Respite for Epe Farmers

0

Ambode (2nd left) signing into Law the Kidnapping Bill at the Conference Room, Lagos House, Ikeja recently. With him are the Deputy Governor, Dr. Oluranti Adebule (left); Majority Leader, Lagos State House of Assembly, Hon. Sanai Agunbiade (2nd right) and Special Adviser on Civic Engagement, Mr. Kehinde Joseph

Despite the logistics and strategic support it got from the Lagos State Government in the last decade, the Nigeria Police could not contain the havoc caused by kidnappers on the lives of Epe farmers until the military was deployed last month. Gboyega Akinsanmi writes

Six weeks ago, about three scores of young farmers marched calmly and peacefully to Lagos House. Obviously troubled, they quietly sang save-our-soul songs, which earned them public solidarity and support. The young farmers, who chose to feed Lagos and by extension Nigeria, provided three major reasons for resorting to a peaceful march to bring public attention to their plight.

On behalf of other farmers, Mr. Ayokunle Ore first cited threat to their lives in the hands of kidnappers. Between September 2016 and February 2017, according to him, no fewer than 25 Epe farmers and farm workers were kidnapped.

In one of the incidents, Ore disclosed that the kidnappers demanded a ransom of N5 million before five abductees could be released.

He, also, cited grave risk to their investment, which he puts at N20 billion. He, therefore, disclosed that more farmers and their workers then shut their operations due to what he ascribed to as the fear of falling prey to kidnappers. He said the activities of kidnappers cast pall on the investments they “have injected into farming, especially in Igbodu and Isiwo farm settlements.”

Beyond grave risk kidnapping posed to their investments and lives, Ore pointed out its potential to undermine a food security programme the administration of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode unveiled sometimes in 2016. So, according to him, “kidnapping is not just a threat to our lives and investments, but also to food security of Lagos and its teeming population.”

For these reasons, all the farmers called for intervention from the state government. The call was premised on what Ore described as the complex nature of kidnapping in Epe. He said the kidnappers “often launch attacks from creeks, a terrain where they have advantage over police officers.” Aside, he said the kidnappers “often operate with sophisticated weapons.”

However, according to Chief Adekunle Adebowale, the spate of kidnapping had gone down significantly. Adebowale, Isipa of Igbodu, disclosed that the incidence of attack did not go down significantly until Ambode intervened and facilitated the deployment of military personnel to different farmers’ communities in Epe Local Government Area early last month.
Since military deployment, Adebowale said the activities of kidnappers “have gone down significantly. At least, relative peace has returned to our communities. And the farmers and their workers have returned to their farms. Unlike what we experienced between September 2016 and February 2017, people go out and come in with little or nothing to fear again.”

Rundown of Epe cases
As shown in a letter the farmers addressed to the governor, the first kidnap occurred precisely on September 16, 2016. The incident involved three female farmers, whom the letter said, were members of Association of Women Farmers of Nigeria, Lagos State Chapter. Also, one farm worker and a six-month-old baby were kidnapped along with the three female farmers.

At its peak, the victims of the first incident were kidnapped along Igbodu-Isiwo road. But exactly two month after the first case, the kidnappers struck again. This time, it was at Farmville where four farm workers were kidnapped. On November 21, 2016, kidnappers invaded Kodjo Farms, abducting at least five farm workers. The third accident took place five days after the second incident, which Ore said, created fear among the farmers.

By January 19, the situation had become more agonising, perhaps unbearable when two farm workers were kidnapped at Tanda Farms. One of the victims in the fourth incident was female. On the same day, the farm manger and a customer were held at Elysian Farms. Their letter showed that the customer “was shot in the hand before being taken into capacity.”

The fifth kidnap had not been resolved when the kidnappers struck at Elysian Farms on February 14. Consequently, they abducted four farm workers, one casual worker and two operatives of a vigilante group the farm management engaged “to protect the farm and its workers. And the kidnappers demanded a ransom of N5 million on each of the seven victims.”

The farmers said they “are still at the mercy of kidnappers.” They lamented the failed promises they got from the stat police command after they had a meeting with the Commissioner for Police, Mr. Fatai Owoseni. They also lamented the limitation of private efforts, which they said, had been made to engage community vigilante groups and support police patrols.

The consequence was truly grave and severe for Epe farmers at large, according to a victim of kidnapping, Mr. Kazeem Adejare.

Aside the threat to N20 billion investments, Kazeem said farmers paid ransom “to secure release of the victims. This is a major setback for all of us.” Also, he said farm workers resigned their appointments due to fear of kidnappers.”
Kazeem said farms “were then shut and farmers relocated abroad. Our poultry farms were worst hit. Birds were desolate. Thousands died of hunger as a result. Farmers incurred huge losses running into millions of naira. Our vegetable farms withered because no worker could attend to them. Also, the rising cases of kidnapping then discouraged new investment.”

