By Dennis Agbo
Forty-year-old Monday Eze is one of the forest guards deployed in Enugu East district. He said he has penetrated most of the dreaded forests where suspected herdsmen kidnappers are alleged to be domiciled in Enugu state.
One such forest is the Eke-Egede-Ezeagu forest jungle that spans about 15 kilometers; it is called Ofia-Akwu and has remained a death zone, with several lives lost in the past in the hands of alleged Fulani herdsmen. It is located between the Udi north communities of Eke, Egede, Affa, Oghe in Ezeagu.
There is also the Ajali forest notorious for habouring herdsmen that breed their cows with the Ajali stream. It was in this area that soldiers allegedly killed neighborhood watchmen who opposed the soldiers for treating suspected Fulani kidnappers with kid gloves. This was during the Buhari administration when herdsmen appeared protected.
The other Den of Kidnappers is between the same Udi north communities of Abor, Awhum, Umulumgbe, Nike in Enugu East local government, up to Ekwegbe, Ukehe and Opi communities of Igboetiti and Nsukka local government areas. The jungle is called Agu-Ekwegbe, joining the Ojebogene communities of Udi.
At the East side of the new Enugu-Ugwogo-Opi Nsukka road is another forest of Agu Opi, Eha-Alumona, Mbu and Neke deep forests. It continued from Nike communities to Owoh, Ubahu and Amankanu communities. It also connects to Isi-uzo communities.
Yet another den of the kidnappers is between Udi-Ozalla and Agwu communities. These areas have been notorious routes and dens of kidnappers. From there, they sometimes wandered far through the bush tracts before ransoms would be demanded.
Eze, however, said some of their efforts to nail the kidnappers have not yielded results.
“For instance, I was among those taken to Egede when those school children of St Paul’s College Eke were attacked. A traditional ruler was also kidnapped on the same day. We entered that forest. You know there are many cashew trees there. We went far, hid under those trees and waited to see if we could see or hear their sound but we did not,” Eze said.
But the Aljazeera media report in the forest of Lokpa-Umunochi areas in Abia state exhibited human carcasses killed or left to die inside such forests occupied by the herdsmen kidnappers. Those who were kidnapped and came back alive have gory stories of the jungle. The Methodist prelate, Samuel Kanu-Uche had given a bit of the graphic picture of how he survived his kidnap in 2022.
There is the allegation that the criminal kidnappers are shielded by the nomadic cattle breeders. But the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, MACBAN, recently said that it has made arrangements to ensure that its men are not infiltrated by criminals in the guise of cattle breeders in the southeast.
The National Deputy Director General of MACBAN, Alhaji Gidado Siddiki, who said this in Enugu, shortly after a critical meeting of Miyetti Allah leaders in neighboring states of Kogi, Benue, Anambra and other states in the southeast states said that as the dry season comes, pastoralists migrate to green areas in the southern Nigeria in search of greener pastures for their herds; but enjoined his people to be conscious of their environment and avoid infiltration by marauders who parade themselves as herdsmen and attract bad names to the real cattle breeders.
One of the most notorious forests of the kidnappers is the Eke-Egede-Affa forests where a lot of kidnappings have taken place, including the kidnap and killing of a Catholic Priest in 2021 and the recent killing and attack of secondary school students. Traditional rulers and businessmen from those areas have been kidnapped many times along the road. Only a few get reported in the media.
A prominent senior citizen of Eke community and former Chairman of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Chief Emma Ikwueze said that the rate of insecurity in the area has been giving his community members sleepless nights. To resolve the quagmire, Ikwueze said that they have articulated different methods of combating the menace which could involve traditional means since the use of constituted authorities have failed.
Eze, the forest guard personnel, stated that they usually go far into the forests but won’t find any indication of settlement of the kidnappers except for some cows that they see with the headers. He alleged that the headers show the criminals the routes to take.
“Those kidnappers follow the cattle route because it’s those herders that know the route and they work together. We had also penetrated the Ugwogo forests, but from our findings, we suspect that they work with the soldiers stationed along the roads as well as some of our local criminals who give them information that we are coming; otherwise, we would be catching them every day.
