True Spies Episode 126, Veil of Beads Part 1: The Method and the Madness
**NOTE: This episode of True Spies contains accounts of mental illness and medical malpractice. Listener discretion is advised.
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies Veil of Beads, Part 1: The Method and the Madness.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Now what I heard was, “Sedate him.”
NARRATOR: “Sedate him.” Two ominous words, to begin this story.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: And, of course, I had read about sedation. I knew that, no, it wasn't going to end well. So people came, they held my hands to my back. I didn't know whether you should struggle or you shouldn't struggle because you knew that the next thing was the injection.
NARRATOR: ‘The Injection’. More threatening, still.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So they injected me. The things that I was seeing became blurry. And within a second, I was gone.
NARRATOR: There are times in the life of an undercover agent when danger is a necessity to be endured. So how far would you go to make an investigation work? Would you risk your health? Your life? What about your sanity?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I woke up in the ward and I was strapped to my bed and I'm like, “Okay, I'm still here. I'm alive. Now, how do I get my cameras in?”
NARRATOR: It’s true that for a spy exposure to risk is the name of the game. But the man strapped to a gurney in a psychiatric hospital is no spy. At least not in the classic sense of the word.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: My name is Anas Aremeyaw Anas. I am an undercover journalist from Ghana.
NARRATOR: To understand how a journalist could find himself in an Accra psych ward - gathering up his wits, like so many scattered marbles - first you’ll need to park any preconceived notions about what it is that a journalist does.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I've worked across the length and breadth of West Africa and across the world. I am usually undercover. When I go undercover, I make sure I find the bad guys. I put together solid evidence, hardcore evidence of how they planned to commit that crime, and how they executed that crime. I go to the court and testify against these bad guys. And usually, they end up in jail.
NARRATOR: For a journalist in the West such active involvement in a story might raise eyebrows. But we’re not talking about the West.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: My friends in the West have argued several times that perhaps the job of a journalist would be to just do a story and allow institutions to take over the issue and pursue them. My kind of journalism is different but is a product of my society. Unfortunately, I live in a Third-world country. I live in Africa and the institutions on our African continent are not as developed as what you have in the West. So I see nothing wrong with taking one step forward to meet my judiciary or meet my police service for us to come together and make sure that the bad guy is behind bars.
NARRATOR: Anas Aremeyaw Anas is a different breed of journalist, one who has a great deal in common with a spy. And for those practices, he has attracted his fair share of controversy.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I am tagged as a controversial journalist because people just don't understand. They have defined journalism to suit their people. And I have no qualms with that but let no person come to tell me how to do my journalism on my continent because I know my people and I know how to solve the problems of my people.
NARRATOR: Debates on methodology aside, what’s beyond dispute is the impact of Anas’ work.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: My journalism has led to a lot of people going to jail. Chinese sex mafia, a story I did where people from China were trafficked into Ghana. They were in jail for 45 years. My story on MV Benjamin cocaine led to Ricardo being jailed for eight years. My story about the cocoa smuggling in Ghana, where cocoa, which is the backbone of our economy, was being smuggled by security agencies, led to all of them going to jail for a total of 16 years.
NARRATOR: That impact has seen Anas' name spoken in higher and higher places.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I switched on my phone and there was a barrage of calls, a lot of people calling me. “Your name has been mentioned!” “Really? By who?” They said, “Obama.”
BARACK OBAMA: We see that spirit in courageous journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who risked his life to report the truth.
NARRATOR: Just like that, a global reputation crystalized on the lips of a US president. But there are problems with a high profile in this line of work.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Anonymity has always been my secret weapon.
NARRATOR: And celebrity is the exact opposite of anonymity. So just how, precisely, can a world-famous journalist protect his identity in this age of instantaneous information?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The first thing that you're going to see if you try to Google me is to see my famous beads that I wear, African beads. And what it does is that it protects people from seeing my face.
NARRATOR: How refreshingly analog. A veil of beads suspended from a bucket hat. This is the mask that Anas has worn in his public appearances, since the earliest days of his career. But a masked journalist-cum-vigilante? That sounds more like comic book fodder than real life. And Anas’ methods have become the subject of fierce debate, across the African continent.
