Perils of the Fight Against Kidnap

31 Aug 2013

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Uncle P Guest House before it was demolished

A new law in some of the South-south and South-east states that prescribes the demolition of buildings used in kidnapping activities should be tempered with some discretion, writes Bennett Oghifo

The new law enacted by the Delta State government, which is also in operation in Imo, Abia and Anambra is designed to curb kidnapping. It’s similar to a recent government acquisition and demolition of a home in the United States where a man, now convicted, abducted and repeatedly raped three women for 10 years.

The Cleveland man, Ariel Castro, 52, was arrested after the three women missing for a decade were found alive at his run-down home and was charged with kidnapping and raping them.

Castro was charged with four counts of kidnapping - covering all three captives and the daughter born to one of them while she was held - and three counts of rape against the three women.

The former school bus driver owns the dilapidated home where the women were rescued.
Early this month, Castro’s home was demolished amid cheers, as the wrecking crews tore away the roof and walls of the house on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland. Two buildings next to Castro’s were also knocked down this week. The owner of the adjacent vacant plots allowed the Cuyahoga County Land Bank clean them.

The Nigerian equivalent
Rewind to last December when the Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha, said the government demolished 11 houses belonging to people it identified as kidnappers and that 38 other buildings were set for demolition. Gov. Okorocha said back then, at the state’s Security Council meeting, that the government had identified 27 persons involved in kidnapping in the state and was set to prosecute them.

The governor reminded Imo people that kidnapping was a crime punishable by death.
Also, in February this year, the Abia State government, demolished some property belonging to a suspected kidnap and armed robbery kingpin. Specifically, the government demolished Akoto Bar and Resort Ltd, a relaxation centre allegedly owned by the suspect who was arrested last year in Anambra State.  The Anambra State government also recently demolished a hotel where a fresh human head was found in a guest’s room.

Last month, the Delta State government demolished a hotel in Abraka, Ethiope Local Government Area that some alleged kidnappers used while executing their devious plans.

The beginning
In Abraka, the Delta State University town, a young man stayed at a local hotel, Uncle P Guest House for five nights and checked out. However, on the morning of the sixth day a team of policemen took the man back in handcuffs and asked the hotel’s manager if he recognised the man. The manager confirmed that the man was a guest at the hotel and that he checked out the previous day.
That was all the police needed, according to the manager, to link the hotel management to a crime of kidnapping allegedly committed by the young man while he stayed at the hotel.
The police, according to the hotel management, then proceeded to demolish the hotel. “Nothing, not even a pin, was allowed to be removed from the hotel as the bulldozer brought down the structures.”

Hotelier’s story
Mr. Pius Ogbeni is a retired Shell Petroleum Development Company employee, who worked between 1974 and 2008. He went into the hotel business in 2010 when Uncle ‘P’ Guest House was commissioned in Abraka, in Ethiope Local Government area of Delta State. Ogbeni said the N150 million-hotel and facilities were built with proceeds from his retirement benefits from Shell and that he also took a bank loan.

Narrating his ordeal, Ogbeni said, “One young man lodged in the hotel on July 14. He checked out on July 19, 2013 at about 7pm. But at about 12:30 am of the next day, the young man was brought into the hotel by the Police in handcuff and chains. The leader of the police team asked the manager of the hotel if he could identify the suspect. The unsuspecting manager answered in the affirmative, claiming that the young man was a guest in the hotel and had officially checked out the previous day.”

He said the young man completed a form before he was allocated a room and that the man claimed he was a film maker on a shooting exercise in the area. The manager argued that as one of the hotel’s management’s security measures, no two male guests are allowed in one room, except they are a couple. He said the young man was in the hotel without any incident till he checked out on July 19.

When the manager was told the man carried out some abductions while he was staying at the hotel, he said the hotel was a public place and that there was no way he could have known that the man was involved in a nefarious trade at the point of checking into the hotel. Ogbeni claimed the Police did not find him guilty, saying “It was not established by the police that I was directly or indirectly connected with the activities or actions of the kidnappers.” According to him, the parents of the suspects are now believed to be fighting hard to close the case to avoid losing three children if they are found guilty and the Delta State death penalty law is invoked.

The police speak
The police alleged that the young man and his brothers devised a scheme to obtain money from their father by deceit. The police said he had conspired with two of his siblings to kidnap another blood brother of theirs, claiming that their father was miserly and that they only wanted to use it as a ploy to extort N1 million from their father.

THISDAY sought the Police’s side of the story from The Force Public Relations Officer, Mr. Frank Mba, but he said the Delta State command should be contacted for comments. “Please speak to Delta Police Command,” he told the reporter.

The Delta State Police commissioner, Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba was quoted to have said the police did not demolish the property but provided a protection shield to the government officials while it was being demolished. The action, he said was in compliance with an existing order of the Delta State Security Council.

The Delta State Police Public Relations Officer, Mr. Lucky Uyabeme told THISDAY the Police did not demolish the Uncle P Guest House as alleged by its owner. “The Police do not have powers to demolish any building. It is the state government’s directive that any abode, private or commercial, where a kidnapped victim is kept should be pulled down.”

He said: “The kidnap victim was kept in the hotel for days before ransom was paid before he was released. We have records to show that this was what happened. He was in the hotel because in hotel business, they clean the rooms and if a lodger comes and I have not seen any place where the guest will be blindfolded. If the owner claims that he was not around or aware, he has manager that can check the place.”
Uyabeme insisted that it was not the police that demolished the hotel but that they and some military personnel stood guard to provide security for the government officials and their equipment in compliance with the government’s directives. He said it was unfortunate that children could conspire to engage in such criminal act against their father.

Between hysteria and justice
An irate mob that vents anger by demolishing or setting ablaze a building belonging to a suspected criminal may be rationalized if not tolerated, but can it ever be inexcusable if a government takes such action in disregard of all the legal processes it should employ prior to such action?

Regardless, Ogbeni said, “the three children are being remanded in police custody for conspiracy to dupe their father. But the hotel has been hurriedly demolished without investigation or prosecution in a competent court of law by the police.”

The suspect, according to Ogbeni, was not arrested at the hotel, stressing that the kidnapped victim was not rescued from the hotel. He pointed out that if the kidnapped victim had been rescued from the hotel as being misleadingly claimed by the police, it would not have arrested and detained only the hotel manager but the entire workforce on duty at the time of the arrest.

Kidnapping has assumed a frightening dimension in recent times with hardly a week going by without a report of an abduction. The state of insecurity that it fosters is a huge challenge, but another big challenge is fighting the scourge without succumbing to populist sentiments - or allowing emotion to swamp reason. As a property manager outraged by the demolition of the hotel in Onitsha observed: “Are we not simply sowing the seed for some socio-economic crisis by tearing down a facility that employed scores of Nigerians when the owner could have been prosecuted if the police have sufficient evidence that he is culpable in the crime?”

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