Anger in Imo State, as criminals continue to terrorize residents

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BY CHIDI NKWOPARA, Owerri

“Armed hoodlums are still holding Imo State and its citizens, hostage. Nobody knows who the next victim will be. Palpable fear and confusion has since taken over. The siege is real. People are angry and uneasy.  A lot has already been written about the menace of these rampaging gangsters. People no longer have the boldness to discuss the issue openly because of the dire consequences of such bravery.

“Imo people are angered because criminals have been operating with ease, killing, maiming, robbing and kidnapping innocent citizens. The list of their victims is getting indeed very long. Several people, including traditional rulers, business men, politicians, public office holders had, at various times and places been kidnapped for ransom.  The truth however, is that not all the cases are reported to the police. Movement and night life has since nose-dived in the state.

“Members of the business community are scared stiff. Some have fled into safety after surviving captivity. Let us take a few incidents of these sordid crimes.” This comment came from a disenchanted resident of the state, Obinna, while analyzing the security situation.

Giving  a run down of kidnappings and killings that took place in the state in the past three months, other residents lamented that succor seem elusive as no concrete efforts have been made to reassure them of their safety. From unofficial police records and information pieced together by Crime Guard, it was discovered that the incidents happened in quick succession under the full glare of security agents and not much have been done to raise hopes of better days ahead.

Narrating their ordeal recently, the family of Pastor Anselm Iwuala whose lifeless body was recently picked up seven days after he was kidnapped and a N500,000 paid to the hoodlums to secure his freedom stated that he was on his way to his country home, Egberede Nguru, Aboh Mbaise local council area of Imo State, when he was abducted by gunmen along the ever busy Okpala-Mbaise road.

Gov Okorocha of Imo State

The deceased’s cousin, Mr. Odinakachi Iwuala confirmed that his uncle was kidnapped by the hoodlums and that the family made frantic efforts to reach their bread winner, adding that his abductors finally got in contact with the family at about midnight of the ill-fated day and demanded a staggering N100 million ransom.

Continuing, he further revealed that the hoodlums said they were sent to kill the pastor/businessman, promising that they would spare his life if the family paid the ransom.  “The family however paid the sum of N500,000 to the kidnappers. We all thought that our prayers had been answered until we received a telephone call from his abductors to rush down to Okpala but what we saw was his corpse”, Odinakachukwu lamented.

Although no police officer at Uvuru Mbaise was ready to speak on the issue, Crime Guard however gathered that the police was making frantic efforts to apprehend the perpetrators of the sordid crime.

Saturday evening of May 19, 2012, was another bloody day in Imo. Two out of the four policemen suspected to be on escort were gruesomely murdered by armed bandits at Egbeada, Mbaitoli local council area of the state.   Investigation revealed that the dead policemen and their colleagues were driving in a Toyota Hilux vehicle with registration number, Rivers PHC 221 AA, while the gangsters, who were wearing Chelsea vests, were driving an ash colored Honda Jeep.

A villager, who did not want his name in print told Crime Guard that the gangsters wanted to kidnap a man and his wife, who were driving a black Toyota Jeep with its plate number covered.  “From the look of things, the couple noticed the looming presence of the armed gang, abandoned their vehicle and fled into the bush. Having missed their target, the hoodlums fired the front left tyre of the Toyota Hilux before spraying bullets generously on the occupants”, the villager recounted.

According to the villager, the armed men took the rifle of the slain policemen, while one of them who wore a bullet proof vest, was shot on his leg but he carefully fell on his rifle, pretended to be dead and only called for help as soon as he noticed the presence of sympathizers at the scene.

Another indegen of the state, Chief Raymond Ekeanya, equally fell victim of the rampaging kidnappers.  It was learnt that he was abducted from his country home, Uvuru Ntu, Ngor Okpala local council area of the state.  Ekeanya, a prominent farmer, was reportedly relaxing in his parlor when his abductors stormed the place at about 8pm. It was further gathered that as soon as the hoodlums identified their target, they fired warning shots into the air, apparently to scare people away, before settling for their victim.

