Tears dropped down the cheeks of Catherine Ukpekpi as she narrated her family’s ordeal. It was April and her husband, Ben, the leader of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) in Cross River State, had been kidnapped four weeks earlier. It was the second time in 16 months that he had been kidnapped.
Mrs Ukpekpi said the circumstances of both incidents were identical. Just as in December 2019, he was again abducted at the front of their house in Calabar, and by people she suspected were the same.
“Two days later they opened communication and said we should pay N150 million before they release my husband. I asked them N150,000 or N150 million? They said ‘madam N150 million! We abducted your husband for money. Pay us N150 million, not a kobo less. He is the NLC chairman’”.
Mr Ukpekpi told PREMIUM TIMES that the kidnappers occasionally allowed his family to speak with him to show he is not dead.
A month before Mr Ukpekpi was kidnapped, some 750 kilometres away in the Southwestern region of Nigeria, Ayodeji Odetunde, a final year student at the country’s premier university, the University of Ibadan, was kidnapped at his father’s poultry farm.
He was released three days later after his father paid a ransom of N12 million. The kidnappers originally demanded N100 million.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited the family in April, Ayodeji was still receiving treatment for hallucination and shock.
His elder brother, Olumide Odetunde, narrated Ayodeji’s ordeal in the hands of his kidnappers.
“They walked from Apete to around Iseyin. But they were only walking at night because of their weapons. My brother couldn’t distinguish whether they were Hausas or Fulanis but the workers that saw them recognised them and my parents actually saw them when they went to give them the money,” he said.
“We had to take him to a therapist because he kept remembering. It was more like a post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
In 2017, Chukwudi Dumeme Onuamadike, aka Evans, allegedly told the police after his arrest that between 2015 and 2016, he collected $4 million as ransom from four of his high-profile hostages. He had lost count of the number of kidnappings by his gang, he allegedly said to the police.
Evans and his gang targeted the affluent. Others are now less discriminatory. From everyday Nigerians commuting interstate, farmers tending their crops, the elderly resting at home to students at school, no Nigerian is safe from the risk.
While the frequency varies from one part of the country to another, PREMIUM TIMES research of cases reported in the Nigerian media from 2015 to May 2021, supported by on-the-ground reporting in some of the hotspots across the country, revealed that no part of Nigeria is insulated from the epidemic.
The study revealed that kidnapping has become perhaps the biggest security threat in the country.
Between January 2015 and May 2020, no fewer than 4,962 persons were kidnapped across the country.
Many cases are not reported to the police or by the media. Security agencies, such as the police and the Department of State Security (DSS) tasked with the primary responsibility of investigating and tackling kidnapping, also do not always record incidents of kidnapping. When they do, they are reluctant to share them with the media.
For several weeks this newspaper sought data from the police in several states and their headquarters in Abuja but our reporters were either told the data do not exist or the requests were not attended to.
The State Security Service (SSS) too did not respond to similar requests for its data on kidnapping.
The inability of security agencies to keep track is a pointer to the extraordinary volume of the scourge.
Of the 4,962 people reported as kidnapped between 2015 and May 2021, a total of 1,516 or 30.5 per cent of them were abducted between 2015 and 2017.
Kidnapping has also become a huge money-spinner, creating a thriving criminal economy, which attracts more assailants like ants to sugar.
Reported incidents in the media seldom mention how much was paid as ransom to kidnappers. However, a Lagos-based research consulting firm, SB Morgen Intelligence, estimated that between June 2011 and March 2020, Nigerians paid kidnappers an estimated $18.34 million as ransoms (N8.98 billion). According to the report, about 60 per cent of the amount was paid out between January 2016 and March 2020 alone, which is pointer to a spike in recent years.
“Kidnapping is becoming more democratised. More people are participating in it in more places. There is a spike in the frequency, the number of kidnapped people and the ransom paid,” said Ikemesit Effiong, Head of Research of SB Morgen Intelligence.
Not only the Fulani
There is a common presumption that rogue Fulani cattle herders are behind every kidnapping in Nigeria. However, our investigation reveals another pattern, involving people from other ethnic extractions.
In the southern part of Taraba State sharing boundaries with Benue State, survivors of abductions and family members who have negotiated ransom payments, accused gangs of Tiv origin of involvement in the cases in the area.
In April 2019, a lawyer, Lawarga Yabura, left his Wukari hometown in the morning for Takum, a journey he never completed.
“News then came that his vehicle was seen parked by the roadside with the doors open,” his younger brother, Ibrahim Iliya, said. “The kidnappers contacted us the following day and demanded N30 million to release my brother and his driver but we later agreed to N2.5 million ransom.”
“We raised the money within a week and gave it to them at a location but they refused to release my brother and his driver. They said it was N5 million that they wanted.
