By HENRY UMAHI
With the return of kidnappers across the country, checks have revealed that some places are not targets of attacks. Security checks revealed that kidnappers now target churches and other worship centres as well as event centres.
Indeed, there seem to be no barriers on those kidnappers attack. Also, kidnappers are no respecter of gender, age or social status. Their targets include the clergy, politicians, businessmen, women and children, as long as they have relatives who can pay ransom on their behalf. Again, they can strike anywhere and at any time. Worse still, some of the victims pay the ultimate price even after their families had parted with huge sums in ransom.
Putting the matter in perspective, Secretary to the Government of Imo State, Professor Anthony Gozie Anwuka, said: “The greatest challenge facing the Rochas Okorocha administration is the palpable insecurity in the land. Initially, we opted to parade criminals in their villages. This did not attract the expected dividend. The kidnappers and criminals became toughened and started operating on higher grounds than government’s earlier plan. Government feels sufficiently worried about the level of insecurity in the land.”
As someone noted: “Kidnapping could be said to be the second most lucrative occupation in the state after politics.” It is a multi-billion naira business involving many groups and individuals. Sources said that some of those involved in kidnapping used to be ordinary armed robbers but changed gear because they consider kidnapping less risky and more rewarding. Also, some frustrated youths see kidnapping as a way of getting even with the rich who do not care a hoot about their wellbeing but would rather flaunt their wealth obscenely.
Sometimes, it is a family business involving father, mother and siblings who constitute kidnap gangs and everyone playing one role or another to ensure the success of each operation.
While the victims range from children to women, politicians and the elderly, the act has been perpetrated in churches, burial ceremonies, streets and personal homes. There is no price tag as ransom to be paid depends on the desperation and valuation of the kidnappers of their victims as well as the negotiation ability of their families. Interestingly, some people have been kidnapped more than once.
One of those who have the unenviable record of having been kidnapped more than once is the monarch of Ifakala Autonomous Community in Mbaitoli LGA, Eze Michael Akanonu Eromaka Ekeruo. He was kidnapped for the second time last June while returning from church service. His abductors shot sporadically into the air to send the parishioners scampering for safety, as they seized him.
Eze Ekeruo and his wife had earlier been kidnapped in front of the palace at Umudimofor Umuchinewe. On both occasions, an undisclosed ransom was paid even as he also lost his vehicle to the abductors the first time.
Church as hunting ground
Investigations showed that over 200 adults were kidnapped last year in Imo State. And between September and October same year, about 12 children below five were kidnapped in Owerri and environs. Ironically, the children were kidnapped right inside the church, where they had gone to pray. On September 17, 2011, three-year-old thumb-sucking Michael Chieke was kidnapped inside the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, Orji-Uratta, in Owerri North LGA.
According to Michael’s mother, Mrs. Happiness Chieke, a mother of six: “I had no inkling that my decision to send them to church that fateful day would bring calamity to my family.”
The distraught woman had gone to her husband’s office, where he works as a driver, to collect a parcel but when the children returned from church, Michael did not come with them. It was learnt that he was kidnapped by a lady of about 22 years of age.
Michael’s kidnap was not the first of its kind in the premises of a church. It was gathered that about six children were abducted in the church within six months, an average of a child per month.
A parishioner, Mr. Collins Ebere Amadi, disclosed: “Children of between three and five years are the target of kidnappers who operate during church services. The kidnappers don’t even demand ransom, fuelling our suspicion that the children are sold outright or used for rituals.”
On September 25, 2011, three children aged between six months and two and half years vanished at St Mulumab’s Catholic Church, Wethedral Road, Owerri. The children were two and half years old Uchechi Ukwuoma, six months old Munachi Ikwuazu and her two and half years old sister, Ugonna. It was learnt that the children were on their way home after service when they were abducted.
Many people have died in the hands of kidnappers in Imo State. For instance, when kidnappers came for Eze Ohiri, traditional ruler of Orodo, in Mbaitoli LGA, they were determined to succeed in their bid. It was like a war and at the end, the monarch’s father, Chief Festus Ohiri and cousin, Josiah Ohiri, died while he was shot in the leg.
In another instance, N100 million was allegedly paid for the release of Chief Christopher Chukwu, whose son is a business tycoon. He, however, died a few days later. The death was attributed to the shock of the encounter with the kidnappers.
Also, the orderly of Hon Celestine Ngobiwu, former member of Imo State House of Assembly, lost his life while trying to protect his boss. A lady within the vicinity was also killed during the attack by stray bullets.
How it started
Investigation revealed that kidnapping began to assume a frightening dimension in Imo State in 2007. After the general elections, a syndicate of kidnappers practically took over the state. It began mainly as a means of settling political scores, as embittered politicians sent their henchmen to abduct and deal with their opponents. But it later assumed a different hue.
Buttressing this, a member of the Imo State House of Assembly representing Orlu State constituency, Hon Michael Ndubuaku, told the reporter: “I can say that the surge in the number of kidnap cases in Imo State is political, because most of the kidnapped fellows are somehow concerned with political activities now or previously.”
