She was kidnapped, threatened with rape and told she would die … The former Sunday Times columnist Donu Kogbara on her terrifying hostage ordeal in Nigeria
By DONU KOGBARA
Just before 7am on Sunday, August 30, 2015, I am shaken awake in my bedroom in Port Harcourt, a city on Nigeria’s southern coastline in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, by two gun-toting young men. My trembling 79-year-old mother is standing behind them. I later discover that they have overpowered the security guards at our gate (everyone who has a few dollars to spare employs “gatemen” in Nigeria), apprehended my mother while she is getting ready to go to church and instructed her to show them where her daughter is.
They demand money and “gold or diamonds”, I quickly hand over a small suitcase that contains about $400 and my modest collection of jewellery. I assume that will be it and that they will abscond with their haul and leave us alone. I should be so lucky.
“Come!” says the shorter of the men, grabbing my left arm. The other grabs my right arm, my handbag and my British and Nigerian phones, and they roughly propel me towards the door. I am braless and wearing a T-shirt that leaves nothing to the imagination, plus ancient black leggings. When it dawns on me that I am about to be kidnapped, I ask them to allow me to get dressed properly.
Just before 7am on Sunday, August 30, 2015, I am shaken awake in my bedroom in Port Harcourt by two gun-toting young men.
“Shut up! No time for dressing up!” says the taller one.
“I’m hypertensive, so let me at least take my medication,” I plead. Grudgingly, he agrees. Hastily, I pick up some pills on my bedside table and throw them into my handbag, put on a pair of cheap rubber flip-flops and off we go
I am frogmarched out of my residence, shoved into the back seat of a jeep and assured that I will be shot if I don’t close my eyes and keep my head down. I do as I am told. I feel weirdly calm, dazed perhaps. About 20 minutes later, I am told to open my eyes and get out of the jeep. I look around and see a jetty in a tiny waterside village, deserted except for two starved-looking small boys in rags who watch in silence as I am bundled into a speedboat called — improbably — Victorious.
I get the feeling those kids have seen it all before.
The taller abductor gets into the boat with me and a driver. The other man zooms off. Again, I am told to close my eyes. I have no watch so don’t know how long the journey lasts, but it seems to me that we speed across the creeks for nearly two hours. I’m not afraid at all — yet.
Eventually we arrive at a thatched, rectangular, corrugated-iron hut, 15ft square and built on stilts in a small, remote, densely vegetated mangrove swamp. No islands or land masses are visible. I am told we’ve left Nigeria and are now in Cameroonian waters. To reach the hut, we have to walk along 12 narrow, swaying, slippery planks. Each about 1ft wide and 5ft long and all supported by stakes that have been driven into the swamp floor. Walking along them is like navigating a tightrope in the middle of an ocean.
I am told we’ve left Nigeria and are now in Cameroonian waters. To reach the hut, we have to walk along 12 narrow, swaying, slippery planks.
Finally, I am terrified and shaking. How I make it from the boat to the hut without tumbling into the murky depths I will never know, but I lose my flip-flops.
My captors are rugged Ijaw tribesmen. In their traditional fishing communities, such plank contraptions are commonplace and they breezily stride up and down, but I never get used to the planks. It’s irrational, I know, but the planks bother me much more than anything else. There is a crude pit latrine at the other end of the plank walkway. In the days that follow, I am offered fairly decent meals and various beverages, but I refuse almost everything in order to minimise the number of occasions on which I need to brave the planks that lead to the lavatory.
My abductor reveals his nickname: “Engineer”. I am alone in the hut with him — and an ominously bloodstained mattress, a radio that is always on, broadcasting frequent bulletins about my abduction, which is already headline news, and an exceedingly bold rat that frequently launches assaults on the “kitchen” corner of the hut, where foodstuffs are stored.
Days 2 & 3
For the next couple of days, Engineer goes out of his way to make me as comfortable as anyone can be in such chronically imperfect conditions. When I discover that one of my hypertension medications is missing and shiver because of the chilly nocturnal creek winds, Engineer calls his accomplices on the mainland to ask them to bring me warm clothes and Amlodipine. When I tell him that I am a smoker, he adds cigarettes to the shopping list.
He also tells me about himself. He is 32 and sounds quite well educated. He says he was compelled to quit school in his early teens because his parents were poor. He did a catering apprenticeship, before deciding that crime would pay more than cookery. But he is, he says with considerable vehemence, “tired of this job, especially when we capture women who are elderly like you”.
