The news of the kidnap of His Royal Highness, Agbogidi Obi Edward Akaeze Ofulue III, the monarch of Ubulu-Uku kingdom in the Aniocha South Local Government Area (LGA) of Delta State, Nigeria, wafted out of the forest like a bad rumor.
For a people so accustomed to the word of mouth transmission of news and other stories, when the story hit the grapevine on Tuesday, January 5th, 2016, some bloggers reported it as a matter for conjecture. The monarch was “suspected” to have been kidnapped. Beyond the rumor mills, news of the kidnapping of the monarch reached me through my 83-year-old mum. Obi Edward Akaeze Ofulue is a childhood friend whose mother, Queen Aliam, shared kinship with my mum in our hometown, Ogwashi-Uku, Delta State. And so his travails are personal to me, besides its foregrounding of the epochal dimension which the hideous saga of kidnappings that has gripped Delta State has reached.
Reports indicate that the 52-year-old monarch, for whom 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of his coronation, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen, numbering about six, during a trip outside of his kingdom. Like a scene from a mystery movie, his Toyota Land Cruiser Jeep was found empty along a quiet link road that the monarch had taken on his way to the State capital, Asaba, about 40 kilometers from his home. There were no traces of him, no signs of any violent encounter. It was further reported that the monarch was travelling with a young pastor of the Deeper Life Bible ministry who doubled as his aide at the palace. Simply identified as “the son of Nwaugbo,” the young man reportedly returned to the palace a day after the kidnap incident, having escaped from their abductors. He told his kinsmen and women that he was beaten but the Obi was spared. He informed them that the kidnappers, suspected to be Fulani herdsmen who graze their cattle in the bushes and have become more notorious for various crimes including kidnaps and armed robbery, had taken him and the Obi to a forest called Mbiri bush in the locality. The incident was said to have happened when “the driver slowed down the vehicle as he approached [a] bad spot on the road.”
The escape of the Obi’s aide raised hopes for his release. The kidnappers were said to have contacted the family. According to a Facebook community news page, Ubulu-Uku Pilot, the kidnappers “requested to speak with Nzekwue Don Ofulue, the Obi’s brother. He was seriously warned not to even inform the police about the matter.” A description of the possible hideout of the kidnappers by the aide to the Obi who escaped led to an intense search which regrettably yielded no dividends. Instead, the monarch’s abductors were said to have gone incommunicado and further underground. However, a Leadership newspaper report of January 14 reveals that “a close relation of the Obi, Patrick Odum, who expressed regrets over the Obi’s kidnap, said, ‘The abductors are still insisting on N100 million or nothing else, it is a taboo to kidnap a royal father and take him into the bush where he is in the last two weeks.’”
Delta State has become the den of kidnappers while the State government seems to be paying lip service to fighting insecurity. A revealing article published in the online newspaper The Will declares:
“Despite the state government’s efforts at checking insecurity with the number of security aides and a huge budget to help security agencies tackle insecurity … in the last few months there have been several cases of high-profile kidnapping and killing by suspected armed bandits.”
Amongst the victims of recent kidnaps are, 73-year old Mrs. Queen Eyetan Egbedi, mother of Julius Egbedi, the Senior Special Assistant on Agriculture to Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, Maimunat, the wife of a Super Eagles’ midfielder, Fengor Ogude, who was kidnapped in Warri, Rev Odiaka, and another Catholic priest kidnapped while returning from a ceremony in Ubulu-Uku. In addition, according to The Will newspaper, “over 10 persons…kidnapped at the Delta State University Teaching Hospital, DELSUTH, Oghara in Ethiope West Local Government Areas of the state”. The online medium further reports that:
“Dr. Obiabo Yahaya, a Neurologist, was abducted on December 29th, 2015 just a few days after the Christmas celebration, which heightened fear among resident doctors who are now endangered species in the hands of kidnappers in that part of the State.”
Interestingly, both Obi Ofulue and Dr. Yahaya appear to be held at the same location by the same gang, going by The Guardian’s report of statements credited to the Delta State Commissioner of Police, Baba Akali Usman. The Police Commissioner claimed that the police knew the location of the two victims but understandably declined to disclose plans being made to rescue them. “The kidnappers have made calls,” Mr. Usman was quoted as saying. “We have been able to close their location. We have not been able to rescue because we are doing a lot of planning. The process of rescuing is delicate so you must be very cautious so that you do not harm the victims.”
Aware of the delicate nature of the situation and as if passing a vote of no confidence on the State security forces, the abducted monarch’s people have taken their case to the Holy Spirit. In a solidarity march in Ubulu-Uku on January 17th, they prayed, sang, and invoked divine intervention to resolve the unprecedented sacrilegious experience. In a representative invocation posted on the Ubulu-Uku Pilot Facebook page, the people declared with Pentecostal fervor (and with the accompanying image):
Holy ghost releases your fury against the kidnappers of Obi Akaeze right now. Wherever they are hiding let your fire begin to burn in their heart and let them have no rest until they are caught. Holy Ghost fire pursue them and kill them. Every hand in the kidnap of our dear king will run mad starting from today.
