How Bad Roads And Potholes Serve As Gateways To Kidnappers’ Dens

“Those who love their lives should avoid Akure-Oyo Expressway for now” was Gbenga Ibikunle’s admonition as he recounted how he and his wife were kidnapped sometime in January this year.

The experience has become traumatic for the 47-year-old and his family.

Gbenga and his family travelled to his wife’s hometown in Ebonyi State for an event and were returning to Akure when they ran into a group of daring gunmen at Uso community in Owo LGA of Ondo State around 5 pm. Driving a Lexus SUV, the Ibikunles immediately became targets for the cutlass and AK-47 wielding gunmen, the eldest of whom Gbenga presumed to not be more than 17 years old.

The abductors had everything well planned. They struck at a deplorable spot on the road after passing through Emure-Owo junction at Owo. A man on a motorcycle rode beside the Ibikunles. At a point, he swerved into the car’s path. Gbenga quickly applied the brakes but it was too late. He hit the motorcyclist, who fell down. Moved with empathy, Gbenga parked the car and he and his wife stepped out to check the motorcyclist. They had barely moved when gunmen emerged from the bush bearing weapons.

“At that moment, I concluded our day of death had come,” Gbenga said. “We were led into the bush, trekking for about 5 hours to the kidnappers’ den. They beat us severely as we walked. We got to a point we had to cross a river, which was so deep it got to my chest” he said.

Around 10 pm when they got to the kidnappers’ den, their belongings, including phones and jewellery, were collected. The following day, the kidnappers asked the couple to call their families, demanding a ransom of N20m. After 3 days in captivity, their families could only raise N2m, which the kidnappers collected before releasing them. “We weren’t fed throughout the 3 days in captivity. They only gave us dirty water to drink,” he said. Gbenga added that since the experience, his children, who on the day of the incident had to call a relative to drive them home, had developed a phobia for travelling via road.

For some time now, Akure-Owo Expressway, ridden with potholes, has become a theatre of operation for notorious bandits who kidnap and even sometimes kill travellers. The road is one of the busiest inter-state and inter-region routes in the country, linking South-West to South-South and Northern geopolitical zones. It also connects many communities within Akure and Owo axis.

Despite the expressway’s busy nature, the road has some failed portions at which motorists have no choice but to slow down. At other parts of the highway, half of the road has caved in, leaving only narrow pathways. At Emure-Owo junction, where Gbenga and his wife were kidnapped, the road has totally caved in, with heavy-duty trucks oftentimes stuck on the road. Emboldened by the poor state of the road and inadequate police presence, kidnappers have now turned the route into their operational zone.

Another victim of kidnapping on the route is Iyaloja of Isua in Akoko South-East LGA of Ondo State, Helen Edward, who in November 2020 also ran into gunmen. Edward said she was returning from a meeting in Akure with others when a group of gun-wielding men stopped and kidnapped them at Uso community around 2.30 pm. “They collected the money in my bag. They led us into the bush, with guns pointed at us, for several hours. We crossed rivers. They threatened to kill us,” she said.

After 5 days in captivity and payment of N5m ransom for all, Helen said she and her group members were released. “I call on government to provide security for travellers plying this route,” she said, adding, “Kidnappers hide in forests, so I think if the government can open forest reserves and allow farmers to use them, this crime will reduce.”

The havoc Nigeria’s bad roads cause is unquantifiable. They are a blessing to kidnappers and other armed groups but a nightmare for travellers who ply such routes. Saturday PUNCH findings showed that apart the Akure-Owo Expressway, another highway notorious for kidnapping in Ondo State is Owo-Benin highway. A particularly dangerous spot on the road is at Elegbeka village where criminals take advantage of craters and potholes to abduct and kill.

One of their victims was former captain of the National Scrabble Team, Paul Sodje, killed by kidnappers in September 2020 after he reportedly took a ransom to the criminals who abducted his brother some days earlier. Sodje, who was murdered by the criminals at age 54, was Nigeria’s captain at the African Scrabble Championship in Zambia in 2012.

Also, in March 2020, two footballers of the NPFL, Dayo Ojo of Enyimba and Benjamin Iluyomade of Abia Comets, were driving in Ojo’s car with another Enyimba player, Emmanuel James, when their vehicle, along with other commercial vehicles on the route, ran into gunmen along Owo-Benin Expressway. James managed to escape but Ojo and Iluyomade were abducted. They were released 3 days later after ransoms were reportedly paid.