As the days crawl by, Engineer tells me that “someone close to you betrayed you, told us when and where we could find you and gave us your personal, professional and political data”. And he does, indeed, know a lot about me.
He knows that my parents sent me to a British boarding school, that I am in my mid-fifties, that I am a journalist who shuttles between the UK and Nigeria and that I’d campaigned for Muhammadu Buhari, the Muslim former major general from the north who had won the March 2015 presidential election and replaced Dr Goodluck Jonathan.
Engineer tells me that “someone close to you betrayed you, told us when and where we could find you and gave us your personal, professional and political data”.
Engineer reels off a list of my famous Nigerian politician pals and relatives and says that these “useless greedy VIP thieves who have been stealing from the masses since I was born” will have to contribute “millions” to my ransom if they want me to leave the hut alive. But he quickly adds that he isn’t the gang’s “executioner” and that killing me will be someone else’s duty.
I tell him that he is greatly overestimating my family’s wealth and political connections. I urge him to switch on my mobile phones and check my account balances. At first he is reluctant to do so, fearing that my phones will emit signals that will enable the police to pinpoint our location. But his curiosity gets the better of him and he is shocked to see how penurious I really am.
Engineer is intrigued and wants to know more about me — partly because the radio bulletins describe me as a Niger Deltan activist who should have been immune from kidnapping, because I have spent a significant chunk of my life supporting “the Niger Delta Struggle”.
The delta region has provided the Nigerian state with zillions of petrodollars — its main source of income — since the first barrel of oil was exported to Rotterdam in the late 1950s. But ordinary Niger Deltans have paid a very high price for all this rampant wealth generation and most have nothing to show for it. Unemployment is rife and agricultural land and fishing waters have been so heavily polluted by the oil industry that economic activity has ground to a halt in many villages.
Against this backdrop of injustice, many angry, despairing, jobless youngsters turned to militarised activism. Many of them were Ijaws — an ethnic group who populate remote riverine areas and to which Engineer and my abductors belong.
By the late l990s, the Ijaws’ ancestral waters and land were so polluted that many could no longer earn a living. Rogue local politicians spotted an opportunity. The Ijaw “militants” could easily be transformed into armed thugs who would come in handy when elections needed to be won.
They were given funds with which to purchase substantial arsenals. Swaggering super-tough-guy alpha males emerged from the rank and file, assumed leadership positions and became “warlords” and feared household names. They operated like mafia dons and ran different militant groups, each containing hundreds of footsoldiers. But elections only came around every four years and these “armies” soon started to go beyond providing their political backers with electoral muscle and became organised-crime syndicates.
By the time I was abducted, at least one kidnapping was occurring every single week in Port Harcourt.
They set up camps in the creeks from which they waged war on oil companies, the authorities and society. Oil pipelines were vandalised. Bunkering and piracy on the high seas became norms. Stolen oil was sold on the black market and huge profits enabled militants to buy increasingly sophisticated weapons. They sometimes launched raids on the mainland and seized hostages — initially expatriates working for oil companies, then Nigerians as well.
By the time I was abducted, at least one kidnapping was occurring every single week in Port Harcourt. Some weeks, many people would be snatched — from their homes, from outside churches or shops, on the road, wherever.
The militants haughtily described themselves as freedom fighters. Most of them were affiliated to a credible-sounding umbrella organisation — the “Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta” (Mend) — that regularly issued articulate “ideological” press releases.
I was ambivalent. Half of me was alarmed by these malignant developments. But the other half felt that this militant monster had been created by successive Nigerian governments that had selfishly ignored the legitimate grievances of Niger Delta people for far too long.
Engineer tells me that most of the proceeds from his gang’s kidnappings go to their boss — and that he and others wind up with paltry percentages. He also tells me that he is married and has a son. I overhear him telling his wife on the phone that he is sorry she’s struggling to make ends meet and that he will soon be able to send her money. He lies about his whereabouts and tells her that he is “in Lagos on business”.
He tells me that he’d love to turn his back on crime and start afresh in another country. He has heard about poor Nigerians going to Britain and doing well. He asks me whether I think he can make it “out there”. He sounds so depressed. To cheer him up, I say: “Yes, you can start off as a taxi driver, save up a lot of money and buy a house in London.”
I agree with him when he complains about the egomania, dishonesty and insatiability of the predatory Nigerian elite, of which I am a member.
Engineer listens intently to me and says that he has gradually concluded that I am “a good person” and wishes he could let me go. He then offers me some survival tips.
