In this interview with NAIJA CENTER NEWS, the Director of Ogba Zoo, Edo State who was abducted in Benin City by daredevils, explained his life in captivity, his travail, what kept him alive and those who were responsible for his abduction.
By Ehi Ekhator
Any premonition of a security breach (threat) or attack on your person/ staff, given the recent development at the zoo, prior to your kidnap?
There are always some elements of vulnerability for everyone. They come in all forms and shades. Everybody has to make their individual assessment, but they are usually based on similar factors and individual circumstances, as the environment dictates. Any normal person will definitely have concerns about the way violent crimes appear to be spiralling out of control today. So I have felt some reasonable levels of vulnerability over the years, based on what is happening around. For example, my main anxiety has always centred on the protracted encroachment on the Zoo by neighbouring communities. In Benin environ, selling other peoples’ land is now an occupation and even communal lands are not reserved for subsequent generations. Assets entrusted to the Zoo, includin, lands, forestry and buildings, have been raided. There is a high level of complicity in these matters, so much so that the Zoo as a State ecological heritage has been left vulnerable to wanton plunder by land grabbers. Being an environmentalist, with a leasehold over the Zoo, it has been difficult to watch its assets, including pristine forests, being decimated without raising alarm. I am glad that Governor Obaseki has risen up to the challenge of curbing these atrocities.
So I had always considered myself vulnerable as a result of threats from these land grabbers and poachers. Even when you think you have no personal vulnerability, you can still fall victim to a chance incident anywhere. We just have to adjust our lifestyle and movement to reduce our exposure to the perceived threat level, while being prayerful. In fact, you cannot avoid certain occupational hazards or situations whereby your views or position on issues could become sources of threats.
On the fateful day, did you at any time have any sign or uncomfortable gut feeling?
When your gut feeling is overstretched over time, given the perennial nature of the vulnerabilities, coupled with environmental distractions, your instincts will get dull and confused. Most times you take evasive actions against an ambush or when you feel defenceless, but what happened on the day I was kidnapped defied both. It was clearly bizarre and not in the equation. If I were to follow my instincts or even cognitive perception, I will not reside in Benin (or many other places in Nigeria), but this is where I have my occupational focus and social base, so we cannot all just check out and abandon our home or country. Life itself comprises of taking responsible risks, but there is always a limit. We just keep hoping that our security problems are a passing phase and that we will overcome both the social and economic challenges at the root of our security problems.
What was the scenario (situation) around you or what was the Zoo like on the day of your attack?
This is the aspect that really broke my heart. It was a busy Sunday afternoon and we had fun-seekers all over the place. The car park was full as with all the picnic areas. The reception area where I sat was crowded, with over 25 available seats taken, while visitors were streaming in and out. I was holding a series of meetings, but chose not to use my office or any of the function hubs since i wanted to be easily accessible to various groups and individuals that I had planned to meet with. It was three days to the annual World Tourism Day celebration (September 27), which 2017 edition was being hosted at the Zoo. We had vendors and stakeholders taking turns to fine-tune their respective roles.
The Branch members of my alumni association (ABU, Zaria) were also arriving for a scheduled meeting. The Zoo is also a beat comprising police patrol teams from four Divisions, but on this Sunday, only one team was around and they dropped three of their men in order to respond to some issues nearby. The policemen would usually sit near the entrance to observe visitors after patrolling the premises. On this fateful day, they were seated about 3 or 4 meters away from where I was. Since I was holding series of discussions with different groups in this crowded setting, I hardly observed what was happening beyond a few rows of those nearest to me when the air was shattered by rapid semi-automatic gunfire. There was no time to think, but my eyes caught what was going on and everyone dashed for safety. Here I was, a facility manager that cherishes the creation of a relaxed environment for all shades of fun seekers, but I was now witnessing the horror of visitors scampering in all directions for dear life and the consciousness of what was meted out to the three innocent policemen.
What was your immediate reaction when the three policemen were killed?
Though I was the target of the kidnap operation, I think the assailants were interested in capturing the police weapons, otherwise you will expect them to trail a victim for an ambush. My escape route had been blocked and my struggle with the assailants was futile as they were intent on any level of brutality. It was the point at which I suffered severe injuries to my back because I crashed into a nearby drain during the initial struggle. I was now resigned to my fate and the assailants later told me I could have been shot if I had persisted in trying to escape.
