October 24th 2018 will count as one of memorable days for Jose Temitayo, Abiola Temitope Ruth, Adekami Olubisi, Shonibare Ademola and Folarain Marian Opeyemi. Songs of praises would remain on their lips for ages and be their stake in giving thanksgiving to God for escaping possible death and long stay in kidnappers’ dungeon after they were abducted on the ever busy Owerri- Porthacourt road, at the notorious Nkarahia Junction areas of the Ohaji/Egbema LGA of Imo State.

They victims are prospective National Youth Corps Service, NYSC Members, deployed to serve in the South South States of Rivers and Akwa Ibom. Oblivious of what lied ahead for them before the journey will be completed, the team boarded a commercial vehicle from the ancient city of Ibadan enroute PH, through Ijebu Ode-Ore-Benin-Asaba-Owerri roads before men of the underworld struck and decided to take them into captivity.

According to a police report of the Imo State Command who succeeded in apprehending some of the suspects after a painstakingly search for the kidnapped victims.

“On 28/10/2018, operatives of Anti kidnapping Unit of the Command following a tip off arrested suspects at Nkaragha junction who kidnapped six National Youth Service Corps members. The Youth Corps members along with other passengers were travelling from Ibadan, Oyo State to their respective Orientation Camps in Port Harcourt, Rivers State and Uyo in Akwa Ibom State respectively. On 24/10/2018, when the hoodlums waylaid, robbed them of their assorted handsets and other personal belongings and took the Youth Corps members into the nearly forest and open up negotiation for ransom of five million naira (N5m)”.

According to the State Police Command Commissioner, Ibrahim Galadinchi “on receipt of the information, operatives of the Anti kidnapping unit in synergy with police operatives attached to Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) of the command swung into action combed the Nkarahia forest and rescued the youth corps members unhurt and some of their properties recovered”

Furthermore, the police stated that “suspect have made useful statements to the crime and other kidnap/armed robbery incidents bedeviling Avu/Umuapu/ Port Harcourt road and the robbery/murder of one late Augustine Ejimebu “m”age,69yrs of Umuchidike Apan in Ikwerre LGA of River State, a neighboring community to Imo State”

Before now, a Porthacourt based businessman had visited a part of Ohaji/Egbema LGA for a social event one weekend and on his way back, got kidnapped on the same spot the corp members met a misfortune on the road, after gun men waylaid the car he was travelling with. The man and his driver were unlucky as they died in the process despite the huge sum paid for their release. It took the unorthodox methods of the kinsmen to one of the deceased victims to unravel that it was within the deadly spot at Nkarahia junction that the vehicle in which the victims travelled was hijacked, taken into the bush, kept in solitary conferment and tortured before they died. The police also briefed the press on the command’s discovery.

What of the case of a 14-seater passenger bus that left Owerri one Sunday afternoon enroute the state Rivers State capital? After navigating through Umuagwo, and reaching one of the bad spots on the way to Umuapu, a boundary town between Imo and Rivers state, guns shots from unknown marauders boomed from the bush forcing the vehicle to a halt, before they rushed out, seized the vehicle and took passengers hostage. The vehicle and occupants were guided into the bush under gun point. Ransome was demanded for those they didn’t let go. Such stories are common and easily rendered by road users who ply the route. In one particular incident, this writer was a victim and at the verge of saying his last prayer before divine intervention came to his rescue and that of other motorists already trapped waiting to be carted away. While on a driving seat, the rear lights of the cars ahead blinked signaling retreat. With the benefit of hindsight, the writer noticed U-turn of vehicles with shouts indicating that robbers were robbing ahead. Alas, before the cars could end the turns, staccato of gun shots caused deafening sounds behind. There was a cut off and victims trapped. It took the intervention of plain cloth security operatives in an unmarked vehicle guarding an expatriate, to wriggle out those already trapped in the circled enclave of the criminals. Exchange of gun shots and the superior fire power of the plain cloth operatives, including soldiers, forced the invading hoodlums to flee, leaving this writer and others breathe air of freedom. What the victims, especially the female ones, go through is not what should be recounted here as one confessed after release that she won’t wish her worst enemy such experience. The list of kidnap cases on the Umuagwo-Umuapu end of the Owerri Road is endless even as many road users plying the route have become victims of armed robbery. It is common to hear stories of robbery attacks and in some cases vehicles making u-turn while in progress to avoid the menacing overtures of the robbers while operations are on during the day.

