Fasoranti’s daughter: ‘Herdsmen kidnap people here almost everyday, a man paid N2m recently’ — Villagers tell gripping stories of terror
• Say Fulani have set up camps in their forest
The nightmarish experience of travellers on the Benin-Owo Expressway peaked last week with the killing of Mrs Funke Olakunrin, the daughter of Afenifere leader, Pa Reuben Fasoranti. HAKEEM GBADAMOSI took a tour of the highway to feel the pulse of residents of communities that flank the highway. His findings:
“I was working on my farm when I saw seven of them fully armed passing by. I hid behind a tree and in a matter of minutes after getting to the road, they started shooting. They abducted about five people. I saw that they were all Fulani. I wonder why some people are afraid to speak the truth about the identity of those behind this criminal act.” This is one of the scary accounts of farmers along Benin-Ore-Sagamu Expressway on the security situation in the area.
Over the years, residents of communities that flank the Benin-Ore-Sagamu Expressway have experienced all manner of crimes on the busy road. Armed robbery formed the order of the day before the reconstruction of the road by the Federal Government gave the residents and motorists alike a sigh of relief. But the renovation soon had a strange twist as kidnapping and killing became the new order. Kidnapping becomes a booming business on the road with residents, motorists and commuters falling victim to the hoodlums who have found a haven in the thick forest along the road.
Activities of the hoodlums suspected to be Fulani herdsmen in the area came to a head last week Friday with the killing of Mrs Funke Olakunrin, a daughter of the leader of the pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, Chief Reuben Fasoranti. The 58-year-old woman was said to be travelling to Lagos from Akure when she was felled by the bullets of the gunmen believed to be of Fulani extraction.
Olakunrin and some other travellers reportedly ran into a barricade set by the criminals who opened fire on them in an attempt to stop them. The woman was killed and others seriously harmed in the process that also saw the kidnapping of another victim, one Gerald Igbuoyikha.
According to residents of the communities in the axis, this was not the first kidnap attempt that led to a loss of life on the road but it appeared to be the first killing that has sent a serious signal to the leaders that something drastic needed to be done.
Saturday Tribune visited the scene of the incident of July 12, which is just a stone’s throw to the old tollgate in Ore, in Odigbo Local Government Area of Ondo State. As of the time of the visit, security operatives were seen stopping and searching vehicles on the highway. But it was noticed that the area where Olakunrin was shot and killed was largely uninhabited as it was dotted by farmlands.
A resident of Akinfosile, Omolayo Akinyemi, told Saturday Tribune that kidnappers in the area were hitherto known to operate in the night but they had become so bold that they now carried out their nefarious activity in broad daylight. He disclosed that no fewer than 50 cases of kidnapping were recorded in the area in the last two months. According to him, the victims were released after payments of ransom and a few who could not afford to meet the demands of the criminals were either killed or maimed.
“Kidnapping is a routine here. These people kidnap motorists and commuters on a daily basis despite the heavy presence of security operatives on the road. There was a heavy shooting here on Monday (15 July), after which we learnt that some people were kidnapped with their vehicles left on the road. We live in fear and sleep with our eyes open. We can hardly visit our farms any longer and we withdraw into our homes as early as 5.00 p.m. They never spare us from their activities; some of our people have also fallen victim to them. They parted with nothing less than N100,000 to secure their release on each occasion,” Akinyemi said.
He explained that they formed a vigilante group in the area to protect themselves but the move yielded no positive results as “these kidnappers are always heavily armed. Their weapons are very sophisticated. This is one of the reasons we have resolved to always withdraw into our homes as early as possible.”
A member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), who pleaded for anonymity, told Saturday Tribune that the hoodlums lived in various camps inside the forest and “they are organised and they understand the topography of the forest.”He said: “These people have lived here for a long time but we never knew. They have their camps inside the forest. They come out to operate unhindered. They have abducted no fewer than 15 drivers and passengers in the last one month. They are becoming more daring; they no longer block the road with stones or tree branches but position themselves in the middle of the road and open fire on approaching vehicles. They have crippled our businesses on this route. Drivers are afraid to ply this road and farmers dread going to their farms for fear of being kidnapped.”
When asked about the identity of the criminals, he said: “I can confirm to you that they are Fulani and not any other tribe. I don’t know if they are herdsmen or not but the language they speak is not pure Hausa. One of them was unlucky to be arrested some time ago during an operation that went awry and I can tell you that he was a Fulani man.”
An octogenarian from Kajola who identified himself simply as Baba Oloyin said a middle-aged man was recently released by the kidnappers four days after parting with N2 million. According to him, the victim was travelling to Benin, Edo State, when he was abducted alongside four others from a commercial vehicle.
He said: “This man from Ibadan was released after spending four days in the forest. He met me on my farm asked for direction to the road and because it was late and there was no cash on him to travel back to Ibadan. I accommodated him in my house. He left the next day.”
He also confirmed that the hoodlums operating on the Benin-Ore road are Fulani. “I was working on my farm when I saw seven of them fully armed passing by. I hid behind a tree and in a matter of minutes after getting to the road, they started shooting. They abducted about five people. I saw that they were all Fulani. I wonder why some people are afraid to speak the truth about the identity of those behind this criminal act. The abducted Ibadan man also confirmed to me that they are Fulani.”
Another resident, Sunday Arogun, said kidnapping was becoming lucrative across the country because of government’s insensitivity to the crime. He lamented the incidence of kidnapping on the Benin-Ore Expressway despite the presence of security agents on the road.