Father release supernatural strength upon our king and your servant who you choose to rule ubulu uku in this epoch. Wherever he is we pray he will return unhurt and every plan of the wicked enemies of obi akaeze to terminate his life or rulership, God will destroy that plan and the fire of the holy spirit will burn them to ashes in the name of Jesus Christ.
Father let there be war against the kidnappers and let their desires perish .
Thank you Jesus.
While the war against the kidnappers is waged at the physical and supernatural realms, I remember Akaeze, as the Obi was fondly called during our childhood days, as a soft-spoken man of peace who loathed any form of vanity and arrogant display of privilege. He had chosen to live a quiet life in the United Kingdom where he obtained a degree in Law, married a British citizen, and became an entrepreneur. He seemed to have ascended the throne more in obeisance to tradition than out of personal ambition. Despite the fact that the throne had been contested, with a step brother laying claim to the throne, Obi Ofulue III shunned the kind of armoured protection that highly privileged Nigerians enjoy. Instead, he preferred to maintain a modest, civilized profile, and to travel incognito as best he could.
His ascension to the throne as the heir following his father’s demise in 2006 marked a significant change at the palace. A born-again Christian of the Deeper Life faith, he was committed to reforming certain traditional cultic practices at the palace to the consternation of some conservative elements in the kingdom. But in an interview with The Sun newspaper, Obi Ofulue III affirmed that he was not against tradition, but instead, had set his sights on reforming/modernizing the kingdom. In his words:
“My aspiration is to bring structure and projects that will help our youths. Many of our youths are there doing nothing, they have no direction. So I am articulating a project that will help to empower our youths. I want our youths to succeed because they are the leaders of tomorrow. We cannot afford to neglect them. I tell our people wherever they are, to start coming back to invest here. Charity begins at home. They should start from our community. They have the money, they have the connection, and they have the contacts. They should bring people, they should bring investors. We have the land, Ubulu-Uku is blessed. In the whole of Aniocha South, we are the biggest town, in terms of landmass. The potentials are here, let them come. The town is for every one of us. It is our Jerusalem. We have to join our hands together to move the land forward.”
True to his progressive reformist vision, one of the major tasks he devoted himself to is tackling the over four years of the blackout in the town—a common feature in some of the towns in the LGA which includes my hometown, Ogwashi Uku. In Ogwashi-Uku’s case, there has not been any blink of electricity for over seven years. “It is as if the government has forgotten these communities,” a resident had told me during a visit last summer. Rallying his people around self-help and working with the Ubulu-Uku Development Union (UDU) under the leadership of its President General, Jones Ofunne, Obi Akaeze launched a N10 million project to restore power to his people through the “the purchase of conductors, cross arms, insulators and other accessories as well as the replacement of cables and vandalised transformers.”
In appreciation of his reformist vision, and out of love for their monarch, the Ubulu-Uku people have stepped up efforts to locate the missing monarch and my childhood friend, Obi Ofulue III. The kidnap of the monarch, three years after a similar kidnapping of Professor Kamene Okonjo, the Queen of Ogwashi-Uku and mother of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela, Nigeria’s former Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, point to the resurgence of insecurity and to how daring kidnappers have become in Delta State. My investigation suggests that the recent swell in abductions may be connected to the flushing out of kidnap kingpins from neighboring Anambra State by the government of the State. The governor reportedly adopted a scorched-earth policy against the criminals and their homes—burning their homes and shaming them. The strategy is believed to have effectively chased away the ransom-crazed kidnappers out of the State.
Additionally, the Federal Government, through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), worked to combat the scourge of kidnappings, especially in the Niger Delta region by forcing mobile telephone companies to comply with a new regime of registering all mobile phone subscribers, complete with their full identities. Why it is still difficult for security forces to use common phone surveillance technology or the Global Positioning System (GPS) to track down kidnappers who use cell phones to chase ransoms defies the imagination. Perhaps not until the chief executive of some State in the region is kidnapped by increasingly audacious hoodlums would States like Delta State focus on security as the basic foundation for citizens’ wellbeing and for socio-political development. As the chief security officer of Delta State, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa must be seen to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that enough is enough in a situation that requires a concerted emergency solution. Finding Obi Akaeze Ofulue III and the dozens of kidnapped Delta people should be a litmus test of Governor Okowa’s resolve to secure the oil-rich state early in the New Year and throughout his tenure, still much in its first year. Time is ticking Dr. Okowa!
Nduka Otiono is a Professor at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.