He says that his boss, who will soon arrive, is “wicked” and advises me to handle him with care. Engineer also says that he’s keeping his fingers crossed that Kenneh, one of his comrades, doesn’t show up because he is a serial rapist and, though young, is not fussy about the age of his victims.
Engineer shows me a video that he has saved on his phone. It is harrowing. Two hysterical, stark-naked women with dishevelled hair are crouching on the very same mattress that I am sitting on. One, who looks as if she is in her thirties, is repeatedly being made to sexually assault the other, who looks to be in her forties, with an empty green beer bottle. Now, finally, I know why the mattress is bloodstained. “This,” Engineer grimly informs me, “is the kind of thing that Kenneh makes female hostages do when he’s too drunk to sleep with them.”
My composure visibly cracks. Engineer tries to console me. He says that there is a good chance that I will never endure the misfortune of meeting Kenneh because Kenneh’s wife recently died after a bout of illness, and he’s busy arranging her burial.
Just before midnight on my third day in captivity, Engineer and I are joined by seven other members of his gang, including Boss Man, their leader. I immediately recognise him — muscular, stocky, handsome, cruel eyes, about 28 years old — as the second kidnapper who had dragged me out of my bedroom. And our reintroduction is brutal.
Boss Man grabs a thick stick and starts beating me. I am in agony and whimper like a wounded puppy. When Boss Man tires of hitting me, he takes his T-shirt off, drops his jeans to reveal blue boxer shorts, sits down on the edge of the mattress and expertly rolls a joint — marijuana mixed with a mysterious substance that a policeman later tells me was probably gunpowder. He takes a few long, leisurely drags on the joint and his mood suddenly changes.
“I hear you smoke,” he says, smiling and handing me a packet of Benson & Hedges and a lighter. “If you smoke, Madame, you must also drink!” he adds, pulling a bottle of Whyte & Mackay whisky out of a rucksack and offering me a plastic cup.
I thank him, taking care to restrict myself to tiny ladylike sips, so I won’t need a trip to the latrine in the pitch darkness. The other men, who have AK-47s hanging from slings on their shoulders, position themselves around me and Boss Man and start to fire questions at me.
Unlike eloquent, semi-schooled Engineer, the rest of the gang, Boss Man included, can only speak pidgin English. So I also use the local patois to communicate with them, but I’ll paraphrase.
“Where are your children?”
“I only have one child,” I reply, “a 20-year-old son, and he’s in London.”
“What is he doing in London?”
“Studying and working in a restaurant in his spare time.”
“Working in a restaurant? Ha, ha, ha! Do not insult our intelligence. Do you really imagine that we are dumb enough to believe that the son of a rich political lady like you is working in a restaurant like a poor boy?”
“I am not a rich political lady. I only know lots of politicians because I’m a journalist and interview them from time to time; and, trust me, most journalists don’t earn much.”
“Liar!” says Boss Man. “I have seen your house and it is full of treasures. We know that you are stinking rich. And we are going to ask your family and big friends to pay a $2m ransom.”
“I am not a rich political lady. I only know lots of politicians because I’m a journalist and interview them from time to time; and, trust me, most journalists don’t earn much.”
“Two million dollars!?” I collapse into a nervous giggling fit and say that my family doesn’t have that kind of money.
“Shut the f*** up!” says Boss Man, venemously. His mood has suddenly changed again. His voice is slurred by drink and drugs. He threatens to “beat the shit” out of me again if I “keep lying”.
Engineer gives me a desperate conspiratorial look. His meaning is clear. Pleeeease don’t say another word. So I fall into a despairing silence and Boss Man loses interest in me. He and his “Boys” talk among themselves. I hear them saying that Kenneh is still busy with spouse-burying issues. I’m deliriously relieved by this revelation and start to relax.
Then Boss Man announces that it is bedtime. Engineer had chivalrously crashed out on the floor and allowed me to sleep on the mattress alone, so I’m very taken aback when Boss Man and three others join me.
Why am I so surprised? The hut is so small that mattress-sharing is inevitable. We lie side by side like sardines that have been squeezed into a tiny tin can. The sweaty intimacy doesn’t faze them and they are soon snoring. This is the longest night of my life. I can’t sleep a wink.
Early in the morning, Boss Man contemptuously tosses a lighter and packet of cigarettes at me and tells me to face the wall of the hut and be totally immobile until he decides that it’s time to call my people to ask for a ransom. Engineer’s benign regime has drawn to a close.
