On 22 September 1998 Semira Adamu was murdered in Belgium as she was being deported. Semira was a 20-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker who was suffocated to death by two Belgian policemen to keep her silent while the Belgian Sabena airline flight was about to take-off for Togo. Twenty-four years later her cousin, Benjamin Maiangwa, investigates the truth of her murder.
By Benjamin Maiangwa
I am not certain that I ever actually met you in person, or maybe I was too young to remember if we’ve had any physical encounter. But somehow, you have managed to leave an ineffaceable impression on my mind. My first “real” encounter with you, Semira (you were also known as Esther), was by way of two birthday pictures in our family photo album. I didn’t feature in those pictures, otherwise I would claim we were close and that you held me in your arms or even carried me as a baby strapped on your back. The pictures must have been taken the year I was born. So, I was not yet ready for birthday parties or any other party for that matter. It made sense then that my father only took my two older brothers to the birthday party of James, your youngest brother, where the photos where taken.
My two brothers were both adorned in a sky-blue safari shirts and trousers for the event. My eldest brother seemed to be quite attentive, probably heeding the photographer’s instructions who might have said something to garner the attention of the well-behaved and smartly dressed kids as they posed for the photograph.
Except for your head gear, Semira, you were regaled in a white dress in this picture, standing behind my eldest brother, with your right hand on his shoulder. You must have been nine years old as far as I could tell. For his part, my immediate older brother, was more attentive to the snacks on the table, and his patience with the photographer was probably wearing thin at that moment.
Only you, Semira, and your three siblings featured in the second picture. Both you and your sister were dressed in all-white attire. As I looked at the picture, I couldn’t help but wonder about the picture my father painted of your body when it was brought home to Nigeria from Belgium after you had died, no sorry, after you were killed by Belgian gendarmes on 22 September 1998.
According to your funeral program held at Kabala Costain Cemetery in Kaduna state, Nigeria, on 13 October 1998, you were “born on 15 April 1978 at Yaba, Lagos to the family of Mr. and Mrs. Hassan G. Adamu. [You] attended Primary School at Army Children School, 44 barracks, Kaduna. [You] started [your] secondary education at Government Day Secondary School, Kakuri and later finished at Government Girls Secondary School, Independence Way Kaduna. You were until your death a Fashion Designer.”
I took a deep sigh after reading this short biography and wondered how long its length would have been if your life had not been snuffed out the way it was on that ill-fated day.
I remembered hearing about your death in 1998, but I don’t remember hearing the intimate anatomical details of it. In fact, I doubt that any of my family members knew the troubled tale in its entirety. For one, YouTube, Facebook Live, and other social media outlets didn’t exist at the time. My recollection of the loosely told story of your cruel murder was that you were sleeping in your hotel room somewhere in Belgium when two ‘night prowlers’ came in and smothered you with a pillow. This was the story I had been told or eavesdropped on at family meetings until my rude awakening on 1 June 2022.
I was researching on mobility and border apartheid and decided to take a break to read some online entries about our uncle who had died a few months ago. It was then I stumbled on his remarks about your death through an interview he gave to the BBC. I quickly shifted attention to your story and googled every readily retrievable piece of information about you. I read a few things on Wikipedia and some other obscure news outlets about how you were killed.
I wondered why CNN, and other notable news outlets hadn’t also reported the news of your murder. So, I explored what was available and this was how the News Magazine of the Islamic Movement, Crescent International depicted your last moments:
Semira, a 20-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker, died on September 22, 1998, after two policemen smothered her with a pillow to keep her quiet while awaiting takeoff on a Belgian Sabena airline flight to Lomé, the capital of Togo. A video taken by a third policeman showed one officer pressing [your] head into a pillow across his knees, while his colleague pushed [you] from behind. [Your] ordeal lasted 20 minutes while the two policemen chatted and laughed.
‘Why Togo?’ I wondered out loud. ‘Would it kill them to bring you straight home to Nigeria? Or would a connecting flight be awaiting you in Togo?’ In any case, this new discovery of how you were killed startled me. I stood up from my couch in the living room where I had been sitting, paced around a bit, went to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, to the bedroom.
The knowledge I thought I had about your death until then had been a lie and there was no escaping from this. Having exhausted all the visible corners in my apartment I had tried to find solace in, I went back to the living room where I had stumbled on the unsettling facts about you. I had wanted to give up in desolation and take a walk, but I felt that you wanted me to keep going. So, I took a deep breath and ventured deeper into your story.
When I typed in your name (Semira Adamu) on YouTube, the first video I saw showed the live footage of you sitting on a plane, panic struck. You were sandwiched between your two calm and collected murderers, or as one of my friends would call them, your “superintendents of death”.
There is no indication in the video that some interactions took place that ‘disturbed’ other passengers. Then in a flash, I saw these men pushing you from behind and pressing your face on a cushion on what appeared to be the knee of another man, their debased and criminal accomplice who was also hellbent on extinguishing the life in you.
“The pretext for killing a slave”, according to the abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas, is “that the slave has offered resistance…raised his hands in self-defence…” then “the white-assaulting party is fully justified in shooting the slave down.”
But ours is a civilized world!
I couldn’t see or sense any obvious signs of resistance on your part, Semira, which could have been futile since you were chained by your ankles and your hands were handcuffed behind your back. But these ‘messengers of death’ pressed on as though they were doing nothing unusual as you struggled for life. They appeared deaf to your suffering, as they hollowed out the life from you.
The atrocious scene was all too common!
