By Wole Olaoye
We all go through happy times and sad times. Cheers today, tears tomorrow. When you see a heap of footwear at the entrance of your neighbour, it is a signal that many people have come to either celebrate with him or to commiserate with the family. In the ambivalence of Fate’s Tarot cards, there is darkness and there is light. And there are shades of many colours in-between. We would rather savour the fruits of joy than taste the vinegar of sadness. However, life is made of both; one is the handmaid of the other.
You could hear Nigerians collectively heaving a sigh of relief when the remaining 23 train passengers abducted by terrorists on the Abuja-Kaduna route were released after a six-month ordeal. We couldn’t be bothered by how the release was procured. All that mattered was that those innocent souls were now free. We had a genuine reason to celebrate.
It has since become known that a committee empanelled by the Chief Of Defence Staff handled the negotiations. Coming on the heels of the arrest of erstwhile self-appointed negotiator, Tukur Mamu, in Egypt and his subsequent repatriation to Nigeria to face charges bordering on terrorism, many analysts have been linking the dots. A do-gooder could be a terror merchant. (By the way, where is that list of 200 terror suspects handed over to us by UAE sometime ago?)
We must all fear wolves disguised as sheep. Virgil the poet warned long ago that we ought to “fear the Danaans [Greeks], even when they bear gifts”.
According to Daily Trust newspaper, government negotiators held talks with the terrorists for several months before the criminals tabled their demands which were “agreed in principle”. It took a lot of assurances and brinksmanship for the negotiators to persuade the terrorists to release the captives. “One of the agreements reached was for the government to open a dialogue with them for a broader resolution of some issues,” the newspaper reported.
Nigerians deserve commendation for their forbearance. And the federal government deserves congratulations for getting this one right. Although the details of the deal between the government’s negotiators and the terrorists are not yet known, the release of the victims can be counted as one of the major achievements of the current administration. The earlier release of hostages in batches cost over N2 billion in ransom payment. The fact that the remaining 23 hostages have now been released is cause for cheer in this season of political tension and economic strangulation.
A couple of months before this cheering news, President Buhari had assured the families of the hostages that his government would ensure the safe return of the remaining captives. ”My primary concern is to get everyone released safe and unhurt”, he had said at that occasion. Congratulations are in order.
There are, however, some analysts who are not celebrating. Rather, they think that the way we have handled the security situation in the country leaves much to be desired and that the release of the victims should make us introspect, not celebrate.
One Aliyu Nuhu lamented on the social media that the terrorists were the ultimate winners in the encounter because they have achieved all their objectives of hostage swapping and ransom collection without retribution. Nuhu wonders how the government could be claiming victory when some passengers died during the operation and the train service between Abuja and Kaduna had been stalled for six months, leading to untold social and economic hardship.
He notes that many of those earlier released had paid billions of Naira in ransom and that some families have been thus ruined forever, having sold all their earthly possessions to extricate their loved ones from the den of the kidnappers. His conspiracy theory is given further fillip by the fact throughout the process of securing the release of the hostages, there was no shooting and no arrests. He is also worried that all through the saga, although the government’s negotiators knew the terrorists they were negotiating with by name, none of the criminals has been declared wanted.
Nuhu thinks we have not seen the end of the audacious crime. “As long as people benefit from train attacks and kidnapping, there will be no end to this kind of tragedy. The terrorists have made a good, safe and profitable venture and have gone to plan another attack. Security agencies that benefit from it will be too willing to be part of the next attack. Those that made billions from ransom negotiation will be waiting to make a ransom harvest. A kidnapping Industry has been created by the government’s inability to deal ruthlessly with criminals”.
The families of the freed hostages may, however, not agree with him. Freedom is freedom, no matter how procured, they would say. And their position is understandable.
But how does one rationalise the heart-wrenching killing of Olugbenga Owolabi, the owner of Tana Suites, Ogbomosho, and his staff, Rachael Opadele, a 21-year-old final year student of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), who had taken a temporary job at the hotel pending the resolution of the ongoing strike by university teachers?
Owolabi, was a US citizen. He had left Nigeria for Canada 33 years earlier. After only one year in Canada, he emigrated to the US and made good. As a son of a Baptist minister, he had been brought up to work hard and do good by his fellow men and women. When fortune smiled on him, he remembered home. He decided to invest in the hospitality business in his hometown, Ogbomosho. In these days when the government has been campaigning for Nigerians in the Diaspora to come back home and invest, Owolabi was a model.
The venture was a home-comer’s dream until the evening of July 28, 2022, when a gang of kidnappers, who had earlier done a reconnaissance of the hotel, struck.
“Where is the director?” The gun-toting men demanded.
The proprietor, Olugbenga Owolabi, wondered what the commotion at the gate of his hotel was all about. He had only just returned from his Maryland base in the United States. Barefooted and unsuspecting, he came out and identified himself as the director. The gunmen seized him and one of his staff, Rachael Opadele, and disappeared into the night.
The kidnappers played on the emotions of members of his family for several days. They wanted N50 million for the lives of the two captives. Owolabi’s brother, Ayorinde, negotiated on behalf of the family. A recording of his negotiation with the criminals went viral on social media. His brother’s agonised plea could be heard in the exchange.
“I’m dying tonight! How much have you been able to raise? My hands have been tied, blood is no longer flowing,” Owolabi cried
One of the bandits warned Ayorinde that if he didn’t meet their demands, they would just kill their captives and look elsewhere for new victims. He warned, “I no go sleep here today, I go kill this baba to go. Sebi, the money is for baba. Is it your money?”
The angry kidnapper replied to Ayorinde’s offer of N2 million with a curse, “You and that ₦2 million, God go punish you”.
“His life doesn’t mean anything to me”, he declared; “If I kill him today, I’ll abduct somebody else tomorrow. If the ₦50 million is short of ₦5, I won’t accept it.”
The family sent ₦5 million to the bandits on August 2, 2022. They took the money and killed Owolabi, Rachael, and the motorcycle rider, Idowu Ajagbe, who conveyed the ransom-bearer to the bandits’ den. The ransom-bearer survived with injuries.
In this age of digital surveillance, it is nothing short of a national embarrassment that kidnappers would be negotiating ransom and issuing threats on open mobile networks without being traced by law enforcement authorities. Owolabi was bitten by the bug of patriotism but the land of his birth failed him.
In death, against the usual pattern of bringing Nigerians home to be interred after death, Owolabi’s body was returned to the United States, the land that gave him opportunities to make the fortune he invested in his native Ogbomosho. He was buried in Maryland, USA, after a funeral service at the Trinity Life Church on October 1, Nigeria’s Independence Anniversary. The symbolism of that coincidence is not lost on the perspicacious.
It is desirable for Nigerians in the Diaspora to come home and invest. But what are we doing about this Mother Hen that devours its own eggs?
For unripe fruits violently plucked before their time; and for returnees like Owolabi plunged into premature ancestor-hood while the rest of us cower in utter helplessness, I shed a tear.
(Wole Olaoye is a Public Relations consultant and veteran journalist. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @wole_olaoye; Instagram: woleola2021)
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