“All they (security agents) do is to stay on the road demanding for money from motorists. The government knows the right thing to do but they shy away from their responsibility of providing adequate security for the people. I have not been able to go to my farm located in Kajola for about two months because I fear that when I go there, I might be kidnapped, killed or maimed by the bandits who have turned our farms to their abode. We are helpless as they destroy our land,” Arogun said.
For Akin Ajayi, a mechanic along the expressway, who was kidnapped on his way from Lagos to Ajebamidele, nothing can stop the abduction of people for ransom for now. He explained that he was coming from Lagos after purchasing some spare parts for a customer when he heard gunshots from all directions on the road and was forced to stop his car.
“I saw about 15 men in military uniform who commanded me and my apprentice to come down from the vehicle. Three of them stayed with us and handed us over to some of their members in the forest and we trekked for about five hours nonstop before we arrived at their base. Then they took our phones and blindfolded us. My hands were tied to a tree as I was interrogated for about 30 minutes. They asked my wife for ransom after I spoke with her for about 20 seconds. They demanded N15 million but at the end of the day, we paid N1.5m for our freedom,” he added.
He said many people remained hostages in the kidnappers’ camps because their relatives had been unable to pay. “I am calling on the state and federal governments to take urgent steps to address the situation and save many Nigerians who are still in the hands of the kidnappers.”
Residents of the communities accused security operatives, including soldiers, of focusing on one area, saying the hoodlums always operated in about five spots between Ore and Ajebamidele. The chairman of the Osooro unit of the NURTW, Mr Abayomi Akingbehin, said some spots were notorious for kidnapping. He listed the spots to include the Nirowi area, where Fasoranti’s daughter was killed. He noted that many travellers had been abducted at that spot.
Kidnappers, he said, we’re able to operate unhindered last week Friday because of rain. According to him, some people who were working on their farms heard the gunshots. He said the hoodlums had returned to the forest before the arrival of the police.
Another dangerous spot in the area is known as “Point 48” at Adewinle Okeola junction. “Abduction at this point is on a daily basis. They still abducted some people there a few days ago. You can see that it is not too far from us. We run for dear lives anytime they begin their operation for fear of being hit by bullets.
“The security people know all these but they choose to move away from the spots. These hoodlums are human beings; they are not invisible and they should be able to tackle them.”
Our correspondent, however, noticed that there was no presence of security agents in places where the residents identified as flashpoints and understand that oftentimes, security personnel arrive at such places after the criminals have concluded their operation.
A 60-year-old food vendor, whose daughter had been a victim, spoke on the condition of anonymity: “The criminals overwhelm security operatives on the highway. Apart from the identified areas, criminal activities take place in other parts of the communities along Benin-Ore Road.” She said her daughter was abducted in her shop in the morning while preparing food for the day. “They demanded N15 million but in the end, we offered them N1 million for my daughter’s release.”
The residents condemned what they called the indiscriminate arrest by men of the Ondo State police command in respect of the killing of Mrs Olakunrin. Arogun disclosed that innocent farmers who were working on their farms had been arrested and taken to Akure.
“These people knew nothing about these abductions and killings. The police should move into the forest; the kidnappers live deep in the forest. The police need to device a new method of gathering information in the area as there are people suspected to be paid to spy for these hoodlums. All these boys moving around cannot be trusted. One of them was arrested some time ago while giving information to some unknown persons. He was handed over to the police but he was released,” Arogun said.
A community leader around the power plant station also described the indiscriminate arrest of farmers. “No fewer than 50 people have been arrested and detained while the herders who should be the number one suspects are moving freely on this road with their cows. We only hope the killing of the daughter of the Yoruba leader, Funke Olakunrin, will put an end to the kidnapping, killing and robbery on this highway,” he said.
The residents also accused the police of turning their deployment on the road to business. They alleged that policemen were harassing motorists and extorting money from them. Similarly, they called for the deployment of soldiers in the forest so they could take the fight to the kidnappers in their den. Our correspondent noticed about 60 soldiers at the entrance of Omotosho town. Most of them stayed idle inside the van, while others were on the road causing a gridlock.
The presence of the soldiers, Saturday Tribune learnt, did not scale down the activities of the kidnappers as two people were reportedly abducted on Tuesday (16th July) night.
Confirming the abduction, the Oluosho of Omotosho, Oba Christopher Ogungbemi, said residents of the town had been at the mercy of kidnappers for a very long time. He said the hoodlums were never bothered about the presence of security operatives on the road.
“Information reaching me this morning (Wednesday) indicated that some people were kidnapped overnight and our local vigilance members who went after them could not rescue the victims because of the superior firepower of the kidnappers,” the traditional ruler said.
However, the state police command confirmed that suspects had been arrested over the killing of Olakunrin and they were helping them in their investigations.
The state Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr Femi Joseph, said the command had been working round the clock to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book. He disclosed that the Inspector General of Police had drafted some detectives from the Force Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and some officers from the Technical Intelligence Unit to assist the officers on the ground in the state on the investigation.
“They are complementing our efforts and we have made a lot of arrests on this matter. We are screening those arrested to know who among them are culpable. By the time we finish the screening, we will let the world know the perpetrators,” Joseph said.
He said he would not be able to disclose the number of those arrested for security reasons. “As I said, a number of people have been arrested and when it is time, we shall parade the suspects.”
The PPRO did not establish the reasons why the vehicle of the deceased was not kept in police custody. “What is important to the command is to arrest the criminals behind this act. I don’t have much to say about this but the only thing I can say for now is that we have our mode of investigation. What we are concerned about is for us to arrest the perpetrators.”
The police spokesman said detectives from the command were still in the forest in search of the hoodlums.