How the riddle of 'Adam' turned the tide against African 'juju' trafficking gangs

Was a child killed and dismembered 20 years ago to protect a trafficking gang?

The first time that Aidan Minter saw the body floating in the River Thames he assumed it was a tailor’s dummy.

He raised the alarm when he spotted the gaping wounds. Shorn of head, arms and legs and dumped in the river days before, the torso was a grotesque violation of a small African boy aged between four and seven.

One of the few clues on the body fished from waters in central London was a pair of orange shorts. But with little else to go on, detectives called the boy Adam. Twenty years later, the name and the mystery remains.

The dismemberment was the first known case of its kind in the UK and set police on the trail of witchdoctors and human sacrifice with its roots in ancient African ritual.

Despite the efforts of detectives and the intervention of then South African president Nelson Mandela, Adam’s true identity and the story of how he came to be in the Thames remain unknown.

But Adam’s legacy has been to throw a light on African trafficking gangs and the ancient rituals of juju. His death started a process that would lead to the unravelling of a multi-million-pound criminal enterprise.

But key questions remain outstanding. Who was behind the ritual that killed Adam? And was the purpose of his death to seek protection from police prying into the lucrative trafficking industry?

The 'power' of juju

Oath-taking and rituals are a major part of juju, a powerful belief system that underpins the world view of millions of Africans. Rituals include the taking of blood, hair and clothing, and swearing oaths to gods who have the power over life and death.

The belief system dates back thousands of years. Despite missionaries bringing Christianity to vast parts of the continent and Islam being the official religion in various countries, the worship of hundreds of deities retains a powerful grip on many people.

The system sets great store in spirit possession – both for comfort and as a malign presence – with exorcisms required to expel spirits in ceremonies conducted by witchdoctors.

The taking of blood symbolises the essence of a person’s individual power.

Followers believe that, by taking head hair and pubic hair, the person who pays for the ceremony controls the mind and sexuality of the subject.

At the most extreme end is human sacrifice. Experts have reported an increase in child sacrifices at the time of elections during the ultimate quest for power.

Traffickers have harnessed its power to cow victims into silence and ensure that they repay ‘debts’ incurred from being trafficked to Europe. They used to sign paper contracts promising to pay back money they owed. When that was ruled illegal in Nigeria, the gangs turned to juju, experts say.

“You can’t tell people witchcraft is rubbish because they won’t believe you,” said Dr Hermione Harris, an expert in African belief systems who has given evidence in trafficking trials in the UK. “A great number of young people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds and from Africa are plugged into that way of thinking.”

The investigation into the body in the Thames

The discovery of Adam passed with relatively little notice as the world focused on events in the US 10 days before on September 11, 2001, when hijackers brought down the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre.

A South African pathologist tipped off police that Adam could have been murdered and dismembered for ritual purposes.

The genitals are often removed and used to bring good luck.

Detectives raised the theory with reporters four weeks after the killing. It pointed to South Africa, where police were investigating a ritual murder a month, many of them children.

The inquiry team were helped by a public appeal from President Nelson Mandela in 2002 - but the theory behind the killing had moved on.

A new adviser, Richard Hoskins, told detectives just before the team travelled to South Africa that they were looking in the wrong part of Africa.

He believed Adam’s killing to be a ritual sacrifice by a deviant element within the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, a powerful group of about 90 million worldwide, that provided many of the country’s professionals and leaders.

“Given that Adam was almost certainly African, he was probably sacrificed as an offering to one of the gods or deities of West Africa,” he wrote in a book about his role. “We do not know yet why they wanted to sacrifice a child in London, but they obviously felt they needed power for something major.”

The body was carefully cut and he believed that the head may have been placed on an altar and later buried near the place of sacrifice.

His theory was not universally accepted. “I have always thought that the poor little boy was being taken to the UK to be material for magic,” said Jean La Fontaine, an anthropologist and renowned expert on African ritual and witchcraft.

“Human sacrifices are whole bodies, not torsos deprived of head and limbs and very rare in Africa.”

Conviction, but no breakthrough for Adam

In July 2002, the team were contacted by police in Glasgow, Scotland, after the intervention of a social worker who had concerns about two children in the care of a Nigerian woman.

When police searched the home of Joyce Osagiede, they found a pair of shorts similar to the pair worn by Adam, which was found for sale only in Germany.

She was arrested. A contact found on her phone, Kingsley Ojo, was also detained in late 2002.

A search of his home revealed objects, including an animal skull, that appeared to have been used in juju ceremonies.

They found a video marked “Rituals” which appeared to be a poorly produced movie that featured the beheading of a man as a sacrificial offering.

