BY ABDULKAREEM HARUNA
It is nearly two months now since my encounter with kidnappers. While I remained in captivity, friends and colleagues fought hard to secure my freedom. As I later learned, the security forces and relevant authorities received our complaints and offered solidarity. The consensus was to negotiate and meet the terms of my captors.
I have struggled since then to narrate my experience, but at each attempt, I found it difficult to put my fingers to the keyboard. Telling a personal story, especially one as horrifying as this, isn’t as straightforward as writing about people, events, and issues – the usual pastime of journalists.
A psychologist who saw me through my trauma management session advised I try as much as possible to tell my story to whoever cares to listen, after all, a burden shared is one half-solved.
As weeks passed, friends, family, and colleagues worried I might forget important details of my encounter. Not true. No one goes through such horror, not least a journalist, and forgets any bit of it. The details are always there, a haunting nightmare.
Journey to captivity
On November 12, at about 2 PM, I set off from Abuja’s Nyanya Park to Jos in Plateau State. Having completed the mission that took me to the federal capital, I felt I did not need to pass the night. The journey was smooth. The driver, retired military personnel, who had years of experience as a military driver, was still good on the wheels. I took the front seat, so I had the chance of chatting with the sixty-something-year-old man everyone at the motor park called Papa. On free routes, he reached 120km per hour, and I was comfortable with that.
We drove for about 45 minutes through the gridlock of Nyanya and Mararaba to Keffi in neighbouring Nasarawa State. Instead of the Akwanga route, we turned to Bade in southern Kaduna State and passed a military checkpoint on the outskirts of Tattara community. Some 3km later, we drove through a portion of the highway where road maintenance was taking place. Then, suddenly, after negotiating a slight bend, I sighted an unusual spectacle some 300 meters ahead.
I thought a vehicle had broken down because I saw people lying by the side of the car. My evaluation was that perhaps they were trying to check beneath the car to fix a fault. I tried talking to Papa to be careful not to run over people who practically had their legs in the middle of the road. Before I could fully process what was going on, the driver had stepped on the brake just as a lanky hooded man in military gear stepped into the middle of the highway and fired an AK-47 assault rifle.
“Jesus Christ! Subhanallah! were the words passengers in our car chorused in response as people tried to make sense of what was happening.
Our vehicle stopped right in the middle of what seemed to be an ongoing robbery scene. In a few minutes, we were surrounded by three armed men who either wore hoods or painted their faces with charcoal. Some others, about five, were standing over the travellers who had been forced to lie face down. I was scared, but I tried not to panic.
The first thing I did was to mitigate the anticipated loss and what could put me in danger. I had the phone with the main lines in my hand, so I quickly slipped it in between the vehicle’s gear lever and the driver’s seat. As I was doing this, the assailants were shouting “Ku sauka, Ku sauka!” – which in Hausa meant we should all alight from the vehicle. I had some cash in my back pocket and a second phone in another pocket. As I attempted to remove the phone, one of the men barked that I should get down from the car, or he would shoot me. I quickly opened the door and laid down by the roadside.
One of the armed men came over to where I was and kicked me, asking for my phone, which I removed and handed to him. He asked in Hausa with a Fulani accent, where my money was, and I pointed at my back pocket. He slapped my head and ordered me to keep my face down. He pulled out the cash and went on to ransack other passengers.
At that moment, I ruled out kidnapping. It was a relief thinking they were all concerned about phones and cash. Suddenly, one of them, a tall, dark-skinned man in his late 20s or early 30s, who I later found out to be the gang leader, walked over and ordered that I stand up. He asked which vehicle I came with, and a man with a gun at my back pointed the 8-seater Sharon bus. The leader ordered he should take the ‘dan Iska’ (stupid man) into the bush.
At that moment my prayers that all should end in robbery ended, and the heart-wrenching reality of being kidnapped crept in. The man who received the order pushed me into the bush and had me wait not far away from the road. There was pandemonium on the highway as the gunmen began to shoot into the air. I noticed that the man behind me had rushed back to the road to bring others, so I began to think of the best direction in which I could flee.
In those fleeting seconds, I heard a cold voice saying, “If you try it, you will die because I will shoot you.” I turned around and saw a mean looking young man, with a charcoal-painted face pointing a pistol at me, and urging me to move into the bush. He appeared to be the youngest of them all. He was the same person who took my phone and money. I will call him Sergeant Small.
A walk in the jungle
Suddenly, I was being pushed, slapped and hit by a stick as they marched me into the bush. Initially, I was not sure others had also been abducted. But after some minutes of walking in the forest, I realised we were four.