Another incident that shook the state was the abduction of the Eze –elect of Awo Mbieri autonomous community, Mbaitoli local council area of Imo State, Nze Oliver Nwaozuzu by gunmen from his village church. The euphoria of Nze Nwaozuzu’s recent victory at a plebiscite conducted in the community by the state government had hardly died down before he was picked by hoodlums.

Investigation revealed that about five hours after his kidnap, the Eze-elect’s car, which was allegedly used to ferry him into the kidnapper’s dungeon, was spotted at the foot of the Niger Bridge, Onitsha, Anambra State.  An Awo Mbieri villager who spoke on strict grounds of anonymity lamented that “the community has been thrown into palpable confusion” and passionately appealed to the security agencies to ensure his safe return to his subjects.

As if Nwaozuzu’s kidnap was not bad enough, another middle-aged housewife, whose identity could not be ascertained at press time, was reportedly kidnapped by rampaging kidnappers in Umunoha community, also in Mbaitoli local government area of the state.   Crime Guard gathered that the woman was on her way to Umunoha community in her Toyota Avalon saloon car when she was forced to a stop and abducted by the gangsters.

The security situation worsened Monday night (May 7, 2012), following the brutal murder of Eze Stanley Akuneto, the traditional ruler of Umueze-Abazu, Ogwa, Mbaitoli local government area of the state.  Two gunmen, who were operating on a motorcycle, reportedly stormed the royal father’s palace at about 9pm when most people in the village had gone to sleep.

It was further gathered from a villager that the gangsters did not betray their principal mission when they asked after the traditional ruler.   “When they were taken to where the traditional ruler was relaxing, they quickly shot him at close range and sped away on their motorbike into the dark night”, the villager recounted with grief.

In the same vein, the owner of Milan Pharmacy Limited, Owerri, Chief Monday Okere, was kidnapped from his medical outfit by yet-to-be identified hoodlums. The hoodlums, numbering about six, stormed the pharmacy at about 7.55pm in a military commando fashion, released a volley of bullets into the air, bundled their hapless and helpless victim into a red Toyota Camry saloon car and zoomed off.  It was also gathered that the rampaging hoodlums shot Okere’s personal driver in his leg and he was reportedly rushed to an undisclosed hospital for medical attention.

Feelers from the kidnap victim’s Okolochi, Owerri West local council area country home, spoke of uneasy calm among members of his immediate family, as they were visibly alarmed about the safety of their bread winner.  Some people, who spoke to Crime Guard on the issue, lamented that such a serious crime could take place in the heart of Owerri municipality unchallenged.

A former member of the National Assembly, who represented Ohaji/Egbema/Oguta constituency in the House of Representatives, Chief Tony Eze Okere, was also kidnapped from his residence in Owerri, by unknown gunmen.   Apart from being a former lawmaker, Okere meritoriously served the Ikedi Ohakim administration as Special Adviser to the Governor on Niger Delta Affairs. Feelers from his Obiakpu, Egbema country home indicated that his captors made an unholy demand of N3 million for his freedom.

As at the time of Okere’s kidnap, the whereabouts and safety of the former Speaker of Imo State House of Assembly, Chief Godfrey Dikeocha, who was kidnapped more than five weeks earlier, remains a mirage.

A momentary relief came the way of residents of Owerri recently when a combined team of policemen and soldiers arrested a man for allegedly being in possession of a pistol. It was not clear at press time what ignited the suspicion of the security operatives stationed at the Okigwe Road Roudabout, Owerri, but they reportedly accosted him at first sight.  An eyewitness recounted that what started like a melodrama eventually paid off when the suspect was searched and a pistol was found on him. The man, who was simply identified as Stephen, was immediately whisked away for further interrogation.

In another development, no fewer than two people, including a man 70 year-old man,  Elder Francis Ibe, were reportedly shot when a gang of armed robbers invaded Awa, a sleepy rural community in Oguta local government area of Imo State.  About three hapless villagers were stabbed mercilessly by the robbers and were later rushed to an undisclosed hospital where doctors battled to save their lives. The robbers reportedly raped some ladies, including the one that was in the town to visit her sister. They stole motorcycles, varying sums of money, telephone handsets, electric generating sets and other personal effects worth millions of Naira.

