By Damilola Oyedele
Peace Asugwo is a teenage mother whose grandmother, Antonia, felt had disgraced the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock. An indigene of Agwa Village in Oguta Local Government Area of Imo State, she was impregnated by her boyfriend, one Johnson. Luckily for her, an Abuja-based driver, Mr. Kingsley Linus, was willing to marry her; even though at 16 years, she already had a month-old baby boy.
Linus, with the help of his sister, arranged and paid the dowry on Asugwo to her grandmother. His young bride, happy that luck had smiled on her despite her shortcomings, followed him to Abuja, eager to start a new life.
On reaching Abuja, he lodged her in a hotel in Kubwa, claiming that he had lost the keys to his house and would have to get someone to break the door in the morning. A few days later, he introduced a nurse, Mrs. Martina Onwelikwe, to Asugwo as his elder sister who would take care of the infant. Eager to please her in-law, Asugwo promptly handed over the baby to her. The nurse left with Linus who soon disappeared.
Unknown to Asugwo, she has been conned by a syndicate headed by Linus and Onwelikwe. Faced with the stark reality of her situation and nowhere to turn to for succour in what was a strange land to her, she found her way to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and later to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).
NAPTIP agents got cracking and their investigation paid off, as they were able to recover the baby alongside four others from the syndicate and the couples who they sold the children to. The syndicate has cells in Abuja, Enugu, Lagos and Minna.
NAPTIP Assistant Director, Press and Public Relations, Mr. Arinze Orakwue, told reporters Tuesday in Abuja that the case was transferred to the agency by the NHRC on August 31 for investigation.
He added that on September 17, the Niger State Police Command also transferred to the agency a case of criminal conspiracy, abduction and human trafficking involving four suspects and three victims with four babies.
One of the suspects led NAPTIP to Linus and investigations later revealed that he ran the syndicate, which specialised in luring teenage mothers with the promise of marriage to dispossess them of their babies. His partner in crime is Onwelikwe who claims to be a nurse with the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA).
Orakwue added that some couples who bought babies from the syndicate were also in custody of the agency, but they were shielded from the press as they had agreed to be principal witnesses against members of the syndicate.
He urged parents to provide a support system for their children when they mistakenly get pregnant so that they would not fall into the hands of criminals.
According to him, the agency with officials of the Ministry of Women Affairs have begun to consider a review of adoption laws in the country to plug the loopholes being exploited by criminals.
Among those arrested were one Miss Rebecca Auta who was found in Onwelikwe’s house, Miss Oluchi Adache, Miss Ngozi Nwali and Miss Ijeoma Linus. All of them, except for Auta, were unwedded teenage mothers who Linus had ‘married’ and were dispossessed of their babies.
Two of the couples, Mr. and Mrs Godwin Dike and Mr. and Mrs Thomas Anyanwu, had bought babies from the syndicate at prices ranging from N400,000 to N500,000.
Speaking with THISDAY, Asugwo suspected her grandmother to be part of the syndicate for her insistence that she must marry Linus even though he came to ask for her hand in marriage without any relatives, save for a woman who fronted for him as his sister.
“My parents are late, so my grandmother said I must marry him. When I called her that Linus had run away with my baby, she said I should forget about the baby and come back home. Also after they arrested Linus, he said he had sent some money to my grandmother in the village,” she said.
While Linus denied all the allegations, Onwelikwe admitted selling the babies, but insisted that she sold them on humanitarian grounds to provide money for the girls for their upkeep.
Linus said he only met Asugwo crying by the roadside and took her to a hotel in Kubwa where he left her to sort herself out.
He added that the only reason he is in the police net is that one Oluchi claimed he took her baby.
Onwelikwe, who said she has five children, added that she was introduced to the crime by Linus after he pleaded with her to accommodate his sister after he had lost his job. She claimed that she handed over all the proceeds of the crime to Linus.