By Emmanuel Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Austin Ogwuda and Festus Ahon
SIX days after a 10-man kidnap gang seized Professor Mabel Kamene Titi Okonjo, mother of the Minister of Finance, Dr. (Mrs) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at Ogwashi-Uku, Delta State, the 82-year-old retired professor of Sociology at the University of Nigeria, UNN, Nsukka, was released, yesterday morning, by her kidnappers in Benin City, Edo State, after collecting between N10 and N15 million ransom.
A young boy, suspected to have been used by the kidnappers as a “sacrificial lamb” to lead the old woman to safety after the ransom was delivered to them on Saturday, was however arrested by security agents to help them unravel the identities of the hostage takers.
Prof Okonjo flown to Abuja
Professor Kamene Okonjo was shepherded to her Ogwashi-Uku home by security agents, who kept the information secret.
Journalists, who kept vigil at the country home of the Okonjos, waiting for her to be brought home did not know when she finally arrived as she was already inside at about 1.56 pm when the reporters noticed unusual movements in some parts of the compound.
Unlike December 9 when she was forcefully taken away, she was gently led yerterday from the house, to a vehicle which took her to the Asaba Airport, ostensibly on her way to Abuja, to reunite with her daughter, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She was accompanied on the trip by her son, Onyema.
The chartered flight that took her to Abuja departed at about 2.29 pm even as soldiers, the Police and Customs officials prevented photographers from taking pictures of the event throughout the duration.
It was gathered that because of the tense situation at home, her husband and monarch of Ogwashi-Uku, Obi Chukwuka Okonjo Agbogidi, who travelled out 24 hours before the queen mother was abducted, was advised not to return home yet.
It was learnt that security would be beefed up in the palace as more soldiers would be deployed to the area before the return of the monarch to Ogwashi-Uku.
Jonathan, Okonjo-Iweala thank Uduaghan
Her elated daughter, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, reportedly called Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State to thank him for his immense support towards the release of her mother.
Saturday Vanguard also gathered President Goodluck Jonathan was alerted as soon as Prof Okonjo was released, yesterday morning. A source said President Jonathan was also happy with the news and commended the governor for a job well done.
Negotiations for Professor Okonjo’s release were carried out by her son, Prince Onyema Okonjo, who spoke various times with the kidnappers on telephone between Sunday, December 9, when she was snatched and yesterday morning.
Security agents monitored part of the negotiation with the kidnappers, but could not trace their exact location until ransom was paid.
Notorious Benin bypass
The kidnappers planned their strategy and location in a manner that made it difficult for security agents to lay siege for them without being noticed and the negotiations for the release of the abducted woman cancelled. Moreover, the kidnappers were alleged to have sternly warned Onyeama that if security agents were conscripted into the arrangement of delivering ransom, his mother would die, and they (kidnappers) had nothing to lose.
The location was the notorious Benin City by-pass, along the Warri-Benin City – Lagos Expressway in Edo State. Many motorists and passengers had either been dispossessed of their belongings or killed in some cases, in the past months, at this bad spot, but the police were yet to find solution to the incessant robberies on the road even as investigations have shown that some gangs of bandits hide their arms and ammunition in the forest, near the by-pass.
A source familiar with how Professor Okonjo was rescued told Saturday Vanguard that Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan played a very big role in her release, as he provided necessary logistics and support.
Police confirm release of Prof Okonjo from Kwale
DELTA State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba, yesterday, confirmed the release of Professor Kamene Okonjo.
He told reporters, “Delta State police command wishes to confirm the release of Her Majesty, Professor (Mrs) Kamene Okonjo. She was released unhurt in the early hours of today (yesterday). It could be recalled that on Sunday December 9, 2012 at about 1100 hours, unknown kidnappers kidnapped the Queen at the revered palace. The Delta State police supported by a crack team from the Inspector General of Police’s, IGP’s, Special Task Force, STF, on terrorism Abuja consciously and professionally, with due caution, swung into action bearing in mind the age of the octogenarian Professor. We collated intelligence on the activities of the hoodlums and struck at their hideouts in Asaba.”
“And in course of effecting the arrest of one of the notorious kingpins, Nwaeze Nwosa aka Bolaji, attempted to scale the wall fence and was shot at by the team and he suffered fatal gunshot wounds. His corpse is presently deposited at the Federal Medical Centre, FMC Asaba.