I said to myself, “So this is it; your worst fear has come to you.” I had no idea where we were heading. Many questions needed answers in my mind. “Will my family, my children ever see me again? My wife? How would she explain to my ever-inquisitive little boys?” My heart sank.
We passed through several empty farmlands. Most crops had been harvested, while some farms, like the guinea corn plantations, still had weeks to mature. That explained why most of the farms were deserted that afternoon. I wished we could run into some crowd of farmers who could help us.
We kept marching on into the far bushes, sometimes using our hands to rip through the brushes to make way. I continued to pray, reciting all protective verses of the Holy Quran that easily came to my mind. In between my silent supplications, I asked God not to let them kill me. The thought of dying brought my parents to my mind.
How would my parents, especially my mother, take the news that her only son had been kidnapped, and she may not see him again – just seven months after losing my older brother? I also wondered how my sisters would take the news.
Our journey continued for about an hour. Then suddenly, the ring leader, who I call Sergeant Sniper (after seeing how he fired an AK47 and got the tyres of a Peugeot 504 on the road), called out, “Sergeant, I don’t like the pattern of movement we are using.” He was talking to the man leading the evil expedition. They called themselves ‘Sergeant.’
They stopped for some minutes, conferred with one another, and asked us to continue moving. We trudged on, but this time, it became clear to me that we were not going to any form of camp or any particular destination. I knew that because it was barely three months that I interviewed my sister’s husband, who was abducted in Edo State. He told me they spent days in the bush moving from one spot to another for about four days before he finally regained his freedom after payment of ransom. So, I began to see patterns.
After about two hours into the jungle, we became so dehydrated. My tongue became dry. I said to myself, “Man, you may not survive this further if you don’t have water.” As though heavens knew my fears, we came to a spot that was darkened by thick brushes and there was a stream there. They stopped and again talked among themselves. One of them made a phone call. Then another young member of the team, who wore a punk haircut, and always smiled mischievously, came to me and said, “Oga, oga”, and I responded with, “Yaya dai?” (How are you doing?) He asked if there was a problem, given how uncomfortable I had become. I said I needed to drink water. He laughed and left me to join the others. He was always smiling. So I called him “Sergeant Smile”.
We moved a little to the other side of the stream, and they went down to fetch water using an empty bottle of soft drink they had in a bag. After they drank, Sergeant Sniper asked if we too wanted to drink water, and we nodded in affirmation. They asked one of us, a man from Jos, to go and fetch water for us. We took turns to drink the coloured liquid, which tasted good and refreshing.
Demand for ransom
After hydrating ourselves, it was time to cross the stream and continue the journey. There was only one way to do so: walk on a tree trunk that fell across the stream. We took turns and crossed safely, not minding the risk.
On the other side of the stream, we moved for about 20 minutes before they asked us to stop and sit down on the floor. They took time to survey the environment before the ring leader, Sergeant Sniper, asked us our tribes and where we were coming from. After the introductions, he cleared his voice and said, “Do you all know why we took and brought you people here?” We shook our heads. He said, “We want money, and if you can provide the money in cash to us you are free.” We did not say a word, but the looks in our petrified eyes suggested we wanted to know how much they were talking.
He said, “We want N40 million only.”
I would not know what gave me the nerve to respond, but I asked loudly, “N40 million?” And he replied in a cold, angry tone. “Is it too much to ask?” I kept quiet.
He left us and urged a shorter man who seemed to be the most elderly amongst them to take over. I call him Sergeant Elder. He spoke maturely and somehow more reasonably.
“We did not bring you here to kill or harm you but to get money,” he said. “But if you see anyone being molested here, it is because he caused it. So we will give you back your phones, and you need to think of one reliable person you can call, one that you trust will not make worse your cases for you, to help you bring the money. If you have the money now, we can release you even at this minute, as long as it gets to us.”
I collected my phone, an Infinix Note 5 which only had my Glo line that I mostly use for data and fewer calls. I put on the phone and tried calling, but I know there wasn’t any call credit on the line. The automated service voice prompted me to borrow some credit. I did, and N200 was advanced to me. So I dialed my friend’s number, which I could remember.
Gbenga Akingbule has been my friend for over 15 years. He is also a journalist and works for the Wall Street Journal. He knows my family well and knows much about my office.
When he picked the call, he wanted to go into our normal jibes and banter. But on hearing my voice and the way I urged him to pay attention to me, he knew all was not well. I told him what had happened and asked him to contact my office, my family and some very close friends like Isa Gusau and Ismail Omipidan, Hamza Idris, who are all colleagues and family friends.
