THE question I have been asked repeatedly since my mother, Ezinne Apollonia Amaechi, was abducted by three gunmen right inside her living room in my village on Tuesday, March 3, was if we paid ransom to secure her freedom. And my answer is yes, we paid because other than the grace of God which sustained her in captivity, payment of ransom was the only guarantee we had to ever see her alive again.
Granted, some had paid in the past and yet never saw their loved ones again or only took delivery of their corpses, the advice of security agents in the extant case was “please negotiate and pay”. And they are right. Today, Nigeria typifies the Hobbesian state of nature where life is short, brutish and nasty. The “natural condition of mankind”, according to Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, and no common power to restrain human nature.
But for crying out loud, Nigeria has a government which never fails to intimidate us with its vaunted powers and untrammeled capacity to restrain human nature. But in reality, what we have is a group of people who are in government, not in power, who have ceded power to hoodlums.
Consequentially, Nigeria has become a lawless country where armed gangs hold sway, each carving out a fiefdom and effectively exercising authority therein to the utter exclusion of the Nigerian state that ought to have the monopoly of the instruments of coercion. And all of us are at the mercy of the lords of the manor.
At about 8.30 p.m. penultimate Tuesday, three armed men barged into my mother’s living room where, already dressed in her night wear, she was watching television, preparatory to going to bed and forcibly took her away. Frail, she was crying, asking what she did and pleading that her abductors leave her alone. They didn’t yield to her entreaties but rather shot into the air to scare away my cousin, Emma Amaechi, a secondary school principal, who heard her cries and ran out to see what the problem was. They also took away the handset of my sister-in-law.
When the hoodlums called me on Wednesday morning, they handed the telephone to my mom who told me that they were marooned in a bush, at the mercy of the elements and she was blindfolded. It rained heavily that night and she told me that at a stage they gave her an umbrella to shield her from the heavy downpour. At that stage, I was already crying. The rains were bad enough. But it was not my worst fear. My mother has an underlying health issue and on daily medication.
They took her away on barefoot without her drugs. But my worst nightmare were mosquitoes. My mother is allergic to mosquito bites which always results in bouts of malaria, which in turn pushes up her blood sugar numbers. Where did she sleep that night? On the wet ground? At that moment, I had heard enough and couldn’t imagine what on earth would make anyone who claims to be a human being with blood in his veins subject another to such harrowing experience. When that person is a 79-year-old grandmother, it becomes even more confusing.
They took the phone from her having convinced themselves that I was perspicacious enough to appreciate how grave the situation was and told me to pay a N20 million ransom if I ever wanted to see her again. Where was I, a poor journalist, going to get N20 million to buy my mother’s freedom? They said that was my problem and not theirs. An attempt to plead seemed to infuriate them and they hung the phone on me.
Now, I will tell you a little bit about my mother. She is a retired school headmistress, a devout Catholic and a community leader, who started teaching before she married my father. Fondly called Madam Appolo by her students and their parents, there is hardly any who-is- who in my place that didn’t go through her tutelage. She was the first female member of the Governing Board of our community school, Secondary Technical School, Obohia, which is my alma mater. That was as far back as 1978/79. She is a devout Christian who had served her various parishes as either president or secretary of the Catholic Women Organisation.
For her contributions, she has been honoured thrice at the Diocesan level and the traditional institution has also honoured her. Even at her age, she still serves in various capacities, the major reason why she hardly agrees to stay outside the community. In fact, barely five days before she was kidnapped, she came back home from a one-week stay in one of my sister’s place and when I complained, she told me that she finds happiness staying in the village. Yet, it is this same village that kidnappers have made a hell for her.
When her abductors later called me again, I offered to pay N500,000 explaining to them that I didn’t have the money they were looking for. They insulted me and accused me of being heartless, without any iota of love for my mother. They told me to keep my N500,000 and use it in preparing for her impending funeral.
This went on till Friday when we agreed at a ransom which I was ordered to bring in cash from Owerri, Imo State, to Osisioma Aba, Abia State. The money must be in N1,000 denomination. They asked if I was coming myself and I said no. They then said the courier must be a woman. I told them I didn’t have any woman to run such a risky errand for me. They ordered that if I am sending a man, he must be 60 years and above, wear white as a sign of peace. If he wears red, that would be a declaration of war, they told me and I will pay dearly for that.
I should do nothing funny. They man must come alone. If he comes with security agents, that will be instant death for my mother, if I plant micro-chips on the money or come with marked denominations, they simply reminded me, ominously, that they still had my mother. When my emissary got to Aba, they ordered him to bring the money to Obigbo junction in Rivers State. In Obigbo, the drama started: drive forward, reverse, go left, turn right, come down from the car with the money, take a motorbike, stop and trek.
At long last, two young men on a motorbike appeared on a lonely stretch of road, rode past him and suddenly made a U-turn. The one on the passenger’s seat alighted and ordered him to drop the money on the ground.
My brother hesitated and they pulled a gun. He obeyed and they picked the money. He asked for the Mama he had come to rescue and they sternly warned him to turn, never to look back and leave the place. He did as he was ordered.
But ten minutes later, they called him to ask if the money was complete. He assured them that it was and asked again where my mom was. It was then they told him that she would be released before he got home. This was about 6.30pm. A journey to deliver the ransom took almost an entire day.
Four hours later, they called to tell us where to pick my mother in a neighboring village. Kidnapped in Mbaise, ransom paid and collected in Rivers State, and victim set free in Mbaise, how organised can a crime get? Disheveled, disoriented, hungry, barefooted, my mother, blindfolded, was brought out from the place of her captivity and dropped in the middle of nowhere. It took the help of good Samaritans who saw her wandering to bring her home.
Last week was the most harrowing week of my life and a sad reminder of our collective predicament. To say that Nigeria is a failed, not failing, state is to make an understatement. Those who are living in denial claiming that Nigeria is the safest place to live on earth simply because they are in government today and have security agents at their beck and call should remember that there is always a day after.