From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
The mention of Onitsha to non-residents coming to Anambra State in this season evokes feelings of fear and trepidation. To some, the city has become synonymous with robbery, violent crimes and blood sucking demons that cause terrible accidents at the popular Upper Iweka.
An Igbo musician now late, Ibealoke Chukwukeziri popularly known as Apama Boy, dramatized the happenings at Onitsha Upper Iweka years back with a song he entitled Ihe na-eme na Upper Iweka (Things are happening at Upper Iweka).
Though Onitsha once had a frightening level of insecurity years back, the launch of Operation Kpochapu and the special taskforce team comprising Police, Army, Navy and other joint security outfits at the onset of the Willie Obiano administration in 2014 led to a drastic reduction of insecurity in Upper Iweka and Onitsha environs. The criminal elements and urchins who could not withstand the might of the joint task force fled the city in droves and normalcy returned.
Before then, the Peter Obi administration had remodelled the Odumegwu Ojukwu Gateway from the Onitsha-Bridge Head axis down to Upper Iweka with streetlights and paved lawns and flowers.
However, Onitsha has been in the news for the wrong reasons again in recent times following the activities of some tricycle and shuttle bus operators who suddenly upped the ante in the ‘one chance business.’
During the enforcement of the wearing of facemasks at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, various groups operating with tricycle and shuttle buses overran the city as task force members.
Reported cases of abduction, rape and robbery rent the air and their victims cried uncontrollably until government ordered a clampdown on their activities.
Analysts are of the view that the recent upsurge in the activities of criminal elements in Onitsha is a result of the increased number of jobless youths, who were forced out of commercial motorcycle (Okada) business when the government banned Okada service in Onitsha without any plan to absorb the large number of the riders into alternative ventures.
Others also say the recent EndSARS protest disorganized the security architecture in place thereby giving some criminally minded youths the morale to operate without hindrance.
A resident, Okey Aniagbaso captured the situation thus: “Anambra was the last to ban Okada among the five states of the Southeast. Before now, all others sacked as Okada riders from Enugu, Aba, Owerri and Abakaliki, all relocated to Onitsha to continue the business. When the Anambra State government then banned their operation without any palliative support, many were thrown off balance. Some quickly acquired tricycles on hire-purchase terms while others could not secure any available one. Those who had the tricycles on hire-purchase terms and those that had nothing, became desperate to make ends meet and that was the beginning of organized crime of one-chance and robbery in Onitsha.
From Upper Iweka to Nkpor, Bridge Head, 3-3 Nkwele Ezunaka, Nkpor and Obosi, it has been tales of woes from residents who encountered the robbers in recent times.
Sunday Sun investigations indicated that the criminals operate as a group mostly as a three-man gang in tricycle and four-man gang in shuttle buses and normal L300 Nissan buses.
Some of them accost their victims who are standing alone and dispossess the person of any valuables and move on to the next target while some take their passengers as hostages where they are robbed in secluded places and thrown out of the vehicle. Others abduct their victims and keep them for days before releasing them.
A victim, Udeagu Esther Amala, who was abducted by the one-chance robbers on her way to MCC Upper Iweka from Nkpor narrated her experience to Sunday Sun.
Esther, who was in captivity for eight days, was still recuperating from the trauma when she spoke. She lost all the money in her account, her phones, laptop and other personal effects to the mean criminals.
Hear her: “It all started on November 29 while I was coming back from an event at Ogbunike. My friends escorted me to St. Monica’s bus stop and I took a tricycle (keke) that was heading to Afor Nkpor. With luggage in both hands including a laptop, trekking was difficult. Nsugbe was my final destination but because my regular cab operator went on a charter to Asaba when I called him to come and pick me, I decided to sleep at my aunt’s place at MCC Upper Iweka for safety purposes so as to avoid the regular traffic snarl along the 3-3 Nsugbe road.
“This decision marked my journey to hell. At Afor Nkpor, I alighted from the keke and boarded a bus going to Upper Iweka, Onitsha. Having heard so much about the activities of the bad boys, I was careful not to board any vehicle with suspicious looking men. I settled for the one with some girls already on board thinking that I was safe but little did I know that they now operate with female accomplices.
“Few minutes before getting to Nkpor junction, they diverted to another route and I raised alarm but was greeted with dirty slap by one of the ladies inside the vehicle, who commanded me to surrender all I had on me. At first, I thought they were joking until another slap followed and they pounced on us. It was then that I discovered that it was only three of us inside that have become victims while about seven others in the bus were part of the gang. We were taken to an unknown destination blindfolded.
