By Emmanuel Unah
At 7.30 am on Wednesday, three expatriates and two Nigerian staff of MeMahon Limited, a building construction firm executing contract work at Lafarge Cement, formerly Unicem, were abducted on their way to work at Mfamosing by hoodlums at Idundu Bridge, on the outskirts of Calabar, after the driver of the bus conveying them was shot dead.
This is just one of the several instances of violent crimes which have bedeviled Calabar, Cross River State capital, since the middle of 2015. The activities of these gun totting gangs, who operate at will and in broad daylight , are alarming to residents who are beginning to wonder about what has became the crime-free city which people from faraway places flocked to here to savour the peace they could not get in their places of abode.
In the past, it was thought that with Calabar surrounded by the sea and has just one entry and exit route, criminals are deterred from operating in the city because of the high chances of being arrested while trying to escape through the single route by security agencies, bu,t in recent times, the sea, which used to serve as a source of protection, has become an escape route as hoodlums use speed boats to make good their escape or to ferret their victims to the creeks before commencing negotiation for ransom with the victims’ families.
Kidnappers operate in the city in large numbers and life has not been the same again in the famous Canaan City, as, between mid last year and now, over 100 people have been kidnapped and these are cases that were reported to the police as many others simply paid ransom to kidnappers to let their kinsmen regain freedom without telling the police.
Many residents with reasonable financial base or considered rich enough and able to “bail” themselves out have either been abducted, attacked or threatened with abduction at some point or the other. Worst affected are pastors of big churches, businessmen and university teachers whom the hoodlums believe no more stash cash at home or carry large sums around so can only be “dealt with” through kidnapping for ransom. Often the kidnappers demand for large sums of money ranging from five to 20 million naira depending on the person’s financial capacity.
The list of those abducted in the past six months include Pastor Seyi Adekunle of Winners Chapel, Tunde Osisonya, owner of Tuns 77, a furniture company, Lolo Peterson, wife of Igwe Peterson, a building material merchant, Eme Okonkon, owner of Eme Inn, goat head canteen, Chief Akins, director of Akito Rentals, Etubom Ekpo Cobham, a father of Efiok Cobham, former deputy governor of the state, Chief Asuquo Ekpenyong Ekpe and brother of ex-Director General of DSS, Ekpenyong Ita. Others are Dr Walter Ibeh, a lecturer at the Federal College of Education Obudu, wife and daughter of Dr Osim, University of Calabar lecturer, Charles Nnaji , building materials trader at 17 Garden Street, Mr Etim Okon, cement distributor of 7 Garden, Chief Kenneth Ekeanyanwu, owner of Day Break Bread Factory at Chamly Street, Chief T Anthony of 18 Garden Street, Barrister Igwe, building material trader at Garden Street and Chief Okoronkwo. Millions of naira in ransom was said to have been paid before the victims were set free.
Ekeayanwu, for instance, allegedly paid ten million naira to regain his freedom but died few days after his release following the torture he suffered in the hands of his captors.
Worried by the spate of kidnapping, which, they claimed, was targeted at their businesses, Igbo traders in Calabar, during the first week of June, went to the palace of the Obong. Edidem Ekpo Otu, to appeal for the intervention of of the royal father before their businesses are ruined by kidnappers.
The Vice President of the Igbo community in the state, Mr. Rufus Eze, told the Obong that 80 per cent of kidnapped victims in the state are Igbo traders.
“It has become worrisome that the Igbo are the targets of kidnappers. When they kidnap, they will make family members of their victim to go and borrow money, sell his or her belongings to pay ransom. We are appealing to the state government, traditional and religious leaders to help us. We came here to do business and not to be kidnapped and forced to pay ransom,”Eze said.
The monarch, who sounded furious at the turn of events in Cross River State, told the protesters that Calabar was known for its peaceful nature and could not afford to be home to kidnappers, hence the need for security agencies to rise up to the challenge.
“In the last three months, it looks as if a particular set of kidnappers have targeted the Igbo to carry out their ugly business. As a king of the Efik Kingdom, I cannot fold my hands and watch this unfortunate situation to continue. We must look at this issue critically and find a way of curtailing it. These kidnappers are no ghosts, they live among us and we must fish them out,”he said.
Meanwhile, some of the kidnap victims accused security agencies of complicity in the abductions in the state. One of them confided in Sunday Vanguard that soon after his abduction, his family went to the police to report.
“ Bur thirty minutes after, one of the kidnappers received a phone call and someone at the other end related to him what my wife told the police which infuriated the kidnappers the more and warned me that there was nothing the police could do for me, so I had no choice but to pay the ransom”.
Sometimes, the kidnappers, it was also leant, have information on the amount their victims have in the bank accounts which mean they also have inside sources in some financial houses.