Owukpa community in Ogbadibo Local Government Area of Benue State has been under siege by suspected kidnappers.
The suspected kidnappers operate in the community unhindered both day and night as there is no presence of security operatives in the community.
Owukpa is a border community between Benue and Enugu states and is surrounded by ungoverned forests from where the kidnappers suspected to be Fulani herdsmen operate.
The armed kidnappers, however, may not have been operating successfully without informants as many locals have been indicted, arrested, detained, charged and remanded in correctional centers in Enugu and Makurdi, the states capitals in connection to different kidnapping cases.
When and how it all started
The story of kidnapping that the peasant farmers and villagers were hearing from their children and relations in cities came to their doorsteps on a market day in November 2021 when armed kidnappers stormed the market, shot two and kidnapped a wife of a popular businessman in the market. The woman was released days later after ransom was paid.
At another point in 2022, the suspected kidnappers returned to the community. This time, a Catholic Rev. Father was targeted. Though they didn't succeed in picking the priest, his cook was kidnapped from the parish house and released after several days in her abductors den upon payment of undisclosed amount as ransom.
In the same year, a few youths in the community suspected to be aiding kidnapping operations resorted to calling individuals, threatening them to drop specific amount of ransom in specific locations for them to pick up, else they would come for the victims and abduct them. A few of the individuals contacted, out of fear, acted as instructed by the suspected kidnappers.
Luck, however, ran out of the plotters, when they contacted an Igbo businessman in the community to drop some money in a location at a public primary school around Ahor-ogbo market within a specific time, else they would come for him.
Unlike others who, out of fear didn't voice out what they were going through, the man bravely opened up to the local vigilantes who laid ambush around the primary school where the man was asked to drop the ransom.
At the agreed time, the man rapped some papers and dropped for the suspected kidnappers and they were arrested at gun point by local vigilantes when they went to pick the money. The vigilantes handed them over to the police for prosecution. They were all locals.
Since this time, kidnapping has become a normal business and common to the villagers who have now become regular victims.
The kidnappers have consequently marked out soft targets where they constantly attack.
The attack is majorly taking place around Ahor-ogbo market, Ugbugbu - Atamaka road, Ukalegwu - Obollo Eke road, Ankpa-Ichama road, Odobe - Ankpa road, Ankpa - Elugwu road, Ahor - Odobe - Ubafu road and Okpoga - Ukwo road.
On these roads, between 2022/2023, many school children, famers, market women and travellers have been kidnapped, assaulted, macheted and terribly beaten by the suspected kidnappers.
Many of these inter-village roads have been abandoned and many children withdrawn from distant schools in the community for fear of the attacks.
There is no police presence in the community. There is, however, a police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) outpost in a distant headquarter of the community, Ukwo Owukpa. Even suspects arrested by the community vigilantes and handed over to the police are usually released without any action to discourage the menace. There is equally no logistics support for the police as they mostly have no vehicle or motorcycles to use to go after criminals.
The community has severally written to both the state and the federal government for support in the area of security mobilization in order to raid the adjoining forests without a positive response.
Some of the communities, particularly, Ugwueru and Ugbugbu have made frantic efforts to curtail the menace. In addition to the state sponsored vigilante group whose presence, communities in Owukpa hardly feel, the two communities have formed own separate vigilante groups to fight off kidnapping activities and maintain peace and order.
Local vigilante efforts
The vigilantes have been very helpful in rescue operations and have been challenging the suspected kidnappers in forests. This is despite the logistics challenges that they face.
The group known as Neighborhood Security Watch have been able to make different arrests for the police including a Fulani herdsman involved in the kidnapping of a lady on the Ichima - Atamaka road in July 2023.
The arrested suspect has confessed to the crime and currently in remand awaiting trial in Makurdi prison.
Challenges facing the local Vigilante group
The local vigilantes are faced with the challenges of inadequate training, lack of weapons to confront the armed kidnappers in their hideouts in the forests, mobility to swiftly respond to distress calls in places that need their attention and stipend to keep their families going.
Owukpa community is appealing to government at all levels to come to its aid in terms of a functional police station at Ahor -Ogbor, training and equipping the vigilantes with helpful tools, provision of operational vehicles and motorcycles and monthly stipends for the personnel.
Speaking exclusively with allnews.ng, Igoche Anthony, the National Chairman of Ugbugbu Development Association appealed to both the Nigerian and the Benue State governments to consider their plights and come to their aid.
According to Igoche, just the community effort is not enough to wade off kidnapping activities. Igoche called for the mobilization of security men to the community and the raid of adjoining forests.