Any person travelling to Uturu, Isukwuato, Isuochi, Leru, Umuchieze, Nneato, Lokpanta and some other communities in Isukwuato and Umunneochi LGAs of Abia State now go with two prayers: God save my soul and lead me home safely.
It is the same with travelers along Okigwe-Ihube portion of Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway.
Such traveler must also ensure that the trip is made while the sun still shines bright and must avoid identified risky spots if he wishes to reach his destination in peace.
This is because of deadly activities of armed bandits who operate on and around bushes and roads in the above listed communities.
These men of the underworld who have left untold sorrows in their trail, have now become self crowned kings on these roads, and are also threatening to assume colonial masters of several bushes that stretch the flanks of the the roads.
Students of Abia State University, Uturu and some of their lecturers have fallen victims in the past and recent while traders and transporters are being kidnapped and later released by their abductors, after spending some days in tick bushes and yielding bag full of ransom.
While many victims of these nefarious activities come out alive, some either die in the hands of their kidnappers of torture or sickness especially if their relatives were not able to provide financial demands of the bandits.
Farming activities have also nosedived as natives of affected villages sometimes, are either afraid to go to farm or, now operate with fear, in their own farms!
This situation has in return, affected food production in some of those parts of Abia State and their neighbors in Imo as they complain that their crops are allegedly destroyed by cows belonging to Fulani herdsmen or, that the farms are left unattended to, because of presence of strange persons.
In the last two months and counting, over 130 persons have been kidnapped on these roads with students of Abia State university, Uturu, indigenes of Umunneochi, Isukwuato, farmers, travellers, traders, transporters being among the list.
The most latest notable victims are His Grace, Prelate Samuel Kanu-Uche, of Methodist Church Nigeria and Mr Uche Nwube , a media staff of Ebonyi State Government House Press Corps.
While Prelate Uche and his church confirmed paying whopping N100m to alleged Fulani bandits before being allowed to go, nothing much was heard of the kidnapped Ebonyi State Government House staff who was abducted along the Okigwe-Ihube axis of Enugu-Port Harcourt road.
In his chilling account after his release, Prelate Samuel Kanu-Uche pointedly alleged that he and two other priests of Methodist Church were kidnapped by young Fulani boys numbering about 8.
He further lamented that he was held in a bush not far from an Army checkpoint in Isuochi, adding that his abductors gave him a bloody eye and later took him to a corner where body of dead past kidnap victims were dumped.
The Methodist number one man in Nigeria wondered why the bandits would freely operate freely in the bushes despite the presence of Army checkpoint.
According to him, ” They are Fulani boys: all the 8 are Fulanis. They said the day they will see the President or any of his representatives, they will chew him raw, that he is their brother but has disappointed them and has disappointed Nigeria.”
“I told them we will raise the money for you. But the irony of it, where they were situated, the soldiers, all of Fulani extraction, Nigerian soldiers, they were at Lomara junction and these boys were going behind them.
Meanwhile, they kept their cows somewhere numbering about 200.” Prelate recalled.
But Nigerian Army in a statement by Brig-Gen Onyema Nwachukwu, Director of Army Public Relations rejected the Prelate’s narration linking Army officers with kidnapping and other criminal activities in Umunneochi, Abia or any part of the South East.
The statement read, “The Nigerian Army (NA) has been notified of the insinuation making the rounds on social media, alleging complicity of troops of the Nigerian Army in the kidnap incident of the Methodist Prelate in Abia.”
The Army made it clear that the case of Prelate and other priests’ kidnap was never reported to the troop in charge of the unit where the incident took place, neither was it reported to Army checkpoints at Okigwe or the one stationed in front of Abia State University, Uturu.
“While the Nigerian Army expresses concern and sympathy for the victim of this heinous crime and shares in his pains, the insinuation that troops are complicit in the kidnap incident is not entirely premised on any findings of investigations and therefore cannot be swallowed hook, line and sinker.”
Gen Nwachukwu went on, “The allegations therefore raises some pertinent questions which are still unanswered. Given the spate of insecurity in the region, the question would be: Was the issue reported to the unit covering the area?
“Did the Methodist Church take the NA into confidence while negotiating the ransom with the kidnappers?
No formal complaint has been received by the unit. More worrisome is the fact that it was alleged that the ransom was paid in less than 24 hours. Was the ransom paid to troops”, said the Nigerian Army.
The Army noted that the Methodist Prelate may be invited by the Army to explain more about what transpired in his hours of captivity.