“Some 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.
As at the time of this report, it was reliably gathered that the kidnapped octogenarian might be flown out of the country. An ash-coloured Golf car with registration number, Delta 697 AA and a white-coloured Toyota Mitsubishi bus with registration number Anambra KPP 64 XA, used for the kidnapping operation were recovered and parked at the State police headquarters, Asaba.
The Police Commissioner further added that the Queen mother was brought home on a motor cycle to Ogwashi-Uku palace right away from the Kwale hideout of her kidnappers where she was kept.
He however, declined to be drawn into the controversy over whether any ransom was paid or not, saying, “I cannot be involved in the issue of ransom because when you pay ransom , you are encouraging them ( kidnappers). The hostage value is where you have money to pay. Delta State Police Command will not get involved in any form of negotiations; if there was I don’t 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, is out as I assured you people that we don’t want a situation where she would be hurt. Otherwise, if we had stormed that place (Kwale hideout), it could have been very bloody”, he stated.
When our reporters visited Ogwashi-Uku palace yesterday morning, the gate was under lock and key and people were prevented from getting into the palace.
However stern-looking armed soldiers and men of Customs were found inside the compound with low fence, even as the entire community was quiet.
Kidnappers actually started with S1 billion ransom demand
Our source said the kidnappers initially demanded for $1 billion as reported by the media despite the fact that the claim was denied by family sources and some security chiefs.
“They actually asked for the resignation of the Minister and mentioned the oil subsidy palaver,” it was learnt.
Reduced to N200 million, later N6 million
“But when they saw that the $1 billion would not fly, they reduced it N200 million.
“At a stage when they saw that N200 million was not forthcoming, they said they should be paid for the cars and guns, which they used in the operation which they estimated at about N6 million. However, they said the money should be tripled, meaning the ransom should be between N18 million to N20 million. Nevertheless, the kidnappers assured that if ransom was paid without the involvement of security agents, they would release her safely and unhurt.
“They reiterated that they were aware that soldiers and the police had been directed to search for them, but said their lives were not worth the pains Prof Okonjo’s death would cause the family and the nation”, the source stated.
Finally, between N10 m – N15 million ransom paid
Our source was not emphatic on the amount paid, but said, “Between N10 million and N15 million was paid as ransom”
We gathered that it was after the kidnappers satisfied themselves that the Okonjos kept to their side of the bargain that they released the family’s matriarch yesterday morning in Benin City.
Saturday Vanguard did not know exactly how the young boy, who was asked to lead Prof Okonjo to where the family members would see her, was contracted, but the usual practice of kidnappers is to use somebody as scapegoat.
“In some cases, they would pay innocent person money and tell him to deliver a letter to their intended victim or as it is probable in this case, they would have told the young boy that the old woman was missing her way and later lured him to take her to where she would get a taxi to her place, or to where her family members were waiting for her, after which, they would call the family to look out for the woman at such a place, ” it was learnt.
Saturday Vanguard was further told yesterday, that security agents combed the Benin bypass for the kidnappers after Prof Okonjo was released, but the hostage takers had vamoosed.
“In fact, they made sure they left no trace but DSS operatives were said to be carrying out discreet investigations on the matter.”
Governor Uduaghan’s assurance comes true
Not many believed the Delta State governor, Dr Uduaghan, when he assured the Okonjo family and the people of Ogwashi-Uku, that the queen mother would be released unharmed.when he visited, 24 hours after the kidnap,
During the visit, he charged the people of Ogwashi-Uku and the Okonjo royal family not to take the laws into their hands as the government was doing everything possible to rescue the abducted woman.
The governor stated that law enforcement agencies in the state were already in the field gathering information as well as tracking down the perpetrators to ensure her safe return.
In particular, he enjoined the community leaders, vigilante groups and the entire Ogwashi-Uku community to remain calm and not to take any action that may prompt the kidnappers to act in rash manner that may be detrimental.
He stressed that only peaceful disposition as well as collaboration and cooperation with the law enforcement agents would ensure the desired objectives at that point in time.
Dr Uduaghan urged the people not to be involved in rumour mongering, as it was capable of jeopardizing the rescue efforts, explaining that only useful information would be required as the situation was delicate.
