Call them an evil syndicate and you are no farther from the truth. How do you describe people who make a living abducting others’ children and selling them for money? By the time you heard that one of them had twice sold her babies for money, then you would believe anything that comes from their lips, no matter how absurd it sounds.
Meet the members of this infernal gang: Ibadan-based Blessing Itowowo Stephen (who had twice sold the fruits of her womb for lucre) and her fiancé, Isreal Ariyo; Lagos-based Uyime John, a rookie abductor who stole a neighbour’s four-year-old boy and Akwa-Ibom based Ogbong Una Itoro a.k.a. Madam Cece, the broker, Eucharia Itoro, the sales agent and Dr Godwin Una Ekong, a certified trado-medical doctor.
By their admission, all of them have their hands ‘stained with blood.’
Their last operation was their waterloo. Uyime had abducted four-year-old Ojo Ifapounda on July 14, 2019, from his home at No. 261 Ikota Housing Estate, Ajah, Lagos at 7:30 pm. The father of the boy, Adegboyega Ifapounda, who reported to the police, voiced his suspicion that Uyime, whose whereabouts could not be ascertained, was responsible for his son’s disappearance. She was subsequently declared wanted by the police.
Operatives of the Inspector-General of Police, Intelligence Response Team (IRT) assigned to the case had on July 22 tracked Uyime to Olomi in Ibadan, Oyo State where she was arrested in the house of her accomplice, Blessing Itowowo Stephen.
Their confessions led to the arrests of other suspects. In police custody, they sang like a bird and out came incredible stories of vile deeds.
The neighbourhood abductor
Uyime John, the alleged mastermind of the abduction, claimed she decided to pick little Ojo because she wanted to change his destiny. The general story of a life characterized by a pattern of missteps.
Her story: “My parents are jobless and they could not help me further my education, so I had no choice but to drop out of school. I am pretty, so it was not difficult to raise small money to start up a business.
“Last year, I got pregnant for one of my boyfriends and he promised to marry me when the baby is born. Unfortunately, I had complications and my baby died at eight months. My boyfriend abandoned me and I used all the money to settle hospital bills. It was while I was battling to raise money and start my business that my friend, Blessing called me that she needed a baby boy that can be sold. She told me I will be paid N150, 000 if I can find one small baby boy that is not more than five years.
“I told her that I do not know where to get such, but she kept putting pressure on me. On June 2, while I was celebrating my birthday, Ojo’s older siblings were at my party. There were four of them. I had to drive them away when it was getting very late. One of them begged me to allow him to stay because they lived in one room with no enough no space for them.
“The next day while I was in the market selling food, I saw Ojo playing around with other children without his mother or siblings watching him. It was then that I remembered the N150, 000 offer. I started playing with him and gave him sweets until he got used to me.
“On July 14, at 7:30 pm, Ojo was still outside playing while his mother, a petty trader, was busy selling her wares. I offered him a biscuit and asked him to follow me to buy sweet, he followed me and that very night, I took him to Ibadan where my friend lives.”
Days later, Blessing took the baby to Akwa Ibom State, to the woman who requested for a baby boy. Uyime returned home to find trouble waiting for her.
“After some days, I came back to Lagos and my sister called to inform me that Ojo was missing and that people suspected I was the one who took him. I was scared. I decided not to go back to Ikota because they have reported to the police. I ran back to Ibadan and decided to live there till they stopped looking for me. I was there when Blessing called that the woman who bought the child had rejected him because Ojo, who is only four years old, knows the name of his parents and where they live and that the boy even knows my name might expose them.”
“Already, the police had declared me wanted. What I did was to take Ojo back to Lagos and dropped him in front of a church in Ketu, then I ran back to Ibadan. I knew that the church will surely take him to the police, and since his parents have reported him missing, they will find him.”
Stranded in front of The Apostolic Church, Ojota, the four-year-old was rescued by the church’s security men who saw him trying to cross the highway alone.
Taken to Alapere Police Station, Ojo was handed over to the Juvenile Welfare Centre at Alakara, Idi-Oro area, Lagos. No one knew that he was the missing child stolen from Ikota until after the arrest of Uyime and Blessing.
A remorseful Uyim John said: “I am very sorry and I pray they will forgive me. I took Ojo because I was assured that the family that will adopt him is very rich. I wanted to change his destiny and since his parents have many other children, they will not miss him so much.”
The baby-for-money mother
By the time you hear her full story, you will perhaps understand why she has no qualms selling another woman’s baby for money. Blessing Itowowo Stephen, 25, from Akwa Ibom State, hoped to raise money from the deal to finance her wedding. But first, you have to hear her personal story:
“My mother had only girls and my father decided to abandon us when I was born. Life was so hard that we could barely feed. My mother tried her best to raise us and since I cannot go to school, I decided to learn how to make hair. Along the line, I had a baby boy for one man who denied the pregnancy and disappeared.
“I started another relationship with one Steve and sometime in 2015, I became pregnant again. When I informed him, he became angry and threatened to deal with me if I do not abort the pregnancy. I was terrified and decided to have an abortion, but when I went for a scan I was told that I was already six months pregnant. I was warned that I would die if I attempt to abort the baby.
“My parents are poor; they cannot help me to even pay my hospital bills, and had even threatened to throw me out of the house. I already had a son with another man that rejected me and my parents were even finding difficult to feed him.
“It was then that my friend introduced me to Madam Cece who is based in Akwa Ibom State. She was excited when she found out that I was carrying a baby boy. The agreement we had was that she would take care of me till I gave birth and then pay me off so that she can give the baby to capable parents.”
