- Â We were starved, beaten, says one of the students
- Â Details of Ondo govtâ€™s intervention as parents recount ordeal
James Sowole in Akure, Akinwale Akintunde and Chiemelie Ezeobi in Lagos
Claims by the Nigerian police that there were casualties during the rescue operation that culminated in the release of the six students of the Government Model College, Igbonla, Epe, in Lagos State have been dismissed by several sources, including one of the kidnapped students, who spoke to THISDAY on the condition of anonymity.
But the student, who recounted their ordeal in the hands of the kidnappers said they were starved and at some points beaten out of frustration, because their parents could not pay up the ransom demanded, adding also that they were relocated to three different camps before their eventual release last week.
It is against this backdrop that more details of the alleged involvement of the Ondo State Government in the negotiations that led to the release of the students have also been brought forward, even as some of the parents of the victims gave heart-rending accounts of how their wards survived the 65 days they spent in the three different camps they were taken by their captors.
THISDAY Findings revealed that the Ondo State Government actually negotiated the release of the students, who were kidnapped on May 25 at the peak of Lagos@50 anniversary celebration, without as much any bloodshed between the security forces and the kidnappers.
The kidnapped students are Peter Jonah, Isiaka Ramon, Adebayo George, Judah Agbausi, Pelumi Philips and Farouq Yusuf. They were released at about 3.30pm at Aboto Creek at Ilaje Local Government Area (LGA), Ondo State.
The latest revelation, however, disproved claims by the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Fatai Owoseni that 20 of the kidnappers died while eight policemen and four civilian volunteers sustained injuries.
Although it is believed that the statement of the Lagos Police Commissioner is being taken out of context, because what he tried to do, according to his statement was to establish the series of efforts the combined security forces had taken towards rescuing the kids, all of which failed before the recent negotiation that yielded, he however failed to speak with such clarity that could have made lucid his points.
But the different government officials involved in the negotiation have provided insight into how the students were eventually released on Friday evening to the Ondo State Deputy Governor, Mr. Agboola Ajayi, on the instructions of Governor Rotimi Akeredolu.
In the same breath, one of the students, who gave an insight into their experience, said they were starved in one of the camps and beaten in another when their parents could not meet up with the ransom, noting that the entire experience was traumatic for them. But he noted that the kidnappers would later treat them more kindly after an undisclosed amount of money was believed to have been paid by their parents.
According to him, â€œWe were relocated to three camps. We spent two days at the first camp before we were relocated to another camp. It was in the second camp that we were beaten, because they said that our parents were not cooperating with them and that they had run out of food stuff. They also starved us. I fasted and prayed fervently for Godâ€™s intervention during my stay with them. Again, like the first time, one of them woke us while sleeping to go into a boat.
â€œThis time around, they took us on a long journey that took several hours before we got to their camp. None of us knew where we were. Sometimes they would threaten us that we were at a point of no return if the money they asked for was not given to them.
â€œBut unlike at other camps, it was there we were well fed. At times they gave us pounded yam and Egusi soup, jollof rice and noodles. On the day we were released, we thought we were being relocated again. Even when the security agents that came to pick us arrived, we thought they were another group of captors, because some of them also wore uniforms.â€
This particular account shows that there was no gun battle in the first place let alone a situation that warranted the death of anyone of the negotiating partners. On the contrary, this story corroborated other narrations that the release of the students was as a result of negotiations with the kidnappers, even though no one spoke about ransom.
One of the officials of the Ondo State government, who was involved in the negotiation, also faulted Owoseniâ€™s claims about death record, noting that the option of hot pursuit was not considered to secure the release of the students safely and unhurt.
He said it was after it was discovered that the kidnappers were hiding in Ondo and Delta creeks that the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode liaised with his Ondo State counterpart, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu, on how to facilitate the release of the students.
The official noted that Akeredolu directed his deputy, Ajayi â€œto negotiate the release of the six kidnapped students. He gave the directive at a time when their parents and security agencies could no longer establish contacts with the abductors of the students.
â€œThe deputy governor is from Kiribo town in Ese Odo Local Government Area, a riverine area in the state. So, the governor deliberately gave his deputy the responsibility to negotiate with the abductors of the kids, because he was a youth leader in the area before he assumed office.
