Controversy trails release of five kidnapped corps members

Controversy trails release of five kidnapped corps members

When Mr. Olumide Yusuf, Mrs. Funmilayo Fase, Chinonye Ejiogu, Nkechi Nweze and Vivian Okwuanya, were posted to Rivers State for the compulsory one year national service in 2010 (Batch ‘B’), little did they know that they would have very nasty experiences towards the end.

Yusuf and Fase, who are Yoruba, from the Western part of Nigeria, were then not too familiar with the volatile Niger Delta, but had heard horrifying stories about the dreaded militants, cultists, sea pirates and kidnappers; they never imagined that they could become victims.

Ejiogu, Nweze and Okwuanya, all Igbo from the Southeast, are not too far from the crude oil and gas-rich Southsouth zone and they know about the swampy terrain and the presence of criminals.

The Joint Task Force (JTF) was established by the Federal Government in order to check the excesses of the militants, while the 2009 amnesty offer to the repentant warlords, was aimed at restoring peace to the Niger Delta and for investors and foreigners, who had mostly left in the wake of the crises, to return.

Thousands of the ex-militants, cultists and kidnappers embraced the amnesty offer and surrendered their arms, ammunition and other dangerous weapons, but a few of them, after some months, embraced armed robbery, sea piracy, militancy, kidnapping and cultism, thereby terrorising innocent persons, dispossessing them of their cash, valuable property and obtaining ransoms that run into millions of naira from them.

Some of the youths who accepted amnesty have been exposed to millions of naira from ransoms, illegal bunkering of petroleum products and sea piracy, making them to find it extremely difficult to cope with the “peanuts” as monthly allowances from the amnesty offer, which prompted them to return to crime.

There was the case of a suspected armed robber, who was recently gunned down by men of the Rivers State Police Command in a shoot-out with members of his gang, during a robbery operation at Mile One, Diobu, Port Harcourt, the state capital, with the amnesty identity card found on him.

Since after the April general elections, there has been upsurge in kidnapping and armed robbery in Rivers State, which is an indication that some of the youths used by politicians as thugs and fully armed, are now terrorising the innocent people.

The unrepentant youths, who are not involved in kidnapping or armed robbery, are deeply involved in illegal bunkering of petroleum products, sea piracy, cultism or militancy, thereby turning to societal menace.

A few weeks ago, 10 corps members lost their lives to post-election violence in the North, making many people to call for the scrapping of the NYSC, but President Goodluck Jonathan said the scheme would only be restructured and not scrapped outright.

When the five youth corps members kidnapped in Rivers State on June 7, got to the NYSC’s Orientation Camp at Nonwa-Gbam in Tai Local Local Government Area of the state, they had high expectations, mostly with the intention of contributing positively to societal development.

After the orientation, they were posted to Ikwerre LGA, where Governor Rotimi Amaechi hails from and they would have seen it as a rare privilege to serve near the youthful governor’s Ubima hometown, which they might have seen as an opportunity to get close to Amaechi.

To contribute meaningfully to the development of communities around them, the “NYSC-5,” as they are being referred to, decided to embark on a library project at the Community Secondary School, Omademe, in Ikwerre LGA of Rivers State, as part of their community development projects.

The project was so dear to the hearts of the corps members and they effectively supervised it, to ensure that good works were done by the artisans engaged.
On June 7, they decided to inspect the library again to ensure that it would be ready before their passing out on June 16, but they might have regretted taking such a decision. Although, they inspected the project but the return journey was unpleasant.

The youth (four females and one male) were in the car of one of them and were on their way from Omademe, along the Port Harcourt International Airport Road, near Igwuruta in Ikwerre LGA around 7:30 pm, when they were seized by kidnappers and moved to an unknown destination.

The gunmen sporadically shot into the air to scare away people in the neighbourhood, while one of the youth, Yusuf, tried to contact his relatives, but his phone was seized by the kidnappers.

The Rivers State Police Command, the Army the State Security Service (SSS) officials immediately swung into action. The kidnappers got across to the families of the corps members and demanded a ransom of N100 million, but there was no response from their relatives.

The gunmen then asked government to pay the ransom for the corps members not to lose their lives in their den in the forest, but Rivers governor maintained that he would never negotiate with criminals.

The Commissioner of Police, Rivers State Command, Mr. Suleiman Abba, on June 15, at a news conference at the Police Officers’ Mess, old Government Reservation Area (GRA), Port Harcourt, disclosed that the kidnappers had reduced the ransom from N100 million to N10 million.

Abba assured that policemen, in collaboration with the military and SSS, were closing in on the kidnappers, but would prefer to rescue the victims safely, while no form of encouragement would be given to the hoodlums, in form of payment of ransom, but would be arrested and prosecuted.

He stated that many police teams in overt and covert patrols, surveillance, raids and investigations were being carried out, to ensure quick rescue of the five youths, while disclosing that those involved in the “unfortunate” kidnap had been identified.

Abba reiterated that the command foiled the kidnap of some corps members during the last voter registration, while the culprit who stabbed a corps member during the voter registration in Bonny, Rivers state, had also been apprehended and charged to court.