They also found dozens of immigration and travel documents. While the evidence did not link him to the killing of Adam, he was subsequently jailed for four years for people smuggling.

Detectives celebrated, believing him to be the head of a significant network – but in the search for Adam’s killers, the trail had gone cold.

The black coffin: the girl sold into sexual slavery

The teenager had escaped once from sexual slavery and the traffickers in Nigeria’s Edo state were not going to make the same mistake again.

Sold by her father, a hunter, to a wealthy businessman, the young girl lived as a prisoner in a compound surrounded by armed guards in Benin City, the state capital.

There had been little prospect of escape until she befriended one of her guards who accompanied her in visits to the market. He helped her to flee.

She returned home vowing retribution against her father. She found his gun, pointed it at him and pulled the trigger. It wasn’t loaded. Her father beat her instead – and sold her for a second time.

This time, the juju ceremony designed to ensure her silence was more elaborate. She was taken to a shrine next to an open black coffin. Inside, the girl saw, some of her clothes had been arranged to look like a human figure.

The priest poured blood into her coffin, tied her up and put her in the coffin. The lid was screwed down and she remained there all night. Suitably cowed, she was ready for trafficking to the UK where the plan was to move her to another European country to work in the sex industry.

The network unravels

Andy Desmond, a detective in Scotland Yard’s anti-trafficking unit, was dispatched to Glasgow after suspicions that a young Nigerian girl newly arrived in the UK had been trafficked and subjected to juju rituals.

Believing he was on to something, he sent a note to all of Scotland Yard’s investigative units urging them to contact him if they came across similar cases. He was soon able to build up a picture of how they were duped and coerced into coming to the UK.

I have always thought that the poor little boy was being taken to the UK to be material for magic
Jean La Fontaine, anthropologist

He became convinced that a major network was using juju to control their victims. He realised the overwhelming power of spiritual belief when he asked one trafficked woman if she was scared when she went to work in the sex trade. She told him she wasn’t.

“I have got my living dead sister standing beside me,” she told him.

His conviction about the central role of witchcraft was not shared within Scotland Yard.

“I was the only one in the building to believe they were being controlled by witchcraft,” he said. “They thought I was talking baloney.”

The picture emerged during the slow process of encouraging the victims to talk. The girls were mainly recruited from rural villages and promised education and the prospect of wealth in the UK. They were given a backstory of how they came to be in the UK, which they had to learn.

The story followed similar lines – an escape from home after being caught in bed with another woman by a village elder, a flight through the jungle before being helped by a man working in a garden. He paid the bus fare to a town where they found a saviour in a church cleric who promised to help them to the UK.

In May 2009, after all the boxes were ticked following Mr Desmond’s alert, police at Heathrow Airport called him asking him to speak to a young woman.

Mr Desmond concluded that her silence had been secured through a juju ceremony. At first she said nothing. Then she started to reveal details of her ordeal to her social worker and then the police.

Over six months, she told of how she came to be in the UK, how she had tried and failed to kill her father with his own gun, and how a witch doctor had sealed her inside a coffin.

A trafficking suspect emerges

The main suspect was Anthony Harrison, a caretaker. Mr Desmond believed that he had inherited control of the trafficking gang after his uncle, Kennedy Johnson, was jailed in 2009 for six years for smuggling girls aged 13 to 18 on false passports into the UK.

The men were connected to the so-called Air Lords, a mafia group that emerged from Nigerian universities in the 1970s. The Air Lords were known to have a grip on the sex trade between Nigeria and Europe.

Detectives found a link to the mystery of ‘Adam’. Kennedy Johnson once shared a flat in Paris with Kingsley Ojo, the trafficker jailed after the Scottish tip-off.

When police arrested Harrison, they found on his computer a copy of the cover story that his victims were ordered to learn.

His immigration records revealed that he had told officers a remarkably similar story of his own flight to the UK – except he claimed to have been a child soldier in Liberia forced to kill his friend.

When he was arrested, he refused to answer any questions confident that he was protected by his juju rituals.

“He just sat there cocksure, looking at me,” said Mr Desmond.

Mr Desmond mentioned Adam’s death and hinted that the boy had died to protect the gang. Harrison made no comment.

But Mr Desmond turned Harrison’s juju tactics back on himself. He had not lived up to his side of the bargain, he told the suspect. He had not given the girls the education they were promised, or helped them to get jobs and earn money.

“You are going to prison for a long time because my juju is stronger than yours,” he told Harrison. “And his face just collapsed. I was speaking his language. I was using his beliefs and turning it on himself.”

At Harrison’s criminal trial, the young woman who was locked inside a black coffin gave evidence, albeit still terrified at the power of juju.