“Then, one of them later called to say he had been the one taking care of my brother but he was not given a dime from the N2.5 million we paid. He said we should send N500 thousand to a Zenith Bank account with the name Theodeus Tse, a Tiv name, and that he was going to facilitate the release of our brother and his driver. We sent the money since it involved an account number which we thought was a way to get the kidnappers by the police.”
After sending the money, Mr Iliya said they stopped hearing from any of the kidnappers and they then intensified pressure on the police to act with the account details one of them had sent.
According to records reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES, the police eventually arrested the owner of the Zenith Bank account, Mr Tse, who is based in Abuja. Mr Tse, according to the police records, said his younger brother, who is among the kidnappers, had called him to seek his account number for an “urgent transaction” He did not know it was for a criminal enterprise, he said.
Mr Tse said he forwarded the N500,000 to his younger brother and had since not heard from him again. Mr Tse remains in police custody, while his younger brother remains at large.
The victim, Mr Yabura, has not also been found. His family fears he might have been killed. “We don’t know where he is, whether dead or alive,” Mr Iliya said of his brother.
The Wukari-Takum Road has now become so dangerous that the government has banned the use of motorcycle on it. “The thinking is that motorcycles allow criminals to easily navigate in the bush,” one security official in the state capital, Jalingo, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Aside from being one of the main security concerns in the country, kidnap-for-ransom has become a source of further polarisation of the ethnic nationalities in the country.
Throughout the south of the country and much of the central region, Hausa-Fulani pastoralists who are embroiled in incessant clashes with farmers have become the kidnapping bogeymen.
The need to confront the Fulani cattle herders militiamen who are also accused of destruction of farmland, attacks on villages and other sundry criminal acts, has given birth to a motley of state-backed and non-state militias.
In January 2020, governors of South-west states launched Amotekun, a security outfit, to tackle the rising cases of attacks on farmers and communities blamed on Fulani pastoralists, growing incidents of kidnapping and other security concerns in the region.
Governors of South-eastern states recently stated they will be walking a similar path with the announcement of their agreement to set up the region’s own security outfit named Ebubeagu.
Separatist groups in the South-west and South-east, such as the Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Sunday Adeyemo’s Yoruba Nation have also tried to use the growing criminality in the regions, which they alleged are carried out by armed Fulani herders, to gain legitimacy
While many of the kidnappings in the south of the country are carried out by gangs of people who appear to be ethnically Hausa-Fulani, our investigation, however, revealed that the perpetrators are from all parts of the country.
Amaechi Mark, who was kidnapped in February at the Benin Byepass along the Benin-Warri Expressway, said though his kidnappers were mainly Fulanis, they had among them a man who appears to be an indigene of the area and spoke Urhobo.
John Akhigbe, a former chairman of Estako Central Local Government Area in Edo told PREMIUM TIMES that Fulani herders were responsible for the kidnappings, rapes of local women, and killings in the largely agrarian local government.
“They are all Fulanis. We have seen many, we have arrested some,” Mr Akhigbe, who founded an anti-kidnapping vigilante group that is still active in the local government area, told PREMIUM TIMES in April in Benin.
But, at Fugar, the administrative headquarters of Estako Central, Joseph Otonu, who was kidnapped at his home, and the owner of a hospital (She asked that her name should not be used), who was held captive for three days in the bush until a ransom was paid, told PREMIUM TIMES that they were kidnapped by indigenes of the area.
Johnbull Ose (not his real name), who was kidnapped along the Benin-Auchi road in September 2020, also described his kidnapper as Fulanis. He however added that an indigene of the area was among them and swore that the inhabitant of the villages that surrounded the forest where he and other hostages were kept were in cohort with the kidnappers.
In June 2016, when five young men were paraded by the police, one of them confessed to having been part of a gang that abducted female students. The suspects were identified as Felix Silver, 38; Oluwadare Segun, 32; Taye Videznon, Loco Amos and Adebowale Johnson.
By their names, the suspects could be said to belong to the country’s southern region.
They were arrested three weeks after they kidnapped a Chinese national, Hang Kumming, an employee of GMC Construction Company, at the Ibeju Lekki area of Ajah in Lagos.
According to Mr Silver, they received N5.4 million as ransom before releasing the three students, out of which he got N300,000 as share.
Meanwhile, in May 2017, six students of the Lagos Model College, Igbonla, Epe, were again abducted in a violent manner. The students – Pelumi Philips, Farouq Yusuf, Isiaq Rahmon, Adebayo George, Judah Agbausi and Peter Jonah – were released after spending 65 days in captivity with about N31 million reportedly paid as ransom.
The kidnappers were mainly Ijaw natives of riverine communities of Ondo and Delta states.
Frank Odita, a retired commissioner of police, said stereotyping of Fulani as the main perpetrators of kidnapping in the south of the country may be a smokescreen to take the attention away from the masterminds.
“Kidnapping cannot be done without an insider. The Fulani may not know who is rich and who is poor. The insiders provide the information,” he said.