I am now being treated like a real hostage. I obediently face the wall for several hours, cross-legged and afraid to move a muscle, even when painful cramps descend. Morning morphs into afternoon. Afternoon morphs into evening; and though they talk to each other about their love lives, families, weapons, triumphant encounters with the police and so on, nobody talks to me.
For the first time in my life, I understand anorexics. I now realise that it’s about being able to control your body when you feel as if you have no control over other aspects of your life
I begin to cry. Boss Man hears my piteous sniffles and warns me to stop disturbing him. But he gives me water and asks if I’d like to eat something. I say “no thanks”.
For the first time in my life, I understand anorexics. I now realise that it’s about being able to control your body when you feel as if you have no control over other aspects of your life. Boss Man is so pissed off by my rejection of food that he slaps me hard a few times and swears he’ll kill me before I starve myself to death. Another night falls. This time I’m so exhausted, I sleep like a baby.
Another day, another mood swing. Boss Man is in fine fettle — ebullient and chummy. Lighting a joint and smiling broadly, he says that it is time to call my people, starting with my mother. He instructs me to tell everyone we call that I am on death’s doorstep and being tortured, then smacks me around for a couple of minutes, so I can sound authentic.
Mummy’s phone is answered by Rose, one of her favourite church chums. Rose tells me that she is so glad to hear my voice and quickly hands the phone to my mother. My mother is totally flustered. When I tell her that I am on death’s doorstep and being tortured — and that the kidnappers want $2m — she doesn’t believe what she’s hearing.
She falls silent, then, stammering, asks me to please repeat what I’ve just said. When I repeat the ransom demand, she asks: “Did you say two million naira?” (Then about $10,000.) I lose my temper. “Listen for chrissakes! I said two million dollars, not naira!” She falls silent again.
Boss Man seizes the phone from me and tries to talk to her. But she doesn’t respond, so he cuts the call and tells me that we need to forget about her and speak to “someone serious” like my pal/cousin Kenneth Kobani, who is the secretary to the government of Rivers State, the state in Niger Delta that contains Port Harcourt.
Boss Man and Kenneth talk. I can’t hear what Kenneth is saying, but after a couple of minutes Boss Man is incandescent with rage. “Don’t pretend! A Big Man like you can easily pay what I am asking!” he screams. “You will know that I’m not joking when I send you her rotting corpse!” Eventually, Boss Man cuts the call.
“Your people are too brainless or stingy to save your life, and I’m tired of their rubbish. You will die today,” he tells me, his jaw clenched. I beg him to give me another chance and he agrees to try my friend Rotimi Amaechi, the former governor of Rivers State. But Amaechi’s phone is off, so I suggest that we call Uche Igwe, a writer who is close to both me and Amaechi. Uche answers his phone immediately and is touchingly glad to hear my voice. I ask him to go to Amaechi’s house at the earliest opportunity, to solicit funds. He talks to Boss Man and promises to get back to us.
I crack a feeble joke and tell Boss Man that he and Uncle Sam have a lot in common because Uncle Sam is also a big Boss Man. Boss Man doesn’t crack a smile.
Boss Man softens, but only slightly. He assures me that he will “deal with” me if Amaechi’s response via Uche turns out to be unsatisfactory. He asks who else we can call, so I mention “Uncle” Sam Amuka, the owner of Vanguard, the newspaper for which I write a weekly column.
I crack a feeble joke and tell Boss Man that he and Uncle Sam have a lot in common because Uncle Sam is also a big Boss Man. Boss Man doesn’t crack a smile. He just tersely informs me that if Uncle Sam turns out to be as “useless” as my mother and Kenneth, he will shoot me and dump my body in the mangrove swamp behind the hut, alongside the bodies of other hostages who’ve been killed because their folks didn’t cough up quickly.
By the time we get through to Uncle Sam, I am babbling like a demented halfwit and not making sense. Boss Man seizes the phone from me. This time, the conversation goes very swimmingly. Boss Man is smiling like a cat who got the cream and tells Uncle Sam that he will call him back to tell him how to arrange the payment.
Back at the hut, Boss Man announces that a celebration is called for. The Whyte & Mackay has finished, so he extracts a large bottle of bright-green herbal native gin from a black canvas bag and pours generous shots for everyone, including me.
“Your Uncle Sam must really love you, Madame Journalist, because he has just promised me $250,000,” he says. The Boys and I gasp in amazement. We expected Uncle Sam to contribute to my ransom, but we didn’t think he’d offer so much.