She started on a Friday and was told by the judge to return on Monday to continue her evidence after the weekend break. “I won’t be here, I’ll be dead,” she wrongly predicted.

Harrison was convicted and jailed for 20 years in 2011 for child trafficking. It was thought to be the first successful trafficking prosecution in Europe involving juju.

The conviction of Harrison led to further successful prosecutions building on Mr Desmond’s work. Osezua Osolase, who worked in a recycling plant, was found guilty in 2012 of running a trafficking ring using juju to silence the victims. He was convicted after three of them were persuaded to gave evidence against Osolase.

I was speaking his language. I was using his beliefs and turning it on himself
Andy Desmond, retired detective

Reversing Juju

The painstaking efforts to persuade young women to give evidence led police to seek fast-track alternatives.

Nigeria’s own anti-trafficking agency, Naptip, part-funded by the UK, championed the practice of reverse juju ceremonies, breaking the curses imposed by the entrepreneurial priests at the behest of the criminal gangs.

Juju ceremonies designed to enslave victims typically took 30 to 45 minutes, said Mr Desmond. The priests charged $250-a-time for terrifying displays of performance, smoke and showmanship designed to scare the victims. The reversals were much swifter affairs.

The UK’s former anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, visited Nigeria to see how it was done and to bring the tactic to Britain. In one criminal case in Spain, victims were taken back to Nigeria for juju reversals before returning to give evidence against the once-untouchable criminal overlords.

The tactic was used to persuade five women to give evidence against a London-based nurse accused of bringing young vulnerable women to the UK and then sending them to Germany to work in the sex industry.

The women were shown a video of a priest reversing the oath they had sworn to a nurse, Josephine Iyamu. It worked and she was jailed for 18 years in 2018.

The king’s curse

The prosecutions affected individual operations but other kingpins took their place. Anti-trafficking groups took their fight to the heartland of juju and the man who could make the biggest difference.

Pressed by campaigners and stung by his kingdom’s unwanted reputation as a centre of sexual exploitation, Oba Ewuare II, the new ruler of the kingdom of Benin, placed a curse on anyone involved in trafficking.

The Oba, who has authority over all of the spiritual priests in the kingdom, summoned hundreds to his palace to hear him issue his decree. “The king remains revered and respected,” said Debbie Ariyo, the founder of Afruca, a charity set up in 2001 to protect the interests of African children.

Ms Ariyo said it had immediate impact. Recruitment of girls shifted from Benin City to other parts of Nigeria and outside of the country. Her charity has received reports of victims from Ghana arriving at UK airports who have been trafficked.

“The Nigerian mafia are the experts in trafficking and one of their MOs [modus operandi] is using juju. We are now seeing victims from other countries.

“We are seeing people from areas where Boko Haram operates and from internally displaced camps.

“If they have shifted their operations to other countries or whether groups have borrowed their ideas, we don’t yet know.”

Focus shifts away from UK

The gangs used the UK as a hub for their operations, flying women into London before shipping them out to other European countries.

The gangs relied on child victims not being detained by the authorities on their arrival in the UK and substandard checks when they tried to leave the country again for other European destinations.

But Italian and Spanish police have also taken aim at the gangs because of their impact on organised crime and sexual abuse.

Britain’s departure from the EU and the end of free movement across the bloc has also had an impact. “The UK is virtually not viable for them - it doesn’t fit into their business plan,” said Mr Desmond.

The cumulative impact has been to hit the trafficking gangs hard. The Air Lords are struggling, says Mr Desmond, the witchcraft and juju expert who has retired from the police force.

In 2014, Nigerians were behind only Albania as the country with the most suspected victims of trafficking into the UK, with more than 10 per cent of the total. Last year, they were ninth with 1.5 per cent.

No justice for Adam

Despite the successes, the investigation into Adam’s death remains unsolved. London’s police force used the 20th anniversary of his death to appeal for new information.

Det Chief Inspector Kate Kieran said: “We recognise people may not have wanted to speak up at the time and may have felt loyal to the person or people involved in this.

“However, over the past 20 years, allegiances and relationships may have changed and some people may now feel more comfortable talking to us. This young boy has not and will not be forgotten.”

But the prospects of solving the mystery are slim. None of Adam’s limbs have ever been found. Joyce Osagiede, who was once suspected of involvement in the killing has since died. Ojo is believed to be in Nigeria.

Ms Ariyo blamed cultural misunderstanding, delays and the deportation of some of the key witnesses in part for the failure to resolve the case.

“Now 20 years on we still don’t know who the boy was, who the family members were, it’s just really sad. Twenty years on we haven’t made any progress at all. It’s shocking.”

Updated: October 12th 2021, 12:33 PM