•How passengers were robbed, abducted on Ore-Benin Expressway
• We were beaten, starved and forced to trek for hours in the forest until our families paid ransom – Victim
By Romanus Okoye
“What is the essence of passengers entering their names in the manifest at motor parks if such names cannot be used to contact their next of kin in time of danger?” This is the question still agitating the mind of Innocent Godsreal. He was among some five persons, who were recently robbed and kidnapped on the Ore-Benin Expressway by suspected ex-militants. Their attackers later collected ransom and released them after keeping them for five days in the thick forest.
Besides, Innocent says: “I still cannot understand why night travels that used to be fun and save time are no longer so.”
For Innocent and his co-travellers, the Lord was their shepherd when their bus was attacked. Five of them were kidnapped and forced to walk into the heart of a thick forest located off the Lagos-Benin highway at 3am. Instead of arriving at their proposed destinations, they were forced to journey through the forest, drenched by rain and bitten by soldier ants. They also escaped being beaten by poisonous snakes while in the custody of gun-toting bandits.
Indeed, for Innocent and his co-travellers, their experience was a real walk through the valley of the shadow of death. However, God was with them until they were redeemed five days later from the claws of death.
“My brother, our story is that of resurrection from the dead,” Innocent recalled. “But I thank God for demonstrating again that with Him, nothing is impossible. It was a hopeless situation. But God gave us hope against hope.”
On April 9, 2016, Innocent, a painter who hails from Imo State, had left Lagos where he resides to attend the burial of his uncle’s wife. The final burial rites were scheduled to hold on Friday, April 11 in his village. But rather than arriving at his destination in one piece, he spent five days with four of his co-travellers in the forest.
“All we were hearing were the chirps of birds and the moaning of beasts. Where we passed were no roads. They could not even be regarded as bush paths because we saw none. Rather, all we saw were huge trees, shrubs and grasses.
“We did not actually see wild animals like lions and tigers. But we were convinced that they were quite close to us.
“We saw no sign of human life anywhere around. To heighten our fears and to confirm that we were really in the land of the dead, at about 2am, an owl came face-to-face with us. Sitting on a tree branch right in front of us, it began flapping its wings noisily. Then, one of the kidnappers struck it with his jean jacket. But rather than the nocturnal bird flying away, it charged towards him. We were surprised that the kidnapper did not panic. Instead, he killed it after muttering some incantations, leaving us struck with fear.
“After that encounter with the owl, I prayed from the bottom of my heart for God to give me a second chance. I did not know how the others felt. But I was surely scared to the marrow. I imagined how it would feel if the kidnappers either slaughtered or delivered us to beasts to devour.”
Narrating how their surprise walk into danger began, Innocent recalled: “I left my house at 7.00pm on that fateful day to Alafia, Lagos to the office of one of the popular transport companies (name withheld) and bought a ticket to travel on their bus. I was allocated seat number 21 in the manifest.
“After the usual delays, we departed Lagos at 10pm. The journey was peaceful until we arrived somewhere after Ore and came upon some other travellers whose vehicle encountered some problems. So, our driver decided to pick some of them. He did a similar thing again somewhere along the road and the bus became dismally overloaded, forcing all of us to be so uncomfortable in the bus. Then, nobody knew what lay ahead.
“According to those, who knew the road very well, this incident happened before Okada town in Edo State. Before then, we were informed that armed robbers were operating somewhere down the road. So, our driver was asked to stop and wait for a while alongside some other vehicles.
“But on a second thought, he and his conductor decided to continue, despite the protest from the passengers. The conductor, we gathered, specifically suggested that the driver should drive on the alternate lane and the driver accepted. He also switched off his vehicle headlamps, apparently to deceive the robbers if and when he encountered them.
“Then all of a sudden, we ran into a road block mounted by the armed robbers. Pandemonium erupted. All the passengers began attempting to escape to safety. But due to the overcrowding of the bus, it was difficult for those who were seated to make easy escape. So, when the robbers rushed into the bus, they began robbing everyone. They collected my money, camcorder, three phones and other valuables. I managed to slip through the bus window, but I could not run far, as one of the gun-toting robbers ordered me to stop.
“After robbing no fewer than 30 passengers, they gathered five of us – four men and one lady to march with them into the bush. That was how our five-day journey into the kidnappers’ den began.
