By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
THREE security agencies involved in the nerve-racking operation to rescue Professor Mabel Kamene Titi Okonjo, the 82-year-old mother of Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, released,on Friday, after spending five nights in kidnappers’ den, worked at cross-purposes while the manhunt lasted, Sunday Vanguard can reveal.
Investigations showed that even though the trio burnt candles at different ends, they were distrustful of one another to the extent that the Army and Directorate of State Service, DSS, were on one side of the divide and the police on the other.
A top security source confided thus: “It was an open secret that the police were tossed aside by the other two in the search for Okonjo-Iweala’s mother and, I must tell you, it affected the investigations”.
When the police discovered they were consigned to the background, they decided to paddle their own canoe and deal with the problem directly to save their face.
The apple of discord, which was manifest throughout the manhunt, was the suspicion that some police officers were aiding and abetting kidnappers in Delta State.
The case that was readily cited was the alleged involvement of three police officers in the kidnap threat issued to a judge of the Delta State High Court at Otor-Udu, Justice Flora Azinge, in which N20 million ransom was demanded.
Azinge did not sit for nearly two months until Sunday Vanguard uncovered the entanglement. It was after the exclusive report that the judge resumed work. Up till yesterday, two of the police officers were still being held at the state police headquarters in Asaba, while the third was on the run.
Those who are not disposed to the police cited other cases of their involvement in kidnapping, including the arrest of the former head of the Anti-Kidnapping Task Force in the state, who was exonerated later by the Inspector General of Police after investigations.
Although the Commissioner of Police, Delta State, Mr Ikechukwu Aduba, told Sunday Vanguard in an interview that the security agencies worked in synergy during the manhunt, our findings revealed the direct opposite.
He admitted that two police officers were actually being held in connection with the kidnap threat on Justice Azinge, but said the police were not covering the bad eggs in their midst, and nobody should use the involvement of one or two police officers in a criminal act to condemn the entire police.
Aduba insisted that the matter was under investigation,saying if the police officers were found culpable, they would be dealt with. “I do not and will not cover criminals in police uniform”,he added.
A police officer, who preferred anonymity, told Sunday Vanguard that an army officer, suspected to be the kingpin of an armed robbery gang that specialised in kidnapping and hijacking of loaded petroleum trucks and holding the owners/drivers hostage, until the products were sold and discharged, was recently arrested with his gang members.
He added, “The police did not as a result of the incident generalise that all soldiers were kidnappers. We know that out of every 12, there will be a Judas. So it is wrong to criminalise the police because of some few bad eggs”.
Independent investigations carried out by Sunday Vanguard showed that a soldier, attached to the 3 Battalion, Effurun, Delta State, was actually fingered in a kidnap/petroleum trucks hijack syndicate and was being detained in one of the cells in the military barracks as at the time of this report.
The police also alleged that a kidnap suspect, Vincent Akpokona, was tracked down in the said military barracks, December 6, while negotiating ransom with the phone of an abducted victim.
However, soldiers, police, and DSS worked daringly for the arrest of the kidnappers of the queen of Ogwashi-Uku Kingdom.
The army, on Thursday, December 13, raided Ogwashi-Uku and arrested about 63 suspects in connection with the kidnap.
Army spokeswoman, Roseline Managbe, who spoke with Reuters,said,”Yesterday (Wednesday), the Four Brigade raided Ogwashi-Ukwu in search of Mama, and 63 people were arrested in the raids.Those arrested are being questioned.”
The presence of soldiers alone scared the daylight out of many.
At a time, the army said they had information that the kidnappers were within the boundary of Edo and Delta states, probably around Alifikede area, and they stormed the community as early as 5.00a.m. on a certain day, but they drew blank.
The DSS also worked quietly with the army and liaised more with Prince Onyema Okonjo, one of the sons of the queen mother, who did the negotiation with the kidnappers.
Much of what they did was not in the open and as is customary with the body, and it is not likely to be declassified.
On its part, the police in Delta State, joined by a crack team of detectives deployed for the purpose of rescuing the Minister’s mother by the Inspector General of Police, went solo.
