She is one of the most famous names on the Nigerian High street. Her legacy lives in urban legends and tales behind the wind gales.
Knotted Post Panorama takes a look at the life, legacy and conspiracy that shaped the life of Gloria Okon
Miss Gloria Okon was born in 1950 and like her death, her early life is shrouded in web of mystery and legends.
On the 22nd April, 1985, a petite society lady, Gloria Okon, was about to board a Nigeria Airways aircraft WT840 (Lagos-Kano-London) at the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano State when she was arrested with substances suspected to be heroin and other hard drugs (the National Security Organization, NSO or Nigeria’s secret intelligence agency is often mentioned in her arrest). Tucked in internally were 56.70 grammes of the substances. She was also caught with the sum of N20,000, 60 pounds sterling, $301 and 19,000 Italian lira. The customs officers and drug law enforcement agents were very excited to have nabbed her, not because they had caught her alone but because they would also be stars of the show for a while as all the arrests were being made by their counterparts at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. But their jowls of excitement were pangs of sheer agony for the 35-year-old Okon. Why?
The year was 1985 and anyone caught with drugs would face the death penalty, no stories. That was the provision of the Decree 20 put in place by the junta of General Muhammadu Buhari . She was going to die, and she knew it. Stunned and stupefied at her sudden stare at death, Okon became an unwilling and helpless star before the nation’s news-thirsty media. Newspapers and magazines contained her story and the radios gave the chilly broadcast. For many who read the story or heard the announcement, it was not a big deal they thought, she was going to be executed like others. But then, there would be a twist in Okon’s story that would turn her into the most mysterious drug pusher in Nigeria’s history. What happened next still remains very bizarre even 30 years after.
On the 28th April, six days after her arrest, the most unexpected happened: Gloria Okon died in custody. From an ordinary ‘heroin suspect’, the sudden demise of Okon led to what is now one of the most enduring narcodramas in Nigeria. She did not just die, she died in very questionable and mysterious circumstances. The Buhari regime would not bury the case and an investigation was launched into the matter, with a judicial commission of inquiry given the complicated task of unraveling all the circumstances surrounding the very suspicious death of Okon who gave up the ghost at the Aminu Kano Hospital, Kano.
The judicial commission of enquiry working on the Okon case was headed by Justice CNO Ubbaonu of the Kano High Court. It began its sitting in Kano almost three months (precisely 5th Monday, August) after she died. Other members of the panel were:
- Wing Commander PG Asemota
- Tunde Oloko, a university don
- JI Obianwu, who was the secretary
The case was so serious that the Inspector-General Etim Inyang was mandated to ensure there is a reasonable conclusion to the case and to make sure all the mysteries are solved. The commission was to carry out three main tasks:
- Make proper inquiry as to the arrest and death of Gloria Okon
- Determine whether during the period of her arrest and custody, if any person(s) contributed to her death through acts incidental to the case
- Make suitable recommendations
But that would never happen: on the 27th of that same August, the military regime of Buhari was toppled by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and till date, no one knows how it all ended and the demise remains a mystery. However, it must be stated that before she died, Okon reportedly confessed and revealed a ‘big baron’, as a matter of fact, a customs official said of her revelation:
‘If carefully handled, she may lead us to the big brains behind the business.’
But before Okon could even mention the name of her mentor or sponsor, she was stone-dead. According to those who investigated her case and questioned her, the only clue she left was simply the name ‘Bassey’. Ibrahim Coomasie was the commissioner of police for Kano State and he stated that it was almost impossible to track her mentor because Okon did not give the second name of Bassey or even an address, so the investigation met a dead end. The address that was listed against her name, 21 Cole Street, Surulere, Lagos was found to be non-existent.
However, it must be pointed out that although Okon was just one of the many female carriers arrested, she was the only drug mule very willing to cooperate and say it all, revealing all information on her sponsors. But before she could utter anything, she was gone. An autopsy conducted stated the cause of death as food poisoning. There was no time Okon showed any sign of ill-health, she was quite healthy when she was arrested as the public inquiry found out but according to Misharck Okitiakpo, a customs officer who kept her in custody, Gloria Okon fell ill just a day after she was arrested. Okitiakpo also explained that on the day she was arrested (22nd), Okon made a request for rice and beans which she was given. But on the 23rd and 24th, she was rushed to the hospital after she complained.
But that is where Okitiakpo’s accounts stopped. He did not explain or was unable to explain what happened from the 25th to the 28th when Okon finally breathed her last. Okon had been in the custody of the Customs until the 25th when she was handed to the police. Therefore, it is not precisely clear whether she was poisoned while with the customs or under the police custody where she eventually died. In an interview with The Guardian in May 1985, Coomasie said Okon had changed saying:
‘…the late suspect was not talking when she was brought to the police and did not make any statement to the police, when the police took custody of Okon, she looked weird and neither ate nor talked. ’
But later, she was given some egusi soup by the police (egusi with what? Abi she drink the egusi ni, police no tell us that one). The police also said she took some bananas and tea after the egusi. Amazing food combination: egusi, banana and tea.
