November 5, 2010

Manhunt for kidnappers: …Six hours with GOC in Abia jungle

By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South

ON Wednesday, October 27, when this reporter hinted a Rivers State based military officer of his intention to travel to Abia State through the Port-Harcourt  Aba Expressway, precisely the next day, Thursday, October 28, to find out how the Nigerian Army operations to flush out kidnappers from “God’s Own State” is progressing, he warned that any trip on the infamous expressway without military escort could be precarious.

Though, media report, penultimate week, indicated that peace was returning slowly but surely to Aba, the commercial nerve centre of the state, which was initially seized by hostage-takers, the word of warning, as it were, from an army officer, could not be regarded with frivolity.

And so, on getting to the “Garden city”, Port-Harcourt, that Thursday, I conscientiously put a call to the General Officer Commanding, GOC, 82 Division, Nigeria Army, Enugu, Major-General Sarkin Yarkin-Bello, who is directly leading the crackdown about my mission to Abia. He was friendly and urged me to meet the Brigade-Commander in Rivers State, Brigadier-General Ochoga at Bori Camp, Port-Harcourt to organise and bring me to the military base at Asa Secondary School, Asa, Abia State, where he has provisionally relocated from Enugu. A former Commander of the Joint Task Force on the Niger Delta, Yarkin-Bello was appointed the GOC, 82 Division, Enugu, in the heat of the kidnap saga in the South East in September and he did not spend 48 hours on arrival in Enugu before he relocated to Abia to battle kidnappers.

True to the forewarning of the Rivers-based army officer, kidnappers struck the same Thursday on the notorious Port Harcourt-Aba expressway, not a far distance from where men of the Police Anti-Terrorism Squad, ATS, had their checkpoint, and in less than five minutes, hijacked a bus loaded with passengers; some were freed, while others herded like sheep into the bowels of the jungle. As if to underscore their seriousness, the captors set a trailer ablaze, while a number of persons reportedly sustained injuries in the process. I was lucky to have obeyed the warning of the military officer.

From Bori Camp, I was driven with military escort to Asa base of the task force in Ukwa-West Local Government Area of Abia State, where I met Major-General Yarkin Bello. With policemen at different checkpoints on the expressway, I wondered where the kidnappers that operated that day between Asa and Obehie emerged from and how they managed to escape.
Curiously, while the kidnappers were having a “field day” on the expressway, both the Rivers State and Abia State governments were busy, the same day, at Port Harcourt and Umuahia, trading accusations and counter-accusations on a minor detail of who trained or didn’t train policemen that were involved in the Abia peace operation. A military source, however, said the incident was on Wednesday. While Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers said his government trained the specialist olicemen, deployed by the police authorities to restore peace to Aba in Israel, his Abia counterpart, Governor Theodore Orji asked Amaechi to stop his self-praise for the very apparent contributions of the Federal Government to peace in his state.

Truth from information available to this reporter is that Rivers State Government actually trained some policemen on tackling kidnapping and other related vices in Israel, but, such information should better have remained a secret for security reasons. And Abia needed not to have exploded over it as it was a statement innocuously made by Amaechi while briefing his people on how their money was spent.

Maj. Gen Sarkin Yaki Bello and his troops

Unknown to me, the GOC who is angry at the continued impudence of the kidnappers was preparing to storm Ogwati community and environs in Ukwa West local government on the night of October 28.  He suspected that the kidnappers who operated earlier that day took off from the locality and retreated into the jungle. He believed in taking his battle to the strongholds of criminals once identified and that was his mission that night.

The Asa military base was a beehive of activities from the time I arrived at about 5.00 pm till I left over the weekend. Some suspected kidnappers who were rounded up that day were just being brought in about the time I came. I stayed in a corner and watched as the suspects, mainly young men, disembarked from the vehicle. Looking further ahead, I saw, sitting on the ground many others undergoing interrogation. No fewer than 200 suspects, including royal fathers, I was told, were being grilled to establish their role or otherwise in the kidnapping activities in Abia State. Parked in the premises were different brands of vehicles recovered from previous raids on the strongholds of the kidnappers.

