July 12, 2016, will for life remain engraved on the memory of Mr Ebuka Aniekwe, a legal practitioner in Onitsha, Anambra State. On that day, the young lawyer who hails from Isingwu village, Nkpor in Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State was kidnapped by Fulani herdsmen in Oji River area of Enugu State close to a joint checkpoint set up the Nigerian Army and Police, on his way to a customary court, where he was to hold brief for his colleague.
On the fateful day Aniekwe left his house with no premonition of what lay ahead of him on the road to make an appearance at the court. For five days, he slept in the forest where he was subjected to inhuman treatment by his abductors. With long stick associated the Fulani they nudged or beat him like they would do to their cattle, forcing him to drink dirty, muddy water. Rain fell on him, and the drench dried by sunshine.
His ill-treatment was made worse by the inability of his family to provide the initial N50 million ransom demanded by his abductors. At some point, his abductors set him on a hill and prepared to slaughter him as a sacrifice after making some incantations before a sudden, dramatic turn of events.
After days of endless wait for his return, his newly married wife began wearing black clothes to mourn him as it is customary in Igbo land thinking that he had been killed.
The lawyer, however, told Sunday Sun that he was particularly sad that his abduction took place near Police College, Oji River Maximum Prisons and a few poles away from the joint checkpoints of the Nigerian Army and Police.
But how the police in Oji Police Station recovered his file intact dumped deep in the scary forest without catching any of his abductors the very day he was released (as he was informed on the telephone on his arrival to his home) has remained a puzzle to him. He told Sunday Sun that the police equally asked him to bring mobilization money so that they could chase after his kidnappers. While not accusing any of the Nigerian security agents of any complicity in his ordeal, Aniekwe said that the police hierarchy needs to investigate his claims and provide some answers to his posers.
Anikwe recounts his ordeal:
Abducted near Oji Police College
On the 12th of July, 2016, a friend of mine who is also a lawyer, C.J. Okeke, asked me to go and hold his brief at the Customary Court, Achi in Enugu State. I had to proceed from Nkpor that morning. I left my house as early as 06:30am. But due to the bad road, I was not able to get to Oji until some minutes past 9am. When I got to Oji River junction by Old Road, I had to stop and pick another bus to Achi. Unfortunately, the taxi I wanted to join got filled and I waited for some time for another one to load but time was already of essence because I needed to be in court by 9am.
From there, I hired a commercial motorcyclist. On my way, just after the Police College and Oji River Prisons, just few poles away, a group of Fulani herdsmen came out from the bush. They were about seven in number and were all wearing black. The ring leader pointed a pump action rifle at me. Before we knew what was happening he fired a shot at the front tyre of the motorcycle, perhaps, to signal to us they were actually not joking. We got down, shivering in the process.
They searched me and collected all the money I had and my documents; in fact, they collected everything on me except the clothes I was wearing. At a point they also collected the suit jacket I was wearing. I was only left with the shirt I was wearing. Another motorcyclist who rode into the scene was shot but I don’t know whether he died or not.
Thereafter, they ordered us to enter the bush. One of them was in front with a gun while another was behind us and also had a gun. Then the rest followed behind. Soon after they ordered us to run. It was the longest race of my life. I had to run for about 35 minutes, non-stop. We ran deep into the forest. When we got a place I perceived was their rendezvous, the seven of them were joined by another set of Fulani herdsmen, making a total of 16 herdsmen.
I was able to count them because I was not blindfolded. All of them were armed with different weapons and ammunition. Some were with guns, machetes, dagger, and what have you. Each time we slowed down while on the run due to exhaustion, they flogged us like cow with that heavy stick they use in rearing cattle. It was a terrible hit. In fact, we were practically reared like cows. As they were hitting us, they were making signs and gestures as they used to do to their herd of cattle. They were speaking the native language throughout. It was only three of them that were enlightened a bit. They were the ones communicating with me in English.
While running, we got to a point where there was a river. It was obvious to me by the surrounding signs and footprints that they had often been moving through that route. There was no bridge across the river but they had felled a tree over it, which served as a bridge. I guess it’s an extension or arm of Oji River. The seemingly endless journey continued from there. I think I was kidnapped about 09:25am and we got to where we settled down around 11am.