Describe what happened thereafter and how you were whisked away? I was momentarily paralysed by my back injury and did not realise that I could not walk. My assailants thought it was all part of my resistance so they dragged me on the ground all the way to the waiting car. I was actually telling them to let me walk but my limbs were wobbly and they had no time.
I was crammed along with about five of them into this jalopy that sped like a bat out of hell. They headed out of town and further down the road, two policemen were trying to flag down the vehicle. I was afraid that there was going to be a shootout as the policemen were wielding pistols, but I involuntarily appealed to the kidnappers so they just fired into the air and sped past. It was a relatively short distance travelled when they swerved off the road into some tall grasses, then drove another short distance until we arrived at a small stream where some of their men were waiting with canoes. There was move to blindfold me before being transferred onto the canoe but the leader said it wasn’t necessary. I did not like the possible implications of not being blindfolded especially as the assailants were not hooded. This gave me continuous anxiety, but I followed the usual advisory not to make eye contact with them. We travelled by canoe for over an hour before we arrived at where they had parked their speed boats and the river was wider. Then began a longer journey into the night and I lost every sense of time and direction.
What was it like when you were in the car with the attackers, was there any communication immediately?
The kidnappers were obviously high on drugs and extremely excited with both my capture and the police weapons they carted away. They told me that they have been making attempts on me but that I was proving to be a difficult target so they had to reinforce for this fateful day to execute the job at all costs. I quickly recollected my composure and was anxious to calm them down. I always pride myself with being able to adjust to any situation or circumstance, and I did just that by acting calm and friendly. I had sufficient presence of mind to experience the stark beauty of the unfolding landscapes just before sunset and made impassioned comments about it, but they ignored me without being hostile. They advised me on how to stay safe in the boat, particularly not to hold on to the sides so as not to brush my fingers against dangerous shrubs in the narrow creeks.
Describe what happened on that first night and where you were taken and the thoughts going on in your mind, having realized you had been kidnapped.
We arrived at a camp in a dense mangrove forest after more than two hours of high-speed travel in the dark night. It was a shed built on stilts over tidal marshes by a water channel. A waiting group scrutinized me and all excited discussions were in Ijaw language. Several AK 47 rifles were visible amongst the men. Where I was finally kept was a separate shed not within eye view of other structures, but I could always hear their loud conversations, singing and occasional gunshots.
My accommodation consisted of a tattered one inch foam flooring over uneven wooden boards that constantly bit into my flesh and a wooden bench. A tattered mosquito tent hung over the sleeping area. By the next morning, a group of them came to ask me questions about my occupation and activities. They told me to relax and that they will attend to my basic needs. They gave me a paper to list items I would need, such included toiletries, clothes, sachet water, medicines and even newspapers, which they provided. They were interested in my reaction upon reading news of the kidnap in the newspapers they had provided. They said that they were paid to assassinate me but that they will put me through “trial” to know if I was innocent of the accusations made against me.
I was asked about my preferred meals and was served adequate food twice daily. On the first morning , I requested to speak with my wife on phone but they said it was not yet time. It was on the third day after arrival at the camp that they allowed me a short conversation with my wife after I had provided the gsm number. Of course I told my wife not to worry and that I was fine, to which they promptly truncated the call and challenged me as to why I should say that I am fine. They queried further that my statement was because they have not started torturing me. During the course of my stay, I was threatened a few times but never tortured. I was occasionally aware that they made calls to my family members to make monetary demands, but I was not privy to the detailed discussions. It was a very important attitude on my part to relax and build rapport with the militants but at the very core, I still had anxiety as to how it will all end. I would mention to them my wish to be free to return by commercial boat rather than their armed presence, but they said it was in my interest to be escorted by them. They said that I should not worry over my return but that they had their own procedures.
What I disliked most about the location I was kept is that it was totally unkempt, against the backdrop of the naturally beautiful mangrove forests. Again, the common reality in the creeks is the absence basic toilet facilities, in spite of the signs of long habitation of the place. Quite disgusting is that they usually fetched their drinking water from the same tidal waters in which they bathe and defecate. My request to have continuous supplies of sachet water was ignored, but luckily I was given the option of rainwater.