However, kidnapping along Owo-Benin highway assumed a frightening nature in November 2020 when Olufon of Ifon, Ose LGA of Ondo State, Oba Israel Adeusi, was killed by gunmen. The monarch was reported to have gone for a meeting in Akure and returning home when, as he got to the rough road around Elegbeka around 4 pm, was accosted by the gunmen and shot dead.

Similarly, the South-West was thrown into mourning in July 2019 when Mrs Funke Olakunri, daughter of former leader of Afenifere, Pa Reuben Fasoranti, was killed by gunmen at Ore, Ondo State, along Owo-Benin Expressway. This reportedly happened when gunmen numbering about 15 laid ambush and shot at the deceased as she was travelling from Akure to Ore in her Toyota SUV. Some of Olakunri’s killers have since been arrested and charged on counts of conspiracy, kidnapping, murder, and unlawful possession of firearms.

Meanwhile, there have also been several cases of kidnapping and killing in other parts of South-West by criminals taking advantage of bad portions of roads. One recent case was the kidnapping of 7 travellers on March 2 along Osogbo-Ibokun road. One traveller was shot dead by the gunmen and 2 people also reportedly wounded. The incident took place around 7.30 pm at Ajebandele village in Obokun LGA of Osun State. The abductees were released some days later after a joint rescue operation by police and Osun State Security Network, Amotekun.

Also in Osun State, suspected Fulani herdsmen in May 2019 abducted an orthopaedic surgeon at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Prof Olayinka Adegbehingbe, while travelling between Asejire and Ikire towns on Ife-Ibadan Expressway around 9 pm. Adegbehingbe, who was travelling from Lagos to Ife when he was kidnapped, said his abductors were paid around N5m before he was released.

Due to rampant kidnapping cases, warning messages have since been circulating on social media warning motorists in Osun State to avoid plying routes such as Osogbo-Ibokun, Ilesha-Osogbo, Ilesa-Akure, Imesi-Ile-Obokun-Esa-Oke, and Ile-Ife-Edun-Aabon-Sekona roads, especially at night.

Shola Ojo, a driver with one of the private transport companies, sped like a driver competing for Formula One as he journeyed from Abuja to Kaduna. It was around 7.20 pm 22 November 2020. Our correspondent, who sat beside him in the front passenger seat, observed as he swerved his Toyota bus, avoiding potholes that dotted the about 185km highway.

Ojo’s reason for the speed was not far-fetched. “There has been a series of kidnappings by bandits on this route. I can’t slow down; I have to drive faster,” Ojo said, his eyes fixed on the road. Ojo tried to keep to his goal of driving faster, even through deep potholes, praying none of his vehicle’s tyres would burst or the bus develop a fault.

Though he tried as much as possible not to slow down, there were several bad portions along the road that he could not but slow down. Our correspondent observed that on the Abuja-Kaduna highway, there were several points where the driver spent as long as 10 minutes wriggling through. From Abuja to towns and villages such as Bwari, Jere, Gidan Maimadaji, Katari, Rando, Dutsi to Kakau, the journey was largely uncomfortable due the road’s deplorable state.

At last, our correspondent got to Barnawa area of Kaduna few minutes to midnight and was directed to one of the hotels nearby. Ojo said if the road was in a good condition, the journey could have taken about two and a half hours. “But thank God, we got here safely,” he said.

Unfortunately, many Nigerians could not say the same. Many have been victims of kidnapping on Abuja-Kaduna expressway which has been notorious for kidnapping by bandits wielding dangerous weapons including AK-47. Due its sorry state, the expressway linking FCT and the northwest has been a good spot for bandits because many travellers ply the route.

Bandits, said to usually come on motorcycles and block the road where the portions are bad, have many times killed, raped and collected ransoms from victims. In December 2020, at least 16 travellers were killed by gunmen along the expressway on their way back to Kano from a business trip. A month earlier, 9 students from Dept of French at ABU Zaria, Kaduna State, were kidnapped while travelling to Lagos for a programme at Nigerian French Language Village, Badagry. They were released a week later after reportedly paying a ransom.

To tackle insecurity on the highway, 300 female soldiers were deployed to Kaduna-Abuja highway to fight bandits who have held sway on the route. March 3, the Federal Executive Council approved complete reconstruction of Abuja-Kaduna-Kano highway, a project estimated at N797.2bn, according to Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola.