In the same vein, the Imo State coordinator of Rebuild Nigeria Initiative (RNI), Chief Canice Okorie, said: “You will agree with me that the politicians of the past equipped a lot of people (with weapons) without completing what they promised them, such as giving them jobs or giving them money to do their trading or sending them abroad. You cannot use somebody and drop him and expect that person to be happy, but we are appealing to Imolites that kidnapping is not part and parcel of the content of any Igbo man. We have been known for struggling; we are known to survive in difficult terrains.”
The state governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, however, disagrees; for him, kidnapping is now strictly business venture. “There is no more politically motivated kidnapping. What you have now is financially motivated kidnapping which we will tackle head on.”
Roll call of victims
On the list of kidnapped victims in Imo State are Mrs. Ngozi Nneji, wife of ABC Transport boss, Mr. Frank Nneji; Hon. Celestine Ngbobiwu, former member, Imo House of Assembly; Hon. Simeon Iwunze, Ginikachi Udeagu, daughter of former Deputy Governor of Imo State, Ebere Udeagu; HRH Eze C.J Okwara, the Eshi of Nkwerre; Basil Enwerem, an accountant with Imo Government House; Chief Sylvanus Udenkwo, Rev Fr. Matthew Cherian, an Indian-born Catholic priest; HRH Eze Samuel Agunwa Ohiri, Chief Festus Ohiri, Josiah Ohiri, Justice ABC Egu, Ugoeze Pauline Njemanze, three journalists working for a South Africa-based sports outfit, Mrs. Stella Odimegwu, Barr Uche Nwaka, former leader, Oru West Legislative council; Dr. Polycarp Ndubueze, Pa Nwajiuba, Emma Owuamanam, Marcellinus Nlemigbo’s son.
Also on the list are Chief I. O. Ngumoha, NBL major distributor; Sir Kevin Nwosu, father of former MD of Finbank; Chief Festus Nguma, Jude Akpunku, Chief Peter Orji, Kennedy Chukwunonye, Sir Paully Ajoku, former Accountant General of Imo State; Eddie Agulanna, Dr. Vin Udokwu, former Chief of Staff, Government House, Owerri; Hon. Godfrey Dikeoha, former speaker, Imo House of Assembly; Chief Peter Orji, Sir Gervase Ihemegwo’s children, HRH Eze Douglas Okwara, Hon. Daniel Onwuanumkpe, Chief Ejiaku, former Permanent Secretary & Principal Secretary, Imo State Government and his daughter, Director of Finance & Accounts, Imo State House of Assembly; Stanley Onyirimba’s mother, Barbara Nwoke, Sylvester Ibe, Jessy Nkechi Okoro, Chief Peter Orji, two children of Goodluck Opia, Innocent Ibekwe, Herbert Amushie, Christopher Chukwu, Michael Ekerue, Paulinus Chukwu, Nne Ugorji and Chioma Ogoke, Commissioner for Commerce who was abducted in broad daylight along the MCC Road.
Sometimes, the kidnappers behave like vultures, waiting patiently for long time to receive the ransom before freeing the captive. For instance, Mr. Vincent Udokwu, former Health Commissioner, was held by kidnappers for 10 months, while Eze Ohiri was in captivity for about one month before breathing the air of freedom.
Mrs. Jessy Okoro, mother of four, was stripped by the abductors.
Last year, lawyers in Imo State embarked on a strike following the kidnap of Justice P. N. Nzekwu of the High Court. In the process of abducting the justice, his police orderly and driver were killed while a passerby was shot in his legs. Before Nzekwu’s kidnap, two other judicial officers in the state had been kidnapped, namely: Ambrose Egu, President of the state Customary Court of Appeal and Ugoeze Pauline Njemanze and later released after payment of ransom.
Government has been trying to curtail the menace of kidnapping in the state. In 2009, the Imo State House of Assembly passed an anti-kidnapping law. The law prescribes death penalty for kidnap convicts or those whose premises served as den for kidnappers even as such premises will be demolished. However, no one has been convicted and kidnap cases are at various stages in court.
According to Anwuka, “any shrine found to be the abode of kidnappers would be destroyed by government without recourse to anybody. The same is applicable to farmlands. Such a land automatically becomes government land. Royal fathers and town union executives are, therefore, warned to ensure that criminals are not given sanctuary in their areas.”
Meanwhile, many see government approach to curbing the menace as cosmetic. “It is not enough to provide more vehicles to security agents. While no one is justifying crime, the fact is that there are no jobs in the state and, tragically, government is not creating an enabling environment to engender job creation. There are hotels everywhere and government wants to build more. The young men are not happy about how the wealth of the state is cornered by the ruling class; so they are protesting by kidnapping. Unfortunately, everyone is paying the price for bad, insensitive and rudderless leadership,” argued a resident of Owerri who didn’t want his identity revealed.
However, the state Police Commissioner, Adisa Bolanta, has given assurance that the police would rout criminals in the state. “Let me assure you that we will make Imo State free from kidnappers and other criminal elements and let me warn all criminals to mend their ways or relocate from the state because they will no longer have a hiding place,” he promised.