I am aware that the crime diary of the Ohaji Police Division, in charge of the area cannot function a day without records of ugly incidents at the area that are related to armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. The State command confirms this development as major press briefings on breakthrough in crime bursting remain incomplete without any reported incident from the area.

Account from the surrounding communities of Umuagwo, Umuapu, Mgbuisi, in Ohaji/Egbema and Apani in Ikwerre LGA of Rivers State reveal that the thick forest near the road has become den of kidnappers and cover up for armed robbers who terrorize road users. Call it the Sambisa forest of the oil producing areas of Imo State. Scores of decomposed dead bodies, and abandoned item of kidnapped and robbed victims found in the forest are testimonies of the local.

If the five corp members and other victims live to only witnessed nightmarish experience within the forest location, what of two policemen on duty who got killed recently by armed bandits on the same Owerri – PH road by the Nkarahia junction. While on a stop and search duty, the late policemen  of the Ohaji Divisional Police, Umuagwo, fell to ambush of gun shots attacks from the bandits who emerged from nowhere to attack and kill them. After the successful raid on the policemen, they criminals made away with the dead victims official police rifles.

As the Yuletide is fast approaching, the tempo of the attacks is expected to increase. A history of incidents in the area indicates that raids and attacks by armed bandits increase during Christmas and other festive periods when traffic is high. Ironically, there are not less than five police checkpoints on the road that is not more than four kilometers between Umuagwo and Umuapu towns. Despite the presence of the policemen, the robbery and kidnapping incidents persist.

Privileged information has it that the armed bandits strike either when the policemen on checkpoint quit their points for change of guards or attacks occur in a jiffy in between two checkpoints.

It was learnt that the moment any of the police team withdraws from the checkpoint positions for either break, change of guards or refreshment, the bandits in some cases armed with fake police or army uniforms emerge from the bushes to mount their own illegal checkpoints. Any approaching vehicle may be deceived to believe it is the normal checkpoint and stops for routine police checks. Next would be the surprise attacks. In some cases, total absence of visible police checkpoints attracts the marauding armed men to strike at any point, hour and time and get away easily.

Men of the Nigeria Police, Security agencies and the Imo State Government are advised to wake up and take proactive measures to combat the criminals making life difficult than wait for counter reactions.  If not adhered to, the few weeks ahead may be hell for vehicle operators on the road.

Police authorities are advised to maintain regular 24 hours security patrol on the road spanning from Umuagwo to Umuapu extending to the boundary with Rivers State. At each of the stationed stop and search locations, an identifiable insignia depicting police presence, like police vehicle, is necessary to identify authentic police checkpoints even as the men on duty should place little emphasis on picking crumbs from the motorists, otherwise called Egunje, to monitor closely surprise attacks from the criminals. It has been observed that while devoting more attention to collection of tips from vehicle owners on the route, the main aspect of security of lives of road users is relegated, thereby creating a room for the bandits to successfully strike and succeed.

The state government in conjunction with the security agencies may set up a Special Task Force to combat the high rate of incidents. The rate of kidnapping on the route and associated robbery attacks has become an embarrassment to the state government. The national and international attention the kidnap of the corp members gained is a heavy minus to crime-free claims of the state government about the state fondly called the Eastern Heartland. While the state police command shall be acknowledged for coming to the rescue of some of the trapped victims in few isolated cases, it won’t be a bad idea to form a special task force team comprising Police, the DSS, Civil Defence  and military for a thorough check of crime on the route.

More so, a stationed mobile police unit in the area for now will be a welcomed development. The availability of unoccupied blocks of flats at a Federal Housing Estate, Umuagwo, built by the Ministry of Niger Delta, can assist to provide accommodation to a stationed Mobile Unit which shall ensure the provision of required number of police operatives for maintenance of security to road users in the area. On a last note, relevant government agencies in charge of maintenance of the road are expected to fix the bad spots that keep the vehicles either in slow or stationary motion. Discoveries show that in most cases, the bandits strike when the vehicles are stuck at the dilapidated spots. The State government can do remedial jobs for easy movement while beckoning on the federal government on the outright completion of the Owerri-Elele Highway. The contract for the job halted in 2015 since Arab contractors, the handlers stopped the dual carriage way at the Ohaji police command station, Umuagwo. A stitch in time saves nine.