Narrating their ordeal to Crime Guard, one of the female victims (names withheld for security reasons) lamented that the rampaging hoodlums held the area hostage for hours.  “The robbers commenced their nasty operation at about 1am and continued till about 3am. Some families in Umunkoli, Umuorie, Ndionyeagorom, Ndivuelekwa and Umuakparaku were ravaged”, the badly traumatized woman said.

According to the woman, a man who came home to bury his sister was equally shot and wounded by the armed robbers, while a cement dealer in the community was stripped of a huge sum of money.

Speaking also, an unnamed youth said,  “The robbers were from our neighboring community, Awo Omamma. One of the robbers was identified by one of us and when we went to his family home, he ran away on sighting us”.

In a similar development, about three citizens are feared dead when some armed gangsters suspected to be kidnappers stormed the rural Orogwe and Ogbaku communities in Owerri West and Mbaitoli local council areas of Imo State.   These sordid incidents came barely a few days after armed robbers stormed the Mbari Street branch of a first generation bank, bombed the Automated Teller Machine, carted away the money in it, as well as shot four staff members of the bank.

It was equally gathered that the hoodlums kidnapped a lady and her two brothers, who returned from the United States of America to bury their mother. The hoodlums suspected to be assassins, trailed one Mr. Charles Udochukwu Okpe, to Orogwe where they finally silenced him for life.

The identities of the other slain citizens were not known at press time but a villager, who preferred anonymity, disclosed that the owner of Impetus filling station and a retired army captain, Emmanuel Iheanacho, was among those kidnapped by the armed hoodlums.

When our Correspondent visited Orogwe and Ogbaku communities, people were seen in groups discussing the tragedy that befell their respective communities. They also bemoaned the deteriorating security situation in the state.

On May 19, 2012, Chief Okorocha’s elder sister, her husband, members of her household and all occupants of the three cars on her convoy, narrowly cheated death. They were attacked by gunmen at Egbeada, Mbaitoli local council area of the state.

Already, Bishop of the Diocese of Okigwe South, Anglican Communion, Rt. Rev. David O.C. Onuoha, recently cried out over “the increasing level of kidnapping, armed robbery and other violent activities in Imo State, despite efforts to curb the menace”.

A youth leader in Owerri, Mazi Damian Nze, expressed shock that despite what Governor Rochas Okorocha said he has done to better the fighting spirit of the security agencies, criminals still have a field day in the state.   “It is sad to note that the fear of kidnappers and armed robbers is the beginning of wisdom for those of us living in Imo State. It is honestly a terrible situation”, Nze lamented.

Speaking also, a housewife, Mrs. Ijeoma Obumneke Chikweaku, was not happy that most women do not get to tell their entire experience in captivity.  “Women pass through hell, including rape, while in the custody of their captors. Their sad stories are hardly told for fear of stigmatization. Honestly, these rampaging hoodlums are heartless”, Mrs. Chikweaku lamented.  She passionately appealed to the state government and the security agencies to re-strategize and fight the growing menace, adding that the situation was capable of scaring away genuine investors.

Defending his employer, the Senior Special Assistant, SSA, to Governor Rochas Okorocha on Media, Mr. Chinedu Offor, said: “An elite security personnel from the United States of America, Israel and Britain, are now in the state”, as part of the administration’s plan to boost security and investment.

“Government has also concluded plans to purchase sophisticated helicopters to trap kidnappers and armed robbers. These are some of the several plans by Governor Okorocha to further improve security in the state”, the SSA said.

Continuing, Mr. Offor said that Okorocha has promised a reward of N1 million to anyone with information leading to the arrest of kidnappers and armed robbers in the state. Governor Okorocha has equally bought hundreds of well equipped Hilux vans and distributed to all security agencies to fight crime”, Offor said.

He vowed that all forces of government will be deployed to confront the menace of kidnapping and armed robbery, even as he opined that Imo remains one of the safest states in the country.

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