A soldier told me on inquiry that the GOC was having a strategy-planning session with the Commissioner of Police in the state, Jonathan Johnson, his top commanders and other security chiefs. Less than seven minutes later, the commissioner and others were through. All over the temporary military base, there was a massive presence of soldiers, armoured personnel carriers, APCs and other military equipment.  Most of the roofs of the buildings in the abandoned Asa Secondary School, Asa, now converted to a military location, were either blown off by storm or not completed. A closer look showed that most of the buildings have been recently re-roofed to provide shelter for the soldiers and at the moment, the classrooms have been divided to offices and homes.  The GOC is living in the military base and eating the same food cooked for his soldiers.

It was obvious when I sighted him that he had not rested for some days and he confessed later that he had neither taken his bath nor slept in the last two days. His office and sleeping place are in one of the buildings.  The premises, was, however, overgrown by weeds and needed to be cleared; otherwise, the soldiers may be battling with snakes and other dangerous reptiles in their new stamping ground. Besides the vehicles recovered from the kidnappers, I also saw the trailer they set ablaze; it had been towed to the military base.

Major_General Yarkin-Bello did not waste time in telling the reporter that he would follow them to an operation that night, as he kept shouting: “Honestly, I have never seen this kind of thing before; everybody in the affected communities, both the men, women and children are kidnappers. This is serious; what I have seen is disturbing, it is an organised communal business where all of them play a role and whoever refuses to be part of it is eliminated by the kidnappers”.

At 6.00 pm on the dot, he announced to his commanders that it was time to go into the jungle. He seemed to like warfare with the passion he spoke and opted to lead the blitz, codenamed, “82 Division, Enugu Internal Security Operation”.  He said it was a matter of life and death when a soldier go to war against enemy forces and because he could not afford to take chances, the reporter , like the soldiers, was fully kitted in army uniform and wore a bullet proof jacket. The only difference was that he was not carrying an AK 47. His weapon is his pen, whose mightiness above the sword became suspect to him at the time he saw soldiers jumping down from vehicles and breaking into houses two hours later.

Soldier-ant baptism
My first baptism came about two hours later at a hidden spot between Asa and Obehie communities, along the Port Harcourt-Aba expressway. The GOC has identified the spot as a location where kidnappers had always emerged and jumped on the road to stop vehicles and kidnap passengers in previous incidents. Clearly, the kidnappers who spring from this very location to kidnap victims came on foot because it was not motorable from that point; it was a jungle with several footpaths. Two young boys who were seen emerging from the area with a motorcycle were picked up for interrogation and their GSM phones confiscated.

The GOC’s intuition was that the kidnappers might have a den within the adjoining jungle and he had to capture them and set the captives free. Inside the cleared hidden spot, very close to the Port Harcourt-Aba expressway, no security team on patrol would see the kidnappers but they would see any passerby from the observatory.

I was marveled by the sheer ingenuity of the location and as I strutted inside to closely examine the kidnappers’ launch pad with the GOC, I suffered my first attack but I found out later I was not the only victim.  The GOC himself, Assistant Director of Army Public Relations, 82 Division, Lt. Col Sagir Musa and other officers who followed were also victims.  I had been bitten by soldier ants before in the farm as a young boy in my village, but not with the ferocity they pounced on me even in my army uniform and boot, that Thursday.

Initially, I wanted to brace it since none of the soldiers who entered the location with me was showing any sign of attack. But, I could not sustain the façade for long as I soon found myself stroking my legs, thigh, hands and the concealed part of my body intermittently.  Major-General Yarkin-Bello was the first to observe and he said: “Emma, it seems you have been attacked by these ants”. I could no longer hide it and blurted, “Yes sir”. He said he was already used to it and had scratches all over his body as a result of the bites. Relief, however, came minutes later when the GOC sent Lt Col Musa with an insect repellant, which I rubbed all over my body.

Abandoned communities
As I have come to learn, there are information that should be kept secret during and even after an operation and so I am not obliged to report all I witnessed. But the GOC did something to outwit the kidnappers if they were hiding anywhere in the jungle in question before a detour was taken to Ogwati community. One noticeable thing during the operation at Ogwati and other communities that night was that, several communities in Ukwa West have been abandoned by the villagers because of kidnappers and there seem to be no immediate plan by them to come back.

