian senate. But in that period he bought three properties – two in London and one in Cambridge – worth £4.2m. The Old Bailey heard that Ekweremadu had an international property portfolio worth more than £6m.
Ekweremadu denies any corruption.
Page, who spent more than five years investigating senior Nigerian politicians, also said unexplained wealth had been used to pay expensive education bills for Ekweremadu’s four children. All four attended private schools in England and went on to further education at English universities.
In a 2021 paper, Page said: “Perhaps the most compelling red flag relating to west African PEPs’ [prominent politically exposed persons] payments to UK educational institutions is how greatly the payments exceed their official salaries.”
The paper said that in 2020 the average salary for a senior west African politician was £16,000, while UK private school fees were more than £35,000 a year. Page wrote: “It suggests that the tuition fee payments they [PEPs] make to UK institutions may include proceeds of crime and thus constitute an illicit cashflow.”
Page’s report noted that NCA itself had warned private schools: “If the salary of a parent is so low that they could not possibly afford the fees legitimately, this should set alarm bells ringing.”
His published research on the issues has been anonymised but in 2017 he named three key individuals involved to the NCA, senior UK diplomats in Nigeria, and Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The first person on the list was Ekweremadu.
Page supplied the NCA with a dossier of information about how Ekweremadu had used unexplained wealth to fund his UK activities. The dossier has been seen by the Guardian. Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, is also reported to have asked the UK’s Serious Fraud Officeto investigate Ekweremadu.
Despite the warnings and financial red flags raised in the dossier, Ekweremadu’s organ trafficking plot went undetected until a young street trader from Lagos whom he had brought over fled to Staines police station in Surrey in May 2022 in fear for his life.
Months earlier, Ekweremadu had paid for the man’s travel to the UK and sponsored his medical travel visa. The Old Bailey heard how the politician bribed a hospital administrator and used forged documents in a failed attempt to convince the Royal free hospital in London to transplant the man’s kidney to Ekweremadu’s sick daughter.
Page said: “The UK authorities clearly should have had this individual on their radar and should not have been issuing him and his family with visas, given suspicions of grand corruption, especially after 2017 when I provided clear evidence of unexplained wealth, UK financial assets and transactions that greatly exceeded his known earnings.
“When the His Majesty’s government turns a blind eye to corruption/unexplained wealth, it has unpredictable knock-on effects, including – in this case – human suffering and heinous crime in the form of organ trafficking.”
Page found that Ekweremadu sold three of his UK properties in autumn 2021 before standing to be governor of Enugu state. Records show they were sold for a combined total of £5.09m, £874,000 more than Ekweremadu paid for them. Page said he was concerned that Ekweremadu was able to repatriate this gain to Nigeria.
A source at the NCA confirmed it had received Page’s information about Ekweremadu but rejected his claim that it was ignored. He said the information was handled seriously, appropriately and shared with law enforcement agencies in Nigeria.
Ekweremadu’s lawyer pointed out that the Nigerian high court had rejected an investigation into Ekweremadu’s wealth by country’s anti-fraud agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. She said: “My client denies any allegation of corruption , as he had done throughout the entire EFCC investigation.”
His son Ike Lloyd Ekweremadu, a Nigerian lawyer, pointed out that his father has bought and sold properties since 1988.