Were the kidnappers hostile or friendly to you while in the car or in transit?
Describe what life was like for you when you were with them, detailing your daily routines, and What would you say kept you alive or inspired your faith all through the period or where you drew the strength to cope.
Soon after my abduction, I became conscious of the fact that there would be much prayers and fasting by family and well-wishers, in efforts to intercede on my behalf. So, I instinctively wanted to be attuned to those prayers and thus started to fast and pray intermittently. Since my food rations were generous, I had too much leftovers from my fasting and my abductors would raise concerns about it, so I decided to surreptitiously ditch most of the food through the slits on the floor boards. No soon after, there was massive rat invasion of the area and the rats were so excited that their noises would scare us awake. The sentries were perplexed but I sooner realized that it was the food I was ditching under the hut that was attracting the rats, so I now took time to carry the surplus food away to fling far off when I would pretend to be going to use the convenience. The rat invasion then stopped. One of the sentries was fond of playing music from his phone and would occasionally play some popular gospel music, which would act like a tonic to boost my spirits.
The kidnappers had the notion that I was accomplished and in consideration of my age, accorded me some respect. They also had the idea that I was knowledgeable in many spheres of life and would frequently strike up a conversation with a view to picking my mind. I was usually glad at any of such opportunities to converse with them because it gave me an effective escape from worrying about my fate and the anguish my family and friends would be going through. Again, the conversation brought about good rapport and hopes of a positive outcome. They said they have remained militants because their leaders schemed them out of the Government Amnesty programme and expressed the desire to start a business if they could raise enough capital. They turned me into an emergency consultant on the various legitimate enterprises in which they could be engaged. Since they appeared to have serious grudges against government, I would make efforts trying to explain how the society could evolve along the lines of other developed societies, if only everyone played their part correctly.
I was often afflicted with boredom, being confined to such a small location. I would fantasize on the possibility of such pristine environment being converted into an ecological Resort and my curiosity to explore the environment heightened. As my period of captivity lengthened, the armed sentries in my location would occasionally disappear for what I suspected to be long meetings over my fate or some other issues. It was on one of such periods that my curiosity took the better part of me that I wandered into the mangrove forests and lost my bearings. The mangrove forest is near impenetrable, but in this particular instance, there were some logging trails that had opened a series of passages that I felt I could explore for exercise. In my childhood, we lived very close to the forest and always had the nostalgia for walking in the woods. Because the time of this escapade was in the evening, the coming of nightfall complicated my directions and what was to be a long stroll turned out to be 7 days without water or food. About the second day in the mangrove forest, there was a water channel I wanted to cross and I needed my clothes to remain dry, so I took them off and folded them into a ball to navigate with them held over my head. Midstream, I stumbled badly from underwater objects and quicksand, and before I could recover from near drowning and the hurt to my feet, my lump of clothes floated away and disappeared. So my ordeal in the mangrove forest took a new twist as I now had zero protection from the elements and the myriads of blood sucking insects for about five days and nights. There was no sign of any habitation or even a shed to seek shelter but eventually, it was the kidnappers themselves who rescued me by canoe when I used the sounds of their gunshots to trace my way close to their camp.
From the physical condition they found me, especially the vicious lacerations from thorns and other dangerous shrubs, I became like a medical patient and they hurried to provide me with a hot bath for the first time, then fresh clothes and food. It seemed their immediate consideration was how to stabilize me for urgent evacuation back home as it must have looked like I could not survive. They told me that my reappearance from the forest gave them much relief because they initially suspected that I had escaped by compromising some of their members, which they viewed as more terrible by way of consequence. Because I was taken to what looked like their camp “office”, I sighted a bottle of local gin with herbal infusion and my condition made me to request for some tots in order to get some quick “warmth”. By the time I had taken a second or third tot, I felt much better but the strong stuff took out my vocal cords, so by the time they put me on phone to my wife, she busted out wailing that they had brought an impersonator. She felt they must have possibly done something grave to me after nearly a week without contact. It took some persuasion before she could accept that I was the one, especially when I used some lexicon that she knew could not be from any ad-hoc rustic, since she was now familiar with their communications. I was made to catch some sleep on an “executive bed”, which was the only one in that hut, in preparation for my journey home. So, this was my dramatic release as I was taken to a remote creek in Delta State. A friend volunteered to pick me at the point the kidnappers arranged to drop me off. In finding our way out of the remote place, I was now afraid of possible machete -wielding robbers, after living in morbid fear of militants with AK 47 riffles for three weeks. That is Nigeria for you – from one fear to another.