Meanwhile, apart the Abuja-Kaduna highway, there are several other highways across the country notorious for kidnapping, banditry, and armed robbery. Findings from records by agencies such as FRSC and police showed that some include Lagos-Ibadan and Lagos-Abeokuta expressways, Ilorin-Ogbomoso Road, Ondo-Ore Road, Akure-Benin Road, Akure-Owo-Akugba Road, Keffi-Akwanga-Lafia Road, and Kaduna-Kano highway.

Others are Ebonyi Enugu-Abakaliki Expressway, Enugu-Port Harcourt Road, Katsina/Ala-Wukari Road linking Benue and Taraba states, Elele-Ndele Rumuji-Emuoha-Choba-Port Harcourt Road, Kaduna-Saminaka-Jos highway, Keffi-Nasarawa-Toto road, Suleja-Lambata-Bida road, and Jibia-Gurbi-Kaura Namoda road linking Katsina and Zamfara states.

In recent years, Nigeria has witnessed series of kidnappings by armed groups and terrorists, with a 2020 report by SB Morgen showing that between 2011 and 2020, over $18m (N6.9bn) had been paid in ransom to kidnappers by victims. Out of this, SBM stated that around $11m (N4.2bn) was paid between 2016 and 2020, which makes it appear kidnapping has become a serious business. Nigeria is said to have some of the world’s deadliest roads – despite billions of naira budgeted annually to fix the roads.

According to data by the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency, Nigeria has a road network of 200,000 km, out of which 35,000 km is gazetted as federal roads. States are responsible for 32,000km of roads, with remaining 133,000km under purview of local governments. According to FERMA, only about 10,000km of federal roads are in ‘good’ state while about 13,300km and 11,700km are in ‘fair’ and ‘bad’ states, respectively.

Nigeria has spent millions of dollars on road maintenance since 1999. Despite this colossal sum spent on the roads, many still remain deadly traps, exposing motorists and commuters to danger. Apart kidnappers and bandits who seem to hold sway on bad roads, many Nigerians travelling from one part of the country to another are stranded, sometimes spending several hours for a journey that should take minutes, while some even lose their lives due to fatal accidents as a result of potholes.

In monetary terms, man-hours lost to traffic delays as a result of bad roads cost the economy about N1.02tn per annum, according to FERMA. “Most roads in Nigeria are poorly constructed and maintained. Hence, they cannot last,” a Lagos-based economist, Mr Kunle Olaide, told Saturday PUNCH.

He said, “Corruption is the main cause of bad roads in Nigeria. Look at some of the roads constructed 4 years ago within Lagos State, they are worn out. It’s the same thing across the country. Bad roads everywhere. You can’t decide to take a road trip because of bandits and kidnappers who are exploiting the situation. Roads are supposed to last up to 50 years if well constructed and maintained. However, in Nigeria, this is not the case. Surfaces of most roads don’t last up to 6 months or a year.”

Speaking on why roads don’t last in Nigeria, researchers Godwin Enwerem and Galal Ali said most of the construction materials and methods used in building and constructing roads were not suitable for the country as a tropical zone. “Laterite, stone-based chippings and asphalt, which are the major construction materials, are not suitable, and cannot withstand weather conditions in the country. Again, methods used by the foreign construction companies are not anchored on research with Nigeria as a focus,” they said.

In their study titled, ‘Socioeconomic Impacts of Potholes on Nigerian Roads and Sustainable Development,’ Enwerem and Ali also said bad roads were caused by operations of heavy-duty trucks, poor environmental impact assessment, unstable ground, poor drainage, and poor maintenance. Until roads are fixed across the country, a Lagos-based lawyer and activist, Mrs Peace Okoli, said government should bear the blame when any citizen is killed or kidnapped by bandits and other criminals exploiting bad roads to carry out their activities.

“Government bears the blame; it’s as simple as that. Of course, we don’t really have a government with a conscience in Nigeria, which is why they keep spending billions to patch roads,” Okoli said.

Journeying from Kagoma to Kafanchan in Jema’a LGA of Kaduna State is just 17 km and should not take more than 35 minutes by car, according to Google Maps estimates. But motorists plying this route oftentimes spend over 2 hours due to the deplorable condition of the road. For many people like Egoh Bako living within the axis, driving through the bad road wouldn’t have been something to worry about too much, except bandits now exploit this situation and kidnap people for ransom.

