The Lokpanta axis of Enugu-PortHarcourt expressway has been in the news in recent times for the wrong reasons.
This is because it has become a hotbed of kidnapping and other heinous crimes.
Umunneochi has been turned into a money-making centre for kidnappers and other criminals, who have made life unbearable for motorists and travellers alike.
Their activities came to a head on June 2022 with the kidnap of Samuel Kanu, the primate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria and his team, at Lokpanta, in Umuneochi Local Government Area of Abia State.
Kanu on his release revealed that his kidnappers were Fulani herdsmen.
A recent security report made available to the media by the Abia State Governor, Alex Otti, revealed that over 50 decomposing bodies, 20 headless bodies, and countless human skeletons were recently discovered around Lokpanta Cattle Market.
He said that security agencies made the discoveries during search operations both within and around the market following incessant reports of security breaches across the area.
The raid was carried out to stop kidnapping, armed robbery, prostitution, narcotics trade and other social vices around the market. This is as some brothels and shanties that harboured the hoodlums were also demolished.
Recall that former Governor Okezie Ikpeazu started the fight to rid the area of these criminals, when the Primate of the Methodist Church in Nigeria was kidnapped in that axis.
He liaised with leaders and stakeholders of Umunneochi Local Government Area (LGA) of the state, to put an end to kidnapping and other social vices that had become rampant in the area.
Ikpeazu, in a meeting with the community, held at the Palace of Eze Godson Ezekwesiri, in Umuelem Isuochi, noted that the issue of insecurity in Umunneochi and its neighbouring communities has become a matter of great concern to him and the entire state.
The former governor noted that many steps had been taken in the past to stop the hoodlums, adding that government will no longer treat the matter with kidgloves.
He stressed that the kidnapping of the Prelate of the Methodist Church Nigeria, would mark the end of kidnappings around that area.
Subsequently, some stakeholders called for the relocation of the Lokpanta Cattle Market, which they described as a security threat to residents and travelers on that route
Eze Ernest Onwuka, chairman, Umunneochi Traditional Rulers Council, who is also the Traditional Ruler of Aro Ikpa Autonomous Community, explained that Umunneochi, as a Local Government, shares boundries with all the South-East States, makes the area vulnerable to all sorts of crimes, as over 12 incidences of kidnapping were recorded along the Leru-Lomara-Nneato road at the time.
He called for the dismantling of various military check points in the area, as fingers pointed at the soldiers, as collaborators to the heinous crimes. being committed in the area.
Governor Alex Otti at his inauguration, as the 5th civilian Governor of Abia State, promised that the worsening state of insecurity in the state, especially kidnapping incidences, along Lokpanta-Enugu Road, will be addressed from its root.
He warned such criminals to leave the state, as it is no longer business as usual.
“I promise you that Abia State will not be big enough to contain you and I, at the same time. I declare that I will use the full force of the law to apprehend and punish all those, who are intent on threatening law and order in the state,” he said.
To make true his promise, Otti established “Operation Crush”, a multi-force, comprising the Army, Police, Navy, Civil Defence Corps, Directorate of Security Service (DSS) and private intelegence personnel, to flush out criminals in the state.
His administration also recently demo’ished brothels and shanties in Lokpanta Cattle Market, fingered for harbouring criminals alledged to be involved in heinous crimes in that area of the state.
This is as the State Government also ordered that the market would no longer be residential, but a daily market.
Charles Chinekezi, chairman, Aba chapter of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), observed that security report’s findings, which implicated soldiers stationed along Abia-Enugu boundary in kidnapping brought about the establishment of Operation Crush, by Governor Alex Otti.
He said that the Operation Crush team was given the mandate to flush out the kidnappers and the bandits that operate between Umuneochi -Lokpanta-Enugu road, where there has been this spate of unending scenario of kidnapping, robbery and other violent crimes.
According to him, the Operation Crush team reports straight to the governor, as the chief security officer of the state.
He said that the governor has made it clear that the crime cannot be torolated any longer, as the Operation Crush, submit their security report weekly to the governor.
He further said that part of the findings, both independent studies and governmental intelligence studies have it that the Lokpanta cattle market has a role to play in what happens on that axis.
“Although it is an economic setting, which is beneficial to all parts of the country, the truth is that some hoodlums have infiltrated that market. Some of the time, the state has come to understand that ransom from kidnapped victims are being paid inside that market.
“So, you could see the link. But some of the security personnel deployed in that area of Abia and Enugu boundary, who had been fingered to be involved in that nasty operations, have been identified as part of the problem. And most of the times during General Muhammadu Buhari’s era, whenever security men came to attack kidnappers, they were repelled by some soldiers stationed there.
“When you arrest some persons and you want to take the matter up, a direct order will come for you to transfer them to Abuja and when such is done, they are freed and redeployed back immidiately and everybody knows about this.
“Most times, people who were arrested for that kind of banditry were immidiately released as fast as they were handed over to Abuja. So, it points to a scenario of collusion in complicity in the crime and that was why the governor set up this independent Operation Crush.
“What is happening there requires heavy case study and it is not what you leave in the hands of police alone. Everybody has to be involved to unravel the jigsaw that we are facing there.
And that market has been made non-residential; it is a temporary order, which is in the direction of crime control,” he said.