“Please do not get involved in rumour mongering and trading stories that will not help law-enforcement agents. Only information that will help in her rescue is needed now,” he stated, pointing out that the
perpetrators of the crime would be tracked down and brought to book.
His words, “I have been in touch with officers of various law enforcement agencies and I assure you that Prof Kamene will be safely returned. The perpetrators of such a despicable crime will be brought to justice”.
Uneasy calm in Ogwashi-Uku
The news of the release of the queen mother was received with reservation by the people of Ogwashi-Uku, as nobody had sighted her as at about 1.44 pm in her family house to confirm the report.
By 1.45 pm, Saturday Vanguard was told the Okonjo home at Ogbe-Ofu quarters, Ogwashi-Uku, where she was kidnapped, remained unusually quiet, as there was no sign that she has been released.
Deltans explode with joy, praise Uduaghan
Prominent Deltans, yesterday described the release of the Queen of Ogwashi-Uku, Prof Kamene Okonjo as an act of God and commended the State Governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan and security operatives for their relentless efforts that ensured her release.
Among those who spoke were Mr Goodnews Agbi, Mr Newworld Sefugha and Dr Ebenezer Okorodudu. Agbi said; “The release of Okonjo Iweala’s mother is a great relief to the families of the Okonjos, the people of Ogwashi Uku, Delta State and indeed Nigeria.This spate of kidnapping is, however, an embarrassment to the country. The Boko Haram insurgency in the North is bad enough and to combine that with this high profile kidnapping taking place these days is definitely unacceptable to our people. Investors will shun anyenvironment with high level of insecurity. While we urge the Federal Government to device more pragmatic ways to curb this menace, the State Government should also be more involved in combating this kidnapping trend as it is also making Delta unsafe haven,”he said.
The State Commissioner for Local Government Affairs, Mr Newworld Sefugha commended Governor Uduaghan and security agents for their unrelenting efforts, which resulted in the release of the Queen mother of Ogwashi-Uku kingdom saying, “The efforts put in by our Governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan shows that he is very committed to the security of the people of the State,” appealing to Deltans not to allow themselves to be driven into crime “because of the urge to celebrate Christmas in a big way.”
In his comments, a one-time Commissioner for Commerce and Industry in the State, Dr Ebenezer Okorodudu thanked God and Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan for the release of the mother of the Minister of Finance, Prof Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Okorodudu also thanked Deltans, particularly the people of Ogwashi-Uku for their prayers during the kidnap saga.
Police arrest kidnap suspect in military barracks
A kidnap suspect, Vincent (surname withheld), has been nabbed by the Delta State Police Command, while negotiating for ransom with the telephone of the victim, within the precinct of the Effurun Military Barracks, opposite the Spare Parts Market, Effurun, Delta State.
He was arrested by police detectives, who tracked his call to the military barracks on December 6.
Saturday Vanguard, however, gathered that some civilians live and do their business within and around the Mammy Market in the military barracks.
However, there was a twist in the arrest of the kidnap suspect, as his lawyer and human rights activist, Barrister Casely Omon-Irabor, has also been arrested for allegedly attempting to influence police investigations into the matter. A family source, however, described the allegation that the activist offered money to a police officer to free the kidnap suspect as a frame-up.
Delta State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba confirmed the arrest of the kidnap suspect and lawyer to Saturday Vanguard.
A police source said the activist, who , during the week, facilitated the return of arms and ammunition by repentant ex-militants to the state government would be charged to court.
Diary of a kidnap saga
THE abduction of Professor Mabel Kamene Titi Okonjo, the 82-year-old mother of the Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is one high profile kidnap case that sent cold shivers down the spines of many.
It came like a thunderbolt to the Governor of Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan in particular, security agencies and Presidency as well, given the status of the family, in the local and international communities.
The governor was among the early callers to the family and tried to raise the spirit of the people while addressing the chiefs and family members at the palace. However, it was obvious that he did not want to betray emotions.
Anybody close to him would know that he was downcast over the kidnap.
Yet, there had been cases of high -profile kidnapping including those of a high court judge, Justice Marcel Okoh, Commissioner for Higher Education, Prof Hope Eghagha, the governor’s uncle, Pa Vincent Uduaghan, among numerous others.
