It was a night full of indelible memories for Robert Edobor, an octogenarian, as he reminisced over the thrilling, flourishing days of yore when Nigeria’s founding fathers fiercely dreamt of a united nation bound in freedom and peace; a thriving country competing in all front outside of its shores, even beyond the continent with signs of future success in sight.
But his wistful longing for the good days of old was short-lived as the 88-year-old grandfather’s thoughts was preoccupied with the perennial news of mindless killings by unknown gunmen, frequent kidnap-for-ransom, and other recent activities that have clouded the vision laid out by the nation’s vanguard in the distant past. Suddenly, he exclaimed in tears and muttered assertively, “Arise O compatriots, for there was a country!”
Miffed by the prevailing situations confronting a nation that used to be a cynosure (of all eyes), the senior citizen, with a voice full of despair, nostalgically said: “Although it has not always been rosy back in the days, it wasn’t as bad as we see it today. We planned and hoped to progress from the predicament but as you can see, all our desires and expectations are without substantial success. There is no country without challenges but the difference is how their leaders value their people and that give them edge over us.”
After several distressed years of bearing the brunt of government’s unfavourable economic policies, bending the knees in servile to hardships, and, ultimately, subjected to a torturous period of life at the behest of a group of the so-called gunmen, Nigerians are now groveling, pleading for indispensable mercy despite being citizens with entitlements.
Irrespective of numerous promises and strategies put in place by the government to mitigate insecurity, the perpetrators have failed to turn over a new leaf and this has led to an increasing magnitude of attacks in villages, rendering many homeless and jobless while kidnapping activities thrive within bushes.
The long-running hustles by armed gangs was again evident in the recent disruption of operation and attack that happened on Saturday, January 7, 2023 on the Warri-Itakpe train routes precisely at Igueben-Ekehen station in Igueben Local Government Area of Edo State, South-South Nigeria. It was another sad day for the victims and their loved ones after the New Year celebration as about 20 persons – according to the recent report by the state government – were abducted, seven are now rescued as of January 12, while the fate of others still hangs in the balance.
Ehizogie Eluojierior 1, Onogie of Igueben and Okaigun of Esanland told BusinessDay, that the Tom Ikimi train station was initially a beehive of activities as passengers from neighbouring states now commute through the rail system due to bad roads as well as traffic during the festive periods, adding that since the incident occurred, there has been palpable fear among inhabitants and business owners within the vicinity.
The traditional ruler, who lamented the reactive approach by the Nigerian government and likened it to locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, therefore, called for improved surveillance equipment in the area and other strategic points prone to kidnapping activities, including train stations.
“The place has been so busy and I think that is why it became a soft target for the kidnappers. There is still tension and uncertainties and we in the communities are meeting over it while the vigilance groups are joining other security agencies to comb the bushes.
“In Nigeria, once there is an attack, security will be very high both within that area and the surroundings. I do not think we need the fire brigade approach; we need a permanent security coverage in that area and surroundings. And, in fact, it should be extended to all train stations because tomorrow, it may not be Igueben, it will be in another place. We were thinking it is only in Kaduna, Abuja areas we hear such train attacks, we didn’t know it will come here.
“Prior to this time, the vigilantes in conjunction with the police have been combing all surrounding areas and they could not see anything out of the ordinary. So, it took us by surprise. The security was poor, there was no proper security. This is a modern world. So, we are recommending a Closed-circuit television (CCTV) that can do the job and policemen manned around the station. I think that could have solved the problem. It was when the incident happened that the government remembered to take action,” the Onogie of Igueben said.
Speaking to our reporter on the current state of the victims, Chidi Nwabuzor, the Edo State police image maker, said operatives of the police in collaboration with other security agencies including the Edo State Security Network, the vigilance group as well as hunters are still in the bush carrying out operation bush combing, which, according to him, is geared towards rescuing the victims unhurt and arresting the perpetrators.
As of Thursday, January 12, Nwabuzor said: “So far, seven persons have been rescued and reunited with their families and operation is still ongoing. We will not rest until we rescue all the victims,” adding, “There is no society without crime. As we, the security agencies, are working hard to ensure the state experience peaceful atmosphere, there are criminal elements out there working hard to jeopardise these efforts. We are working hard to ensure that we keep that level of low incident of kidnapping and we will attain it.”
For passengers plying the routes in the southern part of Nigeria, especially Benin City, Warri, Asaba, Port Harcourt, Yenagoa and Aba, the train station has been a relief from the rising airfares and fear of kidnapping on highways.
Strikingly, the Igueben incident happened less than a year after the ill-fated Abuja-Kaduna train service on the northern axis of the country, which was reportedly bombed by terrorists and resulted to the death of several passengers on board, including Chinelo Megafu, an overseas-bound doctor, while others were injured and many were abducted.