ON ARRIVAL HOME
My wife had moved into a secret location soon after my abduction due to security considerations. That was where I headed as soon as I got into Benin. Very few persons were there when I arrived but I could barely walk as thorns were embedded all over the surface of my sole. I knew I needed a doctor to check me urgently but getting a sound sleep was more important since I hardly had any comfortable sleep throughout my sojourn in the mangrove forests, especially with mosquitoes and other insects making a feast of my bare body. I was about to sleep when my wife responded to a call and discovered it was the kidnappers. She wanted to decline the call but I asked to take it. It was the gang leader who effected my release that was on the line. He said he was calling to find out if I had arrived home safely; and I thanked him.
It was early the next day that I got a bright young doctor to do preliminary checks, since I was to board a flight to Lagos same day for an appointment with a medical expert. The young doctor checked me and said my vital signs were normal and only dressed the unsightly lacerations on my body. Surprisingly, the medical experts in Lagos arrived at the same verdict after extensive checks and tests. They were amazed that I did not have even a trace of malaria or typhoid. I spent less than two hours at the hospital and was placed on strong antibiotics and a shot of anti-tetanus injection. The reception party in Lagos was more in number and they all wanted to take turns to jump on me not knowing I had sores and blisters under my clothes. I would wince from the bear hugs and plead to be released, but pleas were hardly accepted. I then had to partially go out of circulation again to get more rest and allow the slow but steady healing of my wounds. However, I was in regular phone contact with about everybody who needed to speak with me and it was endless. I felt really humbled and sad when many elders, eminent persons, friends and colleagues would head to my house with the intention to felicitate, only to find out that we were not in town. My period of rest and recovery was also spent catching up with all my schedules and contacts.
Some informed relatives observed that in advanced societies, such ordeal as I had just experienced would be followed up by psychological therapy, after the physical treatments. Without any reservation, I submitted myself to an expert psychiatrist who is an old family friend and the only session was actually like a convivial visit to me. The only anxiety I expressed was the few times in the early days of my return when I would wake up fright thinking I was still in the mangrove swamps, whereas I was in the comfort of close family accommodation. I must say with the vivid recollection of the details of my ordeal with the kidnappers, I am completely reconciled with the stark realities, so I do not think I will nurse any psychological scars of the experience. I even have a sense of fulfillment since I think I made a good attempt at impacting my abductors positively as to giving them a more socially useful orientation. At a point, they sobered up to the gravity of murdering three policemen and their leader lamented to me that he did not send his men to kill the policemen. Some would ask me in confidence if I would allow them to relate with me after my release without calling the police. One of the men confided in me that he had an ominous dream that security agents were amassing to launch a war on them.
The loss of the three policemen remains my main regret because I had a long relationship with them and they were very decent professionals. Both the Ogba Zoo management and the Nigerian Association of Zoos and Parks (NAZAP) are resolved to bringing succour to their families and more or less participated in their funerals. I am glad that some humanitarian organizations and individuals have already rendered some assistance to their families, while others have also pledged support.
I am overwhelmed by the amount of sympathy we received during and after the incident. With the enormity of care displayed by family, friends, associates, and well-wishers, there is no reason for me not to put aside all the trauma from the incident and continue to live my simple and purposeful life, with a resolve to rededicate myself to the service of God and humanity. I have always believed that the Niger Delta has been shortchanged in developmental objectives and it is my desire to continue to press home that point. In all, I will attribute the positive outcome of my ordeal to divine intervention, as there were overwhelming supplications on my behalf. I also believe in the importance of having a clear conscience and the need to be absolved of wronging others with no just cause. Lastly, I perceive my ordeal in the mangrove swamp was the price I paid to get a speedy release. I have no doubt in my mind that the current scourge of kidnapping is a passing phase and it is my prayer that the society will soon return to a saner era.