I timidly ask him whether $250,000 will be enough to secure my freedom.
“No way!” he sneers. “If just one of your people can raise $250,000, we can definitely pick up another $1m or $2m from the rest. We will make more calls tomorrow.”
My heart sinks. Boss Man takes off down the planks to make calls and while he’s away, the Boys and I chill out and chat. I ask them to introduce themselves. They do so, smiling sheepishly, and gruffly explain their respective roles:
Ahua, a deceptively meek-looking chap who says that he is the gang’s executioner; Allah, a very tall policeman’s son who has, much to the amusement of his pals, converted to Islam and doesn’t seem to have any particular job title; Parago, a chubby man of few words who is the back-up boat driver; Mammu, a seemingly gentle giant who says he’s 35 and in charge of purchasing and maintaining the weapons. And last but not least, Nwanne, aged 34, who has a huge gold crucifix around his neck and, ironically, is the gang’s torturer.
They ask me, shyly, lots of questions about my family, my friends, my political views, my work and my experiences of the outside world. I answer honestly and also ask them lots of questions, including: “Why do so many guys need to squeeze into this small hut to guard one lady?”
They ask me, shyly, lots of questions about my family, my friends, my political views, my work and my experiences of the outside world.
They tell me that there are more than 30 kidnapping gangs in Rivers State and that they and other gangs often try to hijack each others’ prisoners, so they are all there to fight off any competitors who might try and steal me.
I discover that some of them are putting younger siblings through school and/or supporting elderly or infirm relatives with the money they make from kidnappings. Allah is particularly voluble and says — after asking me whether Manchester United is the capital of London — that he is attracted to older women and since I am divorced, he will gladly become my boyfriend, if I think him a suitable consort. His colleagues roar with laughter and tell him to get real.
“Maleh can find a much better boyfriend than you!” Mammu exclaims.
I ask Mammu what “Maleh” means. “Mother,” he tells me, adding that I have a warm, maternal, caring aura — and that the Boys really like me and envy my son and wish they’d had mothers like me and are praying that I will be released soon.
As soon as he wakes up, Boss Man calls Uncle Sam to tell him how to arrange the $250,000 payment. But the call is not going as planned. We hear Boss Man raising his voice. Then he yells: “Madame Journalist, come here now!”
When I get to him, Boss Man, tight-lipped, says that Uncle Sam has withdrawn his offer. I grab the phone. “Do you want me to die here?” I ask, sobbing. Uncle Sam is audibly rattled by my tears. He implores me to understand his position and explains that my family and the authorities have decided that all negotiations should henceforth be conducted via Uche.
I am distraught. Boss Man is pacing up and down, deranged. I say we should call my mother again, to beg her to beg Uncle Sam to pay up and forget about what anyone else is doing. Boss Man reluctantly agrees. I am shocked and overjoyed when my kid sister Lela, an accountant and the assistant director of Islington council in London, answers our mother’s phone.
She tells me that she flew into Port Harcourt that morning, to help manage the situation. Lela is her usual kind and competent self. She says that she can contribute to my ransom and is liaising with the authorities and Uche.
I tell her that I don’t want her to liaise with the authorities because if they attempt to rescue me, they and I will be killed. I also say that Uche should leave Uncle Sam to do his own thing. She firmly informs me that this will not be possible. I get upset.
He says that Lela needs to be taught a lesson and that he’s going to arrange for her to also be kidnapped — and I can tell that he means it.
Boss Man takes over. He lavishes insults on her, calling her an “Ogoni witch” (Ogoni is the name of the tribe I belong to) who wants me dead, so she can purloin my inheritance. Then he cuts her off.
Back in the hut, Boss Man concludes that since Uncle Sam was willing to play ball until my sister arrived in Nigeria, it must be she who has changed the goalposts. He says that Lela needs to be taught a lesson and that he’s going to arrange for her to also be kidnapped — and I can tell that he means it. Selfishly, I like the idea of my sister joining me, so I’ll have company. But I do the right thing and beg Boss Man to spare her.
Mammu helpfully points out that it will be too risky to attempt to abduct my sister because our family compound in Port Harcourt will undoubtedly have been encircled by a police cordon since I was taken.
Boss Man abandons the Lela kidnap idea, but decides that he’s had enough of the “crap” my folks are dishing out and instructs Nwanne to help him hog-tie me.