“They would ransack you and take all your belongings and force you to transfer all the money in your account to them. After the transfer, they tell you that the boss wants to see you inside and immediately you enter, they pounce on you and mercilessly rape you. When it got to my turn, I don’t know what happened but I just had a hot menstrual flow immediately and they started beating me again for bleeding at the wrong time.
“My saving grace was the menstrual flow but they kept us captive and refused to give me pad or any tissue to clean myself. After collecting all the money, they will smash the phone. They kept us from that day till December 6. They starved us of food. I collapsed when they released me and was resuscitated in the hospital.”
Engage more vigilante operatives –Chief G.U. Okeke
Speaking on the situation, popular transporter and Chairman, Board of Directors of Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company Limited, ANAMMCO, Chief Godwin Ubaka Okeke, founder of G.U. O Transport, said with determined efforts on the part of the government and engagement of more community policing personnel, the latest crime trend in Onitsha will abate.
“On the issue of security nationwide, the situation is extremely bad. That of Anambra is on the average but what some of the tricycle operators are doing is not good. Some of them are involved in kidnapping and their victims include male and female but that of the women is bad. They keep them hostage and subject them to serial rape. That is very worrisome.
“If you submit them to thorough stop and search and also take over the strategic places where they rob and abduct their victims, if we have up to 10 strategic places covered, this nonsense will stop forthwith. So we appeal to the government, the police, the army and the vigilante group to intensify efforts and curb this menace, ” he said.
President of Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, ONICIMMA, Sir Chris Ukachukwu, expressed hope that the state government would address the challenges soonest. He said the tricycle union executives when properly engaged would be able to identify the criminal elements among them and see that they are flushed out.
Ukachukwu also advised commuters and residents to be more security conscious as they go about their daily activities. He advised that people should board tricycles only in approved parks and loading spots and avoid flagging down those speeding on along the road. He said those who loaded in approved parks can be easily identified if any problem arises.
The Chairman of Anambra Vigilante Group and Security Adviser to Governor Obiano, Chief Ikechukwu Aduba, a retired Commissioner of Police, while reacting to the crime situation in Onitsha said that the synergy between the vigilante operatives and the police is bearing fruits which has improved security in Onitsha.
“There is a sensitization campaign on community policing going on now. Our relationship with the police is very cordial and we have flagged off the ember month’s special aggressive patrol with recorded successes already. Governor Obiano has foresight and doesn’t play with security matters”
On the issue of Keke riders and one chance, he said the AVG has made recommendations to the government on possible solutions, noting that Anambra remains one of the safest states in Nigeria.
The state is safe for all during this Yuletide and beyond –CP Abang
Commissioner of Police, Anambra State Command, John Abang, in a chat with Sunday Sun said that the issue of security in Onitsha has always been blown out of proportion by some social media writers.
He said that the command has secured the city and would maintain such tempo both during and after the Yuletide.
“Recently somebody posted an audio to the Commissioner of Transport, alleging traffic gridlock within the Bridge Head area as a result of police extortion but when we investigated, we discovered it was false information. I had to go there physically in disguise and discovered that there was no single police checkpoint. I only saw Road Safety officials trying to ensure smooth flow of traffic.
“I challenge you too as an investigative journalist that you are to go and crosscheck facts there. People try to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it, but that notwithstanding, we put in every effort to fight crime and criminal elements in the state.
“On the issue of criminality, it is the same thing. Some will even say that 24 hours daily robberies take place in one spot in Onitsha. My men are working round the clock. Just the other day, the Fegge Division dislodged some criminal gangs operating within that axis.
“As the Chairman of Service Commanders in the state, we have a joint task force on security comprising the Army, Police, Navy and some other independent arrangements on ground patrolling Onitsha. But when people get one incident, they use it to saturate the airwaves and cyberspace as if the whole city is under siege.
“Last night, I harassed my Area Commander in Onitsha over security issue and do you know that he was in the field working even at 10pm? I call it cyber-bullying because most of the reportage is hyped beyond proportion. I’m not saying that there is no crime incident in Onitsha but it’s not as bad as being portrayed but I can assure you that we are on top of the situation.
“We have made number of arrests including the revenue touts harassing people which the government has banned. We have been taking them to court too because we can’t keep them in the cell indefinitely. However, when they are charged to court, the magistrate will release them and they go back to the scene again.
“We can assure those returning home for Christmas that Onitsha and the entire state is very safe. Onitsha is the most policed city in Anambra now and people should not fear but go about their lawful duties because we are on top of the situation,” he said.