•Why town didn’t celebrate Queen mother’s release
From PAUL OSUYI, Asaba
Ogwashi-Uku, an ancient town in Aniocha South Local Government Area of Delta State, was in the news for the wrong reasons. The traditional institution of one of the oldest local government headquarters in the country was unraded. Ten gunmen had last Sunday afternoon swooped the palace of the Obi (King) of the Kingdom, Obi (Prof.) Chukwuka Okonjo and snatched his wife, Prof. (Mrs.) Kamene Okonjo in a most daring manner. She was freed after five days in captivity.
The 82-year-old professor of sociology who retired from the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsuka, is the mother of the Coordinating Minister of Nigeria’s Economy/Minister of Finance, Prof. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an economist of global standing, hence, the interest and attention generated by the abduction of her octogenarian Queen Mother.
While reasons for the abduction of the octogenarian wife of the monarch remain in the realm of speculation, her forceful seizure added royal and global dimension to the plethora of high profile cases of kidnapping in the oil-rich state. In the out-going year, the targets of kidnappers in Delta State have been relatives of wealthy and influential personalities.
At various point in time, relatives of politicians and businessmen swimming in affluence fell victims of dare-devil kidnappers. Tobechukwu, a younger brother to the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Victor Ochei, was kidnapped in Asaba few days after his wedding. Markson, son of the Secretary to the State Government, Ovuzuorie Macaulay, was also seized in his home town where he had gone to visit his grandmother.
A brother to an Asaba-based billionaire contractor, Uche Luke Okpuno, was similarly snatched by hoodlums in Asaba. This is even as the wife of the state Commissioner for Basic Education, Prof. Patrick Muobaghare and the wife of the member representing Bomadi at the State Assembly, Mr. Preyor, also tasted the bitter pill of the hoodlums.
But the Commissioner for Higher Education in the state, Prof. Hope Eghagha, was not so lucky because he had to personally experience 15 traumatic days in the den of kidnappers, following his abduction on Sunday, September 30 at Owa-Ekei junction on the Abraka-Asaba expressway. In the deadly attack, the commissioner’s orderly was killed while his driver sustained gunshot injuries.
The list is endless. However, highpoint of the kidnapping operations during the out-going year was when kidnappers dared the presence of the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, in the state and took an elderly cousin of Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan into custody. Several of these unreported cases of abduction have kept security agencies busy on how to beat the hoodlums at their own game. Some were arrested and convicted, of course. Yet, this has not deterred the criminals as can be seen in the brazen abduction of the matriarch of Okonjo family.
Her case was quite peculiar as it kept security agencies on their toes, searching for clues as to the whereabouts of the hoodlums. All exit routes in Delta State were immediately blocked by security operatives while the wait lasted. Reinforcement from the 4 Brigade Army in Benin as well as the police force headquarters in Abuja stepped up manhunt for the criminals. Ogwashi-Uku came under siege of security operatives who combed the area in search of the victim.
But investigations revealed that the hoodlums capitalised on the porous security network in the area where the palace is. Located in the serene part of Ogbe-Ofu quarter of the polytechnic town, the one-storey building palace with adjoining bungalow is said to be manned by two policemen who allegedly abandoned their duty post on the fateful day.
Insiders from the town might have carried out extensive surveillance on the palace before the kidnappers struck with precision. Three persons were said to be in the house at the time – the victim and two of her maids. Her husband was out of town. The Queen Mother came down from up-stairs with one of the maid to serve drinks to workers who were carrying out renovation works when the hoodlums swooped on her and bundled her into a waiting Volkswagen Golf car.
In a rare display of boldness, one of the gun-trotting kidnappers went into the house and removed the handbag of the victim and later gave signal to his colleagues in crime that there was no more soul in the palace before they zoomed-off to an unknown destination.
“The thing happened so fast. When they walked into the compound, they seized the men fixing the interlocking tiles and asked them to lay face down. Immediately they saw her (the queen) coming towards the gate with her maid to serve the workers soft drinks, they bundled her into their waiting Golf car while another car was parked outside,” an eyewitness had stated.
“I think there were definitely some lapses in terms of security. It is not what it should have been, the people that were supposed to have been here were not here. This gave them the opportunity to do what they wanted to do. I think it is really a sad reflection of where we are as a society,” Mr. Onyema Okonjo, son of the victim had reflected.
A traditional chief and spokesman of the palace, Chief Lawrence Okolobi, described the invasion as a desecration of the traditional institution, saying “this is a taboo, an abomination. Those people don’t know the implication of what they have done. Nobody takes away the wife of the king; it is not done anywhere, not even in Yorubaland.”
However, while the search for Mrs. Okonjo intensified, Sunday Sun observed during different visits to Ogwashi-Uku more than 90 percent of residents were indifferent to the situation of the royal family. They moved about their personal activities as if nothing had happened. Even when the royal mother was released, the community refused to spark to life in jubilation.
Sunday Sun investigations revealed that the high level of apathy towards the Okonjos is not unconnected with the glaring under-development of the area, rampant cases of kidnapping in the area as well as a cold war within the royal family.
“My friend was kidnapped in this Ogwashi-Uku and he paid N1 million ransom before he breathed the air of freedom. Kidnapping is not new in this town, it is almost a daily affair here and they (kidnappers) live among us in this community because of the way they execute their evil plans.
“They accosted my friend at the gate to his house after lurking around for some time. When they swooped on him, his wife ran inside and they took him away in his SUV. The ransom he paid was N1 million and the money was raised from friends who donated bits and pieces to complete the total,” a resident narrated.
Ogwashi-Uku, an administrative headquarters as far back as 1910 is fraught with all the elements of under-development, according to our observation. The presence of the state-owned polytechnic has not facilitated the presence of basic amenities in the town. No roads, no water and the community is in perpetual darkness as the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) hardly justifies its presence in the town.
The few rich persons own generating sets for electricity, borehole water and drive on sophisticated vehicles to the envy of the poor majority. The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots in the ancient community might have increased the level of indifference to the travails of the royal family by majority of the residents. Many of them blame those living in affluence for the backwardness of the area.
Besides, some members of the royal family are said to be still nursing grievances over the way Obi Chukwuka Okonjo ascended the throne on March 8, 2007 following a court judgment in his favour. A close palace source informed that the bitter suit lasted for 10 years, adding that there has been an uneasy calm in the community since the present monarch was installed.
The genesis of the age-long royal rumble in the ancient kingdom started in 1882 when the sitting monarch passed on after twelve years on the throne. Ascension to the throne, according to community sources, is by primogeniture but due to the fact that the late king’s heir apparent was a minor, it paved the way for a regent to ascend the throne temporarily.
When he came of age in 1890, the heir demanded for his heritage from his uncle who was the regent at the time but in the struggle to retrieve the crown, the heir died. Before his death, he was said to have married and was blessed with a daughter. While his uncle (the regent) allegedly took advantage of the situation to automatically obliterate the kingship lineage of the former Obi, mother of the heir’s only daughter was said to have single-handedly raised the child to adulthood. Community sources claimed that the Okonjos were descendants of this daughter of the unfortunate heir.
“There is bad blood within the royal family. Most of them were not satisfied with the judgment of the court and the subsequent installation of the present Obi, hence, the kidnap of the matriarch has further revealed that all is not well. I strongly believe this is playing out now, that is why you don’t see people coming around to the palace to show solidarity,” a resident noted.