SOLOMON SERWANJJA: His style of investigative journalism has attracted critics and lovers in equal measure, him being the ‘beaded guy’.
NARRATOR: Solomon Serwanjja runs the African Institute for Investigative Journalism out of Uganda. He is intimately familiar with the dangers facing young journalists in volatile contexts.
SOLOMON SERWANJJA: I have dedicated the last 15 years of my life to investigative journalism. I've rattled feathers. I have annoyed top government officials. I have been arrested. My family has been put in harm’s way because of my investigative journalism.
NARRATOR: As a journalist who has found himself on the wrong side of a jail cell more than once, Soloman can see the appeal of working behind a mask.
SOLOMON SERWANJJA: I mean, that's, first of all, for his security. There's nothing as good as keeping your life secure, right? There's no story worth your life. They teach us in journalism school because a dead person cannot investigate.
NARRATOR: It also gives him a dangerous upper hand in investigations.
SOLOMON SERWANJJA: It has enabled him to infiltrate the inner sanctum of different cartels and criminals? So you don't know who you're seated with. Imagine me. Whenever I'm going out to do any investigations because I'm already exposed out there. They know who I am. I have to work through a third party, and Anas Anas will get there and you'll not know who he is, he will disguise himself. And so it helps him to really get facts and get evidence, he remains anonymous. Anas Anas remains in the wind. Up to now, people still are trying to imagine who this guy is.
NARRATOR: It is this freedom that Anas cherishes most dearly.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So that anonymity you see behind that mask of beads is what I would call the conveyor belt that has led to churning out serious undercover investigative pieces because you don't know who we are. You don't know what I look like, and you never know when I knock on your door. And usually, when I knock on that door, it is not nice.
NARRATOR: There is an entire community of criminals currently sitting behind bars who can attest to the truth of that statement. In more than a decade on the job, Anas has contorted himself into an unbelievable range of covers.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So I have done some investigations where I was completely disguised as a sheik from Saudi Arabia. I've also done some rocky disguises, in the Northern part of Ghana, where I was painted to be part of a rock, to monitor some people who were carrying drugs. Apart from that, of course, played roles in being undercover in prisons, becoming a lawyer in many other countries, and becoming a woman. So it's a mixed bag.
NARRATOR: Painting yourself into a rock, or dabbling in a little cross-dressing. Maybe it all sounds like a good time but let me assure you, this line of work comes with its own particular set of risks. Take an investigation into money laundering in the Seychelles.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: When I got to the airport, immediately I was randomly selected for a special checkup. I was taken to the boss' office and it was a young lady, almost my age. She was like, “We've had a tip-off that you are here to do espionage.” And I'm like, “No, I'm not here to do espionage. I'm a journalist.”
NARRATOR: Knowing what you do about Anas' methods, you’ll see how the two practices may have been confused in the eyes of this particular border guard.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: They ask, “So how many hidden cameras do you have on you?” And I said, “Okay.” I had one. And I couldn't really remember because I was flying from other investigations, but apparently, I had others.
NARRATOR: I mean who really keeps track of these things? One hidden camera, two hidden cameras. What’s the difference?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I had just forgotten that I had a cup that had a hidden camera in there. I had watches. I had so many other things. So when the lady opened the bag and saw all that, for her, it was a confirmation that I was there for purely espionage activities. Then came a very thick, tall personality, who came, handcuffed my hand, and straight into cells.
NARRATOR: Well that must be it then, game over - arrested with a charge of espionage and locked away in a foreign cell. And perhaps Anas would still be there were it not for the unique persuasive abilities of his executive producer at Al Jazeera.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: My boss, Ron McKellar was Irish and the head of national security for Seychelles was also Irish. So I guess the two of them just took the matter up and discussed the matter. And then they said, “Okay, we are going to release you.”