However, some groups and human rights activists like Chief (Barr) Mike Ndu have called for thorough investigation into the account of the Methodist Prelate, demanding serious actions by the Abia State government and security agencies.
Abia State government had soon after the Prelate Uche and others’ release, attributed his freedom to the efforts of Abia government and security agencies.
But Prelate Uche in his own account said otherwise, insisting that he was only set free after his church members mobilised N100m for the men of the underworld, not by any special government or security interventions.
A day after the Methodist Prelate’s release, youths of Umunneochi, led by one Devine, embarked on a heavy protest around Umunneochi areas, demanding the immediate removal of an Army checkpoint in Lomara junction in Isuochi and also called for demolition of the largest cattle market in Lokpanta, Umuchieze.
The protesters who marched to Umunneochi LGA headquarters at Nkwoagu Isuochi, later moved to an Army checkpoint at Lomara where they accused the Army officers there of allegedly aiding operations of bandits and other criminal activities.
From Isuochi, the youths proceeded to Leru junction, along Enugu-Port Harcourt road where they caused over two hours of traffic hold up, obstructing vehicular movements on the federal highway.
On Okigwe-Uturu Afikpo road, the story is even gorier, as natives, travelers, Abia State University students and their lecturers who ply the roads have now become regular victims of bandits operating from surrounding bushes along the highway.
Apart from students of Abia State university who have been kidnapped three times in 2022 alone in large numbers, some lecturers of the institution have also tasted bitter waters of attack by the bandits, alleged to be of Fulani identity.
Timeline of kidnappings around Okigwe-Uturu -Isukwuato axis are as follows : April 2022, 7 ABSU students kidnapped and later freed after their parents allegedly payed ransom to the kidnappers.
September 2021, 2 ABSU students kidnapped and later freed. September 2021, 1 student of Marist College Uturu, Master Edeh Donald was shot dead at Ihube junction along, very close to Abia State University main campus. August 2021, 2 lecturers of ABSU, Prof S. O. Eze and Mr Christian Afulike were kidnapped by suspected Fulani bandits along Uturu-Isukwuato road. Prof Eze is of Department of Industrial chemistry and Mr Afulike is of Department of Mass Communication.
Christian Afulike escaped from his abductors at night and walked several kilometers in the tick of the night before locating his way back.
In his narration, the Mass Communication lecturer alleged that his abductors were Fulani, two of them the spoke Igbo, and one other spoke Akwa Ibom- Cross River accent.
April 2022, seven ABSU students kidnapped by bandits. May 2022, 7 ABSU students kidnapped again while the driver of the commercial bus conveying them was shot dead by the bandits. November 2021, 10 persons were kidnapped along Uturu-Isukwuato road by armed bandits and a female fruit seller in front of ABSU was raped to death on her way to her home at Amagu Mbaugwu community of Uturu.
In Umunneochi LGA, 11 local government workers from Umunneochi were in February, ,2022, kidnapped at Leru community by bandits who demanded N25m ransom.
Their abduction was confirmed by Comrade Ikechi Nwaigwe, Abia State Chairman of National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) who said the victims were returning from wedding ceremony.
In May, 2022, Methodist Prelate, His Eminence, Samuel Kanu-Uche and two other priests of the church were kidnapped by bandits, who collected N100m before releasing them, after subjecting them to physical and emotional torture.
In his narration, Prelate Uche insisted that he was kidnapped by young Fulani bandits.
June 2022, a photographer with Ebonyi State government house press corps, Abakaliki. Mr. Uche Nwube was kidnapped along the same Leru part of Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway.
Also on June 25 during the burial of gospel singer, an unidentified man riding in a black Jeep was kidnapped by some bandits at Umuaku Isuochi who bundled him into the nearby bush after firing blasts of gunshots, though the Police said the matter was not reported to them.
Lokpanta, Umuchieze, Lomara, Nneato and other communities in Umunneochi are also in the ugly pictures of criminal activities by bandits.
And the list goes on and on.
One recurring decimal in all these kidnappings is that the bandits always emerge from flanking bushes, shoot guns, grab their victims and then return to the bushes from where they communicate to their victim’s families in demand for ransom payment.
Some female victims who were released by their captors or rescued by local vigilante groups, painfully complained of being sexually harassed or abused.
The terrible situation has put the two LGAs in the edge of insecurity and social instability, with Hon Chima Agbaeze, Isuikwuato LGA boss and his Umunneochi counterpart, Chief Ifeanyi Madu losing sleep every night because of the turn events.