Although this might have been the last thing on their mind, but the arrogance and sense of impunity that the officers involved in the morbid short video ended up serving some documentary purposes: it historicized their barbarity by recording the act which, in retrospect, was their most singular moment of ignominy. Their murderous act could simply be described, in the absence of a more vile name, as jubilantly demonic.
Statewatch News Online described what followed in this way:
On 12 December 2003 a Brussels court found four former Belgian police officers guilty of assault, battery, and negligence in the case of Semira Adamu who died during a forced deportation in 1998 …. When asked in court why the use of so much force was necessary one of the officers told the court that it was necessary: “to avoid disturbing other passengers” …. Five police officers appeared before the court, one was acquitted; three were given one-year suspended sentences, and the fourth, the unit’s chief, got a 14-month suspended sentence …. The court also ordered the Belgian state to pay undisclosed damages to [your] family. [Your] death in 1998 led to the resignation of the then Interior Minister Louis Tobback.
“Is that all”? I wondered aloud!
But what was I expecting? Had there ever been a fitting punishment on such matters pertaining to the ‘Black body’ anywhere else before? Besides, Semira, what manner of justice would bring you back to life?
Semira, I had wanted to dig deeper into the circumstances in which you left Nigeria for Belgium but resigned myself to the instinct that somethings are better left buried. Besides, you’re not here to tell your side of the story. So, I concluded that how you left home for Belgium, and why you settled on Belgium as your potential “new home” is not of any contingent or necessary consequence to your killing by the Belgian gendarmes who had managed to put you on a plane back home to us (via Togo for some reason), only to cut your journey short.
Semira, a night before my reawakening of the circumstances of your murder at Brussels international airport, I was engrossed in a conversation with a friend about why I chose Belgium for an internship program at the United Nations university in 2014. My initial choice for Belgium was simply because of the presence of the UN university in Bruges. But I confessed to my friend how I fell in love with the city of Bruges. I must have spent an hour with this friend relishing my three-month’s adventure in Bruges. I ended by saying I would visit Bruges again at the slightest chance, yet I woke to the horrifying discovery that you were killed in the country that I somehow had cherished 16 years later.
Your memorial service in Belgium took place on 26 September 1998. The service was unsurprisingly well-attended judging by the YouTube footage. The memorial service was held in French, so I have no idea what was said about you. What was striking was the sea of people outside the Church, standing in solidarity with you. At this point, I thought, you were not just my cousin. You were their daughter, friend, sister, mother, and cousin as well. Some of them were visibly weeping, and their presence at the funeral was a statement of their emphatic condemnation of your murder.
The funeral could also have been anyone’s, at least among the African migrant community to which you belonged. One of the few Africans at the funeral lamented: “A woman who was crying for help, who didn’t want to go, has a will to express…could end up in this way, to even die in the hands of the same authority to whom she had run. We do not know anywhere to run to anymore in the world.”
This cri de cœur resonates with any non-white body in hostile white metropoles, and sadly in Africa as well. To your murderers, Semira, “your will to express” was your greatest undoing!
The circumstances of your death also made me think about another young African woman, like yourself, who, in the 19th century, was taken to Europe from South Africa by her slaveholder. She was turned into a specimen in a freak show, where debauchers in London and Paris could gaze at what they considered her interesting physique or plainly, “her large buttocks”.
This woman was Sarah Baartman.
The remains of Sarah Baartman were repatriated from France to South Africa — on the rather strong prodding of Nelson Mandela — where she was given a dignified burial more than 200 years since her death at the age of 26 on 29 December 1815. This was after “her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris Museum until 1974.” Clearly, Semira, the case of Sarah Baartman and yours reflect the dehumanization of black bodies that characterized the way in which the world functioned back then and even today.
Semira, you were only 20 years old when you were hurried out of this world. Your corpse was brought home to us for your final internment in Nigeria on 13 October 1998. While receiving your corpse at the airport, your family had to open the coffin to confirm that the body of the person who was lying inside was indeed you. Those who were there said, brutal as your execution had been, at least the Belgians took the precaution to honour you in death. Your body was well-preserved and presented. I thought if only you were rendered the same care in life, then you would have been a 43-year-old woman today and not another number among the dead.
I wished I had grown up to know you and meet you, and I am still inclined to think that you did carry and play with me as a child. As we remember you 24 years after your passage onto glory from a world that was afraid of your light, I can only echo your family’s prayer as emblazoned on your funeral program: “Esther, we love you, but God loves you more. May your gentle soul rest in peace.” Amen!
Benjamin Maiangwa is Assistant Professor in the department of Political Science at Lakehead University. Maiangwa’s research focuses broadly on the intersection of politics, culture, and society. His publications use storytelling and critical research to explore notions of belonging, mobility, and how people experience conflict and peace in everyday life.
Dear Benjamin Maiangwa
I never had a physical encounter with Semira neither. But we, Serge, a friend, and myself, spoke with her on the telephone for six months, the time she was incarcerated in the deportation center 127bis, near Brussels International Airport. Serge and myself were the only two englishspeaking persons in the collective of young people that, at that time, tried to struggle against forced deportations and the existance of such centers.
The centers, and the practice of deportations are still with us. The wound is still there. The memory of Semira, of her courage and resistance is still there.
Thanks a lot for your words.
Sister-and-brotherhood without borders from Brussels
Dear Tom Nisse,
Thank you for your encouraging words. It’s consoling to hear that Semira was able to communicate with people like you during her incarceration. Even though the outcome was not what we expected, we shall keep the struggle going in her memory.