They took the phone from me and told him they wanted N50 million. I know they were bluffing about the figure. I overheard Gbenga telling them that I was not a wealthy person; that I am just a journalist who has no such amount of money. My abductors said they did not care.
A brother of one abductee pissed the armed men off when he told them on the phone they should kindly release his brother and he would transfer N10, 000 to them if they could send an account number.
Their response was mean. “I know you are a mad man,” one of them said. “If it is N10, 000 we lack we would not be here in the bush. We, too, can send you N50, 000 as well.”
They warned him not to mention that amount again if he valued the life of his brother. All done with the initial contact-making, they collected the phones and said, “no more calls till 7 PM.
Search for Camp
We resumed our journey further into the jungle. After walking for about an hour, I noticed that we were making a slight turn to the right. The rays of the evening sun, initially on the back of my head, had turned to the right side of my face. That suggested we were shifting eastward towards the south. It was getting dark, and I heard Sergeant Sniper telling Sergeant Elder, “We cannot pass the night here in the shrubs, we need an elevated open space, else, mosquitoes will kill us all.”
Haruna few hours after he was released by abductors
As we kept on shifting southward, we came into a farm, and from afar, we could see a teenage girl who had finished gathering firewood and was about to put it on her head. The young lady who only had a wrapper around her chest was stunned to see nine men coming towards her direction. It took her some time to process the kind of danger she could be. Seeing armed men with painted faces in military uniform, she bolted with the speed of a gazelle. The kidnappers called out to her not to run, but that should be told to children in the park. We walked past her abandoned pack of firewood, and the kidnappers just laughed.
At a point, we all seemed lost. Then Sergeant Elder pointed at the top of a hill about 2km away from where we were standing. He said that rock was our destination. We were tired, but we had to move or risk their wrath.
Getting to the hilltop was very difficult. The foot of the hill was swampy. We had to slash our way through blades of giant grasses with our shoes soaked. A rattlesnake scared us, but our abductors said it was nothing. We bumped into a tiny plot of a sweet potato farm, and the boys who also spoke Fulfulde and by now had become clear to be Fulani, began to use their legs to dig under the plants to find out if they have started making tubers. They found out that the sweet potatoes were yet to mature. So we continued our exhausting climb up the hill.
We got to the top of the rock at about 7.15 PM. They asked us to sit. They took strategic positions to keep eyes on us. They took their dinner made of God-knows-what and asked us to make calls to our people to find out the progress with the ransom. I called my friend, and he told me efforts were on to get money. We begged for a fair amount and but the criminals insisted on N10 million.
Two of my colleagues were subjected to beating, slaps and kicking because they were saying their relatives had no such money to give.
After that, we begged for water, and they handed us a 35cl bottle of water to share for the night. We told ourselves we could only sip the water so it would last till the next day.
Long cold night
Our bed for the night was nothing but a solid rough rock. The rock was surrounded by thick brushes and the fear of dangerous reptiles or insects kept me awake most of the night.
I could not sleep. Our bodies ached due to the hard surface we laid on. Pretending to be helpful, Sergeant Elder came over to plead with us to manage the bedding they provided.
I was in a short-sleeved shirt, and the cold was terrible for all of us. Sergeant Elder later offered me a headscarf. I thanked him and I used the scarf as a pillow on the rock. When it got colder, I tried pulling out half of the scarf to cover my shoulder and hands.
It was the longest night for me. I had to escort the moon on its night trip from the east across the sky to the north. It was a full moon, and the jungle in front of us lit up. I watched the moon bump through the clouds, fighting their attempts to shade off its brightness. As I watched the moon’s successful passage through the cloud, I began to think about the wonders of God. I thought if it was part of God’s design that I should at that moment be held captive and enslaved by a gang of thugs with AK47.
Suddenly I began to use the moon to connect with God. I began to feel as though the full moon that lit up the dark jungle was a sign that God was watching us all even inside this forest. That comforted me a bit. Then I began to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness for all my shortcomings as human. As I recited a prayer for divine forgiveness, my thought wandered back to my wife and kids.
The last time he called, Gbenga told me that my wife was already aware of my abduction even before he told her. “Everyone is aware of it now, my brother,” he said. I sustained my prayers, silently as I watched the moon making progress on its journey to the West. I could not see my wristwatch now. So I depended on the moon to guess the time. I knew where it would reach to know that dawn had approached.
As I laid on my back, watching the sky, something suddenly took my attention. I saw two flickers of light from a distance heading toward our location. Then I heard our abductors talking in hushed tones. They cocked their rifles and ducked. Sergeant Sniper began to walk calmly toward the approaching flashlights. Then we began to hear two persons talking – a male and female conversing. The two kept flashing their lights on top of trees. My mind skipped. I was afraid of any shootout should the persons advancing planned to rescue us.