Also, member representing Umunneochi constituency, Hon Okey Igwe has repeatedly cried out that his constituents are now at the mercy of criminals.
Bemoaning the situation, women of Uturu community and farmers from Isukwuato and Isuochi lamented that the presence of military and Police checkpoints in their locality had not provided them the efficient protection.
According to them, most kidnapping activities like the one at Isuochi and Ihube junction before Abia State University are allegedly perpetrated at places not far from Police and Army checkpoints.
But the Nigerian Army says there is no truth in such claims, wondering why its men are not appreciated for their efforts in maintaining security of life and property.
Also, Abia State Police Command, through its PPRO, Geoffrey Ogbonna said that most of the kidnap incidents involving students of Abia University are recorded at boundary towns with Imo State, noting that it is not right to assume that Abia State Police Command was not doing enough in policing Abia’s territory.
Ogbonna stated that that Abia Police has in collaboration with other security agencies, been helping in rescue of kidnapped students and other victims.
But several members of the affected communities would not accept the explanations of these security agencies.
To them, the crimes allegedly happened under the nose the security organisations.
To them also, Abia State government had abandoned them to fate, only choosing to adopt the same strategy of issuing statements condemning the attacks.
According to a traditional ruler in Umunneochi LGA who spoke to News Echo under anonymity, ” We are only remembered during election period, after that, Umunneochi does not matter thereafter. Our people are afraid to sometimes go farm to avoid being kidnapped. Tell the Governor to do something. We are tired of assurances,” said the young traditional ruler.
Another traditional ruler from Isiukwuato LGA who also craved anonymity, alleged that criminal bandits operating in his community allegedly takes off from Lokpanta cattle market and also return there to share their booty, calling for the closure or total security check on and around the Lokpanta market.
But the Senatorial candidate of PDP for Abia North polls, Senator Mao Ohuabunwa told the people of Umunneochi that the call for total demolition of Umunneochi cattle market and removal of security checkpoints were not the best option in ending the menace.
Investigations by News Echo states that the palace of HRM, Eze Godson Ezekwesiri, the Ochi(1) of Isuochi is not happy with the turn of events in his kingdom.
The Ochi (1), according to the findings, together with other royal fathers are unhappy that a peaceful nation like Isuochi land was being turned into crime zone by undesirable elements.
Abia State University town of Uturu is also suffering from the effects of killings, kidnappings and other crimes, as student population is dwindling.
This is happening at the same time the National Universities Commission (NUC) is yet to restore the admission accreditation it withdrew from ABSU about two months and this has affected the economic fortunes of Uturu.
We are doing our best, herdsmen should leave Umunneochi forests – Abia govt
Abia State government on its part says it had always done its best to ensure the safety of the State since 2015 when Governor Okezie Ikpeazu took over.
According to the government in various statements signed by Barr Eze Chikamnayo, Commissioner for information and strategy, Ikpeazu is not happy with the ugly developments in these two LGAs and has always applied the best measures in ending the menace.
To this end, Abia State government has ordered all herdsmen operating inside bushes in Umunneochi to relocate to Umunneochi cattle market, warning that his government may not guarantee their safety if they failed to heed the directive.
A special security committee to tackle the problem has also been set up by the Abia government and indigenes of affected communities are hopeful that the committee would bring the desired results and not end up as mere political jamboree.
Abia government has however, observed that the tasks of securing Umunneochi and even Uturu is the collective responsibility of South East States who share boundary with the affected communities, observing that Imo, Enugu and Anambra States share common boundary with Umunneochi LGA and some parts of Uturu.
Isuochi is home to late Senator Uche Chukwumereije.
It is home to Dr Ichechukwu Madubuike, Hon Nkeiruka Onyejiocha of House of Representatives, Chief Odinaka Igwe, Barr Okey Igwe (PDP deputy governorship running mate) etc.
Uturu on the other side is the home of Dr Uche Ogah, immediate past federal minister and Prof Greg Ibe, the founder of Gregory University, Uturu and is also APGA guber candidate in Abia State.
Vice Chancellor of Abia State University, Uturu, Prof Maxwell Onyemachi in reaction to a recent kidnap of his students, queried the relevance of SIM card registration and linkage with NIN, as according to him, kidnapping and other criminal activities were still on exponential rise despite the ongoing registration of SIM cards.
He also challenged security agencies to arrest those tormenting his school’s students and lecturers.