“Being abducted was an ordeal. I was permanently afraid of being bitten by snakes. Mosquitoes feasted on me like it was their Christmas celebration.”
Founder of Southern Atlantic Polytechinic and Senior Pastor of Royal House of Faith Ministries, a Pentecostal ministry in Lekki, Lagos, Pastor Bassey James, is one person that would mark the 2018 Yuletide with great thanksgiving.
Pastor James, who is also the President of Southern Youths Development Forum, passed through an ordeal in the hands of kidnappers, who abducted him on November 25 while working at the site of the polytechnic, which is getting ready to open its doors to commence academic activities. When he spoke with Sunday Sun in an exclusive interview, he recounted the harrowing experience and stated that it was so terrible that he would not wish his enemy to go through it. Rather, he is most grateful to God whose divine intervention kept the kidnappers from either harming or killing him. He was released from their custody seven days.
We heard that you were abducted. When and how did it happen?
I was kidnapped on the November 25, at the site of Southern Atlantic Polytechnic, on Airport Road in the Akpabiosm area on the outskirts of Uyo, Akwa Ibom. On that day, we were working at the site in preparation for the take –off of the institution. It happened between 6.30 and 7.00pm of that day, when we were about closing for the day.
Please try to recount what you can recall about how it happened.
The workers were preparing to leave the site when I saw some men, strange faces who came in. I did not know them, they mixed up with the workers. When the men identified me and came to where I was, they shot into the air to scare off the workers. I counted about eight to nine of the men who came to abduct me and they were well armed with shotguns. There was a stampede. Then they started looking for the key of a vehicle. When they found it, they forced me into it and drove off. I was blindfolded and taken to the waterside in Uyo. I think that we drove about 40 minutes off the road. When we were moving in the vehicle, I sensed that some motorcyclists were escorting the car. Initially, I thought the motorcyclists were chasing the kidnappers and I was happy but then I realized that they were part of the kidnapping team when I started hearing gunshots fired by the motorcyclists riding close to the vehicle. I believe that they were firing to prevent possible pursuers from attempting to rescue me at that time and also to clear the way for their escape. At the waterside, they abandoned the vehicle and put in an engine boat and sped off on the water.
While you were moving to their hideout in the boat, did they say anything to you at all?
When we got on the way, they told me that they were militants and kidnappers. They said I should cooperate with them or they would kill me and dump my body into the ocean. I started pleading with them, not to harm me. I told them that I am an indigene like them (they spoke English and Ibibio language). I said that all of us were suffering together. One thing I learnt as we were going was that they knew me and talked about the things I had been doing. From the discussion going on among them, I knew that we moved on the water for almost four hours. They took me to Oron. All through that time, I was still blindfolded. They never made any attempt to remove the blindfold. Seeing their face carried the risk of being killed. In fact, I told them to make it tighter, to avoid it falling off accidentally.
So what happened after you had been on the water for so long?
After spending so much time moving on the water, we got to the first camp. I was taken out of the speedboat and taken into the forest. The place was like a mangrove swamp. When they realized that the police and the other security services were searching for me, they started moving me from one camp to the other. They took me round about three or four camps, because they were not comfortable in those areas. There was one particular place they took me at the border of Cameroon and Bakassi. From that camp, they moved me to where they kept me for seven days.
All through the time you were in their custody, were you blindfolded?
Yes of course.
Did they make any provision to give you basic care for the duration of your stay in their custody? If you needed to urinate or go to toilet, how did you handle that? Did they bother whether you brushed your teeth or not, you know….basic personal care?
Brush my teeth? There was nothing. I did not eat for two days. In that kind of situation, when you are held hostage by criminals, you are either crying or begging them, you would not be thinking of food. It was on the third day that I talked to them and asked what they want to do with me? I asked them what they would gain by killing me who is their kinsman. Being in that forest was a great ordeal. Flies and insects were buzzing around me. Mosquitoes were biting with frenzy. They just perched and sucked my blood like crazy. In fact they feasted on me like it was their Christmas celebration. I was so scared of wild animals and snakes. It was a terrible experience and I cannot wish my enemy to pass through it. It was an ordeal I can never forget. Even now I shudder each time I remember it. If not for the grace of God, I would not have survived it and come out alive.