Sergeant Sniper walked down to meet the two villagers who, did not notice his dark figure in front of them as they were busy flashing their lights on treetops.
He then asked them in a calm tone, what are you people looking for here? The visitors were shocked. He asked again, and they said: “We came to search for medicinal herbs.” Sergeant Sniper said, “Oh, herbs?” They answered, “yes.” He said, “Okay, then, let’s search for the herbs together.”
The two became silent for a while, then suddenly, as though prompted to act simultaneously, they bolted down the hill and disappeared into the night. Our armed captors laughed and joked about it for a while and then told us to go back to sleep.
I returned to my engagement with the moon. Looking at God’s beautiful work in the sky, I pondered over my life. I have experienced divine grace and kindness, and I have seen the other side of life too. I lost a son, survived an assassination attempt, and was displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency. I have worked the best part of my professional career as a journalist in the North-east, and perhaps, no one has covered the Boko Haram conflict better than I have done. I have lived in and seen the danger. Every day I travel between Maiduguri, Yobe, and Bauchi States to see my displaced family, I hand my safety to God and luck. The chance of not being attacked or running into Boko Haram is always a 50:50.
Here I was, a captive, far away from the North-east. No, I did not let down my guard. It was part of my safety precautions that I refused to drive myself through the Kaduna forest to Abuja. I felt public transport would give me a bit of concealment from the kidnappers who usually target private cars.
From a distance, I heard the faint sound of a truck revving its engine as it climbed a hill. My mind returned to the moon. It had made its way across the sky, almost descending into the skyline of the West. I knew dawn was near. It was Day 2.
Facing the killers
Gradually, the sun began to creep out from the East, and as the day lit up, I had to offer the morning prayers from my heart. Islam allows its faithful to pray that way in such a situation. I never expected the criminals who spent the night playing music off their phones, smoking cigarettes, and marijuana to think about praying in the morning.
At about 7 am, Sergeant Sniper announced: “Now is time for you to say hi to your folks at home.” We got back our phones to enquire about the progress made concerning the ransom. I also spoke to my wife and was encouraged by the sense of calm in her voice. She asked if I was tortured, I said no. She asked if I was allowed to pray. I said no. I quickly told her not to worry that I was okay. She said my colleagues had been calling and assuring her that they were working on my release. I knew inside she was broken. But she still managed to take the kids to school. I battled to stop tears off my eyes.
At about 7.30 am, the kidnappers repainted their faces with charcoal, and they asked us to move to another location. We found another rocky space and sat under the morning sun. They had breakfast, and we had nothing.
Since our abduction, the other three captives and I had no time to know each other. It was time to introduce ourselves. One of them, a heavy-set man from Plateau State, had what most of us lacked: the grace to fall asleep easily. The second, more elderly, was an Igala from Kogi State. He understood very little Hausa and relied on us for translations. The last abductee, also an Igala, was about the age of this writer.
As we waited in silence, one of the kidnappers, the second most elderly, asked for our passcodes to unlock our phones. I call him Sergeant ICT because of his ability to frisk phones and apps, searching for information about our lives and what we do out there.
He was able to find some photos on the phones of two of my abducted colleagues, which the kidnappers said did not match their claims of not having money or being rich. For that, the two men were dragged to a rock top where they thoroughly flogged.
While they were away, I and the man from Jos were left with Sergeant Elder who approached us and said, “As you can see, your friends there are suffering because they were not honest people. They lied about not having money but only for us to find out that they live big lives, have big houses, and drive luxurious cars. But for you, we have not found anything contrary; at least you have not lied that you can’t raise the money we are demanding. Your people back at home are assuring us they would do their best to raise something good and substantial. So that is why we have not touched you for now. But should they fail, I’m sorry. You see, every day, I pray that I should stop this kidnapping business. And I pray this should be my last. But don’t make me do what I never intended to do before I quit.”
Our whipped colleagues returned with red eyes, and they were given phones to make calls again.
Sergeant ICT went back to work immediately. He called out at me and asked for my passcode again. I gave him, and he began to frisk my phone. I became worried, then scared, as I monitored if he was done with the phone. He was still on it. At about 8.30 am, my fears came to reality. He had seen something that excited him. He called Sergeant Small and Sergeant Elder to look at my phone.
I knew what it was. A photograph of me in military helmet and fragmented jacket. I took the photo when we were on an embedded trip with soldiers to some towns in northern Borno. Their excitement soared as they flipped through the photo file. I glanced towards them, and I saw Sergeant Small staring at me with a deadly cold look on his face.