When we had settled down they started beating and torturing me. They threatened to kill me if I didn’t tell them who I was. I told them who I’m. They searched my bag and files but they could not understand what they were all about. I had to explain to them what they were and my mission with those documents. They kept asking how much I had in the bank and all that. Luckily for me, I didn’t have my ATM card with me. They seized my phone and went through my messages looking for my last bank alert. They saw it was a little sum of money. They threatened me and fired a shot to show me that they were serious. While I was lying down, one of them was hitting me with the butt of the gun. In fact, those guys beat the hell out of me.
Abductors ask for N50million ransom
Later in the day, they phoned my mother and asked for N50 million ransom and immediately switched off my phone. Thereafter, we relocated from that point to another place. I later got to find out that it was towards Udi. It was the motorcyclist that told me that we had got to Udi. So we stopped there. In fact, it was their normal hideout because they had cooking pots, stove and few other kitchen utensils. They cooked that afternoon. I don’t know what they cooked because I had to lie down and face the bush while they cooked their food and ate.
“When rain started falling the next morning, they beat me. Later, they had to give me back my jacket so that I could cover myself. We waited there for hours until late in the evening before we moved again. When we got to the road, they ordered me to go up while they discharged the motorcyclist. He went his way while we continued our journey. It was a terrible movement.
We got to an open field in the forest and waited until night. It was very dark in the night but we kept moving until we got to a place where I noticed people were living. It was the old road. While we moved, rain was falling heavily. They were covering themselves with nylon, tarpaulin and umbrella while I was left alone without any protection. The cold was terrible. In fact, I was shivering.
They smoked Indian hemp to warm themselves up. We got to an uncompleted building where we waited until one of them asked about the time. They told him it was past 3am. So we then moved. We crossed the Enugu-Onitsha Old Road and entered the bush again until we again crossed the main Enugu-Onitsha Expressway. It was later that I came to discover that we were in Eziagu community by the expressway. The curious thing about the whole experience was that the bush was not a lonely bush. Tippers and other vehicles come in to excavate sand; some people came there to fetch firewood. From where we were, I could hear the sound of the Dolma machine felling trees.
I also saw freshly cultivated farms. So it was not a lonely bush but they knew the terrain very well. They were well coordinated, very organized. They gave signs as if they were trained by the military. They were very tactical. Any slightest noise, they would respond to it.
I did not eat. If not for the little meal I had in the morning the previous day, I didn’t know what would have happened. On Tuesday, they called my people but the money they demanded could not be raised. And each time they called and the money was not ready, I would receive another round of beating. While they would be talking with my people on the phone, they would be beating me so that they would hear that they were actually dealing with me.
That second night, I slept inside the bush. Mosquitoes dealt with me mercilessly. They took my bag. But it was later that I discovered that my bag was recovered by the police.
On Wednesday morning, they blindfolded me. I don’t know what they did afterwards but each time they called my people and got negative response on the availability of the ransom, they would beat me. Later that Wednesday, they reduced the ransom from N50million to N10million but yet we couldn’t raise the money. These hoodlums dealt with me. They beat me silly. They threatened to kill me if my people failed to cooperate. During such threats, they would all point their guns at me.
The one risk I ran was that the guns they were using were automatic, so any mistake somebody would be dead. Throughout this period, it was raining heavily. I never had the opportunity of brushing my teeth or eating anything. But that Wednesday night, they bought akpu and egwusi soup for me. I don’t know where they bought it but what they normally did was that in the morning, about seven of them would stay back while the rest leave for the town. Later in the evening, they would converge and discuss in their native language which I don’t understand. The entire episode was an epic movie of sorts.
Prepared for sacrifice on a hill
One of them that could speak English language a little always told me that kidnapping for ransom was their job. He said that if my people brought the money, they would free me but if not, they would kill me and dump my body there and nobody would know. I kept praying and believing God that something positive would happen. It was only on that Wednesday that I ate.
The whole of Thursday I stayed without eating anything. So when they saw that the money was not coming forth, they reduced it to N5 million. When my people told them that they were able to raise only N200,000 they started beating me. They told me that if by the dusk of that Thursday nothing was forthcoming, they would kill me.
Later in the night, they took me to a hill and commanded me to climb it. They circled around it and began to say prayers in their local language. They wanted to sacrifice me on top of it. Just after their prayers they began to quarrel among themselves. I don’t know the cause of their quarrel. After they had settled, they left the scene for a short distance. So one of them came to me and told me that I should not worry; that I would leave the next day which was Friday. It was a miracle. They separated and left while the others came to me.
