Sunday, September 24, 2023 12:25 pm
Captured in broad daylight
Sunday, 3 September 2023, was a Red Letter Day for many residents of Kogi State. That day, no fewer than 20 gunmen seized the popular Lokoja-Obajana-Kabba highway, unleashing terror on unsuspecting travellers. Unknown gunmen have also been operating in other parts of the state.
The incident under reference happened at about 4 pm at Aiyegunle Igun, a tiny agrarian community with high Fulani residents just after Odo Ape and a few kilometres to the ancient Kabba town, headquarters of Kabba-Bunu Local Government Area. Indeed, the travellers were completely immuned to any sense of danger since their destination was nearby. Then, in a manner reminiscent of an action film scene, a staccato of gunshots violated the atmosphere of peace, and things started happening very fast.
The bullets flew in all directions. A vehicle ahead of a Toyota Corolla Sallon was already halted. The Driver of the Toyota, an unarmed military officer, sensed danger and manipulated the automobile. He matched the brakes, swerved to the left and back to the right in a quick 180-degree turn, and faced backwards in the direction of Igun.
His manoeuvres were, however, cut short by another set of gunmen. Hedged between three and five hoodlums, all armed with AK-47 riffles on each side, the officer instinctictively hid his identity card. In a jiffy, along with his fellow travellers (a woman and her teenaged daughter), alighted from the car in surrender and signalled on the gunmen to seize fire. Shocked by his audacity, one of the felons threatened to hack him. The soldier offered him money and his car key. But the attackers were on a more hideous mission.
In all, 26 people and 6 vehicles were trapped in the mayhem. More outlaws joined in the attack, snappily searching the victims for possible arms, collecting their phones, cash, and ravaging the vehicles for more valuables. Without wasting time, the assailants led the hostages into the belly of the forest.
It was a fairly large company of men, women, and children. Among the abducted people were Major John Olukomogbon, Mr Ayo, Aiyenigva Seyi Alaba, Moses Benjamin, Mrs Modupe Dada, her daughter Sade, and Friday Omoafoje.
Those who held them hostage were more than 20. They spoke Fulfide, Hausa, and sparse English. They were all heavily armed and dispensed trauma with the reclessness of heathens. The gunmen looked like young adults between the general age bracket of 20 and early 30s. They marched the unfortunate group through the thick jungle of Apeland, beating and harassing them for the rest of that day as they deemed fit.
The outlaws were interested in the personal details of the kidnapped. Thus, as they moved, they asked the victims of their names, professions, where they were coming from, and destinations, respectively. The soldier claimed to be a teacher in a remote village. Alaba, a Chattered Accountant, became an applicant travelling to Abuja for an interview. Other hostages disguised their identities according to the limits of their talents.
The bandits gave early assurances that they were not murderers or rapists. They said they were businessmen, only interested in their money, and advised the victims to cooperate in their own interests. They reiterated that even though they came in peace, the prisoners shouldn’t test their resolve because they meant business.
They were tortured to no end. A parting of ways came for some of the prisoners when, after a reasonable distance in the forest, the criminals randomly separated them into two camps. While some of the people who were travelling in the same vehicle were lucky to be grouped together, others were not. One group comprised 12 persons, while the other had 14.
Once they were so divided, each of the groups went separate ways. The batch of 12 went through farmlands, still water bodies, desolate vegetations, and eventually anchored on a mountain. As there was no device to monitor the time, the victims who spoke to The News reckoned it must have been around 11pm.
Among the personal effects of the victims that were looted was a bag containing well packaged plates of food. The bandits opened it, shared the content, and settled down to devour it to the last particles, leaving the now very ravenous victims to swallow empty saliva. Meanwhile, one Hausa woman who had fallen down many times from the increasing signs of fatigue was abandoned. A driver also managed to escape.
After the brief rest, the group resumed their wanderings. By and by, they arrived on another hilly ridge. On the flat top of the hill, the criminals located a familiar portion where they all passed the rest of the night. The miserable prisoners, who had become weak from the endless torture, were made to lie down on the rock, while the gunmen formed a ring around them. They had no idea of time. No food. No water. And thus ended the first day.
Before day break, there had been a change of guards. The victims were handed over to another set of bandits. Monday was not any better. The prisoners continued their nomadic life through the valley and upland of the shadow of death. It rained cat and dog on that day.
“We arrived at a location where the bandits brought out nylon and tapoleen to cover their bodies from the rain. Every rain started and ended on our heads. Yet without prompting, they may just start beating you. Oh, I saw hell in the hands of those Fulani boys.
“From that Sunday, Monday and Tuesday there was no food. Everything happened on our heads. Upon that, they will still chain you from time to time. We passed many streams and climbed several mountains. Sometimes, they allow us to drink water from the streams like cattle. You will bend down and be using your hand to bail the water,” Moses Benjamin, a 30-year-old student and son of a farmer from Cross River State, recalled.
On Monday night, an old man with his about 10-year-old son berthed freedom. Having stayed more than 30 hours without food and adequate water, the boy’s condition had deteriorated.
“The small boy had become very weak since there was no food, and his aged father helpless. I pitied that innocent boy. Very late on Monday night, the boy and his father were left to go. I was very happy for them,” Mrs Dada, a trader, disclosed. She added that their hostile hosts were generally more friendly with people who could speak Hausa or Fulfude.
More torture and first food
The orgy of violence continued on Tuesday. There were more rains and another set of about 20 custodians. Each new group of terrorists seemed more savage than the last.
The tortures were no longer random but targeted. Each victim had a torture session. The criminals will call a particular prisoner and order him or her to the torture chamber. There, slapping, kicking, and flogging were most ruthlessly administered. As they tortured, they will ask the victim to tell them how much he will bring for his release.