The police commissioner, who stated that he served as a corps member in Imo State in 1983, said the command had been protecting lives and property of Rivers people, while urging members of the public to give useful information about criminals in their midst to the command.

The Rivers Coordinator of the NYSC, Mrs. Esther Wogbo, had ear lier stated that the husbands of two of the corps members and families of others had regularly been visiting the NYSC’s state secretariat in Port Harcourt, for information and update.

June 16 for the passing out came, but the five corps members were still in the den of kidnappers, enduring the cold from the heavy rain of June, with their colleagues, family members and officials of NYSC becoming apprehensive, especially over the possibility of the hoodlums raping the four women.

Ladies kidnapped in the past were mostly raped by the gunmen, while the defenceless women would be helpless in the forest and would easily allow the criminals to have their way, without any resistance, in order to come out alive.

At the passing out, which took place at the Isaac Boro Park in Port Harcourt, Amaechi assured that everything possible was being done to expedite the release of the corps members, while expressing optimism that they would soon rejoin their families.

The governor, who was represented by his deputy, Tele Ikuru, an engineer, noted that the NYSC scheme had immensely contributed to engendering harmony, national unity and productive integration.

The governor also lauded the corps members for their roles in the effective campaign against HIV/AIDS, implementation of MDG programmes, mass literacy, legal aid, healthcare delivery, charity and most recently, the successful voters’ registration and general elections, describing their contributions as noteworthy, while urging them to be self-reliant.

The Chairman of the Rivers NYSC Governing Board, Mr. George Feyii, stated that seven corps members got state’s Honours Awards, seven received Chairman’s Awards for outstanding performance, while others got commendation letters for their contributions to their host communities.

Feyii, who is also the Secretary to the Rivers State Government (SSG), disclosed that 19 corps members, who absconded from service, would repeat the service, while 28 had their service year extended, ranging from two weeks to five months, urging them to work for the unity and development of the nation.

While also speaking, the Rivers Coordinator of the NYSC, Mrs. Esther Wogbo, said the outgoing corps members had meritoriously served their fatherland and satisfied the conditions for the award of certificates of national service, while commending them for the positive impact they made in their host communities and places of primary assignment.

Wogbo also lauded the Amaechi-led administration for the tremendous support given the NYSC, stating that his fatherly support had opened up the enabling environment for the scheme to thrive successfully, while congratulating Feyii on his recent, well-deserved appointment.

The five corps members, however, heaved a sigh of relief on June 19, after spending 13 days in captivity at unknown locations in the Niger Delta.
They were immediately handed over to the Director-General of the NYSC, Brig-General Maharazu Tsiga, in good state of health and moved to Abuja for medical examination at the National Hospital.

Tsiga relocated to Rivers State, shortly after the kidnap, and was coordinating the rescue efforts, along with the Rivers Coordinator of the NYSC, the police, military and operatives of the SSS.

It could not be confirmed if ransom was paid by the government, as demanded by the kidnappers, before the youth were set free, but impeccable sources indicated that the kidnappers might have been paid a huge ransom.

The Rivers Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr. Ben Ugwuegbulam, a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) who confirmed the release of the corps members, was silent on whether ransom was paid or not.

Ugwuegbulam said: “Police SOS (Swift Operation Squad) and Anti-Kidnapping Teams, supported by the DPO (Divisional Police Officer) of Omoku (headquarters of Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni LGA of Rivers State) made efforts to rescue the mother of Chief Okoroma, kidnapped on June 17, 2011, at Obrikom.
“The efforts not only led to the rescue of the old woman around 3 pm on June 19 at Ama, Omoku, it also added to the pressure sustained on the kidnappers of the corpers by the police, the SSS and the military.

“Around 7:30 pm on June 19, the five kidnapped corpers were sighted and rescued by mobile policemen conducting stop and search at Omerenu, along the Port Harcourt-Owerri Road. The victims have been handed over to the highly delighted Director-General of the NYSC, Brig-General Maharazu Tsiga, in good state of health. Investigation to arrest the culprits continues.”

The Rivers commissioner of police had earlier stated that his men would not leave the bush until the five kidnapped corps members regained their freedom.
Shortly after the PPRO’s confirmation and reaction, discerning minds began to wonder how the corps members would be rescued in a car by policemen conducting stop and search on the busy road without arresting other occupants of the vehicle or gunning down the criminals, who might have attempted to escape.
The director-general of the NYSC, while speaking in Abuja on June 20, insisted that no ransom was paid to secure the five youths’ release.
Tsiga said: “This is an act that should be condemned in its totality by all those involved. I want to appeal to the youth that if we can make it, they too can make it. It does not mean that they should be used by politicians to be committing such atrocities, in order to get blood money.

“We went there, we used the security agencies, particularly the SSS, police and army to make sure that we rescued these corps members. There was nothing that we paid in terms of ransom. They were rescued and we were also able to rescue other kidnapped people in the jungle. My corps members came out alive, healthy.”
While urging corps members to take their personal security seriously, the NYSC’s director-general disclosed that the victims were immediately handed over to their families.

The security agencies too should be alive to their responsibilities, thereby ensuring the protection of lives and property, for corps members and others not to continue to be victims of kidnapping, armed robbery and other crimes.