Negotiations have begun in earnest with the kidnappers of Prof. Kamene Okonjo, mother of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was kidnapped on Sunday in Delta State.
THISDAY gathered Tuesday that the kidnappers had contacted the Okonjo family during which they listed conditions for the release of the minister's mother, chief of which was that the family should part with N200 million.
The demand for N200 million was made after an initial demand for N1 billion, which the family made clear it could not pay.
According to sources, the abductors who telephoned the family at noon on Monday, initially demanded to speak with Okonjo-Iweala, but were not allowed to do so.
Rather, they were made to speak with the eldest son of the victim, Onyema, who relocated to Ogwashi-Uku on Monday to coordinate the release of his mother.
However, the minister, who was also ready to travel to Ogwashi-Uku, was advised against the trip by the Delta State Government and security agents.
It was learnt that the abductors first demanded the resignation of the minister as a precondition for the release of her mother.
Security sources said Onyema, however, insisted on speaking with his mother to ascertain the state of her health and to be sure that he was not dealing with impostors before he could negotiate with the abductors.
After he had spoken with his mother, whom sources said was alive and well despite the trauma, the kidnappers changed their demand by asking Okonjo-Iweala to bring the money the Federal Government had recovered from oil marketers who had abused the fuel subsidy scheme.
Further negotiations with the kidnappers made them reduce the ransom from N1 billion to N200 million, it was learnt.
"We are waiting and hope that progress can be made," one of the sources told THISDAY.
Onyema, in a telephone interview with THISDAY, however, debunked media reports that the kidnappers had demanded $1 billion as ransom.
He said: "We do not have any further information at this time. I do not know where people got the story that the kidnappers are asking for $1 billion ransom; that is certainly not true.
"As soon as we get any information, we will keep you informed. But we have not heard anything from them so far, it's all rubbish and rumours that they are asking for $1 billion."
The state Commissioner of Police, Ikechukwu Aduba, also denied the report that the kidnappers were demanding $1 billion ransom.
He said his command had deployed personnel to the nooks and crannies of the state in search of the kidnappers.
Aduba stated that the police had arrested the queen's police orderly, who was supposed to be on duty on the day she was kidnapped, another policeman and two domestic staff in the palace over the incident.
"Some arrests have been made, but I cannot disclose those who have been arrested for security reasons. We cannot disclose some information because of the sensitive nature of the investigation we are carrying out.
"Our major concern is to ensure that mama is rescued. We have spread our dragnet to all the nooks and crannies of the state," he said.
It was also learnt that the state government is trying to use backroom channels to facilitate the release of the minister's mother.
Another source said several people, aside from the efforts by the police and other security agencies, were working "underground" to free Okonjo.
He said an informal body of local indigenes had been commissioned to scan the various surrounding communities for clues that might lead to the rescue of the retired professor.
"We are confident that by the close of the day (yesterday), the fog around it would have been clearer. Our interest is in her rescue in the soonest possible time," he said.
THISDAY checks also revealed yesterday that Okonjo's abduction has raised concern over the security situation for residents of Ogwashi-Uku.
They are now apprehensive about engaging in social activities because of the heavy presence of security operatives in the town.
"The situation here remains the same, everywhere is calm, security people are everywhere and one has to restrict his movement for now to avoid being used as a scapegoat by these security people because for them everyone is a suspect," a resident said.
Investigations further revealed that the local vigilantes have been helping security agents comb the bushes in and around Ogwashi-Uku for possible clues on the whereabouts of the kidnappers.
Reacting to kidnapping, Senate President David Mark Tuesdayjoined others to plead for the release of the minister's mother.
In a statement by his Special Adviser on Media, Mr. Kola Ologbodiyan, Mark urged the abductors to release Okonjo because of her age. She is 83.
According to him, "The abduction of any Nigerian is condemnable. The abduction of the mother of a notable Nigerian like Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is an attack on the international reputation of our dear country."