It all started like a tale at moonlight, as it was never heard in the South-East that people could be abducted and money demanded before their release. Indeed, before now, kidnapping was only a Niger Delta thing. But with Niger Delta militants using everything to amplify their cause, the idea of taking people hostage and demanding ransom crept into the South-East and suddenly became a lucrative venture.

Today, there is hardly any day that passes without any case of kidnapping in any of the five states of the South-East. At the last count, no fewer than 250 people have been kidnapped in Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu states. Also, millions of naira have been paid as ransom to kidnappers. Incidentally, many of them were not reported to the police.

In this report, Saturday Sun looks at the states, one after another. The revelation as fearful as it is worrisome.

Anambra State
In the last one year, Anambra State has witnessed several incidents of kidnapping, among other criminal activities that have made people living in the state to have their hearts in their mouth.

Indeed, in the last few months, kidnapping in the state has assumed a dangerous dimension, leading to so many rich men fleeing the state for fear of being abducted in this venture that has become a daily occurrence, making a mince-meat of the efforts of the state police command, which woke up from its slumber recently with the coming of the new Commissioner of Police, Mr. Amusa Bello.

At the last count, about 80 cases of kidnap have been recorded in Anambra State in the last one year, with only about five people regaining their freedom without paying ransom, having been rescued by the police. However, in some of the cases, in the past, the police allegedly negotiated for ransom on behalf of the victims' families.

Brains behind the kidnap
It has been difficult to ascertain those behind the kidnapping going on in Anambra State. However, from all indications and testimonies of one or two kidnappers caught, the perpetrators seem to have gone into the 'illicit trade' on their own volition.

Most of the kidnappers seem to be young men, who are jobless and with no other means of livelihood, and who saw kidnapping as the easiest way of making big money without necessarily shedding blood; hence, some of them are in gangs, while others go solo.

Their operational base
The operational base of the kidnappers in the state has not been known or officially revealed, but some hideouts where they keep their victims have been uncovered.

Some of the popular hideouts include Ogbunike, Nsugbe, Ayamelum, a forest between Nawfia and Enugwu-Ukwu, Abakaliki and Nibo, which was last Monday night smashed by the police led by the commissioner, Mr. Bello.

Some major victims
Some of the notable personalities who were victims of the kidnappers in the last one year include the mother of Chief Charles Ezeudogu (Onwa Ichida) a.k.a. Charley Billion. She was abducted from her country home at Ichida and the kidnappers demanded N50 million from the son. Mrs. Ezeudogu was few weeks later dropped at a bush near University of Nnamdi Azikiwe (UNIZIK) permanent site, Awka, after the family had paid an undisclosed sum of money as ransom.

Also, within the period under review, the traditional ruler of Abagana, Igwe Mbamalu Okeke, was abducted alongside one of his red cap chiefs and son. They were taken to Achalla, in Awka North, but were rescued by the police following intelligence report.

Another celebrated one was that of Mr. Michael Aguowo and his Liberian wife, who were abducted by a gang of 20 gunmen the night after their wedding at Nibo in Awka South.

The kidnappers, who made away with their Hummer Jeep, also demanded N100 million ransoms, but had to release them two days later after alleged payment of N15 million ransom.

On November 16, 2008, the member representing Anaocha I Constituency, Hon. Dr. Joseph Dimobi, was abducted at his Aguluzigbo country home by a gang of kidnappers, who demanded N30 million ransom. After some days of negotiations, a ransom of N5 million was reported to have been paid before he was allowed to go for his father's burial.

Dimobi's case was, however, attributed to a breach of agreement between him and some persons by the state government.

The kidnappers on November 3, 2008 abducted the state Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr Tochukwu Mbachu, at his hospital, Beluchukwu Hospital, Enugwu-Ukwu. The kidnappers forced him into the car of a former Commissioner of Information, Chief Charles Amilo, who had just brought his mother for check-up at the hospital. He was released some days later after a negotiation was reached.