On Friday morning, they woke me and told me that my people had refused to bring the N5million. They said that the game was up for me. I could hear my heart beating as if it wanted to burst. I thought I was going to die, just like that. I was praying in my heart.
“Something happened along the line. Suddenly, there was this courage that came upon me from nowhere. I started blasting them; querying why they would still keep me to suffer unnecessarily. I pointedly told them to kill me or accept the money my family was able to raise. I told them that I was not going to sleep in that bush again. Later, they called my people and they told them that they were able to raise N300,000. I told them to collect the money and let me go or they should kill me.
One of them slapped me and said ‘you are now talking abi?’ I told him it was not about talking, reminding him the hard time I had gone through since Monday morning. I told them if they don’t want to kill me, they should better collect the one that was available and let me go. One of them said ok, that they would collect it. They then called my mum and asked her to bring it.
They instructed her to come alone with taxi. They also gave her other instructions, which must be strictly adhered to. After all that, she placed the money where they told her to. They picked it, counted it before they brought me out to the main road and directed me on the tracks I should follow to get to where my mum was. By the time I came out, it was about 7pm that Friday.
Question marks on police, army
One thing that baffled me was that when I came out, from the point that I came out, I looked down the road. Just few poles away and I saw joint checkpoints of the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police and the Oji Junction by Expressway. It was a terrible experience because my mum was turning around that area where there is a combined checkpoint.
From there, I could clearly see it. It was not far. That explained where they got the food they gave me. That Friday morning they had to get cooked noodles for me. Immediately we turned towards Old Road, we saw some shops selling food. When I got home, my friend that gave me the brief came and told me that the police from Oji Police Station, Enugu State called him and told him that they recovered my file inside that bush.
They told him that they did not continue chasing the criminals; that they just recovered the file and went back. He told me that the police asked him to bring a certain amount of money for mobilization and tracking.
I don’t know how they got to know about then kidnapping incident. Maybe the commercial motorcyclist who was released or other eyewitnesses reported to the police. But the file was recovered inside the bush. They did not continue to pursue those Fulani kidnappers. The police in Oji then called my colleague – who had asked me to hold brief for him at the court – and told him to bring money for mobilization.
All I know is that the file was discovered inside the bush because I know the point where the Fulani kidnappers dropped my files. I saw when they brought it out of the bag and dropped it in the forest. And that very point is very far away from the road. Very far! Strangely, everything was still intact. Not even a pin was lost. Nothing was missing. But none of these suspects was caught by the police. So how did that happen? Police later called, requesting for money for mobilization. Can you imagine that?
That same day that I was released, the herdsmen called my people and told them that they got information that they wanted to negotiate with the police. That if they try it I would be dead. So there is suspicion now that the police or any of the security agents in that environment might have a hand in it. This is because I cannot explain how my documents were found intact inside the bush.
And I personally know the distance I walked to get to that very point where my documents were dropped in the bush. So, how were the police able to recover it with everything intact? I am not accusing the police or any of the security agents around there of anything but I need answers to that scenario. I am also wondering how the villagers were cultivating inside that place; tippers coming to excavate sand and yet that kind of thing is happening in that area.
It was after some weeks that the Divisional Police Officer of Oji called me and said that they picked some boys and wanted me to come and identify them. My brother what do you want me to identify? People I saw or the ones I did not see? You understand my point? How do you want me to come and identify them? So I did not honour that invitation because when they had the opportunity to do something they did not do it. This was happening three weeks after I had been released. I learnt that they had been kidnapping people around there. They kidnapped two Anglican priests and collected ransom before releasing them.
I have an aunt who visits an Anglican priest in that environment for prayers. She told me that the priest informed her that those boys were 16 in number. The clergyman said that two of his colleagues had been kidnapped. They paid N500,000 and N400,000 respectively as ransom before they were released. A woman was also kidnapped by those same boys along that route. In a place where there is a police college in Oji, the Maximum Prisons, and joint checkpoints of the police and army. You can imagine where you are training police officers and kidnappers are also operating in that area. Normally there should be watertight security in that environment. But the opposite is the situation. It’s sad!
Trauma persisted after release
For several days, I couldn’t sleep due to the trauma I experienced, even after I taking sleeping pills. I dewormed myself and took malaria treatment. When I came out, I couldn’t differentiate between day and night; even the days of the week. I couldn’t remember the dates. I lost count of time. I recovered after some weeks. My wife was no longer the way I left her. She knew that I was kidnapped but because she couldn’t hear from me, she was unable to bear it. It was heavy for her.