From the time they abducted me till the day I was released, I was blindfolded. Even when the cloth they used to blindfold me was getting loose, I would call them to tighten it. I just did not want to see their faces, to avoid them facing the temptation to kill me. I wanted them to be assured that I had no desire to look at them or be able to even recognize them after. I had absolutely no such desire, so I was always telling them to make sure the blindfold was firm. But it made my eyes hurt. During the day, I did not try to look at the surroundings to know where we were because I heard so many stories of people kidnapped who got killed when they tried to escape.
As a security person, I had to apply wisdom and my training in dealing with the situation. I cooperated with them. I used the word of God to talk to them, make them remain calm and not get violent. I made them realise that I did not pose any risk to their lives. In such a situation, you should not try to show any sign of resistance or do anything they could interpret as hostile or risky act. I tried to engage them in discussion about the issue of the development of Akwa Ibom and Niger Delta, youth empowerment, employment and social development. I told them why I was doing what I was doing and the number of people working at the site where they kidnapped me. I explained why some of us are putting small businesses in the state to employ people. I told them how important my little contribution is to the society and how the families of the workers at the site would suffer if they killed me.
As I continued to talk with them, they began to see reason and understand that we must harm our people. I told them that the Ibibio is the fourth largest tribe in Nigeria and that the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa have all overtaken us, and we must make every effort to catch up. I said working against ourselves would not help us in anyway. I said that the remnant of the Ibibio should not be used against their brothers. I said that no matter who might have sent them to kidnap and kill me, they were on wrong mission. Rather, what we should do is to come together to pray for the Ibibio nation. As the fourth largest ethnic nation with the largest allocation from oil, yet there is so much poverty and hardship. I told them that what I was trying to do was to create jobs through the polytechnic, which is sited in Uruan on Ibibio land. I urged them not to do anything that would make the school to fail and be closed and stop the people who had already seen the light of development in the community to now go back into darkness.
What reaction did you get from them after you preached this sermon in the forest?
Some of them started being nice to me, because I opened their eyes to the realities in the imminent collapse of the Ibibio nation and why we must come together to reclaim our commonwealth. I told them some of us have been in the forefront of the fight against the injustice being done to our people in the past years. I held the hands of two of them and said that the blood that flows in my hand also flows in their own, therefore they should not kill their kinsman. They were touched by what I told them and they assured me that they would not kill me or even manhandle me. They said that somebody like me who had done so much for the people through the campaign on Akpabiosm and youth empowerment training and employment, should be celebrated. So they said that they had become better informed about my past work and promised that they would not let anything happen to me. They mellowed and became very friendly.
Having changed their attitude towards you, and you had been three days in their custody, did they make any effort to give you food, get you a toothbrush and toiletries to freshen up, etc?
My brother you sound very funny! Freshen up in the forest? They asked me what I would like to eat. I said anything they have. They gave me bread and akara, Lucozade Boost and bottled water. Initially I resisted eating the bread and akara because I was afraid it may have been poisoned. But they insisted that I must eat. Having told them about the need to work together for the good of Akwa Ibom, they assured me of my safety and said I should eat. They also gave me garri to drink at another time. That was my first meal in three days. Given the circumstance of the situation, that was more like a royal feast (Laughter). In fact, they were pleading that I should not die in their hands, that I should eat. When I told them that I had not taken my routine drugs for three days, they went to a pharmacy and bought it. I was fortunately surprised that they brought the routine drugs I take and also anti-malarial drugs because of the mosquitoes that were feasting on me. When they discovered that I was getting cold, they brought firewood and set up fires to keep the place warm for me and the nine of their men who guarded me round the clock.