If anybody thought that peace has returned to Abia State with the dislodging of kidnappers from Aba, the person must be mistaking, as villagers have fled not less than 50 communities in the state and up till date, they are refugees outside their homelands. In Ogwati, a predominantly farming community with plantain plantations at every corner, there was  no youth, male or female in sight; only a man who said he had nowhere to go to with his wife and three children, and some three old women and their grandchildren were seen in the entire community on October 28 night.

The kidnappers killed an indigene and took over his house, which they turned into a den. The traditional ruler was driven to exile while a retired navy officer who dared to raise his voice was declared a persona non grata in the community. The leader of the kidnap gang in the town is the de-facto king and his word is law in Ogwati.

The people of Asa, where the task force has its base returned to their community only after the military relocated to the town. Before then, the students and teachers of Asa Secondary School had fled the town.  In fact, there is no government school, health institution and private business enterprises that are functioning in Ukwa West for the past one month. Everybody has closed shop. Investigation showed that they fled their communities long before the Federal Government deployed soldiers because of the suffocating activities of kidnappers.

From what I saw on ground, there was already as state of emergency in Abia State and the attack by the state government on the  president of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, Mr. Joseph Dauda for calling on the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency was unnecessary.  I learned that no fewer than 20-30 kidnap cases occurred on a daily basis along the Port Harcourt-Aba expressway before the military task force came. But the cases were under-reported by the media, probably because journalists focused more on Aba and more often than not, they were under pressure from officials of the state government not to report the sudden large number of kidnap incidents so as not to give the impression that the state government had lost control. This led to the delay in the intervention of the Federal Government and made the kidnappers to gain more strength.

The presence of the task force in Ogwati, that Thursday, was not its first. The soldiers had been there before, it was the latest hijack that brought them there that night for a house-to-house search, but, the kidnappers have become wiser. They have moved deeper into the bush to evade arrest. Major-General Yarkin-Bello told Vanguard Metro that the intelligence information the task force received when it moved into the area was that Ogwati was a no-go-area and that the kidnappers, numbering up to 150,  were armed to the teeth. He said that if he had acted on the information, the soldiers would not have taken over the place, but, he chose to do certain things differently, and the first target of the task force was to take over the Ogwati Primary School, which intelligence information revealed, was the base of the kidnappers in the area against the security briefs he received. The next target was the Chicken Farm, Ogwati, also used as a den by the kidnappers and the third target was some camps operated by a kidn
apper, called Stone and the fourth, an isolated house in the community.

From Ngwa High school, where the task force has already established a military location to patrol the area, we waddled through unknown jungles to get up to the last house in a community, where we ran into a cul de sac. But as the GOC found out later, the house was the last hideout where the kidnappers kept the NYSC girls that were abducted from Port Harcourt. The girls were released when the bombardment from security agents became too hot for them to bear. At the hideout, the father of one of the kidnappers, identified as Papilo came severally to collect money from his son. An old woman was met at the house that night. She looked sickly and is the only one the task force found still residing in the community. Others had since fled.

There were diversionary ploys in the October 28 night operation to outwit the kidnappers. At the end, just like in the beginning, the GOC ensured that statistics were taken and once he was assured that no soldier was missing for action, it was time to head back to the Asa military base.

Parents, children involved
Reviewing the operation so far, Major-General Yarkin-Bello said kidnapping was a flourishing communal business in Abia State as parents, kidnappers and children were all involved in it. According to him: “Umuezi community is very notorious for the crime; we were told it was a no-go-area and when we got there, we saw expended ammunition boxes, the kidnappers had a strong base there. Behind a church is their den and they sleep in the community’s primary school.

“Everybody has a role to play in kidnapping in the communities: there are those who look out for the police to alert the kidnappers that security agents had entered the  village; there are those who take food to the kidnappers in their hideouts; and when the victims are released, the villagers gather to wave them goodbye”.

He disclosed that Abala community where the Police Barracks in the town had been abandoned is where the arms factory for kidnappers and armed robbers was situated.

Vanguard Metro learned, however, that the task force had demolished the arms factory and shallow graves of some victims were found in the community, while the kidnappers ran into the thick forest the day soldiers struck.