Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 13/05/2021
Credit: David Hundeyin
I am a writer, investigative journalist and broadcaster whose work has appeared on CNN, The Africa Report, BBC and BusinessDay. My work as a satirist on ‘The Other News,’ Nigeria’s answer to The Daily Show has featured in the New Yorker Magazine and in the Netflix documentary ‘Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy.’
In 2018, I was nominated by the US State Department for the 2019 Edward Murrow program for journalists under the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). In February 2021, I won the People Journalism Prize for Africa 2020. In June 2021, I was selected as one of 12 writers and journalists from around the world to take part in the inaugural $1 million Substack Local program.
The story is an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the horrific rape and murder of a Nigerian jobseeker, Iniubong Umoren, whose tragic story gripped Nigeria in May 2021. This story brought together leaked call data from a source at the telecoms provider used by the primary suspect, OSINT and brute-force sleuthing to establish that the suspect had help and was part of a syndicate regularly targeting young women to be raped and murdered.
Using the data I gathered and the timeline I conclusively established, the story identified another suspect and a key witness, who were then summoned to court.
The project led to the removal of the case from the jurisdiction of the Akwa Ibom State Police Command, which I was able to prove was actively collaborating with the suspects and sabotaging the crime scene so as to hobble the criminal investigation. As part of the project, I made a live TV appearance opposite the Akwa Ibom State Police Commissioner, Frank Amiengheme, whom I confronted with proof from my story that one of his officers was in contact with the suspect long before any police involvement in the case. His inability to muster a coherent response was instrumental in getting the case transferred out of his hands to federal prosecutors.
Using my story as the new centre of the investigative framework, the federal prosecutors who took over the case then identified the suspect’s sister Francisca, and his associate Kufre – both identified for the first time by the project – as a key suspect and star witness respectively, Without the project, which used OSINT tools like Truecaller and Facebook to establish their existence and identities. they would both have remained completely unknown to the prosecutors and to the public.
In the aftermath of the story, a large number of women also came forward with their stories of almost falling into the same trap that Ini Umoren fell into, including a lady called Blessing Godwin, who was identified in the story as a potential alternate victim chosen by the suspect before he ended up murdering Ini Umoren. Essentially, this project proved the capacity of OSINT to help solve complex crimes in Nigeria, and for the first time, provided evidence of the long-rumoured existence of a criminal ring specialising in illegal harvesting of human parts and organs from young women in Akwa Ibom State.
The most important tool I used was a free global cell tower locator tool called cell2gps.com. Researching, learning and using this tool without any prior knowledge of the subject, I was able to make sense of the cell tower data from the leaked call records I gained exclusive access to, and present it as clear and readable information in the story.
I also used Truecaller extensively in the story, as one of my 3 main OSINT sources. Running the numbers from the leaked call records through Truecaller, I was able to get names and photos of key characters in the story including Kufre Effiong, who is now a key witness in the ongoing murder trial. Without Truecaller in particular, this story could not have happened.
My second main OSINT source was Facebook. Using the information I gleaned from Truecaller, I searched Facebook to identify Frank Akpan. Eventually – after scrolling through hundreds of profiles with the same name – I found the man from the Truecaller photo. Using the information on his profile, I was able to find him on LinkedIn and establish that he was a senior civil servant in the Niger Delta Ministry working in the office of the cabinet minister and former Akwa Ibom State governor, Godswill Akpabio.
My third tool/OSINT source was Google Maps. Using satellite views and Google Street View in conjunction with the cell tower location data, I was able to prove that a serving police officer who would later be hailed as part of the team that “arrested” the suspect, was in fact in physical contact with the suspect and Frank Akpan, in addition to calling the suspect on the phone at least 24 hours before he should have been aware of his existence.
What was the hardest part of this project?
For me, the hardest part of the entire project was processing the huge volume of data I was dealing with and presenting it in a coherent narrative that would pass across the maximum possible information without compromising my source. To this end, I had to completely avoid using the screen captures my source sent to me, for fear of inadvertently identifying them.
I sat with Google Sheets for the best part of 12 hours and I meticulously transcribed all the data from the screen captures into colour-coded cells, using a simplified format that the audience could understand. I then had to go through all this data line by line where the Vlookup function might not be useful, in order to find links, patterns and calls that might be of interest. Every single cell under the “incoming call” and “outgoing call” columns had to be manually matched to a name and photo via Truecaller, which was a gruelling, time-consuming task.
For reference, the snippets of this reproduced data published in the story were less than 10 percent of the total data leak I got my hands on. With no other option however, I had no choice but to go through this data manually, line by line, meticulously marking each cell with a rudimentary code system linked to Truecaller names and photos, until I had turned this big data file into actionable information.
This process of manually sifting through data took the best part of an entire week. By comparison, writing out the story draft following this process of research and data purification, took just one night.
What can others learn from this project?
In this part of the world, journalists could certainly learn to be more skeptical about publishing statements sent out by authorities as though they are incontrovertible facts of a matter. The entire reason I was driven to do the story in the first place, was that in the aftermath of the social media campaign that actually identified Frank Akpan as the culprit when Ini was declared missing, several videos and photos emerged of his hideout, with several telltale signs suggesting that this was not his first time. There were womens clothes’and shoes, notebooks belonging to female students with dates going back to 2013 and several unexplained holes and mounds in the compound.
Following my story, a subsequent investigation by another journalist established that there were several eyewitness accounts describing a foul stench similar to that of putrefying flesh, permanently enveloping the compound in question. Despite all of this readily available OSINT indicating that something big and monstrous was happening there, Nigerian media was generally happy to report the press release sent out by the Akwa Ibom State Police Command as news.
This completely uncritical, lazy and hasty approach to journalism is what I think of as a crime against the profession in this part of the world, where governments and authorities have extensive track records of telling lies and putting out statements filled with deliberate distortions and omissions. The job of a journalist in the Global South cannot be to simply parrot what someone in authority said. This project became the basis for the removal of the case from a clearly corrupted police command, and served as the basis for the new ongoing prosecution. Without this project, the Akwa Ibom Police Command’s false statements and sham investigaiton would have flown unchallenged.