Abia: Menace Of Kidnapping

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Failure of the amnesty granted perpetrators of the crime in the state contributed to growing cases of kidnapping. Governor Theodore Orji announced the amnesty as part of the last ditch efforts to arrest kidnapping in the state.

Nigerians woke up to the bizarre news of the abduction of four journalists at Umuafoukwu community in Obingwa local government area of Abia State recently.

Those kidnapped include the Chairman of the Lagos State Council of the Nigeria Union  of Journalists (NUJ), Wahab Oba, Secretary of Zone G of NUJ, Adolphus Okonkwo,  Acting Secretary, Lagos NUJ Council, Sylvester Okereke, a Lagos-based journalist,  Shola Oyeyipo, and their driver.

The incident took place while they were returning from Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, after attending a three-day National Executive Council (NEC) meeting of the NUJ.

Like a scene from a Rambo movie, they were ordered out of their SUV vehicle and into a waiting Volvo car and taken to the hideout of their captors.

As at the time of filing this report, their fate was uncertain as their abductors were still holding unto them tenaciously, demanding a whopping N250 million as ransom. Security sources say that 80 per cent of kidnap cases in Abia State take place in Obingwa, now regarded as the Bermuda of Abia.

The abduction of the four journalists attracted widespread condemnation and varied reactions both from within and without Nigeria. Even the Police which moved its paraphernalia of authoirity and withiout Nigeria. Even the Police which moved its parahernalia of authoirity and power to Abia were unable to secure the release of the kidnapped journlaists a week after they were taken captive. Though they have been released now and some suspects arrested.

But the saga serves to prove how brave and stubborn those who have taken to this heinour crime are; how they can hold not only their abductors but all those affected to ransome and how they have exposed security agencies to redicule and Nigeria to international embarrassment.

Failure of the amnesty granted perpetrators of the crime in the state contributed to growing cases of kidnapping. Governor Theodore Orji announced the amnesty as part of the last ditch efforts to arrest kidnapping in the state. The governor asked the kidnappers to come out of the bush and surrender their arms in exchange for rehabilitation. The state planned to integrate repentant kidnappers into the on-going rehabilitation of Niger Delta militants by the federal government. The amnesty began on May 17, 2010,  and was to end by May 30. But it was extended by three weeks, to last on June 20. However, the programme was called off on June 6, the day a repentant kidnapper was gunned down by a joint patrol of soldiers and Policemen.

Some kidnappers said to be on their way to surrendering their weapons at the Ukpakiri, Obingwa arms collection and documentation centre when the incident occurred quickly  dumped the programme and fled into the bush, accusing the government of insincerity. Government cried blue murder, describing the incident as high level sabotage.

Chief Press Secretary to Governor, Mr. Kingsley Emereuwa, said government had to discontinue with the amnesty programme because the kidnappers failed to embrace it. He added that during the period of the amnesty, kidnapping increased by the day and security agents could not hunt them down because they have been asked not to confront kidnappers who took advantage of the grace period to perpetuate their evil trade.  Kidnapping crept into Abia State in the second quarter of 2007. It was brought to the attention of the government by the organised private sector, the Aba Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Power (ACCIMA) during the investiture of Dr. Emmanuel Adaelu as its President on September 13, 2007 at Binez Hotels, Aba.

Welcoming guests, Adaelu raised alarm that the security situation has assumed a disturbing dimension as kidnapping has spread to Abia.

“In fact, one happened yesterday. May be, another one may happen by the end of the day. Please come to our rescue,” Adaelu told Governor Theodore Orji who was the chief guest of honour at the investiture ceremony.  “Your Excellency,”he continued, “ it may interest you to note that kidnapping of people is fast becoming a daily occurrence in this city, people are kidnapped by unknown persons and ransom demanded before their release. This ugly trend cannot be allowed to continue, as people now live in fear.”  From then on, kidnapping has flourished in Abia. Top government functionaries were abducted at will. Those that have tested the “flavour” of the kidnappers’ den include a former Chairman of Abia State Universal Basic Education Board (ASUBEB), Chief J.D.lruke, Chairman of Abia State Independent Electoral Commission (ABSIEC), Prof Steve Emejuaiwe, and a lawmaker, Barrister Monday Ejiegbu.

No stratum of society has been spared the ordeal of the kidnappers: priests, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, even school children have been victims of kidnappers.

In fact, when lawyers became targets, the national President of the Nigeria Bar Association came to Umuahia and issued an ultimatum to the Abia State Government to eradicate kidnapping. Prominent medical doctors are known to have fled Aba when the hoodlums turned their searchlight on the life savers in the city.

At the beginning, instead of tackling the matter headlong, government saw it as the handiwork of the opposition.

But, before long, government discovered that it was dealing with a hydra-headed monster in the name of kidnapping. Since then, it has made concerted efforts to arrest the situation. First, the government donated patrol vans and communication equipment to the Abia State Police Command.