“We hid inside the forest to see if we could catch their messengers who they send to buy food and water for them. We had caught one Hausa boy at Ugwogo and handed him over to the police at Ibagwa Divisional station but nothing was heard about him again. That one was even threatening us that we were creating trouble for them. The villagers living in those areas live in fear, but our challenge is arms. How many pump actions do we have compared to the AK-47 that those people carry? We buy bullets with our money and how much are we paid? N30, 000. They give police ammunition but they don’t give us. Sometimes the police will join us to comb the forests,” Eze narrated.
One of the areas identified as a major takeoff of the kidnappers is inside the forest of Ibagwa/Amokpo Agu-Nike area designated as “Francis.” Francis is an area within Ibagwa-Nike in Enugu East local government that leads into bush parts where the Fulani herdsmen had resided for a long time. The Fulani herders have however vacated the area, probably going deeper into the forest.
An Indigene of Nike community, who preferred being anonymous, said the Fulani people occupy an area distant from the community. “You can go there through the Ibagwa police station or through Francis into those areas but the truth is kidnapping takes place there but the incidences dropped in recent times, but all those areas are a danger zone. From Francis to that area is over two kilometers but they have left there since local forces came.
“If the authorities are determined to combat those hoodlums, they know their routes because those criminals traverse all those forests from Ekwegbe-Agu up to 9th mile. The security agents know all those bush paths, it’s just that they were based in that Francis area earlier but the local guards scared them away,” he said.
An intelligence report insisted that the area called Francis had been a hibernation ground for the kidnappers despite some forest guards who lay ambush inside the porous undulating forests that are vacant with no indigenous people exploring the interior except for a few hunters.
The intelligence said: “Those kidnappers are living in the bush and they don’t care about anything. If you ask those who have been kidnapped, they just carry rice and water which they just mix and ask their victims to eat as food because that is what they eat too. They are there to make money and they are determined.
“Come to think about it, the neighborhood watchman or forest guard that you are asking to go inside the bush, the government pays him only N30,000 per month and for four years there has been no increment in the salaries. If he dies there the government cannot do anything for his family, they are ill-equipped.
“Those who were kidnapped will tell you how sophisticated these kidnappers are. There were about nine that kidnapped the traditional ruler of Affa who was just released. Go and ask him how armed they were.
Soldiers, Police, Igbo collaborators
“All these soldiers stationed along the roads are not doing anything and if you look carefully, you will find out that they are conniving with those criminals. Police patrol along the roads is not the solution; they don’t even have communication equipment. The kind of crimes we have now cannot be controlled by checkpoints. What we need is to dominate the forests and the bush.
“The forest guards are ill-trained, the government doesn’t buy arms and ammunition for them. Those kidnappers operating at Eke don’t reside there. They moved from Francis in Enugu East to go and operate there. They pass across the 9th Mile-Opi old road. There was a kidnapping incident at Owo, Governor Mbah’s community, we tried to wedge them at Amankanu but they made a call between Neke and Ikem and we were baffled. We mobilized all the forest guards in Isi-Uzo to block the areas but they had crossed to Benue state. That was where they collected their ransom, big money!
“These kidnappers have native Igbo collaborators that work with them; they direct them on how to move. They kidnap towards the evening and by the time you are waiting for daybreak they would have gone far and in the morning. They will start calling for ransom, by then they are already far from where you think. By the time you do a fire brigade approach to look for them in the area they made the call, they would have diverted and gone to a different location.
“If you report them to the soldiers, they will embarrass you, asking you to provide evidence. An incident occurred at the Awhum area where the military has a checkpoint. When we took the suspects to them, they turned against us. The DPO at 9th mile, a Hausa man, even disarmed the forest guards, arrested them and kept them behind the counter. The soldiers along the roads only collect money from motorists, particularly the ones at the Old Opi-9th mile road. The Chinese contractors awarded the repair of the road there cannot do any work because of the kidnappers. Some were kidnapped recently and they paid ransom.
“It’s the same kidnappers that operate from Ekwegbe down to 9th mile, to Eke, Egede and all those places. Sometimes, they use the herders for a cover. We can use drones to track these people but the government has refused to provide the needed equipment. At Okpatu, the same kidnappers collected ransom near a military checkpoint after they were paid N30 million ransom by a businessman in Affa. The Governor should remove the military from checkpoints because they are not doing anything there. If they remain there, kidnappings will continue to go on.”