The mystery of Okon’s case was further deepened when no one showed up to claim her, not even one relative showed to identify her as a suspect or even her corpse. According to Babadisa Ciroma, an assistant commissioner of police (ACP) who was in charge of Okon’s interrogation said no one paid her a visit while in custody or even when she was admitted at the hospital. That was not all, 39 days after her death Okon’s corpse remained unclaimed at the Murtala Muhammed Hospital Mortuary where it was deposited. This prompted the police force Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to issue a notice that her remains might be treated as unknown if it not claimed after seven days of warning to the general public. Apparently embarrassed by the mysterious death of Okon in custody and to prevent a repeat, the government compelled state police commands to transfer suspects and exhibits in cases of hard drugs to the Force CID Headquarters in Lagos by ‘the most expedient means’.
The Nigerian nation was supposed to hear from the judicial commission of inquiry by the end of August and shed light on the case but by the end of August, a new leader was in place and he was a military president: IBB. The late lawyer Gani Fawehinmi attempted to resurrect the case but this put him on a path of direct clash with Haliru Akilu and Kunle Togun, two of IBB’s most dreaded security agents. No one was ever charged over the death of Gloria Okon.
- In the absence of a conclusive investigation, so many tales have been spun by many so as to fill in the gaps. According to some, Okon never died, the corpse presented was all a ruse and part of a grand conspiracy. In June 2009, Professor Taiyemiwo Ogunade, in an interview with THE NATION said of the Okon case:
‘Gloria Okon is actually Chinyere, that’s her real name. She married Charles “Jeff” Chandler, the fellow who killed Nzeogwu and was killed a day later. Chinyere, Maryam and Princess Atta were young friends who hung out together. They all married into the military, because the military was a proud and respectable profession then. Charles Chandler, who was Tiv, married Chinyere who I think is from Imo State. IBB married Maryam from Asaba and Mamman Vatsa married the princess. So Chinyere became a widow and resorted to trading between UK and Nigeria. And then she was caught with drugs; Mamman Vatsa was the person who put Chinyere on the next available flight from Kano to London – and then claimed that she was dead by parading a dead woman picked out of the mortuary. Dele Giwa later found out that she was in London having delivered a baby by another man. He sent a French photographer to the place and they saw Maryam Babangida at the event. Kayode Soyinka brought back the photographs. Dele was sitting across the table from Kayode examining the photos taken of “Gloria Okon” (Chinyere, Richard Chandler’s wife) at the naming ceremony in London. Maryam Babangida was there. And then a letter parcel was delivered to him and he said excitedly that it must be from “Mr. President” referring to the discussions he had with IBB days earlier. The bomb exploded and severed his lower abdomen; he died a few hours later.’
- Some others say Dele Giwa knew that Okon was Maryam Babangida (or even IBB)’s drug mule and wanted to blackmail IBB, which is why he was killed.Newswatch has denied any link between their late founder who was killed by a parcel bomb in 1986.
- Tom Mbeke-Ekanem in his book, Beyond the Execution: Understanding the Ethnic and Military Politics in Nigeria insisted the corpse sent to Calabar to Okon’s family was a fake corpse and that the family returned it saying it was not the corpse of their daughter, but that the authorities insisted the corpse was that of Okon. The claim was that the real Okon was freed to go live overseas and replaced with an unclaimed corpse brought in from the mortuary. The crazy controversies around the case prompted the Federal Government to make attempts to unearth everything thus launching the public commission.
- According to others, she was a drug mule for the former Nigerian First Lady Maryam Babangida shuttling between the USA and Britain and she was killed so she would not squeal. As it is now, the truth is hanging somewhere, and the only way I think Nigerians will eventually get to know the truth is when a government comes and re-opens the case and declassifying all the documents relating to the case. Whether that will take 10 or 100 years, no one knows. But before then, the story of Gloria Okon is one eerie chapter that will continue to haunt the world’s largest black nation.
- Ben Edokpayi, Who Killed Gloria Okon, Newswatch, August 12, 1985.
- Mohammed Buba Marwa Delivered The Letter Bomb That Killed Dele Giwa – Professor Taiyemiwo Ogunade, June 2009.
- Trials & Triumphs: The Story of THENEWS by Wale Adebanwi.
- Beyond the Execution: Understanding the Ethnic and Military Politics in Nigeria by Tom Mbeke-Ekanem.