From Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
Residents of Kuje Area Council in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, are living in perpetual fear. They are not just in hell but one with a lake of fire kindled by marauding kidnappers besieging the area like evil spirits.
From Kabi Mango to Pegi, to Chukuku, Dafara and the council capital, it has been one incident of kidnapping or the other in the past few months. In fact, no week passes now without agonising tales of abduction.
There has been a surge in kidnapping, with no fewer than 30 persons abducted and ransom, running into millions of naira, paid to rescue victims, ranging from farmers to businessmen, brides, grooms to government officials.
The recorded worst case incident happened October last year, when about 24 council officials, including a former vice chairman, were abducted. Millions of naira was paid in ransom to rescue them after spending at least one week with their captors.
A few days earlier, two persons were kidnapped in Pegi, a suburb of the area council, after a gun battle with security agents. It left one person dead and many others critically injured.
Still in the same month of October, three victims were kidnapped from their farms in Kabi axis of Kuje. Despite assurances from the FCT police command that they would be rescued, millions of naira was paid to free them.
Minister of State, FCT, Ramatu Aliyu, raised the alarm recently, describing the incident as unfortunate and heinous: “It is regrettable and unfortunate that we are still having cases of abduction and kidnapping in the FCT. It is particularly saddening because this is the seat of government.
“We must do everything possible to put an end to these senseless killings and abductions of residents. I want to appeal to residents, especially those in the area councils, to remain calm as the FCT administration is working to protect life and property. I also want to assure them that the security agencies are on top of the situation.”
Despite her message, cases of abduction actually escalated the following month. The kidnappers continued their activities unrestrained in both Pegi and Dafara. Five siblings were abducted in Pegi and a bride and groom three days to their wedding.
Daily Sun’s interactions with the victims showed that their modus operandi included not only having informants within the community but also having clear knowledge of the operational terrain, especially the routes inside the forests around the area where they take their victims to a point of no return, trekking several hours only at night.
In Pegi, for instance, they struck at a particular household, picked the father of the house and his five children. They later freed the father apparently to source for ransom, taking five others deep into the bush. They were rescued in Kogi State after 10 days of torture and payment of ransom.
The Dafara incident, where the bride was first kidnapped around 9.30pm, was more tragic. They did not only shoot to disperse villagers and other residents that gathered to stop them but also abducted the bride a few metres from a checkpoint mounted by the Nigeria Police.
The kidnappers were merciless in their operation. They instructed the groom to bring the ransom alone and also swapped him with his wife and kept him for one week before more ransom was paid to secure his release.
The victims lamented that it was not an experience they would wish their enemies. The kidnappers fed them with tasteless cooked rice and beans, gave them dirty water to drink, escorted them with guns whenever they wanted to answer the call of nature, blindfolded them during the day and removed the blindfold at night when it was time to move.
While alleging that arresting the syndicates was certainly beyond the security agents, the victims claimed that, apart from communicating in Hausa language and Pidgin English, used to negotiate the ransom, they usually warned their victims to stop reporting to the police, claiming that their informants would certainly tell them.
Determined to break down their victims, the kidnappers usually subjected them to the rigours of trekking several kilometres only at night and unleashing endless beating during negotiations to raise the stakes.
In a chat with our correspondent, a police officer alleged that though he was not sure of any collaboration with the kidnappers, dealing with them has gone beyond Kuje police personnel: “It is not as if we cannot do anything, but the directives from above are not helping matters. In Kuje Area Council, Fulani herdsmen are just above the law. Recently, we arrested them for inflicting very deep machete cut on a Gbagyi person, but order came from above that we should release them.
“They took cows into the farm and consumed the crops. We came for arrest but they fled. We had to arrest three cows. On the issue of kidnappers, no policeman wants to risk his life because they have superior firepower. The truth is that Kuje is no longer safe to live in.”
The gory experience of the bride and groom, indigenes of Enugu State, was pathetic and dramatic.
I almost drank Sniper – Groom
“If my wife had stayed with them for two days more, she would have died. I could not believe what I saw. I could not recognise her again. My plump wife had become a shadow of herself. Her eyeballs have sunk too deep and her legs swollen. She has seized to be a human being and dying gradually. She was a walking corpse.
