Asaba — After five days in captivity, with 63 arrests made and a reported demand of $1 billion ransom, Prof. Kamene Okonjo, the abducted mother of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Friday regained her fre-edom without any drama.
The only drama, perhaps, was the fact the 82-year-old professor of sociology had to ride on a commercial bike to the palace of her husband, the Obi of Ogwashi-Uku, Prof. Chukwuka Okonjo.
However, Delta State Police Commissioner, Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba, said the special task force set up by the inspector-general of police and other security agencies in the state were able to secure Prof. Okonjo's release "without the payment of any ransom".
The police commissioner's clarification was apparently to quell the suspicion that some ransom may have been paid to the abductors who were believed to have made a demand for $1 billion before, reportedly, reducing the sum to N200 million.
Confirming the release of the Okonjo family's matriarch, special adviser (Media) to Dr Okonjo-Iweala, Mr. Paul Nwabuikwu, said in a press statement: "I can confirm that Professor Kamene Okonjo, wife of the Obi of Ogwashi-Uku, Professor Chukwuka Okonjo and mother of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was released this morning, five days after her abduction.
"The Okonjo family is full of thanks to the Almighty for this happy development. The family is also highly appreciative of the support and encouragement of President Goodluck Jonathan; the country's security services for their excellent operations; Governors Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta, Peter Obi of Anambra, Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers and other governors as well other friends and well wishers within and outside government for their prayers and encouragement during a very difficult period."
Sources told THISDAY that the Okonjo family had been negotiating with the abductors, and that they had promised to release her two days ago in Benin.
The source added that family members had, as a result of that promise, gone to Benin to await her release but returned to Ogwashi-Uku after the abductors failed to do so.
But the first son of the family, Onyema Okonjo, had refuted claims that the abductors had made a demand for ransom.
"I do not know where people got the story that the kidnappers are asking for $1 billion ransom; that is certainly not true," he said in a telephone interview.
Aduba who briefed the press on the development yesterday said: "Delta State Police Command wish to confirm the release of Her Majesty (Mrs.) Kamene Okonjo. She was released unhurt in the early hours of today (Friday). It would be recalled that on Sunday, December 9 at about 1100 hours, unknown persons kidnapped the Queen at the revered palace.
"The Delta State police supported by a crack team from IGP's Special Task Force on Terrorism consciously and professionally with due caution swung into action, bearing in mind the age of the octogenarian, collected intelligence on the activities of the hoodlums and struck at their hideouts in Asaba."
He further stated that "in the course of effecting the arrest of one of the notorious kingpins, Nwaeze Nwosa aka Bolaji, attempted to scale the fence and was shot at by the team and he suffered fatal gunshot wounds."
He explained that the police made some recoveries during the raid, "thus mounting pressure on the hoodlums who eventually capitulated and hurriedly released her".
Aduba said the police have intensified the manhunt for the fleeing members of the gang, adding that items recovered from the kidnappers comprised an ash-coloured Golf car with registration number No ASB 697 used in the abduction of Professor Okonjo at the palace and a white Toyota van with registration number No APP 64 XA. He said the suspects have made vital statement and would be charged to court.
Professor Kamene Okonjo was kidnapped last Sunday by 10 gunmen in Ogwashi-Uku, in Aniocha South Local Government Area of Delta State. The queen mother of Ogwashi Uku kingdom, was said to have been freed by her abductors at about 5.00am Friday.
It was also learnt that she may have been hidden all along in Kwale, in Ndokwa East Local Government Area. Spokesman of the Ogwashi-Uku monarch, Chief Lawrence Okolobi, told THISDAY that "professor Kamene Okonjo was brought from Kwale in Ndokwa local government and driven to a border town between Ubulu-Uku and Umunede before she was dropped off, from where she rode a commercial bike back to the palace", a distance of over 30 kilometres.
Security at the palace has been tightened since the incident occurred.
A visit revealed that the palace now swarms with soldiers, police and sundry vigilante groups from the community.
A member of one of such improvised security outfit told THISDAY that "as we speak, mama is upstairs resting. You cannot see her now. As a matter of fact, I have been instructed not to speak to the press. The person who will attend to you has gone out. I will advise you come back".
Barring the teeming presence of security operatives who thoroughly screened everyone seeking to visit the palace, the courtyard looked quite calm when THISDAY visited.
Delta State information commissioner, Mr. Chike Ogeah, who spoke on behalf of the state government, described the release of Professor Okonjo as a joyous occasion. "My heart is full of joy and the relief is palpable. This (the abduction) runs contrary to all we hold dear as Africans in general and Midwestern Igbos, in particular, where our culture is laced with respect for the elderly and where our traditional institutions are held in high esteem," he said.
Ogeah further said: "My prayer is that we shall never see anything like this again. I admonish our youths to retrace their steps away from such hideous evil so as to avoid the wrath of God. We give God all the glory for her safe return and the people of Delta State congratulate the Obi, Professor Okonjo, and his family on the safe return of his beloved wife and matriarch of the family."