â€œAgboola did not work alone. He worked with the Deputy Governor of Delta State, Mr. Kingsley Otuaro to secure the release of the students. It is on record that the duo worked tirelessly for days in the creeks before they established with the kidnappers and subsequently the students,â€ he said.
Another official confirmed too that it was untrue that 20 persons died in any gun battle while security operatives made to â€œrelease the kidnapped students. No person died contrary to what Lagos State Commissioner, Mr. Fatai Owoseni said.â€
He explained that Owoseni did not say the truth about how the abducted students were negotiated and eventually handed over to Ajayi, reiterating that the release of the students was purely a product of negotiation and not gun battle or shootout.
â€œThere was no gun duel as Lagos police commissioner told the whole world. There was no record of death while the negotiation was on-going. There was no case of casualty, when the abducted kids were handed over.
â€œHad it been there was gun duel as Owoseni claimed, the kids would not have come out without injury. It might even claim any of them. Their release was negotiated without ransom to the best of my knowledge. And no person died in the process.
â€œOf importance was the contribution of the Ondo Deputy Chief of Staff, Mr. Donald Ojojo. He is also from Ese Odo LGA. However, four states, Ondo, Lagos, Ogun and Delta were also involved, especially in the area of intelligence gathering and sharing. The Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo too was involved. The police, DSS and the military were not left out.
â€œThe students were handed over to the Ondo deputy governor, his deputy chief of staff and other members of his team. The team drove directly to Akure. But few kilometres from Akure, Akeredolu directed them to come to Lagos, because he was already in Lagos waiting to receive and hand them over to the Governor of Lagos State,â€ the official explained.
Another THISDAY source, who confirmed the â€˜no casualtyâ€™ account, said the students were handed over in the creek between Ajapa in Eseodo Local Government and Igbonla in Ilaje Local Government areas of Ondo State to Ajayi and Ojogo, adding that â€œall I knew was that the students had been released unhurt without any exchange of gunfireâ€.
On the details of how the negotiations came about, a top security official told THISDAY that a repentant militant had contacted the Ondo State government on the willingness of the kidnappers, who were mainly militants from Ondo State to release the six boys to the state government without collecting any ransom
Upon receiving the information, the source said Akeredolu immediately mandated Ajayi to work with them and ensure the release of the boys. The source said it took the deputy governor about 10 days of negotiations with the militants before the abductees were eventually released.
â€œAgboola had to enter into negotiations with the men of naval base and the marine police to vacate the waterways which was heavily secured to allow the militants free movement from Lagos to Ondo State. Part of the terms reached with Agboola Ajayi was that the militants demanded for amnesty from the federal government, with a promise to lay down their arms to ensure peace, safety of lives and properties on the waterways.
â€œThe heavy presence of the security men on the waterways from the Ise river in Lagos to Agerige in Ese Odo Local Government area of Ondo State almost thwarted the rescue mission but the militants lived up to their words after they were able to gain entry to Ondo State region,â€ the security source said.
He said the deputy governor and other officials were on the waterways for over nine hours while it rained heavily, waiting for instructions from the boysâ€™ abductors before the militants, who were about 40 took the team to the inner parts of the creek.
â€œThe deputy governor risked his life by ordering his security personnel to stay at Igbokoda in Ilaje Local Government while the Commander of the Naval Base was furiously against the deadly move.
â€œThe militants had threatened bloodshed if they see any security operatives with the deputy governor, threatening to kill all the boys. It would have been more suicidal for the militants to abduct the armless Agboola and his team, who were without any security details and would have been the first deputy governor to be abducted.
â€œBut with the assurance from Agboola that the militants will live up to their promise, we embarked on the rescue mission. We were soaked because we stayed in the rain for almost eight hours waiting for the militants to show up,â€ he said.
The source said the militants showed their readiness to release the boys when they asked us to buy food for the boys. They were friendly with the boys from their interaction while the boys waved to them after their release.
The security source said the only deal the militants, who spoke in Pidgin English all through the negotiation period, demanded was for the state government to plead with President Muhammadu Buhari to grant them amnesty.
