The assailants did not want the police to know about their dark deeds. That was why they agreed to put the man to death at the cemetery and bury his remains in a shared grave.
While they were inside the graveyard discussing how to execute the plot, a man warned them. There would be serious consequences if they killed their victim, he said.
He was a member of the community who did not approve of the mob action. But it was obvious nothing was going to change their minds as they ignored that lone voice and stuck to their homicidal agenda.
They had deduced, at a certain point in the torture, that they would end up in court and proceed to jail if the man lived another day.
But they would discover later that, even in the absence of the disapproving voice, there was a video recording that could still bring to light the same story they were seeking to bury. That discovery prompted a desperate attempt to seize the footage so there would be no evidence for any prosecution.
A farmer said to be in possession of the footage fled into the bush with his smartphone when his house came under an attack at night. An armed group, believed to have been sent to discard the recording from the farmer’s phone, staged the strike. The attackers knifed one of the farmer’s children around the waist during the raid.
Some of the attackers had recorded their dastardly act with their smartphones, and the footage had found its way onto the phone of the farmer, who is a friend of the victim. And they feared that if anyone would report to the police with evidence, it would be this farmer.
The hunted recording captures the torture to which Atanga Ayamga was subjected at Yua, a Ghanaian border community. Situated in the Upper East Region, Yua is on the eastern part of the Kassena-Nankana Municipality, near a river that links Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Atanga’s torture mimicked the marathon agony Jesus endured according to the story told about his death on the skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem’s walls. And the conspiracy at the core of the mob action dished out to him bore some semblance to the harrowing mob teamwork that saw a young soldier― Major Maxwell Adam Mahama― killed in the prime of his career in Ghana in 2017.
That incident shook the nation to the core and elevated the issue of “mob justice” to topical national discourse. But even as the culprits are still being tried, mob attacks have not abated. In Yua, the recent victim of such mob action is Atanga Ayamga.
Atanga became a target for torture after the aggressors reportedly found some human skeletons, presumed to have been exhumed by him, at a cemetery in Yua. There is no evidence yet to support the unanimous accusation levelled against him. But his accusers stormed his house, an old hut built with red earth and thinly roofed with savannah grass, and dragged him to a wooded outskirt of the community.
They stripped him to the waist and hung him on improvised gallows—a pair of Y-shaped logs planted upright and wide apart with a wooden crossbar on them. They placed his armpits on the crossbar, stretched out his arms over the same bar, pulled his legs from under the crosspiece upwards until his feet reached his outstretched arms. They then tied his legs to his arms with a rope torn out from a piece of white cloth.
He hung on the frame like a full chicken on a grill stick. With his bareback fully arched by the stretching and the binding, they whipped him savagely from behind.
He could not cry out because, whilst he was resting his chin on the crossbeam for support, he could not open his mouth at the same time. He could only moan and blink in pain as he bled from the right corner of his mouth.
From the Gallows to the Shrine
It was during his moments in the crude gallows that they conceived the idea to take his life so that he would not report the torture to the police. One of the assailants took leave of the spot briskly and returned clutching a bulky wreath of dry grass and plant stalks, held breast-high like a trophy being lifted in triumph.
He dumped the stuff right beneath Atanga and sent for fire at once. The enthusiastic-looking messenger had not finished turning around to take off for the task when a member of the mob registered a strong caution against the idea to torch the man alive. Pointing to the sky, he said the smell and the smoke that would go into the air from the outdoor fire they were about to set could draw public attention that might land them in trouble.
Shelving the move on that cautionary note, they took him off the gallows and marched him away from the area, both hands still tied together in front. Although his bleeding feet hardly could carry his hammered body, he had to walk as fast as his torturers did, dry leaves rustling under their feet as they hurried along bush path.
They stopped when they arrived under a baobab tree at the community’s cemetery. They undid the rope on his hands, held both hands to the back, bound them together again, and continued with a series of torturous assaults, which ended with a concentration on his fingers.
By the time that phase was over, all his finger joints had been dislocated and his right hand almost entirely deformed.
At that point, he could not stand on his feet anymore. The aggressors towed him on the cemetery ground to a grave that had already been used for burial and opened it. They threw him into the grave and readied themselves to smash his head with rocks and shovel earth on his body afterwards.