Many of those abducted spent several months in the kidnappers den and were only released after an unspecific hefty amount of money was paid in ransom. Since the incident, Nigerians have been skeptical plying the route, even though train services have resumed on that corridor.
Read also: Gunmen kidnap Edo Customary Court judge
Considering the huge investments in the rail sector and its footprint as one of the APC-led government’s trademarks, does it mean that the present administration has not been able to put finishing touches to the project by installing the security surveillance system as proposed by the former minister of transportation, Chibuike Amaechi? Has the government slept off after the Abuja episode? These are questions begging for answers on the back of repeated attacks on train passengers.
Amaechi had, while inspecting the level of damage done to the Abuja-Kaduna train in March, 2022, blamed the incident on lack of surveillance equipment, saying, “We knew what the problem would be. We knew we needed to have digital security equipment. We applied for it.”
Amaechi added: “Because if we had that equipment, you will see nobody on that track for Christ’s sake and I warned that lives will be lost. Now, lives are lost. Eight persons dead; 25 persons in the hospital! We don’t know how many persons have been kidnapped. And the cost of that equipment is just N3 billion. The cost of what we’ve lost is more than N3 billion. We’ve lost tracks; we’ve lost locomotives and coaches. We’ve lost human beings. And the equipment is just N3 billion.
“To fix all the equipment and things on that track now will cost us more than N3 billion. And now even the things we wanted to buy we said give us approval to buy and not money. At the time we asked for it, dollar was N400, now it is N500. When you come with sincerity to government and your colleagues and people are stopping you, it is annoying.”
In the first half of last year, precisely June 12, 2022 President Muhammadu Buhari had, during his democracy speech, said: “I know many of us are concerned with the rise in insecurity due to terrorist activities in parts of the country. As a government, we are working hard to contain and address these challenges. And ensure that the 2023 general elections are safe and secure for all Nigerians.
“To achieve this, however, we must all contribute. It is not the job of government alone. I ask all citizens to support and cooperate with our security agencies by reporting any suspicious characters and activities to law enforcement agencies. We can only have a safe country if we are able to prevent crime not after the crime has been committed.
“On this special day, I want us all to put all victims of terrorist activities in our thoughts and prayers. I am living daily with the grief and worry for all those victims and prisoners of terrorism and kidnapping. I and the security agencies are doing all we can to free those unfortunate countrymen and countrywomen safely.
“For those who have lost their lives, we will continue to seek justice for their families against the perpetrators. For those currently in captivity, we will not stop until they are freed, and their kidnappers are brought to justice. If we all unite, we will be victorious against these agents of terror and destruction.
“We have reformed some of our security structures. Some of the defence assets we procured three years ago have arrived and have been deployed.”
The year 2023, perceived by many to herald a refreshing change, started on a kidnapping note with captives held against their will. No doubt, insecurity has over the years been fuelled by bad governance and lack of concerns to the plights of the citizenry; and, sadly, kidnapping is becoming a booming business for perpetrators and a rising trend in the rail transport system.
Few months ago, the hostage-taking business became rife along the Benin-Ehor-Auchi highway in Uhunmwonde Local Government Area of Edo State. The kidnappers shoot from ambush at innocent commuters, scurried their victims into their den, scare them with death threats and force them to contact their loved ones, demanding huge ransoms in exchange for the abductees.
The situation further impoverished Nigerians, destabilised plans of affected families, placed them in distress and caused untold sufferings.
Before the recent unfortunate incident, the Obaseki administration had taken the war to the enemies of the people in the kidnap business by synergising with security agencies to check the menace of kidnappers and ease the fear on the side of passengers.
The actions against the armed men were intensified by the ongoing intensive training programme aimed at upskilling the security architecture, equipping the operatives, consisting of hunters and other groups in the Edo State Security Network and better preparing them to handle complex security situations.
Also, towards the end of 2022, Governor Godwin Obaseki, while on a courtesy visit on Oba Ewuare II, the Oba of Benin, to commemorate with the Benin Monarch on the 2022 Igue festival, said the government’s efforts to combat crime and criminality in the state were yielding good results.
“Security report as of today shows that we are doing well as we have not recorded any major crime in the state as we celebrate Igue. The success recorded in securing our people is due to the advantages we have in the development of our traditional institution in the last centuries, falling back to the traditional security arrangement, which has enabled us integrate the element of traditional security apparatus and that of the state, leading to the success recorded in securing the people of the state,” Obaseki said.
However, the menace has, once again, reared his head, flourishing like a bush-fire in the harmattan season and it is gradually becoming every commuter’s nightmare, whether on roads or rail, while perpetrators of the act are holding sway.
After these armed group have succeeded in scaring people away from the roads, they have taken over the railways; taken prisoners of hapless commuters. Will the Edo incident change anything? Will government liberate itself from the shackles of reactive approach to becoming proactive so as to avert future occurrences?