He said the boys told them that a leader was chosen among them and named â€œGeneral Sakaâ€, who coordinated and controlled the activities of his mates in the kidnappersâ€™ den, adding that â€œThe boys told us they ate Eba for weeks before they revolted that their abductors should introduce other food, which was granted. They also told us that they were not maltreated except once when they had to make their parents believe they were in danger. One of them disclosed that the militants did go on hunting expedition to feed them with bush meat.â€
Recounting the ordeals of their boys, one of the parents, who pleaded anonymity, said while conversing with her son after his release, he confirmed they were moved from one camp to the other.
Decrying the fact that they were exposed to cold, she said her son, who was recuperating while in school fell sick again in the kidnappersâ€™ den, noting that the reason they did not want their kids to speak to the press was because, â€œHonestly, I do not want to expose my son to any danger. It is true he fell sick at the camp because we were told then.
â€œHe was kidnapped while he was recuperating from an illness and so, I think the environment they were kept and the trauma made him sick again. He was examined on Friday night and the doctors asked that we return to the hospital. But he is okay now.
â€œMy son said there was a time the kidnappers were beating them. He also said at a point, they were starved. He said that they were moved from one camp to the other and that it got to a point, where they started cooking their food themselves.â€
Some parents, who were contacted, declined comments because according to them, they were advised by specialists not to force the children to recount their experiences yet.
At the residence of one of the victims in Ibeju Lekki, well-wishers kept trooping in singing and praising God, even though they prevented the boy from talking to the press.
One Mr. Moruf Ramon, who acted as a spokesperson for the affected parents said the trauma they passed through was unimaginable.
Another parent, Mrs. Beatrice Jonah, said it had been a traumatic experience for her family, said their ordeal throughout that period was better imagined than experienced.
â€œWhen I spoke to my son after the abduction, I was weeping, because I was afraid for his life. To me it has been 65 days of trauma but we thank God he is back safely.â€
Meanwhile, a group of activists and civil society organisations (CSO), who were championing the cause of the release of the boys, have called on the state government to refund the N30 million ransom paid by the parents.
Although it was still uncertain if any other ransom was paid to finally secure their release, the parents had initially made a deposit of N10million and an additional N20million afterwards, making it a total of N30million paid.
Prior to the rescue, the group, under the aegies of Safe Schools and Communities Advocacy Group (SSCAG), had given the Lagos State Government a deadline of August 4 to rescue the boys or face a showdown.
The groups under SSCAG include Education Rights Campaign (ERC), Women Arise for Change Initiative (WA), Women Advocate Research and Documentation (WARDC), Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Enough is Enough (EiE), Community Life Project (CLP), Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN).
Others are Women, Law and Development Centre, Nigeria (WLDCN), Federation of Muslim Womenâ€™s Association in Nigeria (FOMWAN), National Conscience Party (NCP) Lagos State Chapter, Socialist Workers League (SWL) and United Action for Democracy (UAD).
Also part of SSCAG are groups like the Socialist Workers Movement (SWM), Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership (CACOL), Activista Lagos, Cee-Hope Nigeria, Community Women Initiative (CWI), Save Lagos Group (SLG) and International Press Centre (IPC).
While expressing their happiness over the recent release of the boys, the group, in a statement signed by its spokesperson, Comrade Adeola Soetan, said the kidnapping which took place within the school, the second time in seven months was a call for serious concern on our school and communities.
â€œWe call on the Lagos State Government to refund forthwith any amount of ransom (running into millions of Naira as reported by the media and un-denied) paid by frustrated parents and guardians.
â€œNo worse trauma can befall helpless parents more than taking millions of naira as ransom to pay their tormentors and kidnappers of their children face to face due to slow and inadequate response of government and security operatives. It is the fundamental constitutional duty of government to secure life and property of the citizens,â€ the statement read in part.
The group also demanded the rehabilitation of the students, who might have been exposed to many social vices and criminal ways and lifestyle of the kidnappers apart from psychological and physical trauma they have gone through for sixty-five days.
They also asked that they be awarded scholarship to university level as compensation for their life time traumatic experience that can never be obliterated in their memories, demanding also that the school should do a makeup for them as soon as possible having been denied the opportunity to sit for their examination due to their kidnap.