NARRATOR: Just one in a long, long line of close shaves. The truth is, Anas has made a career of putting himself in danger’s direct line of sight, pressing ahead where others might give up. In this run of True Spies, you’re going to discover what makes this most peculiar undercover operative tick, what drives him from risk to risk, and what it would take to make him stop. It’s the story of one man and the ripple effects of his perseverance across the African continent and beyond. It begins with a certain kind of madness. The madness of a man prepared to do whatever it takes. Even stepping into the heart of darkness itself. What he will find over the course of this investigation will change him, irreparably. But that’s tomorrow’s problem. The year is 2009 and Anas is on the hunt for a story.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So I was a young journalist and I had this pretty girlfriend of mine who was a nurse, and she told me one evening that, “Look, I think some really horrible things were happening within the Accra psychiatric hospital.”
NARRATOR: Anas’ girlfriend told him of a culture of malpractice. An institution lousy with abusive staff, thieves, and frightened patients. At the center of it all, is a ring of drug dealers effectively running the show. In other words: an explosive story, waiting to happen. She suggested that Anas may want to get inside the hospital to take a closer look.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: And I'm like, “That would be interesting.”
NARRATOR: Infiltrating a psych ward with a reputation for malpractice? Sure, ‘interesting’ might be one word for it. But even the gung-ho Anas wanted to do his due diligence before hurling himself into the unknown. First, he spent a few days casing the hospital under the guise of a taxi driver waiting for his next customer. What he saw was a monolithic compound, spanning an entire city block - the whole thing guarded by high walls and barbed wire. The reality of spending time inside such a place began to dawn on Anas.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I called my team of doctors, the now-professor Alex Zodu, I spoke to him and said, “Look, this is what I wanna do.” He said, “This can be dangerous because when you get in, you are going to be going through the treatment and all that.”
NARRATOR: Ah, yes. The thing about psychiatric hospitals? Psychiatric drugs. A bombardment of them, as soon as you get through the doors. It looked as though this would be the price of admission for the investigation. Anas' doctors advised him to do his research. If he wanted to be admitted, he would need to convince the facility that he needed urgent care.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I read quite widely. I knew exactly the symptoms I needed to take to the hospital and what to tell the doctor on duty.
NARRATOR: Anas already had a name for his cover: Musa Akolgo. In the build-up to his investigation, he left his hair unwashed and practiced a certain set of mannerisms and ticks. When he arrived at the foreboding metal gates of the compound, he was as prepared as he could be.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I got an uncle of mine, who is a colleague who took me that fine morning. Of course, I knew the abnormal behavior that I had to show. So I made it manifest. While I met the doctor, he asked me my date of birth. I gave him the current date as my date of birth. And he said, “No, that cannot be your date of birth.” And I swore everything that it was my date of birth.
NARRATOR: Disorientation, check. How about throwing some delusional fantasies into the mix?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I remember telling him that he's an angel and I see him wearing white. And he was pointing out to me that, “But this dress that I'm wearing is not white.” I said, “No, you can see that it is white.” Now what I heard was, “Sedate him.”
NARRATOR: Yep, that’ll do it. You already know what comes next. The restraining, the struggle, the injection - then boom, out like a light. When Anas wakes up inside the ward he wants to hit the ground running but that’s easier said than done. For one thing, he’s strapped to a bed.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Even when I got up, I was very hungry. I requested food but felt very drowsy. And I knew that I didn't get in there to be drowsy. I needed to have the right attitude to be able to get my story together.
NARRATOR: Of course, sedation was always on the cards and Anas had come prepared.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I had carried in there caffeine-oriented drugs that were supposed to correct the drowsiness because of the interactions I had with my doctors. “The drugs that will be given to you will be drowsy. It'll keep you this way and that way but this is what you have to take to alert you.”
NARRATOR: But balancing out the effects of a megadose of tranquilizers was never going to be as simple as that.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: There were problems with that because I was sitting up when I was supposed to be sleeping and sleeping when I was supposed to be sitting up. And sometimes a long period seemed to me like a very short period, and a short period seemed to me like a very long period. This was a confusion that was ongoing in my head.
