-Imo Government,FG Indifferent Over Sad Development 

The National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Mbato, in Okigwe, Imo state is considered a secluded research institute with a considerable level of sanctity and serenity, suitable for intellectual work; a facility seemingly far removed from the bustles of its immediate environs.

That was all before January 18, 2023 when the tranquility of the institute was shattered and its exclusivity sullied.

It was a few minutes to midday when a convoy of nearly a dozen motorbikes accompanied by a Hilux truck effortlessly breached the main gate and security post of the institute and menacingly drove into the research facility.

The invaders met a terrified workforce, some of whom were instantly frozen by fear at the sight of the terrorists who they have heard so much about and were too scared to even move a limb in flight.

With a sporadic gunfire into the air, they made it clear that they would not entertain discussions or negotiations, as they seized Dr. Ugochukwu Onyegbule, the Head of Station, National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Mbato outstation, Okigwe, Imo state and whisked him away from the institute.

The gunmen who took Onyegbule away, also took his vehicle alongside, leaving behind, a number of confused and bewildered employees, most of whom were evidently at a loss as to what to do under such circumstance.

Not many would have believed that Dr. Ugochukwu Onyegbule would have been held for more than 24 hours, before being let go, with a reprimand, assuming he had crossed the gunmen who are also masquerading as separatists and members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

Some persons had hoped it would end up being a case of kidnapping for ransom, but after the first few weeks and nothing was heard from the abductors, the hope that a ransom demand would be made, started to wane, as the fear of the unknown crept in.

It is now five months since Onyegbule, NIHORT’s Head of Station and a senior researcher in the institute was abducted by suspected bandits who residents refer to in the vernacular as ‘Umuoma’ (Fine boys).

Something to worry about;

When the news of Onyegbule’s abduction got to his kinsmen and family, the first impulse was to send some kinsmen to the Institute to get detailed information on what actually transpired.

So the very next day, according to findings by our correspondent, family members and kinsmen of Onyegbule came to the Institute and around the Mbato area asking questions, searching for help and suggestions on how to go about securing the release of their son and brother.

They were shocked to hear gory tales of horror and to experience first-hand, the pervading fear of a community under siege. It was a Herculean task finding one local who could freely and courageously talk about the reign of terror and activities of the gang of bandits who abducted Dr. Ugochukwu Onyegbule and have the run of Mbato-Okigwe, the institute’s host community and extending even beyond.

They had expected that the abductors of their brother would be at large, on the run and in hiding, but were taken aback to see the hoodlums who abducted Onyegbule freely parading the community, openly wielding automatic weapons, moving in convoys of stolen vehicles and causing decent citizens to scamper to safety at their sight.

It then dawned on them that their brother was being held by a band of dare-devil bandits who had the run and firm control of the areas covering Mbato, Umulolo, Ihube, Aku and other neighbouring communities.

Police Findings

At the abduction of Dr. Ugochukwu Onyegbule, our correspondent gathered that NIHORT made an official complaint to the Police. Similarly, the larger Onyegbule family also incidented the case at the Zone 9 Police Zonal Command, Umuahia – Abia state, which covers most states of the South-East including Imo state where the institute is located.

Till date, it seems that nothing definite has come out of the efforts of the security agencies in the case. No arrest has been made and nobody has as yet been declared wanted by the authorities.

It is also not clear if the investigating agencies ever visited the institute in the course of their investigation as those who spoke to our correspondent indicated the contrary.

The only thing certain, is that after five months, Dr. Onyegbule has neither been located nor rescued.

Following enquiries from officials of Dr. Onyegbule’s alumni association, the Registrar of NIHORT, Mrs. Akinpelu said the institute has heard nothing from the security agencies who they have reported the case to and who had assured them of making effort to unravel the abduction.

Akinpelu regretted that the institute had nothing to report on the whereabout of Dr. Onyegbule as the security agencies were yet to provide them definite information or findings on the present status of their Head of Station in Okigwe.

The Onyegbule family who spoke to our correspondent through Kelechi Onyegbule, a younger brother to the missing Head of Station also lamented that the Police Zonal Command where they reported the case has still not given them any definite information or findings concerning their brother. He lamented that in spite of all their efforts and huge resources expended, the security agencies were yet to give them any situation report on the investigation.

“If we try to persuade them to put in more effort, they take offence and ask if we want to teach them their job. It is really frustrating. Do you know how painful it is to be unable to state the whereabout of your brother for the last five months?”

Unresolved Cases

It worries decent, law-abiding citizens that a country as big as Nigeria is gradually normalizing the rampant incidents of forced disappearances, unresolved abductions, cases of kidnapping and murder.

It is quite goring for citizens, especially those living around the Okigwe axis of Imo state that law-abiding residents perpetually live in fear, with the few who dare to insist on their human rights, being attacked, abducted, maimed or even killed, while the government and its armed forces seemingly stand by doing relatively nothing to redress the ugly situation.