Last month, kidnappers launched a fresh onslaught on two communities, Ogbunike and Neni, where they kidnapped the state President of the Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade, Dr Goddy Ibekwe and the Chief Executive of Tonimas Petroleum Limited, Chief Anthony Enukeme. They were released after some ransoms were paid.

Just last weekend, kidnappers struck again in the state, abducting the Chairman and Chief Executive of Pokobros Group of Companies, Chief Paul Okonkwo, in a Rambo style at the UNIZIK Junction. They later demanded N130 million from the business mogul. Negotiation was still on when the police stormed the Nibo hideout where he was kept with others and released him.

The Nnewi connection
Also, reported cases of kidnapping in the Nnewi area of Anambra State showed that the hoodlums must have had their operational base in thick forests, where victims are held in custody pending when the ransom demanded was paid. In some cases, however, victims are kept at residential houses far away from where they were picked, under various guises, according to our investigation.

In the Nnewi area, the crime from Saturday Sun findings occurs for varied reasons. Some are politically motivated while others are perpetrated out of hatred or business rivalry between some individuals. Some also occur as a result of laxity, culpability and connivance of the officers and men of the Nigeria police force.

On January 28, 2007, an Nnewi-based business magnate, Chief Pius Ogbuawa, was kidnapped in front of his church and taken to an unknown place. For some days, he was in captivity until N20 million was allegedly paid as ransom before he regained his freedom.

Barely two months after Ogbuawa incident, two Chinese expatriates and a Nigerian, Mr. Unigwe, who were in the employ of Innoson Industries Nigeria Limited, were abducted. Reports said that the kidnappers had targeted the chairman of the company, Mr. Innocent Chukwuma, but missed their target, which made them to pick the two Chinese said to be his technical partners and the manager, Unigwe, at the factory site.

The kidnappers were said to have taken the victims to a hideout in Ekoli Edda, in Ebonyi State.

Saturday Sun gathered that even after allegedly paying N20 million ransom, the abductors were said to have only set one Chinese and Mr. Unigwe free, leaving the other Chinese still in captivity.

One year after the abduction of Innoson's workers, another business magnet, Mr. Uchenna Umeaneto, chairman and managing director of Ucheson Mary Nigeria Limited was kidnapped, as he was coming back from church, a situation that made many importers and industrialists in Nnewi to go into hiding.

In Ihiala area, which is close to Nnewi, three suspected kidnappers, Chukwuebuka Jonathan, Kene Emelum and Chinedu Nweke, were arraigned on a two-count charge before Chief Magistrate K.N. Nwoye at Ihiala Magistrate's Court Grade II for allegedly conspiring to kidnap a three-year-old boy, Master Chukwuemeka Desire Okeke, son of the bursar of Anambra State University, Uli, Prince Chinedu Okeke at his father's residence.

According to a police report, one Amarachukeu Okoye from Nkpor was on March 29, 2008 kidnapped by one Ejike Nnadozie and Chidi Anecemana, all resident at Ogidi, Idemili North Local Government Area.

Police said that the suspects camouflaged their handsets as pistols and threatened to shoot their victim after they had forced her into L300 Mitsubishi bus with registration number XC777BEN.

But the victim was lucky when the suspects were said to have been intercepted by Special Anti Robbery Squad operatives on anti-crime patrol along Ogidi road and she was rescued.

Men of the State Security Service (SSS) recently proved their prowess as a 23-year-old 300-level Law student of the Imo State University, Owerri, Stephen Ajarogu and his gang were allegedly caught by the SSS operatives for allegedly kidnapping four-year-old Sopuruchukwu Orji at Awada Obosi, near Onitsha.

Government and security agencies efforts in stemming the tide

Recently, the police started showing seriousness in combating kidnapping in the state, as the new Commissioner of Police had personally led operations, including the one that led to the smashing of the Nibo hideout of the kidnappers. However, there are indications that the fight against these vicious criminals has gone beyond what the state police command could contain alone. The state government, on its own, had recently put in place a number of actions to combat the menace. Though Governor Peter Obi has blamed the insurgence on politics, he has signed into law the harmonization bill for the criminal code amendment law 2009, which made kidnapping and hostage taking in the state a capital offence.