Commissioner Aduba told reporters in Asaba shortly after Professor Okonjo was released, “The Delta State police, supported by a crack team from IGP’s special task force on terrorism , Abuja, consciously and professionally, with due caution, swung into action, bearing in mind the age of the octogenarian professor. They collated intelligence on the activities of the hoodlums and struck at their hideouts in Asaba.
“And in the course of effecting the arrest of one of the notorious kingpins, Nwaeze Nwosa, aka Bolaji, he attempted to scale the wall fence and was shot by the team and he suffered fatal gunshot wounds.
“His corpse is presently deposited at the Federal Medical Centre, FMC, Asaba. Some daring recoveries were also made in the process, thus mounting pressure on the hoodlums who eventually capitulated and hurriedly released Her Majesty. Also arrested in the course of the raid is one William Omenma”, said the CP.
He said an ash Golf car with registration number, Delta, ASB 697 AA, and a white Toyota bus,marked, Anambra APP 64 XA, purportedly used in the the kidnapping operation, were recovered.
The vehicles were seen parked at the state police headquarters in Asaba. The commissioner said the queen mother was brought home on a motor cycle to her Ogwashi-Uku palace right from the Kwale hideout, where she was kept.
The police boss, however, declined to be drawn into the controversy over whether any ransom was paid. He merely told reporters, “I cannot be involved in the issue of ransom because when you pay ransom, you are encouraging them (kidnappers).
“The hostage value is there when you have money to pay. Delta State Police Command will not get involved in any form of negotiation, if there was, I do not know.
“But all I am telling you is that mama is alive and I was there with her this morning. Thank God that mama, at the end of the day, she is out as I assured you people that we do not want a situation where she would be hurt. Otherwise, if we had stormed that place (Kwale hideout), it could have been very very bloody”.
Aduba’s story, which was amplified by a police officer that spoke independently to Sunday Vanguard, suggests that Nwosa was the leader of the gang that kidnapped Professor Okonjo and that, after he was killed by the police, there was pressure on his gang members to release the woman, forcing them to ask a motorcyclist to drop her off.
The police officer said, “Since the Army and DSS decided not to work with the police, we could not reject ourselves.So we worked on our own. It was the panel beater that was working on one of the vehicles used in the operation that the police first arrested somewhere around Saint Bridges Grammar School in Asaba.
“He took us to the residence of Nwosa, the leader of the gang.When he saw the police, he bolted away and in an attempt to scale the fence, a police corporal gunned him down, but the intention was not to kill him. However, there was no other option to stop him by any means possible in the circumstance.
If the police arrested him alive, he would have been the one to call his gang members to release Okonjo Iweala’s mother, but he was dead and his members, somehow, got the news and switched off their phones. However, the pressure was on them because they knew the police were closing in.
“In fact, the police expected that she would have been released on Thursday. There was a spot they were supposed to drop her in Asaba on that day, but we did not see her until Friday when she was released.”
The officer went on: “Her release was the joint efforts of the police in Delta State and police officers sent by the IGP, do not mind what others tell you”.
The police version differs from the account given to Sunday Vanguard by a top security official, who disclosed that the kidnappers arrived at a ransom with a representative of the Okonjo family, which they arranged should be dropped at a location on the Benin bypass, along the Warri-Benin-City-Lagos Expressway.
The security official said the ransom was dropped on Thursday and the family expected their matriarch to have been released that day, but she was not until Friday morning.
Between the two accounts, it seemed as if the kidnappers scattered themselves in different locations. But the reality is that inside the kidnappers’ syndicate in the state, there is a group in-charge of abducting victims, a different section is responsible for transporting and holding the victims, while another takes the responsibility of negotiating ransom. It is a network and they do not have to be in one place to consummate a deal.
It seems most likely that the group that Professor Okonjo’s son negotiated with was in Benin -City because that was where the ransom was allegedly dropped and it could be that the woman was kept in Kwale axis, as the police claimed while the operation itself (kidnap of Kamene) was carried out by Nwosa and his group at the Asaba end with some conspirators from Ogwashi-Uku.