Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: South-East Under Siege - Robbers, Kidnappers on the Rampage

Enugu — Not Since the Civil War (1967- 70) has the South-East been this besieged from all fronts. Although, the situation seems to cut across the six geo-political zones, it is particularly endemic in the South-East where robbers and kidnappers are making life extremely difficult for the residents, according to this report:

IT was a frightening way for residents of Enugu to start a weekend when news spread, penultimate Friday, that a gang of robbers struck in the university town of Nsukka, robbing banks, and then killed a divisional police officer and bombed a police station.

This came just a few weeks after the immediate past Inspector General of Police, Mr. Mike Okiro met with police chiefs in the zone and declared the readiness of the force to bring problem of insecurity under control.

Enugu State

In Enugu in particular, crime wave has been on the increase in recent times. Apart from domestic robberies which some observers blamed on joblessness among youths, a situation that has been worsened by the recent ban on commercial motorcycle operation by most states in the zone, the state has witnessed a couple of high-profile robberies and kidnapping of both the rich, middle-class and even children for which huge sums of money were paid as ransoms.

The most celebrated kidnapping in the state was that involving the Dr. Francis Edemobi, younger brother of the Minister of Information, Professor Dora Akunyili in December last year. Although he was released four days after he was captured, the family allegedly coughed out about N5 million to secure his release. His suspected kidnappers were later apprehended along with some prominent persons who have continually denied knowledge or involvement in the act. The accused persons are currently being tried.

Investigations also revealed that there were several unreported cases of kidnapping in the state where relations of the victims paid ransom to the kidnappers without reporting to the police. Such responses to ransom demands by kidnappers had been identified as the major reason for the escalation of the inhuman trade.

The police in the state have repeatedly warned the people to desist from negotiating with kidnappers but for fear of losing such victims, their relations often ignore the security advice by entering into negotiations which usually end up in paying ransom, most times less than the amount demanded.

Apart from Enugu the state capital, some residents of Nsukka, the host community of University of Nigeria, have tasted the bitter pills of kidnapping and violent robberies. Within the first half of this year, police sources said, no fewer than 20 major kidnapping involving some wealthy businessmen from the area had been documented. But unfortunately, the police could not secure the release of the victims as they only regained their freedom after meeting the demands of their captors.

The Catholic Church in Nsukka had accused a police chief of aiding criminals in the town, but even when the said officer was redeployed, the situation has not improved. Only last week, the poor security network in the town was confirmed when a dare-devil armed robbery gang stormed the busy Enugu road with sophisticated weapons and robbed four commercial banks of millions of naira.

The new Divisional Police Officer (DPO) in the town, Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP), Joe Ejitaga and about five others were killed in that incident. Some policemen from the state police command including operatives of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) who pursued the robbers after their operation in Nsukka, were seriously wounded in the gun duel with the bandits. It was learnt that the police reinforcement teams led by the SARS Commander, DSP Jude Agbalajelu, were ambushed by the gang at Nkpologu area of Uzo Uwani Local Government Area on the Nsukka - Onitsha Federal highway.

The police had adopted some measures including the reintroduction of checkpoints on highways and major streets in the state but the measure has not prevented the kidnappers from engaging in the money-spinning business. For instance, the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Sullivan Chime, Mr. Dan Nwomeh was kidnapped from his residence which is about two kilometers away from the Government House, Enugu.

The heavy security presence in the Government House did not dissuade his assailants from trailing him from his office to his residence in Independence Layout from where he was abducted and taken to Rivers State in the night of July 4.

Nwomeh only regained his freedom on Monday, July 20 after spending 17 days in the hands of his captors. It was not known if his family paid any ransom before his release but the Enugu State Government had earlier turned down the demand of N500 million ransom on the chief press secretary.

Even when the amount was later reduced to N200 million and N50 million, the government refused to enter into negotiation with the criminals before Nwomeh reappeared this week. For now there is much apprehension on the part of the people of the state over the increasing activities of the kidnappers. More disturbing is the localization of the trade whereby some small criminals in the rural areas have resorted to kidnapping villagers especially children and demanding ransoms, sometimes as low as N5,000 before releasing them.

Some religious leaders in the state while suggesting ways out of this security threat, had called for a change of heart by those involved in the ungodly trade and this appeared to be the only solution in sight since security operatives have actually lost the battle against kidnapping, at least for now.

Anambra State

Reports say that between July/September 2008 and July 2009, over N600million was lost to kidnapping and bullion van/bank robbery activities in Anambra State, including ransom paid. In the September 2008 Awkuzu bullion van robbery, over N200 million was reportedly lost and few months back when Chief Paul Okonkwo, alias POKOBROS, was kidnapped, between N70 million was alleged to have been paid to his captors. Over fifteen police officers, including a Divisional Police Officer for Awka Central Police Station or CPS, had also been killed.

