Organ harvesting industry booms in Lagos as probe deepens

•How kidney merchants in Lagos recruited us —Victims

SUBAIR MOHAMMED fortuitously broke into the circle of a kidney-harvesting syndicate operating from Lagos to India. The members connect through a password, ‘Life-Giver’. His report:

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives doubled down on its probe of alleged human organ harvesting business in Nigeria and the movement of the harvested organs abroad. Officials of government were quizzed, with a promise to invite another top official, the Comptroller General of Customs, for further questioning. Testimonies coming out from the probe so far simply attest the veracity of the story of Ogor (real names withheld), a victim of the powerful syndicate that lures desperate residents of Lagos State to India for organ harvesting deals that fetch the victims peanuts and the merchants, a windfall. The victim spoke exclusively to Saturday Tribune.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdown on trading activities in markets across Lagos, life has been far from being rosy for 32-year-old, a used cloth (Okrika) trader at the Katangua market, located in the Abule Egba neighbourhood of Lagos State

Apart from trading in what is known in local parlance as second-hand wears, Ogor was a ‘life giver’, code name for a side trade he engaged in to expand his daily earning from his Okrika business until he was struck by ill-health which locked him out of business.

For the initiated, a ‘life giver’ in Katangua market phraseology is one who is into the organ-harvesting business, a donor that has sold one of his two kidneys to a patient that requires a kidney transplant. They are in their numbers in the market, Saturday Tribune was told. At Katangua, also known as ‘supermarket’, traders sell virtually all human needs. They sell shirts, trousers, blazers, jackets, shoes, cars, food items and, according to Ogor, human kidney, all of which come at affordable prices.

Human kidney, according to Ogor, sells for between N750,000 and N1million, depending on the bargaining power of the donor. Obviously out of breath and exhausted, Ogor laid his body on a stall to get some fresh air with a few of his wares hanging loosely on his hands when Saturday Tribune walked up to him, having been linked up by a contact.

“Oga! These na Akube shirts. I just open bale,” he said in a patronising but feeble tone. After a few minutes of convincing discussion, Ogor was willing to share how he began his journey from Agbor in Delta State to Lagos and how he ended up being a ‘life giver’ that now struggles for breath to stay alive. He fears the syndicate might come after him for speaking out.

 

‘My journey from Agbor’

Having survived an illness and relocated to Lagos, Ogor decided to wrestle poverty and kick it out of his family by engaging in any business as far as it is not illegal. He told Saturday Tribune that poverty was central to his decision to eventually venture into organ sales business as all he tried to improve his fortune didn’t yield any meaningful transformation. According to him, his parents were so poor that they could hardly provide a meal a day for his 10 siblings, he being the last-born.

He explained how he got to the point of selling his kidney: “I came to Iyana-Ipaja in Lagos in 2005 after I was cured of a deadly disease by a pastor. I was born with the disease but since we were so poor, my parents couldn’t seek medical or spiritual help as required. My parents took me from one herbalist to another in search of remedy for my illness. We went to crusades and attended church services all in the name of a miracle. This affected our little income as whatever we earned was spent on me and so we could hardly feed, let alone provide for our other needs. Growing up, for me and my siblings, was tough. My failing health made life quite unbearable. I lived with the condition till I was 15 years old when a man introduced a pastor to my mother who performed a miracle and healed me. But then I had missed out on my childhood. I missed out on going to primary and secondary schools but life must continue. So, I decided to come down to Lagos with a friend to hustle.