What deepens the pain and helplessness of the citizens in the Okigwe axis, is the fact that their attackers and invaders are ubiquitously gallivanting in plain sight without being confronted or apprehended by the law enforcement agencies.

Agitated Alumni

This apparently, may be the reason Dr. Onyegbule’s University Alumni, the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike Alumni Association has gone to great lengths, in search of answers and help for their missing colleague.

In a recent press statement signed by Dr. Obasi Igwe Oscar and Comrade Njoku Chukwudi, President and Secretary respectively, the Association called the attention of critical stakeholders to the fact that Dr. Ugochukwu Onyegbule is still missing, five months after he was abducted from his office at NIHORT, Mbato – Okigwe.

The association lamented that, “Nothing has been heard from his abductors and himself since the sad incident of January 18, 2023 when he was abducted from his office. We therefore appeal to the Federal Government, Ministry of Agriculture and all security agencies to intervene to ensure he is released safely.”

Communities under siege

Whether it is Mbato, Umulolo, Ihube, Aku or the other surrounding communities one goes to, it won’t take too long to discern that the fear of Umuoma is the beginning of wisdom.

The main camp of these bandits according to our findings, is located at Aku, a remote community and as a matter of fact, it is not a guarded secret any more because the hoodlums are not hiding away in the camp but parading the communities asserting their authority and control.

A local source who craved anonymity told our correspondent in confidence that: “These gunmen are no longer crouching low in any hideout; you can see them on a daily basis patrolling in a convoy of vehicles and motorcycles, brazingly wielding their firearms. All the Police checkpoints that used to be around this area have been attacked and sacked by these hoodlums. You will not find any policeman in these areas or any security operative in uniform. They are the law, they are the enforcers and we live by their rules. The military base is just about 20 minutes away and we know they are aware of what is going on here. As for me, I cannot continue living here, I am already making arrangements to leave this community. Though they do not attack locals and residents without cause, living in fear and uncertainty daily, is no longer good for my heart health.”

Another source, who earlier, firmly refused to talk with our correspondent in town, finally spoke when he coincidentally met our reporter again at a motor park along the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway in Okigwe.

He said:”Did they not tell you how risky it is asking these kinds of questions in these areas? You won’t live too long in these communities if you do not become sensitive of your environment, learn how to keep your mouth shut and mind your business. I can tell you a few things because I am leaving Okigwe for sometime.

“There have been reports and incidents of killings, extortion and intimidation of people by this fast-growing gang of gunmen. No one knows exactly how many they are, but it seems their number is increasing by the day, as they seem to have their men and informants ‘everywhere’.

“Aku community is the hub of their operations; they have deployed armed subjugation and fetish intimidation to cow the locals.They have planted shrines of strange deities in the base camp at Aku. There are reports that some communities in that axis may be under oath, not to talk about the invasive and abominable atrocities of the gang.

“In Aku, they run their own government, on their own terms and any resistance or demand for the respect of human rights is often met with crude force. They had ordered all Aku indigenes to withdraw all their cases in the law court and the Police. They adjudicate on these matters themselves and dispense their own form of justice. They adjudicate land matters, family issues, and any matter reported to them including debt collection. Their judgment is final and any defiance could attract instant death.Their terror is spreading and nearby communities are already succumbing to their influence. If nothing is done urgently to halt the spread of this virus, young people who grow up in the affected communities may grow into young men looking up to these criminals as role models. As a matter of fact, some of the men I had sighted in the past were just young men in the age bracket of 20 years to 25 years.”  

This terror enclave is believed to have been founded and nurtured by some of the hoodlums who fled from camps in Orsu council area of Imo state, when it was busted by a combined team of security forces.

According to our findings, they started by killing some influential figures in Okigwe and burning their homes. The killings became frequent such that before long the fear of these bandits had firmly gripped the people. 

Gradually and riding on the fear of the terrified locals, they set up camp at Aku community from where they dispense terror.

Commenting on the activities of these gunmen 

who claim to be Biafran separatists, the spokesperson for the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) said: “On many occasions I have written about those people. They are not IPOB members or ESN operatives. They are criminals sponsored by infiltrators in Europe and America. They claim they are IPOB and ESN members but they are not. I have written severally dissociating IPOB and ESN operatives from them. those staying in the bushes in Aku village and other places in Okigwe are not ESN operatives and we are looking for them.”

It is therefore worrisome that apparently, it may have been the complexity of the security situation in Okigwe and the cost of engaging the hoodlums who have carved out swaths of land to themselves from where they terrorize Okigwe and its environs, that may have stalled efforts at searching out and effecting the release of Dr. Ugochukwu Onyegbule.

As family and friends keep their fingers crossed, it is hoped that the relevant authorities will in good time, do what they need to do, to secure the lives of citizens and possibly, get to the bottom of the abduction of Dr. ugochukwu Onyegbule.