Sergeant ICT took the phone to Sergeant Sniper, who was sitting a distance behind us. He blew out a whistle in a surprised tone and jumped up. He cocked his rifle and came in front of me. My heart pounded. I was horrified. I managed to pray – may my last, or maybe for God’s intervention. The armed man stepped back and put his hands on the trigger, and two other captives behind me moved away. And then he said in Hausa, “So you are a bloody hypocrite and a liar. Tell us the truth and deny that you are not a soldier. You hypocrite!”
I don’t know what gave me the confidence, but I laughed out and said, “soldier?” I said, “Oh, you guys saw the photos in my phone where I was putting on a helmet and frag jacket, right?”
I explained my work as a journalist and how I had to use the military kit for protection. I explained in every possible way I could to convince them and repeatedly swore with all that I hold dear that I was not a soldier.
I brought out my ID card and showed it to them, explaining that a soldier does not carry civilian identification. Somehow, God intervened through Sergeant ICT, who said I should keep quiet as he recalled my friend telling him the previous day that I was a journalist.
But Sergeant Small, who never liked my face all the while insisted that Sergeant Sniper should shoot me that I was lying because he had been watching me since the previous day, I looked like a soldier. After some minutes of argument, the ring leader hearkened to the voice of his elders and left me.
Sergeant Elder left a gruesome warning nonetheless. “Well, whether you are a soldier or not, it does not matter. As far as we are concerned, you may not leave here alive.” His words sent a chill down my spine.
The man in charge of frisking phones suddenly became generous with his skills. He told us how and why some kidnapped persons don’t make out alive.
“You Nigeria people are always the cause of your problems,” he said with disgust.
“Why do you take photos of what you are not? You take photos in places or cars that don’t belong to you and keep them on your phone? That is what we use to judge whether you have money or not. We don’t care if it was real or fake when we notice that what you claim is in contrast with what we see on your phones, you are gone. You guys are lucky we are god-fearing people.”
I was also lucky I left the other phone in the car.
It was at about 8 am. And it was time to move again. We walked back into the forests on the hilltop until we got to a location with tall trees. There, they said we should sit. We had to trample on dry leaves and rotten woods to find places to sit.
After about five hours of periodic calls for updates on each of our families’ progress concerning the ransom, they later brought garri, mixed with salt and pepper fetched from a black plastic bag, and presented it to us to eat. We had no option than to fetch and eat even though it was served as a dog’s food. The oldest amongst us did not want to eat, but I advised him against rejecting the meal. We all ate and drank the water they fetched for us.
From time to time, Sergeant Small would angrily slap or flog some of us if he felt that the ransom being sourced was not forthcoming as they anticipated. We kept begging for mercy.
Suddenly all our phones started running out of power. My Infinix still had enough battery, so the three others had to depend on my phone to contact their families.
It was late in the afternoon, and the rains began to drizzle. Our abductors were not bothered. They understood the jungle and said it would soon pass away, and that the trees would protect us all. They were right.
At about 6 pm, they asked us to get up and move out to find yet another rock. We walked around for some time and found another rock. That would be our second sleeping zone for the day. The night was the longest of all. It was a bit dark and cloudy, and I missed the moon. The rock was rougher, and our bodies blistered and ached. I cannot remember if I had any sleep.
But I could remember pondering over the events of the day, especially what the kidnappers said at the peak of the bargain for ransom. They wanted all payments from the four of us to be collated in Jos and brought to them by only two persons. My friend, Gbenga, raised concerns about his safety. He wanted to be assured if he, too, would not be kidnapped on delivering the ransom. They insisted they do not harm the ransom bearer. Gbenga pointed out cases where ransom bearers ended up as captives. But Sergeant Elder said, “No, that is not the style of our trade; those doing that are spoiling our business, and we are doing something about that.”
He added: “In this business of ours the ransom bearers are more important than even the abductees. So rest assured you are in safe hands; you can even start coming this evening, the moment you pass Yobe and enter Bauchi, nothing will stop you from getting to Jos even at midnight, because all those areas are my territory.”
When my friend insisted on more assurances, Sergeant Sniper angrily grabbed the phone from Sergeant Elder and said: “No one will touch you even if you are coming with the money alone by midnight because I have bought the highway from the forest after Jos up to this location in Jagingi, and it remains mine until this operation is over.”
That aspect of “buying the highway” rang a bell in my head. Bought the highway? From whom? Was it from the soldiers, the police, or from his fellow kidnappers or all of them? Who owns the road, apart from the government?