The governor, who also organized a summit on security, directed the police to, within the bounds of the law, confiscate all assets belonging to any convicted kidnapper.

Also, the state government has set up a special court for the trial of offences under this law, which would see anyone convicted of the offence facing death penalty.

Obi equally charged monarchs and town union heads to urgently organize their community vigilance groups, in line with police directives for effective combating of crimes within their communities. He warned that henceforth, government would hold them responsible for any crime committed in their communities, especially kidnappings.

Pledging government's resolve to continue to cooperate with legitimate security agencies, Obi announced that his government had taken delivery of Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and would make two available to both the police and the army. He also promised to, in the next one month, provide other equipment requested by security agencies, including the SSS to help them nip kidnapping cases in the bud.

After last weekend attack by the kidnappers, Governor Obi has said, among other things: 'To address this ugly situation, government has set up a special task force on security with members of the body drawn from the army, the police and the State Security Service (SSS).

Expectedly, security has been beefed up generally in the state and in particular around banks and other sensitivities places. I have also contacted the Inspector-General of Police on the matter, and he has promised to reinforce the police strength in the state. A reward of two million naira awaits anyone who volunteers any useful information that will enhance on security in the government.'

In Abia State, kidnapping may have started in the early 2008. It started with pockets of incidents around Aba area, including the abduction of the young daughter of a consultant with the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, Aba; senior staff of the Root Crop Research Institute, Umudike; a member of the House of Assembly representing Isiukwuato Local Government and one rescued victim, a daughter of a legislature representing Aba Central.

At present, it has moved into disturbing frequency, with no fewer then73 incidents.

At a point, kidnapping in the state was given political as well as clannish colouration, to the point that traditional rulers from the old Bende Division visited their counterparts from the old Aba Division, threatening to launch a reprisal attack if any of their people were kidnapped again, especially as most of the incidents happened within the Aba zone. It was the threat that led to strained nerves, as the recipients viewed it as provoking and insulting, as they too had suffered casualties in the hands of kidnappers.

Reports of kidnap victims and the kidnappers indicate that there are three categories of criminals involved in kidnapping.

These include ambitious young people, mainly students and school drop-outs who think they have the guts to kidnap children of wealthy persons, extort money from them and have a good outing. They do not operate with sophisticated weapons, but rather with locally made pistols or even short double barrel guns. For instance, those who kidnapped the child of the Abia State legislator were said to be the students of Abia State Polytechnic and the vehicle they used belonged to the mother of one of them.

Another group includes the local 419 scouts who made a living from hypnotizing their victims and taking them to their hideouts, removing any money they have on them and sending them home to bring more under spell. A few of the suspects paraded by the police had confessed that they were fraudsters and not kidnappers, even as some said they were native doctors.

However, when kidnapping became the vogue, this set of people saw it as a better and quicker means of making money and switched over to it. They are amateurs and are not well armed. The gang has a large number of members and they strike too often. The gang also accepts any amount of ransom, as it does not have the capacity to keep victims for too long.

Another category is the seasoned armed robbers, who have sophisticated weapons, including pump actions and AK 47. Some of them are already on the wanted list of the police and included Ugo C. who held sway in Isiala Ngwa, South and North, as well as Obingwa and Rivers State. Before he was killed, four of his boys had earlier been arrested for being custodians of his weapons, which the police also displayed when they were paraded.

There is also Ching Chung, who held sway in the Umuahia axis. He was said to be into armed robbery and assassination before joining kidnapping. His group is more vicious because, apart from having large weapons, it was alleged to have a network that includes okada riders who give them information on security movements.

Yet another category may be the ones the GOC, 82 Division, Major General Mohammed Issa, talked about last week when he paid a courtesy call on Governor T.A. Orji. According to him, they are dislodged Niger Delta militants, who use Abia as a 'buffer' to strike in any part of South East and return to Aba, where they melt into thin air because of the population of the commercial city. This last group is more deadly and appears to operate mainly on planned kidnapping, with high ransom, just as they carry superior fire power that the police have no answer to.