He further said that the market is now more secure, because enough security personnel have been deployed there to protect those, who do business there.
“So the real traders in the market are now well protected and comfortable, while the criminals are the people, who must find their way out of the area. They just have to leave, because the new security arrangement of Operation Crush cannot tolerate them again,” he said.
He described as untrue insinuations by some opposition people that the government of Abia State was trying to shutdown Lokpanta Cattle Market.
According to Chinekezi, “it is not true, because if you shutdown the market, you have hurt Abia, you have hurt Enugu, you have hurt the South-East and Northerners, who do business there.
“Everybody is a victim here. So, the target is to protect the market, make it a safe place, by stopping the heinous crimes that take place in that area.”
For Chinekezi, the Abia State Governor is doing exactly what he should do. He described Otti, as a man, who understands the mechanism of crime fighting, noting that formation of Operations Crush has reduced kidnapping in that area.
“I’m sure Abuja is happy now, because they are no longer hearing about adoption of people along Lokpanta -Enugu road,” he observed.
Goodluck Ibem, president general, Coalition of Southeast Youth Leaders (COSYL), said that the recent order that Lokpanta Cattle Market ceases to be residential and Operation Crush introduced by Governor Alex Otti, to deal with crime in the state was a welcome development.
He also said that the cattle market, based on information gathered from reliable sources, has been infiltrated by some criminal elements, who hide under doing cattle and other businesses to perpetrate crimes, like kidnapping, robbery, killing and other violent crimes.
He said that conversion of the market from night trading to day trading, will help people to see the faces of those coming-in and out of the market.
“It is difficult to identify individuals coming-in and coming-out of a place or market that conducts its activities at night. The arrangement to ensure that the market does business in the day time is a welcome development,” he said.
Ibem, however, urged the Governor to engage and empower the youth of Lokpanta and other neighbouring communities to provide their best and trusted youths, who will guide and protect their community forest and bushes from intruders, who might want to camp and use the bushes as operational base to commit crime.
This is as he also urged the Governor to expedite action to ensure that the Lokpanta Cattle Market is properly fenced, to ensure that criminals cannot use the place as their base.
He said: “The Governor should install CCTV cameras in the state, most especially on strategic places in order to gather intelligence. This will help deal decisively with security challenges.
“Rehabilitation of moribund industries and provision of enabling environment is another area that will help stem the tide of crime in the state.
“After graduation from school, there are no jobs for our graduates and this poses a serious threat to our society, as most of them resort to crime, as an alternative way of survival.”
He urged Otti to do his best to ensure that state-owned moribund industries, like the Aba Textile Mill and the Umuahia Ceramic Industry are revived.
He also urged the State Government to ensure that roads and other infrastructures that help business to thrive are put in place in the state.
For Obinna Nwagbara, chief executive, Youth and Students Advocates for Development Initiative (YSAD), a non-governmental organisation, setting up of Operation Crush was a step in the right direction.
He affirmed that Okigwe-Umunneochi axis was a hotbed of kidnapping before the launch of that security intervention, noting that in the past six weeks or thereabout, that sanity has been restored on that road.
He also said that the recent order that the cattle market will cease to be residential “is also a welcome development, when you consider the reason for that decision- the cattle market serving as a hideout for criminal elements.
“It shows that the Alex Otti-led government is aware of what the problems are and its intentional about tackling it.”
He urged government to go ahead with the decision and provide security at the market to avoid cattle rustling.
“A friend of mine, a lecturer at Abia State University, Uturu, was kidnapped. Upon his escape, he said that his abductors were Fulani. About one year after, another ABSU lecturer friend of mine was kidnapped with his colleagues between Umuahia and Okigwe Junction. Upon their release, after millions of naira was paid as ransom, both of them said that they were kidnapped by Fulani men,” he said.
To reduce crime to the barest minimum, Nwagbara appealed to the Abia State Government to prioritise payment of salaries and pensions.
“Although there is a big difference from where we are coming from.”
He observed that most parents lost control of their children, because they couldn’t provide for their children, due to non-payment of salaries and pensions or their business collapse, due to poor infrastructure and these contributed to high rate of criminal activities among young people: street cultism, drug abuse, drug trafficking, human trafficking, especially the prevalence of baby factories, fraudulent activities (yahoo yahoo), among others.
He said that Otti’s government should, beyond its effort at rehabilitating roads in Aba and Umuahia, should embark on rehabilitation of roads in the rural areas, to make them conducive for business.
This according to him, will attract investments in rural areas and investments means that jobs would be created.
Nwagbara also appealed to government to roll out job creation programmes and invest massively in public education at the primary and secondary levels.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Security has commended Governor Alex Otti for the positive steps he has taken so far to restore security and order in the state.
The Committee particularly praised Otti for dismantling the kidnapping operations and other criminal activities, which had festered at the Lokpanta Cattle Market area of Umunneochi, along the Enugu-Umuahia-Aba Expressway.
The Committee led by Obi Aguocha, member, representing Ikwuano/Umuahia North/South Federal Constituency, rising from its interactive sessions with security agencies, traditional rulers and other stakeholders from Umunneochi, had visited Governor Otti, to brief him on the outcome of their findings, as well as hear from him.