At the last count, the government has provided more than 120 patrol vans to the Police. In addition, the government has placed orders for two more Armoured Personnel. Carriers which are being expected next month. Governor Orji directed that deductions be made from his monthly security vote to purchase the vehicles.

Then, the House of Assembly, which had through a resolution on July 1, 2009, requested the Inspector General Police, Mr. Mike Okiro to remove Mr. Edgar Tam Nanakumo as Commissioner of Police in Abia for his inability to tame the kidnappers, enacted a law stipulating death penalty for perpetrators of the crime and their sponsors.

The lawmakers had made a similar request for the removal of Mr. Emma Ezeozuo, as Abia State Commissioner of Police which was also granted.

As the kidnappers were undaunted, government adopted the people-oriented approach whereby people with useful information which could lead to the arrest of kidnappers were encouraged to give such reports to Government House where an office was opened for that purpose.

Government also announced a N1 million reward for informants whose reports helped in arresting kidnappers. A few hooded informants were brought to the Government House by the Police hierarchy for confirmation and collection of the reward.  While that practice seemed to grow in arithmetic proportion and kidnapping leapt in geometric progression, government turned its attention on commercial motorcycle (Okada) operators who were accused of aiding and abetting kidnapping.

After series of consultations with major stakeholders, coupled with Security Council meetings, government prohibited Okadamen from plying their trade in 10 of the 17 local government areas; namely: Aba North and South, Umuahia Metropolis, Obingwa, Ugwunagbo, Isialangwa North and South; Osisioma, Ukwa East ·and Ukwa West local government areas. These are regarded as urban councils in the state where the Okada business and violent crimes thrive.

The ban came in a terse statement by the then Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Sam Hart on June 27, 2009. It stated in part: “The Abia State Government has observed with dismay that most of the incidences of kidnapping and armed robbery perpetrated in the state are carried out with the use of Motorcycles which aid the criminals to escape easily after carrying out their nefarious activities.

“This ugly development has persisted despite several meetings government has held with commercial motorcycle operators to sanitise their operations and find a way to weed out bad elements in their midst”.

“After due consultations with all relevant stakeholders, government has decided to limit the operations of motorcyclists to the rural areas of the state. Government wishes to reassure Abians who may be affected negatively by this policy that it was done in the interest of the safety and security of all Abians and was not intended to bring hardship on any section of the populace,” the ban came into force on June 29.

After the ban, incidences of kidnapping reduced drastically and government was beating its chest that it has found the antidote to abduction in the state. But they were mistaken.lt was a matter of time, kidnapping shot through the roof once more, leaving Abians  cuddling in fear. At this point, Government decided to involve traditional rulers, who, themselves, have become targets of the perpetrators.

At one of the meetings held with the royal fathers in Umuahia on September 6, last year, the governor said: “I have invited you here on a very serious matter that concerns all of us. It is about the security of our state. It has got to a stage that government would no longer keep quiet over it; it has reached a stage it should be declared a state of emergency”.

“How can we live in this state and no one can sleep comfortably in his house? How can we live in a state where no one can move freely in the streets, particularly in Aba? How can we live in Abia when one is moving, one would be kidnapped. There is no government that can tolerate that type of thing.”

At that gathering, the governor stopped short of declaring a state of emergency on the security in the state, saying that kidnapping has become a big embarrassment to the state and his government.

“Any government that fails to protect live and property of its people has failed in its primary responsibility and we would not allow those bent on messing up this administration to succeed,” Orji remarked and issued a stern warning: “This time around we are going to be ruthless in dealing with kidnappers and their sponsors.”

The governor then directed all autonomous communities to float vigilance groups in their respective domains to mount a 24-hour security surveillance. He warned that any royal father whose community was used as a hideout or linked with kidnapping would be dethroned. He further announced that a Military Joint Task Force (JTF) to tackle the menace in Abia would soon be in place while efforts were in top gear to procure sophisticated equipment for Police.

The governor was angry that most traditional rulers from areas regarded kidnap-prone areas, especially Obingwa, Aba North, Aba South, Isiala Ngwa South and Isiala Ngwa North, were not doing enough to curb the activities of the hoodlums. Many traditional rulers were not actually indifferent to curbing kidnapping in their domains. The major problem they faced was lack of adequate protection from the perpetrators of the crime. Those who dared are still afraid to narrate their experience. In an extreme case, the late traditional ruler of Abala Autonomous Community in Obingwa, Eze Willson Nna and his wife, Rose, were not only shot dead right in their palace but burnt to ashes on October 31, 2008. It was believed that the monarch and his wife were dispatched to their ancestors in the most brutal fashion while trying to carry out the directive of the governor.  The governor had in a meeting with traditional rulers in the state given them a marching order to flush out all criminals in their respective communities or be held liable for the actions of such criminals. He gave the command when the state government was thoroughly flustered by the menace of kidnappers. The late monarch, according to sources, had running battles with hoodlums in his community. The area is believed to be a nest for hardened criminals who have made kidnapping their favourite past time.