The Abia State police command, especially under Police Commissioner Edgar Nanakumo, has done much to reduce kidnapping incidence in the state, as there is hardly any week he is not either parading kidnappers or killing them or having their victims rescued.

He has, however, always lamented the porous nature of the state, which makes it easy for criminals to escape into the militant infested neighbouring states of the Niger Delta. He has also cried out against alleged cooperation between some communities and criminals from their area.

The combined efforts of the police, the Civil Defence Corps and the Abia Vigilance Services have helped much to reduce their prevalence, but as Governor Orji puts it during his chat with the GOC, the war against kidnappers has gone beyond what the police can handle alone.

Indeed Orji is uncomfortable with the situation and has, therefore, released over 50 patrol vans to the security agencies to enhance their performance. He has cause to be worried, as he was once criticized by the Nigerian Bar Association, who came to state ill-informed and, therefore, cast aspersions on his administration for doing nothing to stop kidnapping.

The Abia government, as a way of soliciting the support of the public in the fight, instituted a N1 million prize for anybody who gives information that would lead to the arrest of a kidnapper, a promise the governor has also been fulfilling.

Governor Orji also brought in anti-terrorist squad and stationed them at Obingwa and a squadron of the mobile police force at Isiala Ngwa, the areas he said, were prone to kidnapping.

In a parley with traditional rulers from the autonomous communities in the state, on the way out of the vexing issue, he told them that he had invited the military to assist, even as an APC has been assigned to the state, which will be stationed in Aba zone, where the kidnapping is more frequent. He identified Isiala Ngwa North and South, Aba North and South, Obingwa and Osisioma Local Government areas, as places kidnapping was more acute.

Besides these efforts by the governor, the state legislature has passed a bill making kidnapping to carry capital punishment, with a forfeiture of all property owned by the convict. The Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Hon Agwu U. Agwu, said recently that the legislature was considering an amendment of the bill to make it stiffer.

Also, royal fathers in the state have been placed on the hot seat, as the governor told them that any of them in whose domain somebody was kidnapped or a kidnapping dump was found would be dethroned.

It was said that between January and May this year the police in the state have arrested 31 kidnappers and killed 18 in the various rescue operations. About two weeks ago, the Chairman of Abia State Independent Electoral Commission, Professor Stephen Emejuaiwe, was double-crossed at the popular Ururuka road along the old Aba road and his security aide shot dead, while the hapless professor was taken away to where he was kept till agreement was reached for his release.

Also, last month, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, who visited his home, nearly lost his life in the hands of men suspected to be kidnappers, who accosted him at a junction while he was going out, opened fire and killed his mobile police aide.

In a recent meeting he held with the traditional rulers in his LGA, Eze Isaac Ikonne, called on the kidnappers to leave Ndieze alone, saying that his people are not as rich as they think. He decried the kidnapping of over five traditional rulers within one month and called on the government to do something about the ugly development.

In Enugu State, since the kidnap of Dr. Paul Edemobi, brother to Minister of Information, Professor Dora Akunyili, late last year, reports of kidnapping have become more rampant than ever. About 20 cases have been recorded.

At least five persons have been killed and over N250 million paid out as ransom, with Dora Akunyili's family allegedly doling out the highest sum of N30 million out of the N50 million demanded by the kidnappers.

The minister and her family would count themselves lucky as the Police in Enugu succeeded in smashing the gang that abducted Dr Edemobi. Edemobi, who is the chief executive officer of an Enugu-based non-governmental organization (NGO) – Paul and Grace Foundation – located at Savage Crescent, Government Reservation Area (GRA) was abducted on December 1, 2008 by unknown persons who demanded a ransom of N50 million for his release.

Police investigations yielded fruits on December 3, through a tip-off that the suspects were holding their victim hostage somewhere at the Ebano Tunnel, on a road leading to Zik Avenue.