On the Eve of the 2008 Christmas, five police persons were gunned down at Abagana, Anambra State. Also, over sixty residents in Anambra State had been killed within the period under review. In the April 2009 Oba-Nnewi bullion van robbery, about thirty persons were reportedly shot dead. Similarly, it is being suspected that between July 2008 and July 2009, a period of twelve months, SARS operatives in the State have killed over one hundred and twenty persons extra-judicially, on the average of ten persons per month. The outfit also tortures all of its suspects.

The government of Anambra State has provided to the Anambra State Police Command and other conventional security agencies with materials and cash. The break down shows that a total of 121 police pick-up vans, valued at N576 million were given to the police (N4.8 million for each). The Nigeria Army formation in the State had reportedly received 25 pick-up vans valued at over N100 million since 2006.

Also, four sets of Israeli made Armoured Personnel Carriers valued at about N400 million (about N100 million for each) had been delivered to the State Police Command. A number of strategic police stations had also been rebuilt or renovated by the Government of Anambra State since 2006. Some of them are the State Command Headquarters, Awka, the Nnewi Central Police Station, which was burnt down during the 2006 Government and the MASSOB face-off, and the "33" Police Station near Nsugbe, Anambra State.

The Station was also burnt down during the said face-off. There were other security barracks that were rebuilt or renovated in which over N100 million was reportedly spent.

On July 16, around 1:30pm, a group of killers sighted a long convoy at Nnokwa Community in Idemmili South, Anambra State and opened fire. At the end, the Honourable Paulinus Igwe Nwagu, a member of House of Reps from Ebonyi State, Mr. Ugorji Moses and Mr. Chukwuma Ofefe, who are former aides of Dr. Samuel Egwu, a former governor of Ebonyi State, were severally shot at. Also, a Mobile Police operative accompanying them, Mr. Enyong Sunday was shot dead.

At the end, it was three persons dead and one Nwagu was critically injured. They were on their way to attend the funeral rites of the father of the South East vice chairman of the PDP, Mr. Olisa Metuh at Nnewi. Between 3:pm and 5:pm, same day, the same gang operated unchallenged for over two hours at Awka and even danced around the town entertaining people.

They were apparently happy that people were watching their operations from their hiding places. At the end, three persons were killed including one Kenneth who hailed from Nsukka in Enugu State. Again, on 17th day of July 2009, another dare devil gang or possibly the same group returned to Awka and allegedly struck at the Spring Bank, but could not gain entry because of sophisticated security structures built around the bank premises.

As a result, all banks and offices as well as stalls were hurriedly closed out of fear. Earlier on Wednesday, July 15, a gang of kidnappers struck at the "33" Housing Estate near Nsugbe, where they kidnapped Chief Godfrey Okonkwo, alias Bishop-Ichida, who is a multi-millionaire and an industrialist. He was kidnapped around 4:30pm same day and released on Friday, July 17, possibly, after he had paid a ransom.

Interestingly, there were no records of successful robbery operations targeted at any banks or any convoys of bullion vans. On Saturday, July 18, a gang of armed robbers which reportedly robbed about six banks in Nsukka, Enugu State and shot dead the Divisional Police Officer for Nsukka Urban Police Station, CPS Joseph Ejitaga, were reportedly attacked by a local vigilante group, operating within Omor-Anaku axis in Ayamelum Local Government Area in Anambra State.

In the bloody combat that reportedly ensued, two robbers were shot dead and one of them apprehended alive, while the rest reportedly escaped and abandoned the sum of N4.1 million to N4.5 million, one AK-47 riffle, one rocket launcher, 1.500 rounds of 7.65mm bullets, 2.000 rounds of 9mm ammunition, 50 empty AK-47 magazines, a white pick-up van, one L.300 bus marked: "Igbo-Etiti Local Government Area", One Malta Guinness vehicle, one red Volvo car, Charms, mobile police and military camouflage uniforms etc. The said Vigilante group, were said to have alerted the police and handed over the human and material items so recovered.

Imo State

Two Imo sons, Sir Theodore Agwatu, a serving principal secretary to former Governor Achike Udenwa and Sir Richard Ugorji, a flourishing civil engineer, were murdered in their homes in Owerri and Abuja respectively. Mrs. Patricia Oby Chidiac, an Imo daughter was trailed to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Apapa, Lagos where she had gone to attend the 10 a.m mass and shot point blank.

