How we spent days in forest with Fulani kidnappers, trekked from Imo to Abia – Okonkwo

A Lagos-based lawyer Okonkwo Okwudili, recently kidnapped by Fulani herdsmen around Okigwe in Imo state on April 10, believes his family’s release by kidnappers was through divine intervention.

The Lagos-based lawyer was kidnapped alongside four members of his family (his wife, son, and two other relatives), while they were returning home to Anambra from a wedding ceremony in Abia state.

In an interview with PT, Okwudili, narrated his ordeal in the hands of the kidnappers and how they were released after paying ransom totalling N11.3 million — N1 million by the Okonkwos and N10.3 million by other victims.

PT: How did it happen?

Okwudili: We actually travelled on Thursday last week to my hometown Nnobi in Idemili local government in Anambra state. We left Lagos and arrived safely. Then, on Friday, I had lost an aunt, my father’s only sister, and the burial was on Friday night. Then, my brother-in-law — my wife’s eldest brother – was giving out his daughter in marriage. So we were at Umudike near Umuahia, Abia State capital.

We went there for the wedding in a Deeper Life Bible Church. After the wedding and the reception, we were returning back to my hometown, Nnobi. At about 5:30 p.m., somewhere between Okigwe junction, in-between Okigwe junction and a town called Umulolo, the road is not wonderful, so we slowed down and a younger brother of my wife was driving a Toyota Camry, Pastor Okechukwu Ugwu, while a Lexus Jeep was by our side. We turned back and saw a man shooting from behind with AK-47 and we looked forward and saw another one shooting from the front.

So, seeing like two men shooting from the front and some other ones with machetes and cutlasses rushing out of the forest from the left and right, we felt it was safer to return back to the back side. As we did a U-turn with the Corolla owner also, more of them came out of the forest with guns and all.

We went between the firing and in order to be safe, we had to stop – out of fear. But the Lexus Jeep continued in the front and never stopped and of course, was not kidnapped.

They rushed to us, broke the windscreen, and took us into the forest. We were about five that were taken into that forest and this was Imo State axis. We were there till about 9:30 p.m. They now told us that they were kidnappers and they were interested in money. They said my price was N30 million since I had my wife and my first son. My brother-in-law, N15 million, and my nephew who apparently, being a young man that just finished school, was placed N10 million. And the man driving the Corolla, they placed N10 million on him.

At about 10 p.m. or thereabouts, after they had taken all our handsets and the money on me – about N88,000 cash. The other man had N64, 000 and my brother-in-law had some money. They took all that.

They made sure we couldn’t make calls or receive calls. They now came to me and told me they have decided to release my wife and son (that was between 9:30 and 10 p.m.) so that they will go home and arrange how they will raise the N30 million for my release. I was glad that they were releasing at least two members of the family, remaining myself, my brother-inlaw, and my wife’s cousin.

They took like two hours. We were trekking. Because if you are left in that forest you won’t find your way out. So they took them (wife and son) to the road, gave them N6,000, and told them the direction to walk. So, the direction led them back to that Okigwe junction.

After my wife’s departure, they walked us down the thick forest and kept us in a place we slept from about 12 to 2 a.m. They said by 2 a.m. they would wake us up which they did. There was a lot of physical torture – hitting with knife, with stick and all that. They brought my phone in the forest. It was only my Glo line they were using because the network was good there. We slept on the floor.

On Sunday morning, they came back to repeat the fact that we will pay what they demanded. We were begging for a lesser amount. This time, I offered N200,000, they beat me. I doubled it to N400,000, they refused. N500,000, they refused. Then, the other man who owns the Corolla begged them and told them he was the only son, offered N300,000. They said they will relate back to their Oga. When they torture someone they become very fierce. My brother-in-law later begged that they should take one million on behalf of the three members of the family.

PT: How many were these kidnappers?

Okwudili: Seven of them with AK-47. They were high on drugs and you know that you dare not play with such people. Apparently, they have the least of education. Even our handsets, when they asked us to open it, we thought they were checking our bank alerts… We had that fear that if they see the alerts, the ransom will be on the high side. They could not decode.

PT: You said they were torturing you…?

Okwudili: Yes, they were. They will come hit you, you will be begging them “Please, please, let me increase it.” When you increase it by N50, 000 or N100,000 they will say “let’s go and tell our Oga (boss).’ When I reached N500, 000 I told them I couldn’t go beyond that. They said they were good to me by releasing my wife and that they did not rape her. They said I was not being cooperative.

PT: What was the language of communication

Okwudili: The kidnappers were speaking in pidgin. They could not speak fluent English. But among the seven of them, they speak Hausa. Then, they make sure that when you are calling someone and you speak Igbo or any language they don’t understand, that will be a serious torture. They made sure we didn’t tell our people what will make them make the negotiation lower. Even if it is an English word that they don’t understand, they will beat you and say “ speak am for pidgin make we understand.”

PT: Did they say anything about the police?