After the birth of her son, she was given N100, 000. “I was not even allowed to see his face or touch him, so I came back to Lagos and continued my life.”
Back in Lagos, her parents had wanted to know what became of her baby.
“I told them that the baby died. Madam Cece who is traditional midwife even called my parents and confirmed my claim and they were happy with the news.”
She went back to her way of life, hustling till she met Ariyo, her current fiancé.
“He promised to marry me as soon as his finance improves. Unfortunately, I became pregnant again, he asked me to abort the baby. His family is very poor and also depends on him for survival. Instead of abortion, I told him that there is a woman who will buy our baby.
Because he also needed money, he agreed.
To avoid questions, she travelled to Akwa Ibom before her tummy grew into a noticeable baby bump, and when the baby was born, she took an N250, 000 pay-off, dropped the baby and returned to Lagos to tie the loose ends.
“I gave my fiancé N100, 000 and I took N150, 000. Madam Cece also called my husband when he was with his family and told them that the baby was dead. This was necessary so that his family will not be suspicious.”
When asked if she wanted her babies back, Blessing said: “Like I said, I never saw them after birth, maybe that was why I do not feel a thing when they were taken away from me. But if finding them will save me from this problem, I pray they find them immediately.”
After her episodes, Blessing kept in touch with Madam Cece in case of future baby transaction.
“Sometime in June, Madam Cece called me that she wants to buy trouser––slang for a baby boy while skirt means baby girl––she offered to pay me N350, 000 if I can get one. I told my friend Uyime who promised to look for one. In the area that she lives in Ikota, the place is overpopulated and a child can easily go missing. Luckily she called that she has found one and would bring the boy to Ibadan. The next day after she arrived, I took the boy to Uyo and handed him over to Madam Cece who told me to hang around until the boy is stable. On the third day as I was planning to leave, the boy started crying shouting that we should return him to his mother in Lagos. We were shocked because he knew a lot about his family. Madam Cece asked me to return with him as he is already too wise to be adopted.”
She had no choice but to return to Ibadan with the child and in turn, asked Uyime to return the boy to his parents in Lagos. She had no idea what became of the boy.
“She (Uyime) assured me that the baby is now with his parents,” she said, hence her shock when the police showed up at her doorstep with handcuffs for her.
“I am sorry, please forgive us,” she lamented. On why she refused to tell the truth initially, Blessing said that she thought that since baby Ojo has been found, it would make their matter less complicated.
Her fiancé, Ariyo had no better defence for their criminal behaviour. He also narrated a long tale of woes––of personal misfortune in life and hope for a better life for his unborn child. “I know that the world will see me as wicked but the truth is that I don’t want my son to end up like me. I am from a very poor home and I have not been able to better my life. I love Blessing and wanted to marry her as soon as I made some money. Unfortunately, she got pregnant and I advise her to terminate the baby. She suggested that we should sell the baby to a rich family instead of killing him. I agreed and I was given N100, 000. I know my son is in good hands and might become so rich that he will come and find me one day. I don’t pray that they find him and bring him back because he is simply coming back to suffer. No one forced me to sell my child, it was our choice.”
At the centre of this heinous racket is Ogbong Una Itoro, popularly known as Madame Cece. The 48-year-old traditional birth attendant who specialized in selling other people’s kids introduced herself as “a native of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State and I am happily married with eight children.”
Madame Cece’s confession: “I am a traditional birth attendant and have done that job since I was a teenager. My mother taught me all that I know and when it became a problem that you must have a certificate, I attended traditional medicine school in Akwa Ibom 10 years ago where I got my certificate. I have successfully delivered not less than 200 children since I started. I am very good; any child that dies must have had issues before the mother came to me as their final hope.
“In the process of doing my job, I have come across a lot of women who are not interested in taking care of their newborn child. All I normally do is to alert the state Welfare Department and they will legitimately put up the children for adoption. I also treat women with fertility issues, that is why I have a line-up of couples who are looking for children to adopt.
She corroborated the story of the other two young women. “This girl (Blessing) was introduced to me in 2014 by one lady. I accepted her as a daughter that was why when she called me in 2015 that she was pregnant and might commit suicide, I asked her to come.
“I took care of her and she agreed that I can give out the baby on adoption. She told me that she does not know the father of her baby as she had slept with multiple men. I gave her N100, 000 to go back and start her life all over.
“Early this year, she called me again and this time around, I spoke with a man who she claimed is her husband. Both agreed that they want to put up their child for adoption. I warned them and her husband insisted that it was their joint decision to give out the baby.
“After the birth of the child, I paid her N250, 000. I did not force her to give up her child. Let her stop lying, I felt that since both parents are not interested, there was no need to go to welfare. I only told the couple that bought the children to go to welfare and get papers.”
The rest of the gang
On the possibility of recovering the children, the question is better answered by Eucharia Itoro, whose job it was to find couples seeking to adopt children.
“I don’t think that it will be possible to find the kids because we do not keep in touch with the families. They don’t want anyone to disturb them in future,” she stated.
The last member of the gang, Dr Godwin Una Ekong, claimed he was innocent, but was dragged into the matter because of Eucharia’s testimony.
“I am a homoeopathic physician and I studied at the Open University of India. I am well known Port Harcourt because my medicines are highly potent,” he said.
His testimony, however, was self-incriminating: “I was on my own when a family friend known as Mercy came to my office. She is a widow and has five children. She got pregnant and wanted someone that will adopt the baby. I agreed to help her because she is a family friend.
“She threatened to throw the baby away into the gutter. I advised her that it is better for her to give the baby up and make some money out of it and used the money to train the others. I gave the baby out at the price of N400, 000.”