“They beat, beat, and beat, asking me to say how much I would pay. I told them my father is a poor farmer. The torture was too much. I was crying and shouting, but they did not stop the beating. I thought I would die. When the torture was too much, I didn’t know when I promised to pay N10 million.
‘When they heard the money, they allowed me to rest. They asked me who would bring the money? I gave them my brother’s number. They called him, and hearing how I was being tortured, he did not argue over the money. He begged them not to kill me and that he would be looking for money,” Moses narrated.
Olukomogbon was also chained, and he had his session in the torture chamber. He told them how meagre his earnings as a village teacher was. He, however, promised to pay N4 million to cover for his family (wife and daughter, as the felons concluded)
The violence continued. Meanwhile, they eventually discovered Olukomogbon’s true identity. That feat was achieved when a new guard, who was obviously IT Savvy, manipulated his handset and accessed his details. Of course, they didn’t take kindly to his deceit. In fact, that singular act fetched him a hearing loss. One of the victims who was impressed by his military stoicism narrated how the officer’s left eardrum became defective from deafening assaults.
On Wednesday, the captives were given their first meal of roasted cassava. Everyone devoured the offer as if they had never seen food before. “Starvation is not good o. I never knew roasted cassava could be such a great meal. It tasted as great, if not greater than food prepared for royalty, ” one of the victims said.
Friendship, humour, and honour from the outlaws
Generally brazen, rude, wayward, and addicted to substance abuse, the felons were a law unto themselves. They smoked tobacco, hemp, and sipped a liquid substance without cease. However, in spite of their deviant attitudes, they had hierarchy and respected constituted authority. Names like Egunbe, Agaba, and Atta Igala were among the lower ranks of torturers. Magaji was the Lord of the Manor.
He did not come until Wednesday evening. Always dressed in impeccable military attires, his arrival brought a semblance of stability to the operation. He claimed to have once been a soldier, directed that, Olukomogbon, the military officer and his people should no longer be molested and assigned a batman (special guard) to him. “From then on, he was given preferential treatment. For instance, if they gave others garri to soak, they would give the officer rice to eat. But he will soak the garri with us and allowed us to also eat rice with him, “Friday said.
Real negotiations on ransom began on that Wednesday. The bandits demanded N50 million for the release of the trio of Major Olukomogbon and the two females. They also set various sums ranging from five to ten million Naira on the other prisoners. But Mogaji was obviously not the final authority, as the victims noticed that he sometimes reported to someone else on the phone. In addition, someone who was not in the bush was deeply involved in discussions with family members of the unfortunate company.
The bandits told the prisoners that there were up to 3,000 gunmen in various Kogi forests, and that their capture was an accident, encouraging them to pay their money to expedite their freedom. “They said the ambush was laid for an Ekiti Senator who they believed was to pass the road on that day. The flashy car must have been what attracted them, and we innocently walked into the ambush,” Mrs Dada said.
Anyway, the outlaws became more amiable. They held current affair classes with their guests, thoroughly washing down the government and system of things in society. They decried the high cost of living and lack of jobs in society.
They pitied the unemployed among the victims and told the officer to advise those in authority on creating job opportunities. They said they would have killed him if he was a police, SARS, or vigilante officer. They said they have an axe to grind with those accusing them of indiscriminate arrests. Further, they claimed to source their weapons through the police and accused the force of double standard, as they turned around to harass or arrest them.
There were other takeaways. During the toture chamber sessions, one of the indigent victims was asked to call his Dad and impress it on him to hustle for his ransom. The poor father said nothing had changed at home in terms of cash and requested to pray for the kidnappers, being all that he could offer. Promptly, he exchanged pleasantries and began to pray for the men of the underworld.
“Immediately he started praying, the bandit stopped him, warning him not to waste their time with prayer. They said he should pray for the safe return of his son, noting that they didn’t need his prayers.” Indeed, while the trial lasted, none of the bandits openly offered a word of prayer or pretended to do so.
Mrs Dada also recalled how one of the gunmen looked at her daughter in admiration. Turning to the officer, he said, “walahi Oga, make I sell all my property. Let me marry your daughter.”
“Come marry am,” the officer teased. Then the bandit replied, “na lie Oga, you no go allow your daughter marry armed robber.” They laughed it off.
On Friday, being their sixth day in captivity, all the victims were in sombre reflection and praying internally for freedom. Olukomogbon’s head was bowed, as he sat on a rock. Looking at him intently, his assigned guard suddenly burst into laughter. Alarmed, the officer slightly raised his head to see what caused the guffaw.
“Wallahi, this man abi Brigadier for army. But, man hold man, man calm down.” The bandit said noding his head, as he continued laughing.
Freedom at last
Negotiations and other efforts aimed at the safe release of the victims intensified per time. From the initial 50 million Naira request it went down to N15m, then went up and stabilised at N30m for the Major and his two fellow abductees.
The hoodlums who had never hidden their ability to kill if the need arose, regularly warned the victims against calling the security agencies. They specifically assured the army officer, that should the army come for them, they would not hesitate to kill him and others, even though they may end up paying with their own lives.
By Saturday afternoon, the bandits accepted the ransome. A total N33,360,000 was paid in addition to five plates of sumptuous food and three power banks. In the evening of that day, they apologised to the prisoners and begged them for forgiveness, as they set them free.
Again the victims walked all night in the jungle trying to get to the main road. After about five hours treck, they arrived at a farmer’s hut, where they passed the night. The kind farmer allowed them use of his phone and showed them the way out of the jungle in the morning. On Sunday morning they arrived at Abobo, a village on Okene/ Lokoja highway. That was where friends and family members rescued them home.
That is seven full days, in a kidnappers den. Thank God, these returned alive and treating their various physical and psychological wounds. Could there be others in the den?
Your guess is as good as mine.