What is driving kidnapping?
Mr Effiong said the worsening spate of kidnap-for-ransom across the country cannot be divorced from the declining economic fortune of the country.
“You are seeing more kidnapping incidents in places where there are no ideological justifications for kidnapping such as the insurgency in the Northeast and the pastoral conflict in the North Central. So, we are left with classical economic reasons.”
Mr Odita agrees with him. He argued that since it has become increasingly difficult for young Nigerians to find legitimate means of income, they have opted for an easy way out – kidnapping.
“The first thing to think about is why is it a profession. It is a profession because it has become an easy way to make money. It has taken the centre stage because of the state of the economy and the lack of opportunities for the youth. Crimes become a very good alternative for the idle mind,” the ex-police officer said.
Dennis Amachree, a retired SSS assistant director, told PREMIUM TIMES that kidnapping thrives because the incentive outweighs its deterrent.
“In fighting kidnapping, the police should go by the book by ensuring that they make the risk of kidnapping very high. As of now the risk is very low, while the reward is very high. They should reverse this equation to discourage the kidnappers,” he said.
He advocated a combination of effective policing and community involvement to end the crime.
“The security agencies are doing their best, but the best may not be good enough. That is why it is necessary for the citizenry to join in this fight. The communities should join the fight by organising themselves and protect the schools in their area,” Mr Amachree said.
However, Messrs Effiong and Odita argued that law enforcement solution is inadequate.
“It got to be a double prong approach. Any military or law enforcement solution, even if smartly designed and intelligently executed, will only go far enough because the economic condition that makes kidnapping attractive will persist,” Mr Effiong said.
“You can turn the country into a police state but if you do not address the economy and create jobs, kidnapping will continue to flourish,” Mr Odita said.
What we are doing to tackle kidnapping – security agencies
Law enforcement operatives across the country told PREMIUM TIMES they were doing their best to roll back the scourge.
The Commissioner of Police for Osun State, Wale Olokode, said his officers were working with all stakeholders to reduce criminality to bare minimum.
“We are now very proactive because apart from deploying our tools, we also collaborate with the local security operatives such as vigilantes, hunters, Agbekoyas, among others, who are posted to several communities. So, because they know the terrain, they easily form a synergy with the area commanders and divisional police officers within their neighbourhood.”
He, however, complained of lack of adequate tools and technological resources, saying it is not enough to draft men across the state.
The field commanders of “Amotekun,” in Ondo and Osun States also said they were being proactive.
Adetunji Adeleye, the Ondo State commander, said his corps work closely with the locals and collaborate with other security agencies.
“Yes, we have a very good relationship with the network agencies in Ekiti, Osun, Oyo and Ogun, to such an extent that once criminals are crossing borders, they get in touch with us and we block them, apprehend and hand over to them if the criminals are domiciled in the neighbouring states.”
On his part, the field commander of Amotekun in Osun State, Amitolu Shittu, harped on the need for community policing and commended the Osun State Government for its support and encouragement.
He, however, decried what he describes as unnecessary rivalry among security agencies.
The commissioner of police of Nasarawa, Adebola Alonge, said the police have severe manpower and equipment shortages, but they were trying to make up for these inadequacies by collaborating with other security agencies.
“So, I would not want to complain about challenges, because we as police are doing our work and we are as well, moving forward Because the Nigeria Police is working hand in hand with other security agencies, particularly the military, we have made up our mind and we are working towards it that Nasarawa State would not have an operational arena for kidnappers and other criminal elements,” he said.
PREMIUM TIMES was embedded in one of such anti-kidnapping collaborations involving local vigilantes in Fugar and soldiers from the nearby 195 Battalion Agenebode, Edo State. The security personnel patrolled some troubled spots along the Auchi – Agenebode Road, a popular road used by travellers from Edo State to neighbouring Kogi State and Anambra State.
During the patrol, PREMIUM TIMES saw huge tree trunks, laid mostly beside sharp bends on the road and what appeared to be deserted camps.
Sampson Aseghiemhe, the coordinator of the vigilantes in Fugar, claimed kidnappers along the road use the trunk to block the road before unsuspecting abducting travellers.
He described kidnapping in the area before the creation of the vigilante group in the area as “terrible”. He said though the security situation in the area was improving, the lack of support from the government was dampening the morale of the volunteers.
“We will do what we can as a volunteer organisation because we are not on the payroll of the government. The immediate past chairman was doing well, giving us stipends to make sure the body was performing optimally. But since he left office nothing has come from anywhere – both from the state and local government.
“Vigilante personnel are volunteers who are artisans. They feed on their daily wages. So, if you make use of them and at the end of the day, there is nothing for them to go home with, it is like you are sending them on a wrong errand. If someone puts his life on the line for his community, at least there is supposed to be a reward for such a person, but nothing is coming,” he said.
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