OFUNMWEGBE in Bini Language is supposed to mean a place that is soothing, but going by the spate of kidnappings by marauding gangs of alleged herdsmen at the sleepy community by the popular Okada junction on the Benin-Lagos expressway, the place is fast turning from a paradise to panic town.
Located in Ovia North-East Local Government Area of Edo State, Ofumwengbe is strategically situated at a crossroads which leads to the university town of Okada, the hometown of the Esama of Benin, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, and Iguobazuwa, the headquarters of neighbouring Ovia South-West Local Government Area. Hung conspicuously by the highway at the beginning of the road to Okada is a giant billboard with the inscription “Welcome to Okada”.
Travellers on the road are always uneasy as they approach the busy small town which harbours Nigerians of different ethnic groups and social background. The fear of being kidnapped by the heavily armed bandits, marched into the woods and probably shot dead at Ofunmwegbe, some 25 minutes drive from the Edo State capital of Benin, make motorists develop goose bumps as they approach the agrarian community.
Several motorists and passengers have been horsewhipped, robbed, raped, kidnapped and killed by these men of the underworld who strike at will. Those unfortunate to be selected would have to march for miles into the woods like cattle. Any little sign of disobedience is frowned at and such dissidents’ are immediately beaten and are only let go of if the family and friends succeed in coughing up a handsome ransom. Those whose loved ones do not raise enough money to pay on time always do not live to tell the tale of brutality.
Family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and mates of Mr. Azebiokhai will forever have to live with the scars of his untimely death in the hands of notorious kidnappers at Okada, junction.
The young and upwardly mobile Chemistry teacher at the Igbinedion University, Okada was on his way to the town, the headquarters of the local council, from Benin last April when he ran into the heavily armed men. With gun blazing like commandoes, they took over the road, ordering vehicles to immediately screech to a halt or risk being cut down in a hail of hot lead.
Passengers and drivers abandoned their vehicles and dashed off into the forest for cover. In the confusion, the lecturer, the son of Mr. Yakubu Azebiokhai, Igbinedion University chief librarian and a father of two, was reportedly killed by stray bullets fired in anger by the gunmen.
On a visit to the school, a librarian rebuffed persistent pleadings to be taken to the grief-stricken father for an interview, insisting that the chief librarian was still in a state of shock as he was yet to recover from the greatest shock of his life. The scholar son was no doubt the flower and glory of his life and was gone too soon.
The librarian who refused to disclose his name insisted: “There is no way I can take you to my boss. He is in deep distress, still mourning the sudden death of his son and doesn’t want to be reminded of the tragedy. He is trying hard to get over it and so would not want to speak on it. He might just break down. He can’t talk.”
The Edo State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Mohammed DanMallam, who however attempted to set the record straight explained that the daredevil bandits had hijacked an 18-seater mini bus heading to Uyo, Akwa Ibom State and some motorists.
According to DanMallam, the driver of the mini bus was said to have dashed into the bush along with four other panicky passengers and victims in an escape bid. It was in the melee that one of the victims who turned out to be the librarian’s son was killed by the kidnappers. DanMallam explained that policemen at the nearest checkpoint were immediately deployed to dislodge the hoodlums and rescue the victims.
“The police were able to rescue the victims unhurt but unfortunately one of the passengers who tried to escape during the abduction was killed by the gunmen. The police went after the kidnappers in the bush and succeeded in rescuing the victims.
An attempted kidnap operation by somed gunmen at the hotspot on June 14 resulted in the death of a driver of a Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
DanMallam remarked that the prompt intervention of security operatives on the expressway nipped the operation in the bud as the hoodlums who fatally shot the driver made a hasty retreat and fled into the bush.
He explained that the police will only determine the identity of the hoodlums once they are arrested, adding that the other passengers were rescued unhurt by the policemen.
The ill-fated driver was reportedly conveying drugs, medical personnel and officials of NDDC from the headquarters in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, to Akure when it ran into the hoodlums who blocked the busy road.
Things soon boiled over at the sleepy town. Angered by the killing of an indigene by suspected Fulani herdsmen at the notorious junction, some youths headed straight to the jungle 11 days later on June 25 and sacked the camps of the cattle men.
With fire in their eyes, they marched through the small town demanding that the herdsmen leave peacefully or be force to leave. During the protest, innocent travellers had a dose of the pent up anger of the mob as the windscreen of their vehicles were shattered.
During the protest, the herdsmen ran away on sighting the mob who chanted solidarity songs, insisting that the cattle men should vacate the community which had lately been notorious for kidnapping by daredevil hoodlums.
DanMallam who warned youths not to embark on protest as hoodlums always hijacked such action denied that there was a fight between the herdsmen and the locals.
He explained that the youths blocked the road because a woman died in the farm and they alleged that it was herdsman that killed her. They did not wait for police investigation but blocked the road and brought untold hardship on travelers who did not know anything about it.
“The woman went to the farm and in the morning she was discovered dead. The youths suspected it was herdsmen that killed her but nobody saw the herdsmen killing her.”
Worried by the menace of the herdsmen, DanMallam disclosed that the police were working on a new strategy which entails taking the war to the kidnappers’ den in the jungle, saying it is the best way to tackle the scourge.
It was in realisation of that pledge that the police boss led his men late last month to comb the woods around Okada junction and the neighbouring communities on the strategic road.
For days, DanMallam and his team left the comfort of his office at the state police headquarters in Benin. It was not clear whether any of the camps was found or how many of the suspected killers were nabbed.
In what look like a determined bid to curtail the activities of the dreaded bandits, the road from Ohosu on the border between Edo and Ondo states to Okada junction down to Benin is now dotted with scores of police checkpoints. Several of the checkpoints are within sight of each other.
With traffic jam occasioned by the numerous checkpoints by the policemen who engage in stop and search, journeying from Okada junction to Benin, which ordinarily should last 25 minutes, now takes an hour.
A lecturer at the university, about 15 minutes drive from the junction, lamented that with the series of unresolved kidnappings and murders, his heart was always in his mouth each time he drove past the crossroads to and from Benin where he resides.
The don who would not have his name in print remarked that the death of the librarian, whom he described as an “easy-going young man” unnerved the university community.
He bemoaned that “Azebiokhai’s death brought home the reality of the situation to the university community. It reminded us how unsafe we are here. It could have happened to anybody. He was just unlucky. There have been series of kidnappings at Ofunmwegbe.”
A regular commuter on the road gave his name as Samuel said that “It is better to come home late to the warm embrace of your family members than be kidnapped or killed. When your children tell you goodbye in the morning when going to work, you have to stay alive for them to tell you ‘welcome, daddy’. I don’t mind the delay and inconvenience so long as I return home safely.”
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