Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
The East-West Road has always been famished for blood. Over the years, scores of people have perished in automobile crashes due to the bad state of the road.
The Federal Government, under late President Umaru Yar’Adua, in an apparent bid to put an end to the incessant accidents, intervened and conceptualised the road as a dual carriageway, which reduced accidents greatly.
But soon after, a certain Don Wayne and his gang returned the road to its gory past. They killed, kidnapped, terrorised and maimed travellers, until the military, through the Joint Task Force (JTF), vanquished them in January 2018.
However, the seeds of evil planted by Wayne, have germinated and grown to be monsters. The East-West Road has again become a dangerous road to travel. There is no day that passes without tales of sorrow, agony and grief from travellers, especially those travelling from Bayelsa State to Rivers State.
The old, the young, male, female and children are kidnapped at will. The military, which took up arms against Wayne and his gang, have since dropped their guard. The police, who have checkpoints along the road, are largely ineffective. The people and leaders of communities along the East-West Road, where the crimes take place live with a code of silence. The stretch of the road from Ahoada, Elele Alimi, Rumuji, Ndele to Emouha is now under the control of men of the underworld. Undoubtedly, terror and horror reign unabated on the East-West Road.
“In April alone, we lost three of our drivers to kidnappers on that road. They shot and killed them and took away the passengers in their vehicles. The situation is that bad,” an official of Bayelsa State branch of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) told the reporter.
Investigations revealed that the bandits initially operated at night. But that was then. Nowadays, they have become so emboldened that they operate anytime of the day.
“There is no time of the day that is safe. It is only God that can protect drivers and passengers along that road. Sometimes, they operate early in the morning. It could also be in the afternoon or evening,” noted Abass Ajose, a driver that operates interstate cab service.
On April 25, Mrs. Oti was travelling to Port Harcourt and at about 3.30pm, the bandits struck. But the driver of the vehicle, determined to outsmart them, pressed on the accelerator. A volley of bullets was the response he got from the bandits. By the time he left the danger zone, a bullet had hit Mrs. Oti in the shoulder. She was rushed to the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), where she underwent surgery and survived.
“We were travelling to Port Harcourt, and on getting to Ndele-Rumuji, I noticed that a guy just walked to the middle of the road majestically and started shooting randomly towards our vehicle. The driver told us to bend our heads down. They succeeded in shooting the vehicle’s wind shield,” Bridget, another victim in the vehicle said. “Shortly after we escaped from the scene, a pregnant lady that sat in front shouted that she had been shot. We rushed her to UPTH, where it was discovered that three bullets were lodged in her shoulder.”
The bandits later shot dead a driver and a policeman escorting some oil workers the same day that Bridget’s car was shot at. The oil workers and a Coaster busload of passengers were kidnapped.
A few days after the incident, the kidnappers shot dead Jonah Sokolo, a driver with Abua Oduah Local Government Transport Service. While people were still mourning his death, another driver with a transport company travelling from Port Harcourt to Akure was killed at Ndele and the passengers were kidnapped.
The kidnappers operating with so much confidence collect ransom ranging from N50,000 to N5 million, according to findings.
“I was kidnapped while travelling to Port Harcourt. The kidnappers wore Nigerian Army uniforms and they stopped us. The driver, thinking they were military men, stopped. Then they pointed their guns at us all and marched us into the bush.” said Buchi, a kidnap victim, as he recalled his experience in an interview. He noted that the kidnappers collected the passengers’ mobile phones and all the money on them before asking them to provide the numbers of close relatives that could be contacted for ransom.
“I paid N300,000 ransom, which was gathered by my friends. Another man paid N3 million. For some people, if they didn’t have money, they were killed and their body parts sold. Ransom was paid at designated places. Once the ransom was confirmed, they would blindfold you and lead you back to the road with assurances that they controlled the whole area and nobody would kidnap you again while being released between Mbiama and Emuoha,” he said.
Morris Alagoa, an environmental activist, corroborated Buchi’s claims. “The body parts of victims are sold off. Most unfortunately and regrettably, the police along the road have not been able to contain the situation. Before it took on this dimension, several other Nigerians had been victims. Some victims are either released after relations pay ransom or they are killed and their body parts sold off,” Alagoa lamented during a visit to the NURTW office in Yenagoa.
For victims and other Nigerians plying the East-West Road, the inability of the police to curb the menace has raised suspicions of connivance between security agents and the kidnappers on one hand and the community heads and residents of the communities along the East-West Road on the other hand.
“The villagers know everything that is going on there. The very day we were kidnapped, 14 of us were in a bus. We were stopped and led into the bush. Some of the villagers going to the farm saw us and they did not say anything. This means they are aware that some of their boys are into kidnapping,” Buchi said.
At the last count, there were at least 28 police checkpoints on the road, and yet no suspect has been arrested over the endless kidnappings occurring on the road.
“Bayelsans are the people being kidnapped every day on that road. They told us they worked with the police. That day we were kidnapped, the police checkpoints were nowhere to be found,” Buchi regretted.
Ajose was in full agreement with Buchi: “The people in those communities and the police are aware of the kidnappings going on there. If the security agents arrest the community leaders, they would reveal the identities of those behind the kidnappings.”
But the police have denied any connivance with the kidnappers. They have also gone a step further by declaring a state of emergency on the road.
“We have declared a state of emergency on the road, which means we have declared war aimed at fishing and flushing out all criminals in the axis. All eyes, hands and apparatus have been put to task to end all vices along that road,” Nnamdi Omoni, spokesman for the Rivers State Police Command, noted in a press statement.
But beyond the police declaration of the state of emergency, there are suggestions that Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and his Bayelsa State counterpart, Henry Seriake Dickson, should liaise with the Federal Government and explore how the military could be deployed to the road to tackle criminality along the axis. It is believed that the actions of the kidnappers have gone beyond what the two state governors can handle.
“The governors of Bayelsa and Rivers states, with the security agencies, are yet to display their capacity to respond to the cries of East-West Road users. President Muhammadu Buhari should respond in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief and order the deployment of joint military patrol teams to stop the killing spree along the area,” the Civil Liberties Organisation and NURTW wrote in a letter to the President.
Alagoa added: “I want to remind the security agencies, especially the Federal Government, that the protection of life and property are first line responsibilities of any legitimate government. If government cannot protect citizens anymore, then we should all be allowed to bear arms. When will enough be enough?”
At the moment, the mood of the people is worrisome. Commuters seem to be running out of patience. Many have called on government to move fast and restore sanity on the East-West Road before the people resort to self-help, which would, ultimately, lead to a breakdown of law and order.