Nwanne suddenly mutates into a barbarous sadist and enthusiastically digs out some lengths of rope from a sports bag. My wrists and ankles are tightly bound together. I am blindfolded and gagged with pieces of cloth. Then I’m tied to a metal pole, which they suspend across the ceiling beams, and hoisted up like a slaughtered animal on its way to the meat market.
I hang there, stripped of all human dignity, my back facing the floor. Boss Man punches me while I’m suspended and I can hardly breathe, never mind bawl, because the gag covers my mouth and my nostrils. But, thankfully, it’s made of light fabric, so some oxygen gets through.
Days 7 and 8
They finally cut me loose after about 30 minutes, but I wake the next morning to find ligature bruises on my ankles and wrists. I didn’t know it then, but those injuries would take six months to heal.
Uche is hopelessly ineffective, if you ask me. He starts off with a paltry ransom offer of N2m ($10,000) that is a very far cry from Uncle Sam’s $250,000, but promises to keep contacting my friends and relatives to urge them to add to my freedom fund.
I visualise my darling son, Oliver, trying to cope with various challenges on his own when I’m dead.
Whenever Boss Man calls Uche for an update, Uche announces a pathetically small increment that isn’t worth mentioning. I give Uche a piece of my mind when Boss Man allows me to talk to him. My sister also gets a tongue-lashing. I wonder why these a******** are playing with my life. Boss Man says that he hopes, for my sake, that someone bails me out soon because he is losing patience. I visualise my darling son, Oliver, trying to cope with various challenges on his own when I’m dead.
Days 9 and 10
Boss Man takes off to the mainland very early with his favourite sidekicks for a couple of days, so they can spend time with their families and visit the Port Harcourt brothels to which they all seem to be addicted. The atmosphere drastically improves as soon as he departs.
The remaining Boys sleep a lot. When they are awake, they demand juicy gossip about VIPs — whether x minister was really sleeping with y president and whether this senator or that governor really snorts cocaine or owns 50 houses.
At sporadic intervals, we hear helicopter and speedboat engines humming above and near our little creek fortress.
They tell me the names of “Big Men” who not only paid them to assist with rigging the 2015 presidential election, but have also shared the proceeds of pipeline vandalisation and oil theft with them and others.Allah asks me whether I will identify them if they are ever arrested. I say that I will only identify Boss Man and Nwanne because they’ve been mean to me. Parago says that he would like to leave the gang and be my driver and security guard when I’m released. I tell him that I will gladly employ him — and I mean it, I think.
At sporadic intervals, we hear helicopter and speedboat engines humming above and near our little creek fortress. The Boys cock their guns and wait, grimly. They tell me that they can never die in any skirmish because they are protected by the spirits of their ancestors and by Egbesu, the Ijaw god of warfare, a pagan deity to whom they pour libations every day.
Sometimes, they sing gung-ho rebel anthems. I’m becoming “institutionalised”, beginning to feel at home and no longer horrified by the possibility that I’ll be stuck here for months.
Boss Man returns with fruit, vegetables, fish, raw beef and chicken, several cartons of water and more booze and cigarettes. He is accompanied by Mammu, Nwanne, Togo Boy and — Lord save me — Kenneh, the rapist.
Kenneh — shiny bald head, slim, light-skinned, of average height and about 30 years old — immediately calls me a prostitute and says that he is going to sleep with me as soon as he has settled down.
He and Boss Man go outside. When they return, Boss Man tells me that he has just spoken to Uche, who is still only offering N3m. I wearily apologise. But Boss Man and Kenneh are not interested in my apology and a bestial four-handed pummelling ensues. Most of their blows land on my head and I notice a persistent ringing noise in my right ear and a loss of hearing when they finally stop.
Kenneh is even more wedded to drugs and alcohol than Boss Man; and, having rambled on disjointedly all afternoon about the rapes that he has particularly enjoyed, he suddenly wilts and crashes out in the middle of the mattress, completely spaced out.
A few minutes later, Boss Man, drunk as a skunk, also nods off. When the other Boys are ready to sleep, Mammu, who is too large to fit onto the mattress, tells the emaciated Togo Boy to lie next to Kenneh, so he can act as a buffer between me and Kenneh, in case Kenneh wakes up in the middle of the night.
Kenneh keeps assuring me that he will “collect sex” from me “many, many times, starting today”. Meanwhile, Boss Man’s patience is running out. He says we should call Uche together, to give him a final deadline to come up with “real money”.