As I later realised, Sergeant Sniper, though not the oldest in the band since he occasionally took orders from Sergeant Elder and Sergeant ICT, still commanded the operation. He took final decisions on most issues. For such a man to say he bought the highway was very instructive. It meant the kidnapping business is not done at random. There is some form of organisation, if not union, that okays a particular group or gang to carry out attacks at some particular location of the highways.
As the night dragged on slowly, and my insomnia persisted, I had to allow my mind brood over other things that I observed about the kidnappers. They were more than five that ambushed our vehicle. But as they were taking us into the bush, only five were with us. Also, on the first night, I overheard Sergeant Sniper calling someone on the phone and addressing him as “OC Hanya” (officer in charge of highway…), and also asking him, “hope there was no problem out there?” before assuring the person that “we are here…no problems.” That suggested to me that while they were holding us in the bush, they had other members of their gang monitoring the highway, who could possibly give them warning should they notice any form of security personnel trying to comb the area.
I also pondered over their decision not to use their phones to make contact with any of our family members to demand a ransom. They instead used our phones. When some of my colleagues’ phones ran out of battery, they gave them other phones, which they stole from other passengers, to put their SIM cards or use the batteries. And when they were done with the phones, they threw them into the bush. They did not use the phones they stole.
Earlier in the day, when the eldest abductee among us, who we called Papa, had challenges with his phone battery, Sergeant ICT asked me if I could format a phone to factory setting. I wanted to know why he asked. He said some of the android phones with him had enough battery power, but they had codes protecting the screen. So he wanted me or any other person among us, who could do the formatting. I told him, “Sorry, I don’t know how to do it.” He flung the phone into the bush.
I also thought that although they did not use their phones, it was still possible for security agencies to track our own phones each time they allowed us to make calls with them. I noticed that each time I was given my phone to make calls, there was enough GPS signal on the phone and the kidnappers did not care about that.
I also observed that all through our stay with them, not even once did they call each other by their names. The word they used in addressing one another was ‘Sergeant’. And they had a hierarchical way of understanding who was being referred to when any one of them calls out ‘Sergeant’.
I lost the idea of time as I laid on the hard surface of the rock, turning from one side to the other to ease the aches of my bones. I also tried as much as possible to avoid the temptation of sitting up so that the kidnappers would not think I had some kind of military training that was why I was keeping vigil and not sleeping like my other colleagues were doing. At a point, I later dozed off. I wasn’t sure for how long, but at the time I woke up, the moon had already gone West. I heard a distant crow of a cock. I knew it was almost dawn. I heaved a sigh to welcome Day 3.
The weather was chilly, and my noses were blocked as I kept on sneezing. Still lying on the rock, I tried to observe my morning prayers quietly. But something drew my attention, and I raised my head to the lookout. To my surprise, I saw Sergeant Elder observing his morning prayer facing the east. I said in my mind, “Look at that crazy bastard doing what he denied me.” I wondered what he was telling God at that time. Praying to God while you have captives with guns to their heads. Hypocrite! How could he be seeking absolution in the middle of committing a crime? The man was good at mind games. He was praying for the first time in three days, and possibly wanted us to go home with the thoughts that he was God-fearing.
The sun lazily came up to give us some warmth. I brought out the chewing stick I used the previous day to brush my teeth. I remembered a specific shrub my late uncle used to cut for us to use as chewing sticks while on the farm. So I decided to cut it, and Sergeant ICT helped with his knife.
They later gave us our phones to call and find out how far our folks had gone in tidying up the demanded pay-offs. After that, we spent some time in silence, and then Sergeant Sniper said: “Okay, time to move.” We started going up the hill, avoiding being seen. From the top of the hill, we could sight farmers at a distance down the valley going to their farms. We moved for about 40 minutes, then they stopped. They conversed for some time, and I saw Sergeant Sniper making calls and mentioning “garri, sugar, and bread”. After some time he asked Sergeant Smile to follow him, and they left us with the three others.
Some minutes later, Sergeant Elder left us to survey the area and then returned to ask us to follow him. We moved through some thick forest area, then we began to descend and crossed a stream and began to climb another hill. Tall trees shrouded everywhere. So we moved until we arrived at a spot where they asked us to find places to sit. Yellow ants plagued the place. We sat upon dry leaves and woods.
After about an hour and a half, Sergeant Small, who had been sleeping all the while, made a sound with his tongue in the manner herders communicate with their cows. Sergeant Elder repeated the same sound; then, I heard a similar sound coming from a distance. To my surprise, the sound persisted and then Sergeant Sniper and Sergeant Smile appeared. They used that sound to locate our coordinate.