NARRATOR: Irrespective of the turmoil in his mind, Anas had a job to do. He had to document everything taking place in the psychiatric hospital. And to do that, he needed his cameras.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Getting the cameras in was not the big deal because all I needed to do was to let my girlfriend bring it and to let some of my assistants also come and visit and bring it.
NARRATOR: Simple enough, but how to hide them once they were in his possession?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: In those days, we were allowed to use a Walkman to listen to the radio. So I just placed it where the Walkman is and the nurses were not curious to come and find out what kind of Walkman you are using. People didn't really understand what a hidden camera looks like, so it was quite easy.
NARRATOR: Suffice it to say the staff of Accra’s psychiatric hospital were not exactly on high alert to the risk of potential intruders. After all, who in their right mind would willingly enter such a place? In fact, guards were down all over the hospital. Anas quietly began to send word that he wanted to purchase drugs to his fellow patients. He expected it would take some time to get any leads. Drug dealers don’t tend to give themselves up easily on the outside. But this wasn’t the outside.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I anticipated that I would meet the cocaine syndicate in my third week. But fortunately, or unfortunately for me, I met my cocaine syndicate at the very end of the first week.
NARRATOR: Barely enough time to relearn how to think straight after the ordeal of admission and Anas was already coming face to face with his mark: a charismatic orderly named Carter.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Carter was a cocaine person and he said, “Hey, I've heard of you. We have a meeting at 7 pm in this particular room. Can you come?”
NARRATOR: A break in the investigation. Perhaps earlier than Anas would have liked, but now he had been offered an in he couldn’t squander it.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I knew that tonight I had to do everything possible to indicate to this group that I was into drugs.
NARRATOR: The evening rolls around. Anas makes his way to the meeting point and finds Carter and his associates waiting for him.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Carter introduced himself and said, “I have cocaine. I have heroin. I have everything. Are you into it?” I said, “Yeah, of course. That's what brought me here. And I'm interested in cocaine.”
NARRATOR: If you’ve listened to some of our previous True Spies, you’ll know that in some Western countries, there are strict rules against an undercover agent partaking in controlled substances. But Anas is a lone agent and the only code governing his behavior is his determination to catch his prey.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So they gave me a try to see the quality. I tried. And of course, I had rehearsed the answer. I said, “It was great. It was good.”
NARRATOR: Ah, that’s the stuff. Nothing like a little sharpener to wash off the stress of a week in the psych ward. Anas projected the picture of the habitual user. Carter was satisfied and agreed to sell him cocaine. Deal done, Anas made his excuses, safe in the knowledge that the entire exchange had been caught on camera. But all the while, the cocaine was coursing through his body.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The effect it was having on me was severe because I'm someone who is not into alcohol or any other substance. Now, imagine I was taking these caffeine-oriented drugs. I was under sedation. I was doing cocaine. So it was difficult for the body to put this together. So I was shaking and I knew that it wasn't working well for me.
NARRATOR: Heart racing, head pounding, tongue growing heavy in his mouth. It was all Anas could do to make it back to his bed in the ward where he kept a mobile phone that his girlfriend had smuggled in for him for emergency use only.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So I pressed the red button, called my doctors who helped me get in, and told them, “Look, I think it's a problem. Now you need to help me out.”
NARRATOR: Anas relayed the cocktail of drugs he’d been exposed to in his short time in the hospital: the sedatives, the stimulants, the cocaine. He told them his body appeared to be shutting down.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Then doc recommended that it means that you have to come for detoxification.
NARRATOR: Getting yourself committed to a mental institute is one thing. But finding a way out? Without blowing your cover? That’s another.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I went and applied for something they call parole within the hospital.
NARRATOR: A family emergency - totally unavoidable. You understand, of course?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: And the same uncle who brought me in came and told them that he was taking me to a funeral.
NARRATOR: Temporary leave of absence granted. Hurried footsteps out of the ominous compound, metal gate clanging behind them. An idling car waits.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So I sat in the car and straight I was driven to the house of my doctor and then we started the detox immediately.