Okwudili: The only time they spoke about the police was when they eventually accepted N1 million from us, then N300, 000 from the other man. Then, on Sunday night, they arrested another Igbo man, Chief Ezeji, who had (a younger or elder brother), Rev Stanley Ezeji, a Roman Catholic cleric. So, they arrested him on Sunday night and the rain was so heavy that night. We were all in the forest. When they arrested and tortured him, then they told him his ransom was N60 million. After a while, they told him they have reduced it to N50 million.

On Monday morning, they agreed to our N1 million and the Ezeji offered N150,000. On hearing our own, he increased it to N300,000. They judged by his dress and outlook, saying that he was richer. So, they began to torture him. When they were torturing him, they asked him to call someone. When he called his brother with my phone, they were beating him, the brother was hearing his cry. So, Stanley now begged them not to torture his brother. He said he was ready to give them N10 million. Hearing that N10 million, they said they have accepted our own and his own. When they had secured all these, they told us to call our brothers to bring the money to ITC (Imo Transport Company) park in Imo State. They said we should phone our brothers back and tell them not to contact the police or any security agency. They said if they do, they will kill us. They said that they know that any day the police arrest them, they will die. So, they are ready.

PT: Were they feeding you people?

Okwudili: No water, no food to eat. On Sunday night after the torture, when my brother-in-law was fainting, they cooked rice with oil and onions. They cooked it with firewood In the forest themselves and brought to us. We could not eat it. So, once you put the rice in your mouth, you swallow it. You don’t chew it because of the stone. We requested water. After a while, they went to the stream to fetch water. It was so dirty but we did not have any option because we were totally dehydrated.

PT: After getting the money to ITC, what happened?

Okwudili: You know, they will always switch off our phones. When they want us to call, they will put it on and give me to unlock. Around 5 p.m., my brother and brother to the other man who was allowed to pay N300, 000 (Corolla owner) had arrived. So, they told two of them to meet. My brother-in-law was trusted because he had five members there. So, the other man handed the N300, 000 to my brother-in-law who was told to give the N1.3 million to the reverend father at Ihube junction.

Once they make a call, they move us out to another location to prevent tracking. It was difficult walking in the forest. They told the reverend father to confirm the money was complete. They told my brother in-law to leave and return home.

They told the reverend father to drop the money in a bag at Leru junction. That junction is on the border of Abia and Imo states. After 45 minutes, around 8 p.m. on Monday, they told him to wait at the junction, so their men who were close confirmed that the man was there with the money. He was told to drop the money in a super bag and go back to his car. That was how the reverend father dropped the money.

When they got the money, that was the first time I heard their phone ringing. Instead of calling my phone, they called their phone. They spoke in Hausa. Obviously, they were telling them they have gotten the money.

So, the ones holding us hostage (you know there were seven) left for the money issue while three held us on the ground. They said get up. Our eyes were covered even in the night. They removed the cover and said we should follow them. One in the back and another at the front. They were always conscious. We began to trek out of the forest. We got close to the road. This will be like around 10 or past 10 p.m. They gave us the direction to where the reverend father was. Where they dropped us was Isu in Abia State. They took us to Abia State after collecting the money.

PT: What was the reaction of the security agencies to this?

Okwudili: By the time we saw the reverend father, it was like past 11 p,m. to 12 a.m. on Tuesday. It was too late going to the police. We were dehydrated. We were hungry… All we needed was to get hot water to bath and rest. So we all checked into a hotel. On Tuesday, we went to Okigwe Area command of the police and reported. We were shocked that the police said this is an “every week” occurrence. That they keep doing the same on that same axis.

They could not find the two cars – the Camry belonging to my brother-in-law and the Corolla . None was there. They drove around different places in Okigwe axis but could not find the cars up till date. We want to believe that the cars have been moved out of that area long before the police search. My wifes’ phone, my son’s phone, and some of our properties are in that car.

PT: Did the kidnappers release your phones?

Okwudili: They went with my phone. They did not return it. When we were pleading that they had promised that they would return my phone. So, they said it was with the ones that went to collect the money and that we cannot wait for them because our lives are in danger. That we should just forget the phone and go. So, I left my phone and Samsung tablet with them.

PT: Asides from the valuables carted away, what about the psychological effect of the incident?

Okwudili: The traumatic experience is more than what you lose physically. I had to travel back to Lagos yesterday. Even on the road, when you see these Fulani herdsmen with ordinary stick, that fear wlll come. My wife was also afraid.

PT: Having had a firsthand experience, what do you think is the solution to this menace?

Okwudili: Like I challenged the police, I said, these seven young men, probably in their thirties, cannot overrun a police station if police actally determines and puts a regular patrol van on the axis. If the police can say they kidnap on that road week after week, so, why couldn’t the police have a patrol van that will work on shift?

While one shift has worked 5,6,8 hours, another will come. From what we saw in the forest, they are so much afraid of the police. They don’t put on torch. They don’t allow us talk. Once we make a phone call, they will move us away from there. So, if the police, maybe with the army, can enter that forest… How can these people from the North know the forest more than indigenes and the police and army located in that area?

If the security operatives can comb that forest, they (kidnappers) won’t return there.

This interview was first published by PT

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