They returned with bread, soft drinks, and garri with sugar. Immediately they sat around the food and began to eat. After some minutes, they gave us a bottle of Sprite to share. We thanked them profusely. After some minutes, Sergeant ICT gave us a halved loaf of bread to share. We were also glad.
Reason for kidnapping?
At about 1 pm, I was asked to call my friend who was bringing the ransom from Maiduguri and find out where he was. Gbenga said he was approaching Bauchi. They gave me the phone again to send text messages to the families of the three other abductees. They wanted me to share their numbers amongst them so that all of them could meet at a particular spot in Jos when my friend arrived. I did as I was told, and handed back the phone to them.
From then on, the atmosphere changed. They were fascinated by my phone’s battery. So they inquired about its name, and I told them. Sergeant Sniper would be buying it.
They allowed us to chat amongst ourselves. The four of us talked about life, its challenges, the election in Kogi, the antics of politicians, and so on. We forgot our common situation. The kidnappers too, were on their own chatting in Fulfulde language.
Then, Sergeant ICT called out on Papa to find out how much his people were able to raise. I guess he asked because they had been having issues with his family concerning the amount they were offering to them. Papa said he should be allowed to call. They said, “No more calls for you; we are keeping you with us.” Later, Sergeant Elder said, “It is okay. We will let you be. Even though you are worse than Buhari.”
Leveraging on the relaxed mood amongst us, I summoned the courage to ask why he compared Papa with Buhari. They said he was “wicked and lies like Buhari.”
They said Papa hade money but pretended to be poor, and that should he be given the seat of the president, he would ensure more people suffer.
Sergeant Sniper said, “We voted for Buhari with the promise of giving us jobs, but he ended up deceiving us. That is why we are doing what we are doing. If not for Boko Haram that he was able to reduce, nothing is working in Nigeria under Buhari.”
At that point, a mild argument ensued amongst them. Sergeant ICT disagreed with Sergeant Sniper. “You don’t listen to the news, that’s why you thought Buhari had ended Boko Haram. The bastards are still attacking people in Borno; it is on the news every day.” Sergeant Elder too corroborated the last point.
The discussion later drifted to the problems of police. They saw the cops as hypocrites and warned that police should never be trusted as friends. They shared different opinions, and we too had to join the discussion about the problems of Nigeria. At a point, one could not believe they were kidnappers who were in the very act of criminal activity. Of course, we hoped joining them in their discussion would help win their sympathy so that we could be released without harm. It was generally a feigned atmosphere of friendship. All the while, they were still insisting on getting more ransom money than what we were offering.
At about 2 pm, Gbenga announced that he had arrived Jos. And the kidnappers were surprised at his speed. They asked how much he was bringing, and he gave the figure. Sergeant Sniper was livid. He collected the phone and said with a deadly cold voice: “If you come here with anything less than what we asked you to bring, just consider your trip a total waste of time.”
I became scared, especially with the looks in his eyes. I begged to be given the phone to speak with my friend. I said, “Gbenga, please kindly try all that you can to make sure the ransom is complete – my situation is different, and they have eyes on me.” Gbenga said, “Don’t worry; everything is under control.”
It was then I knew my friend was trying to avoid a situation they would be asking for more money, so he had to continue feigning there was no much to offer. I told them he would get the remaining amount from a friend in Jos, who agreed to lend us some. They said that was fine.
They asked my friend to alert them as soon as he met with the other three ransom bearers in Jos. And when he did, they put the phone on speaker so that all of them could hear what was being discussed. To our hearing, they said each ransom bearer should declare what they brought and all of them took time to do so. They summed up the total and then said: “okay, get the two of you to bring the money and make sure the vehicle you are coming with can convey all of you plus four people back to Jos.”
At that point, I noticed Sergeant Sniper brought out all the bullets from his AK47, cleaned the gun, and began to insert the bullets into the cartridge one after the other. He had to offer some incantation on each ammunition, touch it with his tongue, before inserting it into the cartridge. I became worried. Would these guys let me go after collecting the money? I wasn’t sure they were convinced I was not a soldier after seeing me in a military jacket and a helmet. I was even more disturbed that they were not hiding their faces again – if they would spare me, they wouldn’t have allowed me to see their faces. So I went into prayers.
“Yellow, are you praying for us?” asked Sergeant Smile, who was sitting far behind me. They all called me Yellow. I didn’t know what to say , but I had to respond to his question. “Yes,” I said. “Prayers are good, right? I’m praying that this should end well for all of us.” He nodded, smiling as usual.
Sergeant Elder who normally advised on what to accept concerning ransom, took over all communications. He asked the ransom bearers to call him each time they arrived at a specific location, and that when they finally arrived at Jagindi village, they should stop, put on their inner light and call to notify him.