These incidents have continued to attract public condemnation. As in these three cases and many others, each plot was executed with clinical finesse. A few persons after the sordid act, get arrested, interrogated, prosecuted or possibly released, especially when the police do not find enough evidence to carry on with the legal processes. Life continues thereafter as if nothing horrible had happened. Mrs. Chidiac is obviously dead but her charity works, especially to widows and the less privileged, will continue to reverberate. She accelerated the completion of many projects and initiated new ones in the church and community, Eziama Ikeduru. Over 250 widows and the poor were empowered last year.

They received between N50,000 and N200,000 each for either medical upkeep or to start small scale businesses. As if the death of Agwatu, Ugorji and Chidiac were enough damage to the people's psyche, the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, Dr. Anthony J.V. Obinna, narrowly cheated death when he was attacked by young, gun totting armed robbers at Lokpanta, Abia State. He was on his way to Enugu at about 7 p.m.

After crossing Okigwe and heading towards the Cattle Market, Lokpanta, Abia State, his driver slowed down at some point because of the bad road. And as they were about to cruise off, they saw light flashing. They took it as coming from policemen on duty, probably trying to find out who was travelling. That marked the beginning of the robbery saga. "I kept talking to them and silently calling on God.

They forced my driver out of the car, pushed him down and used the butt of their gun and hit him at his waist. He slumped. Then they asked him to get up again and open the booth and the car. They removed my brief case and my suitcase containing my soutane and personal effects. They also removed the suitcase that carries my vestments and mitre for celebrating Holy Mass.

They took all of them. They even went ahead to take the driver's little bag containing his personal effects, took his cell phone, his driving licence and even took his shoes. I wondered why they went to this length. So, at the end of it, they ran off with their booty and we continued our journey to Enugu", Archbishop Obinna recounted. The banks operating in Imo State, had a various times, been attacked by dare devil armed robbers.

The defunct Standard Trust Bank along Wetheral Road, Owerri, was attacked and the vault ripped open by the hoodlums. In a similar manner, Zenith Bank and Intercontinental Bank, both located close to Dan Anyiam Stadium Complex, Owerri, were attacked in broad day light. The sad event of that day was that the robbers finished their operation and effectively demobilized the invading police armoured personnel carrier before zooming off to share their loot.

Abia State

It will be an understatement to say that Abia State is under the siege of criminals, especially kidnappers and armed robbers. It is real. Government, the police and other security agencies accept this reality. Residents and indigenes of Abia State accept this. Many families have lost their loved ones to these hoodlums.

Some other families have parted with their hard earned money to pay ransom to release their kidnapped relations. People now live in fear, especially residents of Aba, the economic capital and Umuahia, the political capital. It is turning to a daily affair, as there are reports almost on daily basis of either a robbery attack or incidence of kidnapping, especially in Aba.

Recent cases: Last Monday, the deputy chairman of Osisioma council area, one of the council areas, notorious for kidnapping, Chief Steve Macho was killed when he resisted being abducted by kidnappers. The police are currently on the trail of the killers. Also last week, one Professor P.N. Nwabeke was kidnapped and dumped into his car booth.

However, luck was on his side as a team of patrol policemen intercepted the kidnappers who abandoned him and he was rescued. Mr. Victor Azumara, the Head of Service of Ugwunagbo council, another council notorious for kidnapping, was abducted recently. How much ransom paid to secure his release was not known.

Three weeks ago, a failed attempt to kidnap an expatriate employee of 7-up bottling company in Aba, led to the killing of five policemen. The police vehicle was also burnt, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, representing Abia South senatorial zone last month escaped being abducted. However, he lost his police orderly in the attack.

Septuagenarian chairman of Abia State Independent Election Commission (ABSIEC), Prof. Steven Emejuaiwe was also recently kidnapped. His police orderly was killed in the incident, while the old man was released some days later. Just last Friday, the chairmen of Abia State PDP, Chief Ndidi Okereke survived an attack in Umuahia Previous cases of kidnapping and armed robberies are bound.

Government/Police response to the situation: Abia State Government has made some appreciable effort to tackle this problem. The government has so far donated a total of 60 vehicles to the state police command to aid them in the fight against crime and criminals.

In addition, with the help of the Inspector-General of police, Mr. Mike Okiro, an armoured personnel carrier (APC) was sent to the state. Presently, it is stationed at the main gate of Government House, Umuahia. Earlier, the Governor, Chief Theodore Orji had instituted a N1million reward package for any person who volunteered useful information on kidnappers and their activities, all aimed at fighting the menace.

However, with all the measures taken, the situation was not getting better, rather it was getting worse. This prompted the government to cause the State House of Assembly, which some of its members had fallen victim in the past, to enact a law, making kidnapping a capital offence.

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