By Chidi Nkwopara, Owerri
IN 1996, the word Otokoto made a spectacular entry into the lexicon of Nigeria’s public discourse. It emanated from the dark days of ritual killings by a section of the underworld in Owerri, the capital of Imo State. It took the murder of one Master Okonkwo by ritual killers for public attention to be forcibly drawn to the existence of such atrocious crime in the other wise sedate city of Owerri.

Following this development, residents of the city rose angrily and went for the jugular of all those suspected to be involved in the killings. The reaction of the people restored calm in the city after many of the suspected culprits were forced to pay dearly for their crime. Most of their ill-gotten property were burnt.

Today, a seeming resurgence of the ugly spectre of the Otokoto saga is imminent in the State. This is because, hardly a day passes in the State without reports of one serious crime or the other. For instance, Miss Nneamaka Rachael Echeazu and Chijioke Kenneth Nonyelum, chose Maria Assumpta Catholic Cathedral, Owerri for their wedding on February 11, 2012. Their friends and relations came into Owerri in their numbers to witness the ceremony.

*Gov. Rochas Okorocha of Imo State

Chijioke sent his relations to buy a few things from the Relief Market, Owerri. Armed hoodlums snatched the young man’s ash coloured Toyota Camry saloon car with number plate, Lagos LK 114 EKY. The wedding started on a sour note, courtesy of rampaging armed hoodlums in the state.

Again, if there is anything, apart from robbery that has kept Imo people gasping for breath in the past two years, it is the spate of kidnapping in the land. The cancer spread to the South East geo-political zone from the creeks of the Niger Delta and went beyond bounds.

Victims of kidnapping who survived to tell the sordid tales of their experience, painted ugly pictures of what they passed through in the hands of their captors. However, the list of those who died in their captors’ illicit custody is very long.

Killed after payment of ransom: Some people, including the serving Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Lady Chioma Ogoke, regained their freedom after paying varying sums of money, usually in millions of Naira. The families of some others parted with their money and still lost their loved ones to these hoodlums.

In December1, 2011, palpable anxiety engulfed the family, friends and relations of the Medical Director, General Hospital, Umuguma, Dr. Moses Amako, who was kidnapped by armed hoodlums as he was driving home from the hospital.

Many hours later, members of his family started lamenting that since he was picked up, his whereabout could not be ascertained and his captors did not reach the family in any way. The ugly incident took place around 7.00pm as Dr. Amako and his wife were on their way home when suddenly, a white coloured Jeep dangerously overtook their Honda City car and forced them to a halt.

“The hoodlums opened fire on the tyres, as well as shot their victim on his leg before taking him away in the Jeep to an unknown destination. The state of his health is of paramount importance to the family”, Mrs. Ndukwe, a relation lamented to reporters.

She urged those behind the kidnap to “please release the hapless doctor unconditionally to his family”, considering his contributions towards saving lives, but the hoodlums refused to heed this passionate appeal.

Mrs. Ndukwe said Dr. Amako was due to retire from the civil service in February 2012, and pleaded with the security agencies to go all out and save their bread winner from the imminent danger he was facing. Not much was done early enough and the man died soon after his release.

Dr. Amako’s kinsmen processed through the major roads of Owerri municipality, December 12, 2011, to protest the gruesome murder of their son. The aggrieved villagers carried placards with varying inscriptions, some of which read: “We demand justice now,” “Who killed Dr. Moses Amako?” “Murderers have killed our son,” “What did Dr. Amako do to merit brutal murder? and “What was Amako’s crime.”

Apart from the messages displayed on the placards, the protesters equally sang unprintable songs and pointed accusing fingers on some big wigs in the state. Amako was taken away by the armed gangsters despite the gunshot wounds he sustained and kept for about six days without treatment.

His captors kept him hostage until his relations parted with about N30 million before he was released. Dr. Amako was rushed to the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri, for serious medical attention after his release, but did not survive to tell the story of his ordeal in captivity.