With Kenneh’s depraved threats in mind, I say that we’re more likely to get real money speedily if I tell Uche that I’m being raped as well as thrashed.
I’m very surprised when Kenneh bridles and says that I should not “disgrace us” and “spoil our name” by mentioning rape to Uche. At this point, I realise that Kenneh is — where I am concerned at least — all mouth and no trousers. I am quietly jubilant and wonder why he has decided to spare me an encounter with his penis, which I’m pretty sure is small and syphilitic.
Uche is also jubilant when we get through to him because he has been able to hike up my freedom fund by N1m in 24 hours. Boss Man and I are resolutely unimpressed by this latest offer and can’t understand why Uche is so pleased with himself.
Boss Man is reaching the end of his tether. Shortly after we finish with Uche, someone calls Boss Man to say that two of his Boys on the mainland have been nabbed by the police. Everyone is totally spooked by this news. They anxiously talk among themselves.
Boss Man announces that they have three choices: butcher me to teach my parsimonious people a lesson, so they don’t dare offer him chickenfeed the next time he kidnaps one of them; pick up the N4m today or tomorrow, but regard it as a mere “deposit” and keep me until my people offer a lot more cash; or regard the N4m as sufficient and let me go because, frankly, I’m turning out to be “a bad omen”.
Mammu and Engineer urge Boss Man to go for option 3. Allah, Nwanne, Ahua, Parago and Togo Boy urge him to go for option 2. Kenneh says that he sees no reason why they shouldn’t go for option 1.
We hear on the radio that President Buhari’s deputy, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, has just revealed his assets and is worth a few hundred thousand dollars and several million naira.
“Bloody thief!” Engineer exclaims. I protest: “He was a successful lawyer before he went into government.” Engineer says that nobody gets that rich by being straight and the rest agree with him. I lecture them about the benefits that educated professionals and bona fide business folks can gain — legally. Boss Man whips out his pistol and presses it against the side of my head. The gun metal is cold and hard. I assume that he has decided to take Kenneh’s advice. Don’t ask me why, but I don’t react. I just calmly wait for him to pull the trigger.
“Woman, you no fear for your life?” he asks. I remember a Dylan Thomas poem from school about raging against the dying of the light and I angrily tell Boss Man that his “little” pistol doesn’t scare me because I am a journalist who has been to war zones and seen superior weapons.
“Where?” he asks, reluctantly intrigued by my sangfroid.
“Israel, Ethiopia, Iraq.” Actually, I’ve never set foot in Iraq, but I felt like over-egging my CV.
“So you met soldiers in those countries?”
“Yes, real soldiers, not ordinary Naija [Nigerian] kidnappers!”
Boss Man withdraws his pistol, addresses me as “Madame General!”, saluting and smiling admiringly, and tells me that I will go home today.
He is true to his word. Later that day, once Boss Man had been informed by his representatives on the mainland that the agreed ransom had been paid (Uche eventually raised N4.5m and a family friend organised the cash delivery), we all leave the hut and get in the boat as darkness falls.
I am given a militant Mend flag as a souvenir, taken to a lagoon near Port Harcourt and dumped in a passing crab fisherman’s canoe. He is commandeered at gunpoint and told to take me to Borokiri, a waterside settlement from which I can get a taxi to my home.
Uche eventually raised N4.5m and a family friend organised the cash delivery
When we get to Borokiri waterside in pitch darkness, I am startled. Such poverty, ugliness and human misery. Women for sale, plying their wares. Men who look like psychopaths. Grossly underweight children hungrily roaming around. A Dickensian hive of criminal activity and horrendously deprived existences. Some of the Boys had told me that they’d grown up here and I concluded that God wanted me to personally experience this Hades on earth, so I would better understand where they were coming from.
I get home in a rickety taxi around midnight, caked in mud, wearing khaki shorts that Allah had given me because the leggings in which I’d been abducted had been laundered and weren’t dry when Boss Man decided to release me.
The Mend flag is wrapped around me like a sarong. I can barely stand. Two maids lead me to my bathroom and help me wash. I call Uche and stay up all night with my sister and mother, smoking and drinking brandy. They tell me their side of the story.
Lela says that Shell — the oil company for which our late father had once worked — and British government officials have been extremely helpful, but that Nigerian security personnel, though well intentioned, inspired so little confidence that she and Uche had withheld information from them towards the end, to guarantee my safety.
I am dragged to the Shell clinic for a physical and psychiatric evaluation. I feel OK, although it turns out that Kenneh and Boss Man had ruptured my eardrum.