At what point did they begin to talk about ransom? It was on the fourth day. When they first abducted me, they had said clearly that they were militants. So when the issue of ransom came up, I told them I was just a campaigner for the good of Akwa Ibom and not a politician. So they said they would either kill me or I will pay ransom. They started mentioning amounts I cannot even talk about. I said clearly that even if I sold the Akpabiosm Centre, the amount would not be met. They said that they would give me time to sell the Centre. I told them that I had tried to sell the place in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 but nobody came forward to buy it. That was why I decided to turn it into an educational institution to touch the lives of Akwa Ibom indigenes and other Nigerians. I began to plead with them. For two days they did not say anything.
They had my phone and they called my wife to tell her that they had kidnapped me and said that they would kill me if I did not pay a certain amount of money. She started to cry and also beg them. She began calling so many people (my church members, friends and family) asking for money to pay the ransom. The negotiation continued until they got to N50 million and refused to go lower than that amount. I told them that amount could not be raised. They first asked for N500 billion. I thought they were joking about that amount.
After they got the ransom, where did they release you?
They brought me back to Uyo. We spent about three hours on the waterway. Of course I was blindfolded. I could not know the exact part of the town where we were because it was in the night. What I know is that when we got to a point, the boat slowed down and we disembarked. When we came out of the water, they brought some motorcycles that carried us up to a point from where we trekked some distance.
While we were trekking they threatened to kill me if I tried to remove the blindfold. As we walked along they were talking about the money they got. They escorted me until we got to a road. They became worried that the police might be there. So we diverted to a bush path that led us to another road, which I later realized to be Oron road in Uyo town. That was where they left me.
They told me to look straight ahead and run without removing the blindfold or looking back. They said I should run for minutes. After running off, I removed the blindfold, threw it away and continued running. Before releasing me, they gave me N1000. As I was running, I saw a commercial motorcyclist and explained my situation and appealed to him to take me to airport road. He dropped me close to Akpabiosm Centre. From there I took a commercial tricycle that brought me to where I was staying. The time was about 9.30. I was not seeing clearly because my eyes were hurting after being blindfolded for a long time. I had no footwear – not even slippers. I was somehow disorientated. I could not even ask anybody to help because I was unkempt, dirty and smelling.
I was able to walk back to the office and freshen up. The next day I went to see the Commissioner of Police, to thank him and his team for working hard and trying to locate and rescue me.
Given your background in security issues and criminology, what lessons can people learn from this?
In some sense, I am happy that this thing happened to me.
Before now, I took a lot of things for granted – may be because I am a pastor. I did not take precautions. That is why we must all be careful about our personal security and be alert at all times. I guess that I relaxed my guard because the centre was so close to a police post, which I built, equipped and donated to the government. Until this thing happened the environment was considered secure. Henceforth, we must all be security conscious at all times. We need to be very careful and check people who are coming into the place. When you are working at a site or in any environment, you should be able to monitor people coming into your place.
How did the kidnappers identify you?
Actually, they did not know me physically. But they knew about my previous campaign for the development of Akwa Ibom State and the Niger Delta, using Akpabiosm as a platform. When they came to the site they asked the workers to point me out and they innocently directed them to me. Once they got to me, they fired sporadic shots into the air to scare off the workers before taking me hostage. Then they moved me away to Uyo waterside. In the early part of my stay in their den, they told me about my exploits in campaigning for youth empowerment. They were happy with the things I had done previously to promote the welfare of youths. I suppose that my past good record helped to make them mellow down. They did not really treat me as harshly as I hard expected. Yet being abducted and not not able to brush my teeth or bathe was an ordeal. I was permanently afraid of being bitten by snakes. Mosquitoes feasted on me like it was their Christmas celebration.
There was a time you talked about the need to have a security network that will traverse the Niger Delta. In the light of what happened, how do you feel about that idea?
I tried to develop what I call the Niger Delta Integrated Emergency Security Network. If you pass through Ogoni Road, you find that there are over 20 checkpoints on the East West Road. The big question we should all ask this is: how do the people reach the police when there is crisis, emergency or community clashes?