Irked by his death, staff of Imo Specialist Hospital, Umuguma, equally processed peacefully December 13, 2011, to the State House of Assembly, Owerri, to express their anger. Expressing their grievance over the death of Dr. Amako to the lawmakers, the leader of the group, Sir Anthony Nkwocha, lamented that their boss was shot, kidnapped, kept in the custody of his captors for days, collected a huge ransom before being released.

Nkwocha equally grieved over the abduction of yet another senior colleague, Dr. Greg Onunwa, stressing that health workers in the state are not covered by the Health Insurance Scheme.

Reaction from House of Assembly

Addressing the protesters, the Deputy Speaker, Mr. Donatus Ozoemena, said the state government remains unrelenting in its efforts towards creating a crime-free state. He was particularly worried that Igbos now take delight in abducting their brothers and sisters for ransom and passionately appealed to royal fathers and community leaders to understand that these criminals do not live in the moon.

Assassination: In January 2011, the sleepy Amaifeke and Okporo communities in Orlu local council area of Imo State was thrown into confusion and deep mourning, following what a villager called “an orchestrated and premeditated assassination.”

Crime Alert investigation revealed that a man suspected to be a drug baron allegedly hired a gang of assassins to eliminate a man simply identified as Okwuotu from Amaifeke. It was not clear at press time if Okwuotu was the baron’s business partner but feelers from the community was that the hired gunmen traced their target to a beer parlour at Amaifeke.

“Not knowing that their supposed victim had left the drinking spot but seeing two men, including a soldier, who presumably fitted the description of their target, they opened fire and silenced the duo on the spot”, the villager recounted. Another account had it that after realizing they had shot the wrong persons, they traced Okwuotu to Orie Okporo market square where they shot three other persons.

“After this orgy of killings, the hoodlums sped off in a Honda car but the vehicle inexplicably stalled midway and they started fiddling with it before news went round the community that three men had been shot in the market square”, a villager recounted.

Continuing, the villager said information reached the joint army/police patrol team and they quickly raced to the scene of the ugly incident.   “The hoodlums were given a hot chase and arrested. Their alleged sponsor have also been arrested and taken to the State Police Headquarters, Owerri, for interrogation.”

Kidnapping and murder continues

The ugly story of kidnapping and eventual murder of victims continued unabated. Armed hoodlums continued to ravage Imo State with impunity despite the spirited efforts of the security agencies to combat the scourge.    Mrs. Nneka Chibeneme-Agwu, the 27-year-old daughter of retired Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Nze Chibeneme Uzoukwu, turned out to be another unfortunate victim of the armed gangsters.

An eye witness account had it that Nze Chibeneme was driving to his Umuoduwa, Ejemekwuru, Oguta local council area country home, when the criminals struck. Crime Alert learnt that about a few metres to his family gate, a bus overtook his car and two armed men wearing police vests alighted from it and ordered the hapless man out of his Toyota Camry car. A villager said:  “Suddenly, the bus with two other occupants drove off, while the other men descended on Nze Chibeneme and beat their victim to stupor.”

It was further gathered that the noise generated by the melee at the family gate attracted the attention of the man’s daughter and on seeing his father lying flat on the ground, she quickly raised alarm. “Nneka shouted for help as she saw the men trying to squeeze her father into the booth of the Camry. her shouts, the hoodlums pumped several bullets into her. She died on the spot”, the villager said.

Their victim had escaped from the booth. Crime Alert recalls that the retired Permanent Secretary’s wife, a school headmistress, was also kidnapped earlier and only released three days after her abduction.

If the retired Permanent Secretary’s wife was lucky to tell the tale of her abduction and eventual release, 36-year old Uche Alaribe, an in-law to Vanguard’s Motoring Editor, Theodore Opara, was not. Uche was kidnapped by gunmen from his warehouse at Eke-Ukwu Nnorie, Ngor Okpala local council area, while his remains were dumped in a farm at Etche, Rivers State, after his killers had collected N3 million ransom from the family.