“I lived in Iyana-Ipaja with four other boys who later introduced me to street hawking. I started selling snacks and bottled water in traffic and sleeping in a room rented by one of the boys. While selling in the traffic, I was exposed to people of different shades of character. I met with other people from different tribes and background with whom we hustled on the street. For the first time in so many years, I laughed, smiled, dreamt and I enjoyed being a human being until I got a call from home that my father had died. I was shattered. I couldn’t attend the burial. After the death of my father, I had a bitter encounter hawking in the traffic. I was arrested by officials of the Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) for street trading. Other traders had fled the street but I was unlucky to be arrested. I was the only person caught. At first, I felt it was a minor issue that could easily be settled but I was shocked when I was hauled into a Black Maria and taken to Kirikiri maximum prison where I spent one month without trial. After I was released from prison, I went back to street trading since I had no alternative. A few months later, I was arrested again but this time, they demanded N10,000 for my release. Where would I get such an amount from? Given my failure to provide the requested amount, I was remanded in Kirikiri prison for the second time and for the same offence. By the time I came out of Kirikiri prison, I was told that my mother had died. It was a great loss for me because my mother was the reason I was struggling because she suffered a lot because of me, especially when I suffered from the disease. I wanted to repay her love but she died before I could even make it in life. And since my street hawking business had been ruined with my arrests and imprisonment, all the savings I made were spent on securing my release for the first time. Consequently, I became idle and started sitting around until 2014 when I met with a guy who later introduced me to another guy in Katangua market.”

 

From Katangua to India

Katangua is mostly known for Okrika but Ogor claimed that those who know the inner workings of the market know where the real money is. He was introduced to the deal.

He said: “The guy who introduced me narrated to me how he sold his kidney and invested it in his Okrika business. He also narrated how many traders in the market had gone through similar process to expand their earnings. At first, I was nervous but when I thought about what lied ahead of me and the fact that there was nobody to lean on, I summoned courage. I later got to know the guy as Paul. He was an agent working for an organ vendor whom I later got to know as Obinna (real name). They both had sold their kidneys, too. Paul took me to Obinna’s house where we had a lengthy discussion. He told me I would be paid N850,000 after the whole exercise. He took me to a diagnostic centre in Oshodi (name withheld) where my kidneys where checked and certified healthy. And the travelling process began.

“I also got to know that Obinna had someone he worked for but I never got to meet him throughout the processing. He contacted someone in India and my travel documents and medical reports were ready within a short period. I was prepared to embark on a journey to sell my kidney to an unknown person in order to add value to my life. I never knew I was on the path of destruction. Obinna instructed me that if the doctors in India ask me any questions, I should tell them that I don’t understand English language. And true to his instructions, doctors at the hospital in New Delhi asked many questions. They asked me if I was forced to donate my kidney. They asked if I would like to change my mind and other questions. After the questioning session, a young black Nigerian woman was brought in. She lives in India. I was told she would act as my wife and she signed some documents on my behalf. We took pictures together and the doctors recorded us with their camera and after this, they embarked on the surgery to remove one of my kidneys. After the surgery, I spent about five months in India to recuperate before I returned to Lagos.

“Truly, I was not forced to sell my kidney but I did it out of poverty and hunger. I regret every step I took on that journey because I have been feeling unwell since I came back from India. When I started having health challenges, I went in search of Obinna at his residence but I was told that he had moved out of the place. He is still in Katangua where he sells Okrika to deceive the people. He lured innocent young Nigerians into the organ selling business. In fact, he has made many young traders in Katangua sell their kidneys, giving them little amount. Just walk round the market and ask to see their stomachs, you will be surprised at the cut marks you will see on them.”

 

Tracking Obinna

Ogor is ready to squeal on the organ gang despite the risk to his life, because he wants residents of the state to beware of the syndicate. He has this to say about the gang: “Apart from Obinna and his agent, Paul who introduced me to him, I have never met with the main boss. They work with doctors in hospitals across Nigeria. They run a dangerous clique and I know I will be killed if they find out that I have divulged their secrets. These doctors inform them about patients that require kidney transplant and the vendor and his agents scout for donors. They are so highly sought after that there is hardly a week that there won’t be a need for kidneys. It was after I sold mine that I was introduced to other people that had also sold one of theirs’, too. I regret selling my kidney because ever since I did, I have not been stable, health-wise. With a little stress, my heart palpitates faster than normal. At other times, it beats slower than normal and I suffer breathlessness. I cannot engage in hard work. I am no longer fit to engage in any rigorous work since I sold my kidney. As you could see, I was resting when you walked up to me. I couldn’t search for customers except for those that come directly to me to buy items.