Consequently, a special police squad stormed the area at about 2:30 p.m and engaged in a gun battle with the suspects. During the exchange of fire, the leader of the gang was killed while the two other suspects were arrested.

The case, which has long been charged to court, has turned out the highest kidnap saga in the state with the alleged involvement of an Enugu-based oil magnate, Chief Ignatius Nnubia, who has remained in prison custody since December last year.

The South East Regional Manager of Guaranty Trust Bank, Mr. Kingsley Osuala, who was also kidnapped on April 9, 2009, was rescued at Isuochi, Abia State, where the kidnappers held him, waiting for a N50 million ransom to be paid. The Enugu Police Command disclosed that the banker was rescued at about midnight, one week after.

The Police said that it resolved to move a contingent of armed officers to Isuochi, following a tip-off that the kidnappers were hiding there, from where they kept pressing for the N50 million ransom.

On arrival at Isuochi, the contingent reportedly cordoned off the area, where the kidnappers were hiding the victim and forced them to give up the fight. The kidnappers, three in number, a girl and two boys, it was gathered, did not attempt to fight back, as they were armed with only 'cut-to-size double barrel gun.'

There was also the reported case of kidnap of the wife of the Enugu South Local Government Chairman, Mrs. Ada Ngene. She was rescued after about four days in the hands of her abductors. At least two persons were reportedly killed in that incident.

Two suspects, including one who attempted to kidnap a little boy believed to be the son of a very wealthy man, who is currently abroad and another who participated in the kidnap were paraded by the police.

Indeed, a 25-year-old boy Justine Chukwuazi was arrested and paraded alongside three members of his group and he confessed that he planned the kidnap of his 75-year-old former boss to recover his money, after he was sacked without his one month salary worth N11, 700.

A nursing mother and staffer of First Bank, Enugu, was riding in her Toyota Camry Car when she was kidnapped. The ransom, which was not disclosed, was paid by midnight along a path way, off the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway. The husband, who was told to come alone, sent his elder brother instead, who rode with an commercial motorcycle operator and was directed until the ransom was snatched. No death was recorded but the Camry has not been recovered.

The most current was the kidnap of the coordinator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the state, Mr. Uchenna Ani, who was recently snatched from his Achara Layout residence, in the Enugu South Local Government Area. He is yet to be found.

Enugu Police Command Public Relations Officer, Mr. Ebere Amaraizu, an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), said the UNDP Programme director had driven his Land Cruiser Jeep into the compound when the armed men swooped on him. They reportedly allowed him to enter his compound before they pounced on him and whisked him away.

Amaraizu attributed the success of the police so far in handling kidnap cases in the state to the gallantry role of the state Commissioner of Police, who, he said, has been having sleepless nights. He commended his colleagues for their role in cracking some of the cases, assuring the public of police readiness to protect life and property at all times in the state.

However, if the police have recorded some successes in the Enugu metropolis, they have not been so lucky in the Nsukka area, where kidnappers appear to have relocated to. No week passes in Nsukka without reports of two or three cases of kidnap. It got so bad that the Catholic Church organized a peaceful protest calling for the removal of the Nsukka Divisional Police Officer (DPO), Mr. Ike Mba, alleging that he could have links with kidnappers.

Mba had denied the allegation and accused the church leaders of merely chasing shadow and creating a scene to give a dog a bad name, just to hang it. He was, however, later redeployed and a new DPO posted to Nsukka. The new police chief, a chief superintendent of police, Mr. Jonathan Ejetiga, hails from Delta State.

When Governor Ikedi Ohakim mounted the saddle of leadership in 2007, in Imo, he vowed to rescue the state from the claws of hoodlums who had held the state by the jugular. To realize this dream, the governor launched the Operation Festival, reinvigorated vigilance groups in all the 27 LGAs, with a bus attached to each of the councils. The buses are equipped with state-of-the-art communication gadgets.

Ironically, since the governor's move to ensure security the state has been seized and colonized by faceless hardened criminals, who not only abduct and kidnap innocent, unsuspecting wealthy individuals and their children with impunity. The gangs also snatch vehicles, attack banks and prominent government institutions with reckless abandon. No fewer than 85 cases have been recorded in the state and Ebonyi.