DAY ONE, Sunday, December 9
At about 12.00 pm and1.00 pm, 10-armed members of a kidnap syndicate drove into the palace with two low profile Golf cars. Ordinarily, such a vehicles would not raise eye brows that the occupants were people of such hue. Nevertheless, it was a calculated deception.
“They came to the gate of the palace with a Golf car while another car was packed few metres away from the gate. In a “Gestapo manner” they entred into the compound.
According to an eyewitness, “They held up the men fixing the inter-locking stones in the compound at gun point, forcing them to lie face down.”
They were said have lurked around the palace until the 82-year-old woman and her maid came down to serve soft drinks to workers who were fixing the tiles at the gate.
The witness added, “As soon as the woman came down from the main building, towards the gate, the abductors moved in, grabbed and bundled her into a waiting vehicle. One of the gunmen had the temerity to run into the main building from where he took away her handbag before they zoomed off”.
As the news broke, police from Ogwashi Uku Police Divisional Headquarters, local vigilante, some palace chiefs and other sympathisers thronged the palace.
Reinforcement came 45 minutes later; the whole place was cordoned off.
Delta Commissioner of Police, Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba and the DPO in charge of Ogwashi Uku patrol team visited to obtain first hand information and take care of the situation.
DAY 2, Monday, December 10
As early as 7am, a detachment of soldiers from the Fourth Merchandised Brigade, Benin City, Edo State, led by its Commanding Officer, Brigadier-General Obi Umahie arrived the palace to strengthen security.
In addition, men of the Customs and plain clothes detectives also arrived the palace.
Delta State Governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, accompanied by the State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba, Director, Department of State Security, DSS arrived and stayed beyond 12 noon. Governor Uduaghan, Commissioner of Police in the state, Director of DSS, top army officers and other senior officials of the government held a meeting at the palace to strategize on how to locate the kidnappers, while appealing to the community leaders, vigilante groups and the entire community to remain calm. Uduaghan called for useful information and cautioned against rumour mongering that would future hamper the early release of the woman.
DAY 3, Tuesday, December 11
C onstruction of security post at the palace gate commences following identified flaws in the security of the palace
The Rector of Delta State Polytechnic, Ogwashi-Uku, Dr. Edna Mogekwu came calling.
Two policemen, who were supposed to be on duty at the palace, but were inexplicably absent when the kidnappers struck were arrested and detained.
Delta State Information Commissioner, Mr. Chike Ogeah issues a press statement, saying that some of the kidnap cases in the Delta were “politically-motivated”.
His words, “Security has always been a priority in the administration of Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State. Although the police are controlled by the Federal Government, Delta State has always funded the Police Command in the state, in fact, Dr. Uduaghan set up a Special Squad on kidnapping and other violent crimes with many operational vehicles and communication equipment procured for it.”
“A lot of success was recorded through this special squad. But some of the kidnappings are not always tied to demand for ransom. Some are politically motivated and they are the ones that go for kidnappings that will attract the highest media attention.
“I don’t agree with you that the political elite have not been affected by the kidnap. I think they are rather the main target. When their loved ones are kidnapped as has been the case, the impact is on them. We have had a serving commissioner, lawmakers and family members of top public office holders kidnapped in the past.
“The causes are many and varied, but for us in Delta State, we think unemployment is a critical factor. That is why Dr. Uduaghan evolved the three-point agenda, comprising peace and security, human capital development and infrastructural development. A common denominator of the three factors is employment generation. Using the small and micro finance scheme, we have been empowering the younger generation through various skills acquisition programmes packaged by the government”.
DAY 4, Wednesday, December 12
Villagers still believe the Finance Minister would come despite alleged security warnings, as she needed to be personally on ground to coordinate certain things. So, the waiting for the arrival of the Finance Minister continued
Palace chiefs meet at the palace behind closed doors
Ears remained open for possible clues on the release of the woman.
Day 5: Thursday, December 13
Soldiers raided Ogwashi-Uku community at the end of which about 63 persons were rounded up, for questioning in connection with the kidnap
11.34 am – Delta State Secretary to the State Government SSG, Comrade Ovuzourie Macaulay holds secret meeting with GSM service providers in Asaba
Delta State Commissioner of Police Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba addresses a press conference in connection with the incident and stressed the need for people to be always security conscious in their homes and environment.
DAY 6, Friday, December 14
The news of Prof Okonjo’ release on Friday morning filtered into town.