Conspiracy from the creeks
Already, the situation is calm with the recent deployment of military personnel. For Adebowale, military deployment has restored public order to Epe and its environs, though may not guarantee lasting peace. So, the local chief sought an intervention, which he said, would permanently address immediate and remote causes of kidnapping in Epe and its suburbs.

The local chief, also, gave insight into how the kidnappers were operating in farmers’ communities in Epe. According to him, the kidnappers often carried out their operations through the creeks. The vandals adopted kidnapping for ransom as a mode of operation.

Adebowale’s evidence was further reinforced by an allegation by the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Steve Ayorinde that the Niger Delta militants were behind pipeline vandalism and armed operation in Ishawo, Agbede-Imuti, Igbo-Olomu and Igando, all located along Lagos creeks as well as Arepo, Awawa, Elepete and Ibafo, all along Ogun creeks.

Beyond Ayorinde’s allegation in a statement he issued at the height of Ikorodu’s armed attacks in 2016, some community leaders provided useful intelligence on the dynamics of kidnapping in the state. One of the leaders, who did not want his name mentioned, said the Niger Delta militants “are actually behind pipeline vandalism and kidnapping in Lagos suburbs.”

The leader, thus, explained the decision of the militants “to relocate to Lagos State.” He said it was deliberate because the Niger Delta leaders wanted oil multinationals “to relocate their head offices to the Niger Delta. This is part of the demand they made to the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo during different stakeholders’ meetings he had with their leaders.”

He said the militants only wanted “to use sustained armed attacks to compel oil multinationals to relocate their head offices to the Niger Delta cities. The militants thought that if they could sustain armed attacks on oil infrastructure in Lagos creeks and make the state look somehow insecure, oil multinationals would be left with no other choice than to relocate to the Niger Delta cities.”

However, another community leader said the governor “outsmarted them. He did not leave security of lives and properties in the state to the Nigeria Police. He took it to the Presidency with facts and findings. And that culminated in the aerial assaults that put the pipeline vandals to rout in July 2016 and the deployment of military personnel that ended kidnapping in Epe.”

Kidnappers in the gallows
As indicated in an address Ambode delivered when Lagos was admitted into the league of 100 Resilient Cities, largely, Lagos is Nigeria’s most peaceful state and a choice destination for investors nationwide. Reasons are not far-fetched. Unlike most states in the federation, he said, Lagos was free from armed insurgencies and terror attacks that plague other states.

But the governor said the state did not achieve this status without strategic investment in its security sector. The state’s strategic intervention did not start until September 2007. Consequently, the state established the Lagos State Security Trust Fund (LSSTF), which it said, was put in place to support the Rapid Response Squad and other security agencies to combat in the state.

Since its establishment, the Fund had raised N3.260 billion in cash and N9.201 billion in assets before Ambode took up the mantle of leadership. Six months after he assumed office, Ambode injected N4.756 billion to procure security equipment, thereby bringing the state’s support to the centrally controlled security agencies to N17.218 billion as at November 2015.

Obviously, Ambode acknowledged the significance of logistic and strategic support to the security agencies his government did not control directly. But the dynamics of criminal activities in the megacity threw up the compelling need to construct viable institutional and legal frameworks to deal with some heinous crimes like kidnapping for ransom among others.

Ambode came up with the Prohibition of the Act of Kidnapping Law, 2017. Four kidnapping incidents necessitated the law because kidnapping had then become a major threat to the safety of citizens. The law was enacted “to put in place appropriate measures, particularly in public schools and other vulnerable targets, to prevent security breaches.”

But its enactment became imperative due to the abduction of three students of Babington Macaulay Junior Seminary in Ikorodu, Oniba of Iba, Oba Goriola Oseni, wife of Deputy Managing Director of Sun Publishing Limited, Mrs. Toyin Nwosu and two pupils, vice-principal and head teacher of Lagos Model College (Senior and Junior), Igbonla-Epe.

With its enactment, kidnapping for ransom now attracts a penalty of life imprisonment in Lagos. But in a situation whereby a victim dies in the course of kidnap, suspects are liable on conviction to death. Beyond penalties outlined for any suspect of kidnapping, the governor said the state “will ensure full execution of the law and that all criminals will face its full wrath.”

For him, one key factor has been driving the state’s sustained investment in the security sector in the last decade. Be it in Epe or Ikorodu, Ambode said, security is of utmost importance to our administration. So, according to him, his administration will, in line with Lagos strategic interest, deploy the law to address the challenge of kidnapping and punish the criminals.