NARRATOR: For the first time in a week, a sense of clarity returned to Anas. The extent of what he’d put himself through was beginning to dawn.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: It was after the second day of detoxification that my doctor told me that, “I don't think this is safe for you. You shouldn't go.”
NARRATOR: It would be the easiest thing in the world to bow out now. The temptation must be overwhelming.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: But how can a journalist [not] go somewhere? He's already filmed some of the evidence. He's got everything in place. He's met the cocaine syndicate and you are telling him not to go back. The job ought to be completed. So I protested, and he protested. Maybe I wouldn't do what I did in 2010, but I insisted.
NARRATOR: There’s a certain degree of hardiness that comes with youth. For better or for worse, at this stage in Anas' career backing out with the job half done simply wasn’t an option. The very next day, his uncle returned him to the Accra psychiatric hospital.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I continued filming. And I'm glad I did because I discovered many other things.
NARRATOR: As it turned out, the network of drug-dealing orderlies was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the following weeks in the institute, through the fog of sedatives, Anas documented increasingly distressing activities.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Staff were beating patients and people were being chained. People were dying of very curable diseases. The food items within the prison were being stolen by prison inmates. And I bought some, filmed them on camera and all that.
NARRATOR: An entire ecosystem of criminality built around the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable people. This represented an abject failure in the hospital’s duty of care.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: To the extent that a patient had even died and the staff didn't know, and he had died and the body had decomposed for many weeks and people didn't know.
NARRATOR: A body left to rot in a ditch on hospital grounds. When Anas finally checked out of the hospital, he left with the most damning evidence imaginable. The kind of evidence that could detonate a bomb in Ghanaian society which is precisely what happened when Anas published his story in The New Crusading Guide a month later.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The impact was great. When it came out the then president, John Atta Mills, visited the place. The first time a sitting president had stormed a psychiatric hospital to see what was wrong with the people; the first time a sitting president had increased how much they spend on food; the first time a sitting president was saying that, “Let's have a real look at the drugs that are given to them. Some of them are outmoded. Let's get the best ones.” And I thought this was brilliant. Without my investigation, we couldn't have gotten there.
NARRATOR: Perhaps here is where you’ll find the method in Anas' madness. Even at this early juncture in his career, he was committed to a form of journalism that could not be ignored.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Quite early in my journalistic life, I did a lot of reading and the reading was tailored more toward the impact of journalism. And I have seen people who have done journalism all their lives and they had very little impact. Society forgets so quickly. And I had also read about what the people on the other side, who fight journalists, the approaches that they use, they sue you through the courts, they physically attack you, or they will bribe you. Now I wanted that kind of journalism that was a knockout punch, that doesn't give you any chance of survival in the ring with me.
NARRATOR: With his investigation into the Accra psychiatric hospital, Anas landed that knock-out punch. Yes, he had endured insanity to pull it off but in the end, the reward outweighed the risk: the bad guys were caught and the good guys lived to tell the tale. The same cannot be said of every investigation that Anas has leaped into.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The community had experienced their people, their kids, and kin being picked up by strange people. And then they found their bodies in this forest.
NARRATOR: In the next part of Veil of Beads, Anas is called to the backwoods of Malawi, to investigate a spate of ritual murders, things go terribly wrong.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: They ransacked all our cameras and everything, took them away. And now they started hitting us. Passions had been inflamed so people were throwing knives. People were throwing stones. My friend Darius was bleeding seriously from the head. I had gotten a stab in my back with a knife.
NARRATOR: Anas is forced to truly consider whether he is prepared to die for his work.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Their attacks intensified because some people had made up their minds that they were going to kill us. We were all bleeding but we held onto each other and climbed. I saw a very big stone that hit my head.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. That’s next time on True Spies.
Anas Aremeyaw Anas (pictured) is famous in Ghana for his investigative journalism. His stories explore corruption and crime throughout Africa. Among his many assignments, Anas has gone undercover as a Catholic priest and as a bartender in a Chinese sex mafia ring in Ghana.
Solomon Serwanjja is a Ugandan investigative journalist and the executive director of the African Institute for Investigative Journalism.