The late Eze was said to have advised them to change a new leaf or leave his domain. It was reported that the hoodlums did not take kindly to the monarch’s sermon of attitudinal change and reportedly defied him and warned him to stay off their course or they will deal with him. It was learnt that the hoodlums had earlier made an unsuccessful attempt to kill the late traditional ruler before that unfortunate Friday when the people of the Abala autonomous community woke up to behold the bizarre spectacle of the charred bodies of their revered traditional ruler and his love.

Witnesses said the duo were “shot to shreds” by their assailants who invaded their palace early that Friday at about 2 am. This chilling incident made the royal fathers to withdraw into their shelves. And kidnappers were having a field day.

The governor re-invigorated the war when he presented 40 new patrol vans equipped with communication gadgets to the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Ogbonna Onovo, shortly after he had assumed office.

But that notwithstanding, all efforts by government are akin to pouring water on the back of the duck.  This informed the passionate appeal by the Inspector-General of Police, Onovo, to all traditional rulers in Abia when he met with them in Umuahia. His visit to Abia was part of efforts to secure early release of the abducted journalists.

Onovo told them that Ndigbo were happy when he was appointed IG of Nigeria but regretted that his kinsmen were working harder to ensure that he was relieved of the appointment by the criminal record they were posting.

He told the royal fathers that he and other governors of the South-East are always the butt of jokes by other governors each time they go for security meetings in Abuja. “They call us kidnappers and they tell me, doctor, go and heal yourself,” a message for him to find a solution to kidnapping in the South East.

He appealed to them to adopt the traditional approach coming out en masse to place curses on their subjects who indulge in the heinous act. He said he was recommending the traditional option because it has worked in Edo State, warning that if the menace of kidnapping was not curbed in the South-East, tough, unpalatable security measures would be applied. Already, the worrisome activities of kidnappers have been very unpalatable to the public. It has affected the socio-economic growth of Abia

The economy of Aba which is the commercial nerve centre of Abia is in coma. Foreigners who used to patronise the Ariaria International Market have since found alternatives while industries have closed shops due to rampant kidnapping of their expatriate technical partners. The tourist sector appears to be the worst hit as many hotels which used to bubble and give the city its hustle and bustle hue have scaled down operations on account of poor patronage. People now hurry home and confine themselves to the safety of their compounds once it is evening. The heavy militarization of Abia is also taking its toll on residents and visitors alike. The numerous road blocks mounted to track down kidnappers have simply transformed to toll gates, leading to hiking of transport fares. A traveler from Umuahia to Aba which used to cost N150, now pays N300 or N350! Movement from one point to another has been inhibited as a result of fears of falling prey to kidnappers while nightlife is almost non-existent.

Although the state government has done its best to contain the situation. Emereuwa said the governor has done practically everything except carrying gun to chase the kidnappers. But many believe government has not shown enough political will to tackle the monster. Those who believe in this school of thought accuse government of inaction because most of the kidnappers are those used as thugs during elections. They say government is foot dragging because another election is at hand when the boys would be called to duty once more. They also contend that highly placed government officials were involved in the business and government was protecting them.

They point to the governor’s claim that his government has names of sponsors of kidnappers given to them by informants as well as repentant kidnappers during the amnesty programme. Initially, government said it was carrying out investigations to ensure that innocent people were not roped into what they have not hands in. What baffles many observers is that it is taking the government a long time to bring these people whose names are in its list to book. Worse still, cases involving kidnappers progress with snail speed in the law courts, and in most cases, the suspects are granted bail even when the anti-kidnapping law stipulates otherwise. Prosecuting the war against kidnapping should be given a human face since all combat measures appear not to be yielding positive results.

According to Chief Reagan Ufomba, a governorship aspirant, “the popular belief is that to end kidnapping and other vices, we must spend a lot of resources procuring arms and ammunitions such as AK 47 to kill the criminals; that it is a war that must be fought with bows and arrows, guns and machine guns.” He disagrees.

“No; we can introduce human face to this war and we are firmly of the belief that to win this war and make it long lasting, we must empower the youths. We believe that to win this war, it must not be fought through the barrel of the gun or even on empty stomach.”

Chief Ikech Emenike, associates himself with this view. He maintains no society is free of criminals. However, he says that if you have about 20 youths and 15 of them are engaged, it would be easier for the security agencies to deal with the remaining five persons should they take to crime but the 20 of them would be difficult to handle.

Government should therefore look in the direction of provision of employment for the youths to reduce the alarming crime rate in the land, they suggested.

It is inhuman and even sinful to kidnap a fellow man. It is equally anti-human and lack of vision to allow youths rust in idleness in a land of opportunities. Eradicating kidnapping requires an integrated approach with the participation and cooperation of all and sundry. Kidnapping is like HIV/AIDS. If it does not infect you, it will affect you!