“I discovered that kidnappers carry out their activities on the road because it is bad. While driving, there are various points vehicles have to slow down, so kidnappers take advantage of this to abduct people,” Bako told Saturday PUNCH. “The situation here is worrisome. Kidnapping happens almost every week within Kagoma-Kafanchan axis,” he added.

Bako, who is state chairman of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, was kidnapped alongside his wife 25 December 2020. He lamented the situation would linger as long as the road was not repaired. The cleric, who spent about 48 hours with the kidnappers before he regained freedom, said kidnappers could be restrained only if the road was fixed. “Kagoma-Kafanchan road does not only have big potholes; it’s a complete washout. And that’s why kidnappers hold sway. I think if government repairs the road, it will curb activities of kidnappers and make lives secure,” he said.

Bako said aside kidnapping, accidents also regularly occurred on the Kagoma-Kafanchan road due to its pitiable state. “Once it’s 7.30 pm many people usually avoid the road until the following morning. But sometimes, you can’t predict the kidnappers’ movement. There are some security agents on the road, but the kidnappers can be very smart,” he said.

Another cleric who lives within the axis but spoke on condition of anonymity said he would have been a victim of kidnapping in January while driving along Kagoma-Kafanchan road. However, he said before the bandits could approach him, he jumped out of his car and fled into the bush. “Thankfully, they couldn’t find me where I hid,” the cleric said. “The bandits stationed themselves at the worst portion of the road. If you were driving, there was no way you wouldn’t slow down. The bandits exploit this to carry out their deadly acts,” he added.

For Shetima Ibrahim, who is resident in Gombe, the Gombe State capital, 2019 was a year he would not forget in a hurry. The middle-aged man was on a business trip when he ran into a gang of bandits after he passed Cham towards Lafia-Lamurde on outskirts of Gombe towards Adamawa State.

He said, “There Is a spot where a driver would need to practically crawl due to the bad terrain. As I drove through, a group of boys invaded and stopped traffic. They asked me to park and I did. They asked me and other occupants of a private bus to come out. This was around 10 am. They collected all phones and whisked us off into the bush; it was a hilly terrain.” Ibrahim said he had to part with N1m before he was released.

Meanwhile, 3 members of the gang terrorising travellers along the axis, namely Dabo Yusuf, 40; Shehu Saleh, 30; and Mamman Haruna, 35 recently told The PUNCH during a police parade of how they usually took advantage of bad roads to carry out their acts. Haruna, who spoke on behalf of the gang, said they usually watched travellers from a distance and stopped those who appeared rich by virtue of vehicles they drove or dresses they wore.

He said, “We lay ambush for passengers at rough portions of the road and we do not usually stop all vehicles. It is only vehicles that have good-looking occupants we stop. We didn’t kill our victims. We only kept them for as long as possible until we were able to get money. One of our victims claimed he didn’t have money, so our greed made us follow him. We didn’t know it was a trap. We were led into an ambush by police.”

Spokesperson of Nigeria Police, Frank Mba, said bad roads, overgrown hedges and absence of streetlights on highways were responsible for insecurity on highways. “These 3 major criminogenic factors are unfortunately outside control of the police. But when crimes take place nobody thinks about these factors,” he said.

Mba noted that when there were no streetlights, it made policing difficult, adding that when police officers were on patrol, even if they had night-vision goggles, they wouldn’t be able to see far. “But when there are streetlights, you can see up to 100 metres away from you,” he said. Despite challenges, Mba said police would keep on trying their best, stating that police oftentimes helped fill up potholes and mobilise communities to clear bushes on highways.

“We also recently installed mobile cameras on patrol vehicles, but we don’t have enough. Also, they are limited in function if there are bushes and no streetlights on highways”. He solicited support from communities and philanthropists to tackle problems affecting effective policing of the highways.

Meanwhile, Mr Hakeem Bello, who is Special Adviser on Communications to Minister of Works and Housing, Fashola, asked Saturday PUNCH to send names of bad roads where kidnappers are holding sway. “It’ll be helpful if you can send the specific bad spots being referred to. This would enable me know the specific Federal Controller of Works in the states or which director to follow up with,” he said.

But he had yet to respond as of the time of filing this report after our correspondent sent him a list of some of the highways mentioned in the report.

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