Preaching a sermon during a Pontifical Requiem Mass in honour of the slain citizen, the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, His Grace, Dr. Anthony J. V. Obinna, condemned what he called ‘the criminal waste of precious human lives in the area’.

He said: “Why should people waste innocent lives? God sees everything we do and we must be made to answer for our actions. I hope this type of callous murder will not repeat itself in Ngor Okpala again.”

Speaking to Crime Alert later, the deceased’s elder brother, Rev. Fr. Dr. Gilbert Alaribe, said the family would be gladdened if the police will unearth perpetrators of the dastardly act. “I plead with our security agencies to leave no stone unturned in unraveling identities of those who killed Uche in his prime. Nothing will gladden our hearts more than this.”

Reacting also, the traditional ruler of Nnorie, Eze Noble Eke, prayed God to reveal those who kidnapped and gruesomely murdered Uche, adding that “we will remain unhappy until the culprits are apprehended and tried for their act.

Bizarre dimension: Activities of kidnappers took a bizarre dimension Friday, February 3, 2012, in Imo State, following the reported kidnap of the officer in charge of the State Police Command’s armoury (names withheld). Investigations revealed that the police officer was seized by unidentified gun-totting hoodlums who waylaid him on his way home after the day’s job.

A police officer who did not want his name in print, told Crime Alert that “the officer was driving to Irete, Owerri West local council area, where he resides, when the hoodlums struck”.

It was not clear at press time if the kidnappers were trailing him but our Correspondent was told that it was a lightening operation and at the end of it, the police officer was reported missing. Crime Alert could neither ascertain if the hoodlums removed any personal effect of the police officer, nor the motive behind the attack, as at the time of filing the story.

A few days after, the police successfully rescued their colleague from the clutches of his abductors. Investigations revealed that the police command felt roundly insulted by the ugly act of the kidnappers and decided to go all out for the hoodlums.

It was also gathered that the Commissioner of Police, on getting the signal, gave marching order to his subordinates to rescue the police officer, as well as arrest whoever was responsible for the crime. “We began intensive search for the police officer.

All divisional commands were alerted and they all mobilized their men. At the end of the day, our effort was rewarded”, a police officer, who spoke on grounds of anonymity, said.

Crime Alert was further told that the armourer was traced to Obudi Agwa, Oguta local council area of the state, where he was incarcerated by his abductors. Imo State Police Public Relations Officer, PPRO, Mr. Samuel Oodee, confirmed that the police officer has been rescued stating that one person has been arrested in connection with the crime and he is undergoing interrogation now.

Murder of traditional ruler: There was also the alleged involvement of some policemen in the murder of the traditional ruler of Ibeamaukwu autonomous community, Ehime Mbano local council area of Imo State, Eze Emeka Njoku.

An Owerri Chief Magistrate Court ordered the remand in prison custody of four policemen, who were allegedly involved in the gruesome murder of the traditional ruler. The four policemen include Kelechi Achonu (31), Nnanna Asuquo (29), Chukwuka Obugagha (27) and Martin Lifu (30). This matter is still in court.

Speaking to journalists after the court session, former security adviser to the immediate past Governor, Chief Zeek Martins Nnadozie, expressed happiness that at last, the suspects have been arraigned in court.

Children as victims

Midway into this kidnap saga, the perpetrators sadly veered into kidnapping innocent little children in Imo State. Since this sordid act started, some Catholic churches became targets. They include but are not limited to Saint Mulumba’s Catholic Parish, Owerri, Immaculate Conception Parish, Orji, and Saint Michael’s Parish, Amakohia.

Reports equally have it that some hospitals and maternity homes in some rural communities were raided by these miscreants who ended up stealing children. The escalating crime not only put families in serious fear but also continued to embarrass the state government and the police high command.