When Gbenga called to announce that they had reached Gidan Waya, it was about 5.30 PM. So they announced to us that it was time to start moving towards the point of exchange.
We had to wait for some minutes for a herdsman who was spotted far down the valley grazing his herds, to move out of sight. While waiting, we also spotted three young boys making their way home from the farms.
All cleared, we began to descend the hills, and in some minutes, we were all walking along a footpath. As we moved on in silence, Sergeant Smile walked up to me and said, smiling, “Oga Yellow, I know you are happy that you are going to see your wife.” I said, “yes, and children as well.” He walked on to join Sergeant Sniper, who was ahead leading the movement.
After some time, we veered off the footpath and began to walk through a beans farm. It was an open space, but these guys were not bothered if anyone would spot them. They knew the entire terrain, and they seemed to know where to avoid being seen.
It was getting darker when we arrived at a stream. On the other side of the stream, the five had a brief meeting, and then a call came from Gbenga that they had arrived at Jagindi village. Sergeant Sniper took over the phone and described how they should move from there to the point of collecting the ransom. A vivid description was given.
Sergeants Sniper, Small, and Smile left us to go and collect the ransom. They had two AK47 with them. Sergeants Elder and ICT stayed back with us.
After about 10 minutes, Sergeant Elder said we should start moving towards the same direction the trio took. We began to move, but this time we could barely see our paths, we kept on bumping into shrubs, but our escorts were okay.
We walked for about 20 minutes; then, Sergeant Elder asked us to stop and wait for further communication from those that went to collect the ransom. As we waited, they asked us to look up at the sky. The effect blinds you when you look down. It was a strategy to constrain our sights should we attempt anything unexpected.
Walk to freedom
It was the longest wait for me. It started drizzling, but who cared? It was getting to about 40 minutes, no call, and no sign of movement. From a distance, we could see floodlights of cars moving. But we were still far away from the highway. I still doubted if they would honour their words to release us after collecting the money. Then I heard Sergeant Elder speak on his phone, and he said, “okay.” He turned to us and said, “Time to move.”
We started hobbling and stumbling after them. It was dark. We walked for about 10 minutes then we found ourselves on an earth route. There, we sighted three human silhouettes coming towards us. Those were Sergeants Sniper, Small, and Smile. My heart began to pound fast. Is it going to be or not?
Haruna few hours after he was released by abductors
As we walked towards them, Sergeant ICT grabbed my hands gently and said, “Abdulkareem, when you guys get home, please pray for us so that we could leave this kind of job.” I slowed down, looked at him and said “May God grant you the grace to use this money wisely so that you can stop this business and be a better citizen.” He said, “Amen, thank you.” And I said, in my heart. “Bastard!”
I doubled up to join the others ahead, and then Sergeant Sniper called out to me “Yellow, here is your phone, put on the torch and follow this footpath straight ahead it will take you to the highway, there you will meet your people.” We muttered words of appreciation, and I took the phone from him, but the battery was then at 10 percent, so the torch app won’t work. I looked at Sergeant Small, he had a bag he collected from one of my abducted colleagues hanging heavily on his shoulder. He got the ransom!
Papa said his phone still had some power, so he offered his torch, and we continued to stumble through the rough path. It took us about 10 minutes of walk, at a point, we thought we had missed the road. But he said “straight,” so we walked on.
My friend later told me they were asked to park by the road facing the direction of Jos. After some minutes, two persons emerged from the bush, one with a gun and hurriedly collected the money. They instructed them to open the bonnet of the car and then dashed back into the forest. It was Sergeants Small and Smile that received the money, while Sniper hid in the bush waiting to shoot should anything go wrong.
We got to the main road, and I sighted a car parked with its bonnet opened. There was no sign of persons inside. So I called out, “Gbenga”, and my friend responded, I’m here, enter quickly.
Four of us crammed into the back seat of the Volkswagen Vectra, and off we zoomed to freedom.
On the way, we exchanged words of thanks and congratulations. I asked if my friend called my main lines. He said, “yes, it was deposited at the police station in Jagindi.”
The police handed over to me my bag and its inventoried contents, after which I was bid good luck. I was not debriefed; I was not asked to write a statement.
As we drove that night to Jos, the police warned us to be extra careful that the roads had been plagued by similar attacks in the past days. In my mind, I said, “don’t worry, it has been bought.”
I also pondered over the event of the past three days. How easy it has become to be kidnapped, how easy it was for unscrupulous youth to make money, and how easy it is to die here, and I sighed. “That is the hazard of being in Nigeria.”
(Originally published by Premium Times, January 1,2020)