Again, another member of the community told them there would be dire consequences on the entire Yua if they killed him. Determined to finish him off, they ignored that lone voice and reached for big stones whilst voicing abusive remarks aloud at their prey.
They could not carry out what would have been the final phase of the attack. Two police men arrived at the scene― an inspector and a junior officer whose rank was not immediately known.
The law enforcers were from the next community, Sirigu. They arrived after receiving a tip-off. They disrupted the execution, but not Atanga’s ordeal.
The policemen approached the aggressors and exchanged greetings with them and took a deep, slow look at the young man inside the grave. The inspector turned his attention to the mob and inquired about the incident. The leader of the group recapped their accusation and, with noticeable approval from his colleagues, he added that they also intended to visit a shrine with him to determine whether he was guilty or otherwise.
Their demand to take him to a spiritualist was very strong.
Days after the cemetery encounter between the police and the aggressors, Atanga fell, lost and regained consciousness soon after.
Surrounded by four relations at his home, he later spoke to The Fourth Estate about his ordeal after the cemetery. He ended up at a shrine in Bongo, a district in the region, from the cemetery because the two police officers agreed to the demand made by his torturers.
“They told the policemen that they wanted to take me to the Tingani (shrine) for posiga (confession). The policemen said they could take me there and also asked them to let the police know the result when they returned from the Tingani. I was surprised the police officers allowed them to take me away,” he said.
The Bongo shrine did not find him guilty. His accusers, far from satisfied, hauled him across the border to a “superior” shrine in Burkina Faso. This shrine is presided over by a priest reputed never to have failed his clients before.
Here, too, the verdict was the same. Not guilty.
The attackers returned to Ghana, extremely disappointed over the result and more incensed at their lonesome prey. Soon after arriving in Yua, they served a strong notice that Atanga would reimburse the expenses they had incurred in transporting him and themselves to the shrines and pay back the consultation fees the priests charged and undisclosed costs of the animals sacrificed for the verification rituals.
In addition to that announcement, they said they also intended to perform further rituals. They threatened to invade his house to carry off any animals considered suitable for that purpose. True to their word, they marched into the house a few days later and took away every animal they found.
As of the time of The Fourth Estate’s interaction with him, there were only three surviving animals left in the compound: a bored little dog that had gone to join colleagues at an ashy playground in the neighbourhood during the invasion; a dating adolescent cock that had left the house before the raid, perhaps, to see off a visiting lover; and an ‘Afro-haired’ quick-tempered hen that had been sitting quietly on a clutch of eggs at an obscure corner when the raiders were seriously chasing and grabbing all the domestic animals in sight.
A dark new chapter
For a long time, Atanga’s elder brother, Abagura, did not say a word as The Fourth Estate engaged the family. Looking very troubled, he rested his chin ponderingly in his left palm. With his eyes sorrowfully focused on his brother’s deformed hand, he crossed his legs and tapped them on the ground contemplatively and repetitively.
Abagura lives and works in Kumasi. He only came back home after he was informed about his younger brother’s ordeal.
As Atanga struggled with his deformed hand in the presence of his young children during the interaction, Abagura burst into tears.
“His hand is dead,” said the heartbroken Abagura, taking his hand off his chin and pointing it at Atanga’s paralysed-looking hand in fury. “That is what makes me cry. You can see it for yourself. The fingers have been so damaged, and he can’t use them anymore for anything… for no wrong done.”
The hand Atanga lost to the mob torture was not just a major part of his body. It was also the mainstay of his family, their source of livelihood. He used that hand to farm on a subsistence scale and to play a local guitar at village funerals for a living.
He plucks the strings of the local guitar―known in his native Gurune as kologo― to match his songs whilst a dreadlocked companion dances with vigour to the spirited rhythm. But the future of his two-man band now hangs in the balance owing to the impact of the torture on his hand.
Atanga’s right hand is not the only affected part. Both insteps― the curved, top parts of his feet― were brutally cut open, too. When the meeting was about to end, he peeled off with great care the gauze bandage swathed around the wounds for The Fourth Estate to see the state of his feet. A bowl-shaped sore on each instep was what met the eye.