“They fed us with tasteless rice and beans and for me, it was better to remain hungry than eat that food. I took the ransom to rescue her to Abaji but they finally released me in Kogi State. When they kidnapped me, I stayed two days without eating anything. They managed to give me only dirty water to drink. The kind of beating I received was out of this world. They are heartless and merciless in their beating.
“One thing that was very certain was that they were so organised in the crime. They knew the route in the forest inside out because, once they kidnap you, they have a place they will keep you first. Their knowledge of the bush tracks is legendary. The worst thing was that they usually blindfolded the victims during the day but removed the cloth at night when it was time to move.
“When we could not raise money for the ransom, several times I contemplated suicide by drinking Sniper, especially each time they called and gave my wife the phone to talk to me. I even heard the beating and torture given to her to force me to raise the money for the ransom. We would cry on phone like babies, especially as her voice kept going down.
“They told me where to bring the money. I first entered a vehicle, then took Okada, stopped somewhere before they directed me to walk into the bush. I trekked for three hours inside the forest.
“It was when I finally found myself deep inside the forest that I knew I had equally lost my freedom. When I finally saw my wife, I could not recognise her because she had become a living dead. On joining them, we walked several kilometres until we got to a junction where they freed my wife and some other victims.
“They took us deep into the forest. While with them, they told me they knew I had a car, house and other assets I could sell and raise the ransom to free me. I am still in shock because I did not know I would survive it. There was no money because I had bought so many things in preparation for our wedding. I thank friends and family for coming to our rescue from those heartless people.
“I had gone home to eat and bathe and my wife replaced me at our shop only to be hearing gunshots. I had concluded that it was the normal robbery operation constantly happening in this community before somebody rushed to inform me that they had abducted my wife.
“Although a police checkpoint was very close, however, in fairness to the security agents, they had mobilised more than 15 Hilux patrol vehicles into the bush in search of the kidnappers. They went deep into the bush but it was too late because they had taken my wife and a customer at my shop then too deep into the bush.”
We survived gun battle inside forest –Bride
“I stayed for five days without eating because they kept feeding us with the same type of rubbish. I saw hell for the 12 days we stayed with them. We were about four women and many men. We moved at night in the dark but rested somewhere during the day.
“We never stayed at a place for more than six hours. Once they felt that they could be tracked inside the forest, they would move us out of the place. The biggest problem I faced was the trekking. My legs were swollen and, at a time, I no longer felt any pain in my legs because they became so stiff. Worse of all was that we would be thirsty and nobody would give us water to drink. And if it finally came, it would be so dirty that you would be afraid to drink it.
“At a time, I felt that they had the support of the government because they would tell you when you report to the police. I almost concluded that they were working hand in hand with the security agents. They would warn us that it was better to comply than to involve the police. They are so organised that an individual cannot fight them alone. The most surprising part was that they knew when prayers were organised in my house.
“How can they kidnap government officials and the area council chairman paid ransom to rescue them instead of fighting the kidnappers? They were so heartless that they were ready to waste anyone who refused to comply. I heard that one wasted time in raising the ransom only to bring it to take the corpse of the victim in their custody.
“My case was a big testimony. We were almost dead when we ran into vigilantes that fought a bloody battle to rescue us from them. There was exchange of gunfire that lasted several minutes. They used us as shields, beating us to stand up each time we lay down to dodge bullets. We were very lucky that no one died but it was a terrifying experience such that I have not recovered from the shock till this moment.
“We didn’t understand the language they spoke, except when they used Pidgin English to negotiate for ransom. However, it resembled Hausa language. Who they were did not concern me. It is still shocking that I wore the same cloth without bathing for more than 12 days but nothing can be compared with my freedom.
“I was surprised when I saw my husband but when they finally released us with him, I could only imagine what he would go through in their hands. We had trekked several kilometres as usual before they told us to leave through a particular road at a junction.
“We did not walk to too long before we saw a police checkpoint that night. We had to stay with them till daybreak. They apologised to us and explained that it was not their fault and that it was easy to arrest them but, most times, instructions would come from above for police to release them unconditionally.”