“We trekked non-stop from midnight till 7.00am in the forest. At dawn, we saw shoes, trousers and other personal items, littering the forest floors. We concluded that their owners might have been killed. We believed that our captors were occultists because they did not touch the lady with us like most of them would do.
“We crossed three rivers. In all our travails, we did not see any sign of any human being anywhere near. While crossing one of the rivers, using a narrow bridge, the kidnappers warned about the dangers of falling into it. They told us how crocodiles and other deadly aquatic creatures would be happy to feast on us if we made the mistake of falling into it. In some places, we could not even see the sky. It was dense and real dark all through. In fact, in one of the places they kept us, we did not see the sky for three days. At some point, we came upon a colony of soldier ants. The creatures dealt with all us all, including our kidnappers.
“Then we hit a point where they were satisfied that we could not escape, even if they asked us to go. We could not make out how we got there. All the while they kept threatening us. They told us how it could be easier to cut our flesh to pieces and sell our body parts to those who would use it for rituals. They settled us in a place and asked us to tell them about ourselves and what we did for a living and we told them everything. They commanded us to contact our respective families to redeem us with N10 million each. They even told one of us to bring N20 million maybe because they saw his size. They had our phones with them. One by one, they asked us to give them names of our family members that they could contact. And we did.
“At some point, I did not know how they managed to buy some loaves of bread and sardine, which they brought to us to eat. My colleagues managed to eat because everybody was tired and hungry. But I refused to eat because I had already considered myself dead and had lost every feeling of hunger. At a time, they managed to cook what appeared to be rice, which they gave us. But I still did not eat because I did not have appetite for it. So, they nicknamed me ‘Baboon.’
“They told us stories of how they had been suffering, living in the forest while we enjoyed air-conditioned buses. They told us how government used to pay them when they dropped their guns, as militants but had owed them for about five months. They threatened to make things worse now that the government had abandoned them. They boasted that even though the government tricked them into surrendering their weapons, they could still acquire new ones. I asked them why they would choose to deal with common people like us rather than those in government, who had money. And they said that it was because those people flew in the air and they could not get at them but would soon device means of dealing with them.
“It was on a Monday that they freed us after the ransom had been paid. When we were about to leave the place, they buried the pots they used in cooking. In fact, they buried everything, leaving nothing that could be a trace that people were there.
“When they started negotiating with our families, they warned us not to let any of our members know that there were others being held with us. They instructed us to tell our families that we were the only ones being held. So, for three days, negotiations continued. And each time any of our family members was on the phone with them they would beat the person menacingly such that the family member on the other end would hear the kind of torture they were going through. This was their strategy for getting the money out quickly.
“In the end, they observed that most of our family members could not afford the millions they were demanding. So, they asked us how much they could afford. So, they collected N500,000 from each one of us. They instructed our family members to liaise among themselves and deposit the money somewhere around the University of Benin, Benin City. They warned them to ensure that there was enough credit on their phones and that their phone batteries were fully charged to ensure that there would be no break in communication till the money was handed over to them.
Before then, they had asked one of our family members to drop the money somewhere in Owerri and later told her to bring it to Benin the following day. They also warned them to ensure that they came with our transport fare because no kobo would be deducted from the ransom we paid. That was how they were able to pass our family members’ telephone numbers to one another so that they would assemble at a place and gather the money. They commanded the mother of the lady, who was with us to collect the money from others and bring it to a place they directed her. When the whole money was eventually gathered, they counted it and then returned our SIM cards to us and set us free.
“When I finally reunited with my family, the burial ceremony I was billed to attend had long been concluded. But everyone was happy to have me back alive, especially my mother and wife, who were not informed about my whereabouts. My wife had planned to join me in the village from Port Harcourt. But she was shocked that I left Lagos but was not in the village.
But Innocent and the rest of the victims were even more shocked after their release when they discovered that the driver and the conductor of the ill-fated bus did not make any report to their bosses about the robbery and the abduction. “Apart from the beating we received, the loss of money, documents and our near-death experience, we were deeply pained to discover after our release that the driver and the conductor of our bus did not even report the incident to their company’s head office in Lagos. That attitude raised our suspicion that there was some foul play or foreknowledge of the robbery and kidnapping. They did not even contact our family members or our next of kins, though the contacts were left in the manifest,” he said.