The torture also left tattoo-like scars around his wrists, elbow joints, and ankles where they had tied him at the gallows and under the baobab tree.
The last words the mob said to Atanga are still ringing in the ears of the troubled family—a vow to return and resume where they had left off.
Notwithstanding the threatening atmosphere, the family disclosed more, including their intention to officially report the torture to police authorities, when The Fourth Estate first visited them.
Police press three charges against assembly member, 12 others
With his head bowed deep in reflection and sorrow, Atanga identified sixteen people as among those who tortured him. The assembly member of Yua, Ayane Stephen Azure, was named.
When The Fourth Estate engaged the Navrongo Divisional Police Headquarters on the developments, the Divisional Commander, Chief Supt. Yahaya Muchiraru, said the police would pursue the torturers, probe the reported failure of its officers to rescue the victim at the cemetery, and track down the faceless gang behind the attack on the farmer in possession of the torture footage.
Days after the commander had given his word and the victim had lodged a complaint about his torture with the police in the company of his relations, the police arrested thirteen people said to be involved in the assault.
They include Ayane Stephen Azure, Akologo Azuure, Anamoo Akandigah, Solomon Ayoka, Adongo Kwabena Azaaziro, Atubiga Ayipaala, Nsor Aguzi and Kwame Abaani. The rest are Akotima Aginne, Philip Ayonka, David Ayonka, Francis Ayamga and Wahabu Ayibasa.
Some of the suspects have admitted to their involvement in the torture, according to the police.
“We have paraded them at the Divisional Police Headquarters at Navrongo. They are facing three charges― assault, causing harm, and conspiracy to commit a crime. We have taken the matter to the Circuit Court in Bolgatanga. They were remanded and have been granted bail. The case has started at the Circuit Court,” Chief Supt. Muchiraru said.
Besides information from sources in the community about the verification rituals that took place at the shrine in Burkina Faso, investigations conducted by the Navrongo Divisional Police Headquarters have more to add.
A police fact-sheet contained in a docket titled, “The Republic Versus Ayane Stephen Azure and 12 Others” was sighted by The Fourth Estate on a visit to the Circuit Court in Bolgatanga on February 9, 2022. The fact sheet says (per the police investigation) the damage done to the victim’s feet is a result of the clubbing he received from a hoe stick used by the torturers.
Police investigations also established that whilst the Burkinabe shrine exonerated the victim, the priest also rather found one of the accusers (Adongo Kwabena Azaaziro) guilty of “looting the graves”.
But the other accusers reportedly disagreed with that verdict, claiming that Adongo was “mentally retarded” and, on that basis, was incapable of conceiving or doing such a deed.
“The complainant (Atanga Ayamga) was later left nearly dead. The wounds on the legs have become serious such that the wounds are refusing to heal even after a month and the right leg faces imminent amputation,” excerpts from the police brief fact sheet read.
The Assembly Member for Yua confirmed his arrest and remand to The Fourth Estate. But when an interview was proposed to hear his side of the story, the alleged leader of the attack deferred it indefinitely.
“I will organise and get back to you,” he said on the telephone.
Calls for justice
The boy who was stabbed during the night raid for Atanga survived at the Martyrs of Uganda Health Centre at Sirigu. His father returned home after the police announced they had tuned their radar to that house. Calls have emerged also from a quarter of Sirigu for those behind the armed attack to be brought to book.
A number of people in the community want the police to go after the fleeing suspects. One of the calls for more arrests is from an elderly man who was taking a walk along a busy road when The Fourth Estate was about to take leave of the community on a second visit to the area.
Wearing an old straw hat and leaning firmly on an old walking stick as he self-assuredly made his way along that road towards his destination, he spoke in proverbs concerning the runaway suspects.
“A bird that flies off the earth and lands on an anthill is still on the ground. They can run but they can’t hide,” he said.
“They have defecated on the farm of somebody who has an anus,” he added, chewing behind a disposable anti-covid-19 mask what seemed like a piece of kola nut.
“The young man they have tortured has a relation who is a soldier,” he explained and focused his gaze on his slow walk again.
Editor’s Note: Our reporter, Edward Adeti, spent months speaking to the victim, community members, and the police for details of the torture. The story is an account from these sources even where there is no direct attribution.
You can reach him via [email protected]