The business I invested the money in collapsed within two months. I spent the bulk of the money on frivolities and on domestic and family issues. That was how I lost everything, including my health. I never knew this is what it would turn out to be because doctors in India warned me that after the surgery, I won’t be able to engage in hard work but for the promised N850,000, I felt the money was more important to me at that time. I don’t have hypertension or heart-related illness. I pass excess fluid out of my body through urine but I am unwell. My heart skips and beats faster than normal whenever I engage in heavy task or minor argument. My body system has changed significantly since I sold one of my kidneys which is why I am sharing this sad tale of my life with Nigerians, especially youths, so they don’t fall victim. I know I have made a huge mistake. They take advantage of the poverty in the land and dehumanise fellow human beings.”

When Saturday Tribune reached out to Obinna by phone, he denied being a part of the organ selling syndicate in the market. He demanded to know who spoke to the newspaper and mentioned his name. His request was denied.

 

It is no big deal –Another recruit

For Emeka, another trader in Katangua, any opportunity to sell his kidney is farewell to poverty. But unlike Ogor, he couldn’t convert his kidney to money. He said: “I had concluded arrangements with the vendor but when I got to India, I was told that my kidney didn’t match the kind the patient required for transplant. I came back to Nigeria without collecting a dime and that was how I missed out of the opportunity. I don’t see any harm in helping someone in need with one kidney. After all, I have two kidneys but I require one to stay alive and healthy. There is no harm in helping the needy.”

While inside Katangua, Saturday Tribune tried to locate Obinna, the man allegedly at the centre of the organ business, with his picture provided by a reliable source. The search through streets and stalls within the market lasted for hours. Inquiring about him was an arduous task. Our source gave him out as a popular ‘life giver’ in the market but all efforts to locate him were unsuccessful. It turned out that the man had made the jungle behind the market his new fortress.

 

No shady deals, we only check for health of organs –Indicted clinic

When Saturday Tribune reached out to the diagnostic centre (name withheld) mentioned in Ogor’s story as the alleged clearing house for the organ business in Lagos, before recruits are moved to India, the management denied engaging in any shady deals. The doctor in charge of the test said the facility only carries out checks on human physiology and is not involved in illegal harvesting of human organs.

In an interview with Saturday Tribune, he said: “The facility is open to all for health check. It is, therefore, baseless and unfounded for anyone to level such allegation. We are a medical laboratory that deals with carrying out tests for individuals to assist medical doctors in making diagnosis for their patients. We don’t sell human organs. We are not involved in the sale of human organs neither do we deal in human organs in whatever form. Ours is to diagnose an individual who comes in for testing because of an illness affecting the liver, the brain, the kidney and blood samples are taken and analysed and the results are given, which the patients themselves and the managing physician are part of. We conduct tests for people based on referral or on doctor’s prescriptions. Any individual can come in for a health check because that is our preoccupation. We don’t engage in shady dealings.”

Saturday Tribune tried to reach the Indian hospital (name withheld) but the mobile number provided on its website was initially said to be temporarily out of service.  Founded in 1996, the hospital is listed as one of the country’s most profitable hospitals in Delhi. A female voice at the Indian Embassy in Nigeria told Saturday Tribune to direct its enquiry to an appropriate officer she didn’t mention through an electronic mail. When asked the exact mailbox, she directed the reporter to the embassy’s website which has numerous email addresses. Saturday Tribune said it wanted to know the protocol for issuing visa to Nigerians, considering the indictment of the hospital in the alleged organ business but she volunteered no response.

 

Yahoo boys branching into organ business

Although Ogor was paid a little less than N1 million for his kidney, findings showed that his link men made huge gains getting him to donate the organ in India.

According to a 2007 investigation conducted by Kilgour–Matas into allegations of live organ harvesting in China, kidney was going for as high as $62,000 (about N23.8 million at official rate of N385 to a US dollar) while the sum of $130, 000 was reportedly being offered for a healthy heart, $98,000 for liver and $150,000 for lungs.

Saturday Tribune was further told that as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) keeps pushing the Yahoo-Yahoo boys out of business of cybercrime and fraud, many of them are reportedly branching into the human organ business which is seen as not in conflict with the law. To stem the growing tide of cybercrime in the country, the Federal Government had enacted the Nigerian Cybercrime Act of 2015 which prescribes a fine of up to N10 million or a term of imprisonment of five years for internet fraudsters, though going by Ogor’s story, many youths may be getting the nation’s health system into bigger crisis switching into the organ trade. Though a one-time payment, many youths believe it is more rewarding to sell off one’s organs and be paid in dollars than risk being imprisoned.

