From Judex Okoro, Calabar
Hundreds of travellers and motorists now shake with trepidation since the Calabar-Ikom highway has become den of kidnappers and bandits as over 20 persons have been abducted along the route in the last five weeks and several millions of naira paid as ransom.
For decades, the Calabar-Ikom-Ogoja highway was a drivers’ and travellers’ delight. Besides normal checks by Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) and various toll collectors, there was no fear of any form of harm on one of the oldest federal highways leading to Ogoja, Benue, Nasarawa and Abuja.
Anybody can ply the road at any time of the day, especially in the evenings to savour the beauty of the forests on both sides of the highway and the resources being harvested from there. There is nothing you would not find on that stretch of the road, including fresh fruits such as banana, oranges, coconuts, avocado pears and pears as well as foodstuffs like garri, processed and unprocessed fufu, yams, cassava and rice.
The highway, which is very significant to Cross River people because of its economic and tourism potentials, has suddenly become home for kidnappers and bandits who abduct, maim and rob travellers with audacity. It has suddenly beome one of the most dangerous highways in south-south zone.
The recent insecurity witnessed on the road has called for concern as motorists and travelers are having nightmarish experiences. There has been tale of woe from victims of kidnapping and robbery attacks.
Checks revealed that the Ikom/Calabar/Ogoja highway has become notorious for robberies and kidnappings for ransom as over 20 persons have been abducted, two allegedly killed and many sustained various degrees of injuries as a result of gun shots fired indiscriminately at travelers by the hoodlums. Security sources revealed that victims allegedly paid huge sums of money as ransom.
The first attack was recorded on November 15, 2022, when nine travelers were abducted along Okomita area of the highway by gunmen. The hoodlums numbering about 15 attacked the travelers with automatic weapons and whisked some of them away. Due to the public outcry, Commissioner of Police, Sule Balarabe, dispatched a team of policemen and soldiers to the area and the victims were rescued unharmed.
The hoodlums again struck on November 18, when two medical doctors and five others were kidnapped along Akamkpa-Uyanga axis of the road while on their way back to Ogoja after attending a workshop in Calabar. A witness said out of the seven persons they kidnapped, three were females and four were males, adding that the three females were released after dispossessing them of their valuables, including phones, watches and cash.
A source close to the family of one of the doctors revealed that the kidnappers demanded N60m ransom. Following the kidnap, the Cross River chapter of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) led by the chairman, Dr. Felix Archibong, embarked on strike to press for the release of their colleagues. Sources said the victims were released after paying N5m each as ransom.
Not relenting, the armed men on December 6, attacked the former chairman of State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), Mr Omaga Odo, at the same Okomita axis of Calabar-Ikom federal road. Though Omagah Odo escaped, but his car was riddled with bullets.
Buoyed up by the successes recorded in their previous operations, the gun-trotting men on December 7, blocked the Iwuru axis of the Calabar-Ikom highway. A witness said the kidnappers, who were well armed with sophisticated weapons, shot sporadically into vehicles, hitting two persons in the process and subsequently abducted former accountant general of Cross River State, Mrs. Rose Bassey, and three others.
Family sources revealed that Mrs. Bassey was on her way to her farm at Ekpri-iko community in company of her driver and mechanic when the hoodlums struck and whisked her away at about 5pm, adding that N27m was paid to secure her release.
It was learnt that a popular evangelist in the state, Edim Edim Omin, was also shot during the process of abducting the four persons, but the evangelist escaped with bullets’ wound, and is currently receiving treatment at an undisclosed private clinic in Calabar.
Worried by the ugly development, the clan head of Akpet Nation, Sunday Evong, called on Governor Ben Ayade to take drastic measures to stem the rising crime rate within the highway communities. Evong had earlier raised the alarm over massive presence of strange men and armed thugs in their surrounding forests reportedly hired by illegal miners to intimidate locals, revealing that “lots of crimes and abductions have been traceable to them.”
Another community leader in Iwuru, Onun Emmanuel Uno, said these hoodlums have also been harassing women traveling to the early morning markets along Okom-Ita in Akamkpa and Biase axis of the highway, adding that most of them have been robbed and even sexually assaulted.
“We are just helpless as these hoodlums are also terrorizing our communities with dangerous weapons. We really need army to be sent to our forests where they hibernate before it gets out of hand.”
Some park operators and drivers have expressed fears about the development, saying that the road was no longer safe, threatening to down if government does not step up security measures before the yuletide. Manger of Ikom /Calabar park at MCC road, Mr. Rex Abang, said the incident has deeply and adversely affected their activities. According to him, it is no longer business as usual, adding that most people who travel now only do so because it is necessary and urgent to do so.
He said: “We now have low turnout of passengers as many prefer to simply way bill items because we have noticed an upsurge in the aspect of the business. A lot of the passengers are now afraid to travel, but our appeal to government is to deploy a contractor to the location to fix the bad portion.”
On his part, the manager Calabar/Obudu Park at Etta Agbor, Mr Joseph Uzembe, said they have stopped loading vehicles once it is 2pm for fear of being attacked along the Uyanga axis, admitting that some government officials have earlier visited them and promised to hold a security meeting with them but till now nothing has been done.
He said: “We are ready to corporate with the security agencies to restore normalcy to the area, but there should be remedial works on the portion of that road because you just have to slow down when you reach that point and that is the window the hoodlums have to attack. Let the Cross River State government also equip the anti-kidnapping squad to help clear the road of hoodlums.”
Condemning the kidnappings along the highway, Governor Ben Ayade in a press statement dated November 16, said: “The state cannot allow such acts of criminality and will not be allowed to take root in our state, as we are determined to ensure that the incident is the last on our soil.
“We have made a request to the federal government to draft more troops to the Uyanga forest as well as the deployment of a Tucano aircraft. Additionally, we have activated the Homeland Security outfit and have engaged local hunters to assist in a private para-military capacity.
“The state will also purchase more gunboats and patrol vehicles to protect our waterways and our highways just as we have activated the automatic security system on the entrance into Calabar. We once again appeal for calm as we take the battle to the bandits.”
In a separate reaction, the police public relations officer in the state, Irene Ugbo, said it was quite unfortunate, adding that the Abdulhameed Awodi-led Dragon Squad has also been deployed to the route just as some other strategic operations, which she cannot discuss, would be carried out consistently in the area and beyond.