The situation has degenerated to an alarming proportion that the people now sleep with one eye opened. Others are gradually relocating for fear of the unknown. Already, the names of victims of kidnapping in the state are legion, just as the cases of their abductions are many.

These include Mrs. Ngozi Nneji, wife of Mr. Frank Nneji, MD/CEO of ABC Transport; Mrs. Theresa Ebi, mother of Ernest Ebi, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN); a former Commissioner for Works, Housing and Transport in the state, Chief Peter Orji (aka Big Do), who is also state treasurer of PDP; Mr. Basil Enwerem, deputy director of Accounts of the Government House, Owerri and Miss Ginikanwa Udeagu, daughter of Engr. Ebere Udeagu, former deputy governor of the state.

Others victims are the member for Obowo Constituency in the state House of Assembly, Hon. Celestine Ngaobiwu, the late Pa Christopher Chukwu, father of business mogul and multi-billionaire, Mr. Tony Chukwu, who later passed on after his son had paid an undisclosed sum of money to secure his freedom and the traditional ruler of Ifakata community, in the Mbaitolu Ekerne, who, along with his wife, Fidelia, were hijacked in their Honda jeep and taken to an unknown destination.

Also kidnapped in the state were Mr., Kelvin Nwosu, son of the Managing Director of Finbank Plc, Mr. Okey Nwosu; a lecturer at the Imo State University, Dr Edward Agulanna; a 71-year-old man, Mr. Innocent Ibekwe Ebere, a native of Umuoke Obowo; the ex-chairman of Ezenihittee LGA, Dr Festus Nguma and Catholic Priest, Rev Father.

The identifies of those behind this barbaric act are still shrouded in secrecy. The Imo State Police Command has vowed to flush out the hoodlums in the state. The state Police Commissioner, Mr. Aloysius Okorie, enjoined traditional rulers and other stakeholders to partner the security agencies in a bid to give the criminal a good run.

He said: 'I am going to give the kidnappers a good fight. Imo State is one of the safest states in the South East geo-political zone; we intend to keep it so; we are not going to relent in our efforts.'

According to him, kidnapping has taken a dangerous dimension, where victims' relations are now part of the criminal act. He, therefore, implored relations of kidnapped victims to desist from paying ransom to the hoodlums, saying that such act spur them to go for further criminal activities.

However, the Imo State Information and Strategy Commissioner, Dr Amanze Obi, told Saturday Sun that the security situation in the state is not bad.

Dr Obi said: 'It may interest you to know that Imo was voted the most secured state in Nigeria by the Federal Executive Council; we didn't do it here. Based on that, the Federal Government sent the Inspector General of Police in February this year to come and find out the magic wand so that it can recommend the Imo model to the other states of the federation. The IG came here and spent about four, five days, had a stakeholder meeting with the Imo citizens at the Imo Multi-Purpose Hall, had meetings with the governor and other government officials and at the end of the day he went back and wrote a beautiful report about how Imo was able to make it to become the most secured state in the federation.

'So, the point I am trying to make is that in spite of isolated cases of kidnapping you hear of here and there, Imo remains the most secured state because in states where you are not hearing of kidnapping and all that the kind of high level armed robbery, assassination go on there every day.

'And it may interest you to know that the government has consistently been bursting the kidnap gangs. There is hardly any week that a kidnapper will not be arrested, even the ones that kidnapped an accountant with the Government House was arrested shortly after the incident took place. Last week, one was arrested somewhere in Abo-Mbaise; so they keep picking them up and that is to tell you that the security operatives in this state are up to the task; they know what they are doing; they are not resting on their oars. So, Imo is still the safest state in this country.'

The global picture
All things put together, the situation in the South East is frightening. With the spate of kidnapping, prominent people from the state now avoid going home. And if they must go home, they go with fortified security or simply sneak in without giving prior notice. People say that the situation is understandable, as anything getting to Igbo land is always at its worst.