 

‘Life givers’ can lead normal lives –Medical expert

Human kidneys are bean-shaped organs located in the upper abdominal area. The organs are on both the left and right side of the body; the right kidney, however, sits a little lower than the left to accommodate the size of the liver.

Speaking on the reasons a person may have only one kidney, a medical expert, Dr Olatayo Mahmud, said a person could have renal agenesis which is a situation whereby an individual may be born with only one kidney. He said: “A person could also have a condition called kidney dysplasia which causes a person to be born with two kidneys but with only one functioning actively. However, it is possible to lead a normal and healthy life with one kidney. Regardless of what might have happened to one of the kidneys, whether it is removed during an operation to treat a disease or it is sold as you have alleged, once the other kidney is healthy and active, it is possible to lead a healthy and normal life if such a person keeps a healthy lifestyle and keeps away from alcohol intake and other diets that could have negative impact on his/her health.

“On the other hand, people with a single, healthy kidney could be exposed to long-term health challenges. There is the possibility of their kidney malfunctioning later in life. They might develop high blood pressure. In general, people with one kidney live healthy, normal lives with a few problems. In other words, one healthy kidney can work as well as two. But it is important for someone with only one kidney to be careful and protect it from injury to avoid damaging it.”

Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Ladi Rotimi-Williams, told Saturday Tribune that despite the consent purportedly given by the victims who are also said to be adults, in the estimation of the law, there is still criminality and a lot of illegality in the way their organs are reportedly being procured. He mentioned the possible crime of conspiracy, adding that the case would be for the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to unravel.

When NAPTIP was contacted by phone, our correspondent was directed to Mr Dan Atokolo, the Commander of Lagos zone, whose mobile contact wasn’t available as of press time.

The chairman of the House Committee on Diaspora, Tolulope Akande-Sadipe, on Wednesday, issued a directive summoning the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service.

She issued the directive while reacting to the various presentations made by relevant regulatory agencies, including the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Nigeria Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM) and Federal Ministries of Justice and Labour and Employment during an investigative hearing into the “rising dehumanisation of Nigerians abroad” with a focus on, among others, harvesting on human organs by criminal elements.

In his presentation, NIS Comptroller-General, Mr Muhammed Babandede, disagreed with the submission that human organs were harvested and exported in coolers across the borders. He argued: “Usually when a person is trafficked for organ harvesting, you need to take the person to the venue to remove the organs. The House may have to talk to doctors to give you the guideline. I doubt if it is possible to remove organs and take them to other countries. The best they can do is to traffick the person and you remove the organs.”

Hon. Akande-Sadipe expressed disgust over the menace of human trafficking and illegal international recruitment that fuel the unprecedented dehumanisation of Nigerian nationals abroad with particular reference to the recurring abuses in the Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon. She called for synergy among relevant regulatory agencies in the bid to end the crisis.

Worried by various abuses in the issuance of the licences to employment agents, the lawmakers underscored the need for the State Security Service (SSS) to profile all the agents without compromise.

“Similar to this is the plague of organ harvesting by syndicates for export. It is sad to note that Nigeria has become the hotbed for this inhuman and dastardly act, resulting in several mutilated bodies seen across the nation. We have gathered here once again to explore avenue for synergy among relevant stakeholders which will, in turn, bring a lasting solution to the ugly trends to an end,” Akande-Sadipe said.

 

It’s a punishable offence, against Nigeria’s human trafficking law –Police

The image maker of the state police command, Bala Elkana, while reacting to the practice, said that it is “a punishable offence. It is against the human trafficking law in Nigeria.”

The police spokesman pointed out that the prosecution of such offence falls under the purview of NAPTIP and the police usually work with the agency. Elkana said: “It is actually a punishable offence. The police can only arrest such suspects and hand them over to NAPTIP for prosecution. If there is any report like that with the police, the divisional police station in the area will be directed to arrest the suspects and they will be handed over to NAPTIP.”

 

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