Shell’s security chief, who provided Lela and Uche with professional advice, tells me that nearly 200 Shell staff have previously been abducted and I discover that the whole thing about Uche offering Boss Man chickenfeed was a tried-and-tested strategy.
Apparently, if you wear kidnappers down with small offers and make it clear that they aren’t likely to make millions, they will eventually succumb and take whatever they can get, nine times out of ten.
I also discover how lucky I have been, in the sense that the psychos in the gang that kidnapped me were in a minority. The Shell security chief tells me about three people abducted some time ago by a gang that was dominated by psychos. Two were killed early; the third was forced to sleep between the two corpses for a fortnight and is still suffering from olefactory hallucinations.
Uncle Sam flies in from Lagos to see me the day after I am released and explains how he was railroaded into withdrawing his ransom offer. He had been told that if he paid $250,000 for me, all of his columnists and editors would be kidnapped, one by one.
People start to tell me that my response to the trauma is downright unnatural and that I am suffering from Stockholm syndrome, because I keep telling all and sundry that I liked seven out of my nine kidnappers and could understand why they had become criminals.
People start to tell me that my response to the trauma is downright unnatural and that I am suffering from Stockholm syndrome
A little more than a year on and I have a more complicated attitude towards the kidnappers because they’ve caused so much devastation. My mother is suffering from “stress-induced pseudo dementia”, according to an eminent psychiatrist to whom Lela and I sent her when we noticed she was becoming mentally impaired. When I call nowadays, she often doesn’t know who I am; and when she does recognise my voice, all she can talk about is seeing the back of my head receding as I was driven away in the kidnappers’ jeep.
My son, meanwhile, was so discombobulated by the prospect of losing his mum that he took several months to recover emotionally, and has found it very hard to concentrate on his studies.
A little more than a year on and I have a more complicated attitude towards the kidnappers because they’ve caused so much devastation.
As for me, shortly after I was released, I fled from Port Harcourt, leaving behind a fairly successful career and my main income sources, because some folks have been kidnapped more than once and I wasn’t willing to risk another trauma. I’m based in London now, but, trust me, trying to rebuild your career and survive financially here in your mid-fifties is not a piece of cake!
Some highly placed people have told me that all of my abductors were caught and summarily executed at the end of last year, but I’ve not had the courage to find out whether this rumour is true. I abhor capital punishment and do not think that Engineer, Mammu, Allah, Ahua, Parago, Togo Boy and Nwanne would have been thugs if Nigeria had been fairer to them.
If they are really dead, may they rest in peace.
When I tell my Nigerian friends that even Boss Man and Kenneh should, in my opinion, be in jail, not 6ft under, they look at me pityingly and tell me to forget about those Boys.
Donu Kogbara’s life before the kidnap
Kogbara is an experienced journalist whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times for the past two decades. Before the kidnap, she divided her time between London, Abuja and Port Harcourt, the capital of the Niger Delta region. Her links with the UK stem from her father’s turbulent political career: in the 1960s he served in London as an ambassador for the rebel Nigerian state of Biafra and was exiled here after Nigeria’s government reasserted control. After school and the University of Leicester, she began her career in journalism, working for this publication as well as for the BBC and the Economist Intelligence Unit. She later moved to Nigeria, where she worked for the government at intervals. She still writes a weekly column for Vanguard, the Nigerian newspaper.
Kogbara is an experienced journalist whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times for the past two decades.
The Niger Delta struggle
One of the world’s most oil-rich regions, the Niger Delta has been overrun by “petro-insurgencies” since the 1990s, when paramilitary forces first attempted to seize control of foreign-owned oil fields. The area, which at 70,000 sq km is more than three times the size of Wales, has become a global capital of terrorism and violent crime, including kidnap and oil theft.
Fuelling the conflict is the extreme gap between the area’s wealth in resources and the poverty of its citizens. Military groups, such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) and the Niger Delta Avengers, say that attacking oil fields, pipelines and kidnapping both foreign workers and fellow Nigerians helps to redirect petrodollars away from companies such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell and towards the region’s 35m inhabitants.
In Rivers State (where Kogbara was taken from her home in Port Harcourt), the situation has improved over the past 18 months, thanks to initiatives including tougher laws and increased security patrols. An amnesty programme introduced by Nyesom Wike, the current governor, to help repentant kidnappers make a break with their criminal past has reduced the number of abductions.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in The Sunday Times of 13 November 2016