Take the cases of Mrs. Ifeoma Mbidom and Mrs. Ifeyinwa Udoyibo, whose nine-year old baby girl and boy respectively, were kidnapped from their cots in Seat of Life Hospital, Akuma, Oru East local council area of Imo State.

Investigation revealed that the women were delivered of their first babies through caesarean operation and were recuperating before the gun-totting hoodlums stormed the hospital and stole the innocent, harmless and hapless babies.

The anguished mothers told newsmen that the armed gangsters numbering about five stormed the hospital, Wednesday night, November 23, 2011, seized their babies and disappeared into the dark night.

At press time, the kidnappers had neither made any contact with the grieving mothers nor returned the hapless children to the parents. A very reliable source at the State Police Headquarters, Owerri, confirmed that a medical doctor and his two nurses (names withheld) were invited for interrogation.

Arrest of three-man gang

In another development, a member of a three-man gang of kidnappers was arrested, while their victim, a three-year old boy, was set free by vigilant youths of Umuagwo, Ohaji/Egbema local government area of Imo State.

Investigations revealed that the three-man gang allegedly picked their victim from a community in Rivers State and headed to Umuagwo where they would have used as a base to further their nefarious act.

It was also gathered that the hoodlums, on arrival at Umuagwo, started looking for their accomplice, who allegedly agreed to give them sanctuary in the sleepy rural community of Imo State. A villager, who simply gave his name as Emeka, told Crime Alert that it was in the process of looking for the previously arranged accommodation that the kidnappers ran into trouble.

“Some vigilant youths not only realized that they were strangers in the land but also suspected their movement. They equally sought to know what they were doing with the small boy”, the villager recounted.

Community’s vigilante group

Reports said as soon as the youths approached the hoodlums, they abandoned the little boy and scampered into a nearby bush for safety. “Assisted by the community’s vigilante group, the angry youths went after the fleeing kidnappers and succeeded in arresting one of the hoodlums in the bush.” Emeka said the youths quickly contacted the police, adding that the suspected kidnapper and the boy have been handed over to the police for further investigation.

Luck was equally on the side of the Ezurike family of Umugweze, Nekede, Owerri West local council area of Imo State, when a middle-aged woman, who kidnapped their three children was nabbed by vigilant natives. It was gathered that the lucky children and their parents went to Emmanuel Anglican Church, Nekede, for Sunday service and only went out to buy their needs before the female kidnapper hypnotized them and took them away.

It was equally learnt that the kidnapper had successfully boarded a commercial bus that was heading to Owerri before an alarm was raised. “The commercial bus driver was picking passengers along the route until the father of the stolen children and commercial motorcycle riders blocked the bus at Number 4, Bus Stop”, a villager, who simply identified herself as Joy, told Crime Alert.

Timely arrival of policemen

Joy said: “The timely arrival of policemen from the State Police Headquarters, Owerri saved the woman from immediate and unpleasant consequences.” Narrating the incident, the children’s mother said: “The children went outside the church to have some refreshment.

When they did not come back quickly, I became apprehensive. I saw my children in a bus that was driving off and I quickly raised alarm and people went after the vehicle.”

Confirming the development in a telephone interview, the Police Public Relations Officer, PPRO, Mr. Samuel Oodee, said another member of the kidnap gang has been arrested in Enugu and three children earlier kidnapped from Owerri, were recovered.

“A female member of the kidnap gang has been arrested in Enugu and three children that were kidnapped, about two or three weeks ago in Owerri, were recovered”, Oodee said. The PPRO also confirmed that the Command was quickly spreading its dragnet to get at the other members of the gang already mentioned by the suspects.

Baby stealing: There was a twist in the whole child abuse saga. A mother of three, Mrs. Chinenye Aghandu, of Umuezike, Anara, Isiala Mbano local council area of Imo State, is now cooling her heels in police custody, for allegedly selling her day-old baby boy for N30,000.

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