As told to David Odunlami
Last week, I was sitting on my dining table-turned workstation, completing some tasks while gisting about politics with the cheerful man who fixed new curtains for us ten months ago. He’d come back to check if they had issues and fix them. When he casually mentioned that the height of his disappointment at this government’s failure was when he was kidnapped in 2019, I stopped my tasks.
“Sir, you were what?”
For the next hour, we sat and gisted about how a normal work trip turned into one of the worst periods in his life.
This is his story.
“I’ve been travelling to Abuja by road since 1987, when I started working as an interior decorator in 1987. I live in Lagos, but I try to accept every job I get, regardless of where it’s located, so I can feed my family.
In June 2019, a friend contacted me to install window blinds at a newly constructed office in Abuja. I accepted the job, bought materials and set off with my apprentice. We left for Abuja on the last day of June, and on the morning of July 3rd, we were ready to return to Lagos. My apprentice had fallen ill in Abuja, but we planned to get to Lagos before seeing a pharmacist.
A few hours into the trip, our bus developed an issue, but we managed to get it to Lokoja, where a mechanic told us we couldn’t continue to Lagos. The driver had to put us in other buses that had space. Around 2 p.m., my apprentice and I got on a bus coming from Nasarawa and continued the trip.
When driving to Lagos from the North, you have to decide whether to pass Okene or Obajana. Like most drivers, our driver decided to pass the Okene route, which leads through Jebba. About 30 minutes passed when we encountered a military checkpoint — pretty normal for those kinds of journeys. But less than five minutes after the checkpoint, we heard gunshots ahead. My first thought was, “We’re about to get robbed”. My apprentice was sitting in front, near the driver, so I shouted at him to duck while the driver kept moving. A few seconds later, the bus came to a sudden halt.
I looked up and saw we were surrounded by about 30 men, each of them with guns. They wore Nigerian army jackets on top of jeans and rubber slippers. At first, they didn’t talk to us. A few of them dragged four people out of the car ahead of us. At the same time, one of them was chasing the driver of the car behind us, who’d taken to his heels immediately he saw the scene, leaving his oga. I don’t think they wanted to kill anyone because they could have easily shot the guy. After a long chase, they let him escape, and the armed man returned to the group.
Now, it was our turn. The first person they dragged out of the bus was the driver. After beating him, they ordered the rest of us to get out of the bus. They were Hausa, but the ones who could, spoke pidgin to us. I tried to bend down in my seat and thought I was doing a good job hiding until I heard the glass beside me shatter and a voice say he’d kill me if I didn’t get off the bus immediately. I got up, dusted the glass off my body, picked up my tool bag and joined the others outside.
There were three women on our bus, coming from Nasarawa, who wore the same outfit — black flowing gowns. One of them had a baby. From the time when I joined the bus up until the incident, they were on their phones, texting and calling nonstop. When they’d rounded us all up, they picked out our bus driver again and beat him to within an inch of his life. Then they told the three women to go back into the bus and let the driver leave with them. The rest of us were robbed of our phones and money. I had the ₦50k I made from the Abuja job in cash. They took it. Then they led us into the bush.
I took one last look in the direction we drove from. I could still see the soldiers from the last checkpoint. There’s no way they couldn’t see us, but even if they couldn’t, they must’ve heard the gunshots. They were just seated there, looking in the opposite direction. One of them must’ve seen my face and read my thoughts, so he walked up to me and gave me a slap. You know when they say someone’s palms feel like sandpaper? The slap felt like I was being thumped with a sack of stones.
As we got deeper into the bush, I heard them make phone calls to ask for directions. Some of them were on trees, shouting instructions. They forced us to cross a stream then told us to lay down on the bare ground.
Their leader addressed us: “You no get money for bail, we kill you.” Then, we continued our journey. After we passed another stream, we got to a place where we settled.
It was time to call our friends and family through a phone they provided. There was only one rule: No matter what the person on the other side said, we couldn’t speak anything other than pidgin. And we had to tell them to speak pidgin too. If we spoke any other language, even by mistake or reflex, we got the beating of our lives.
I made the mistake of speaking Yoruba once. One slap and I was on the ground.
After each person’s call, the leader judged, based on their look and the conversation, the amount they had to pay to free themselves. For me, it was ₦5m, but after they found out I was with my apprentice, they increased it to ₦10m. I had to beg. My apprentice was from a terribly poor home and had just lost his father. His mother was diabetic. He didn’t have anyone to call. When they found out he was sick, they said, “This one na load. Make we kill am?” I had to beg for his life. They eventually accepted that I could pay ₦5m.
After they were done assigning bails, they split us into groups. Each group had to select one person on the outside into whose account everyone would pay their bail. Whenever money entered the account, the person had to call to say how much was sent and who it was for. The person would eventually withdraw the money and take it to them at an agreed location before they could release us. My first payment was on the day after we got there. My wife sent ₦250k.
Every day, they brought out a bag filled with three different powders: orange, green and white. After mixing the powders, they poured them into energy drinks and played music on their mp3 players to dance to. Once that happened, we knew it was time for beating. They gathered in a circle, called us one by one to the circle and beat us while shouting, “When them go pay your money?” The beating was always so bad that we couldn’t walk out of the circle ourselves. They’d have to carry us out before calling in the next person. They were merciless. Every single one of them had at least one gunshot wound. Some were fresh.
The only person they never beat was a beautiful fair lady from our bus. They adored her. Every time they passed by her, they gently rubbed her cheeks or shoulders. One of them said, “I for don marry you, but I no go dey house because of this work wey I dey do. Person go tiff you from my hand.”
On the second day, when we were serving punishments — rolling around in the dirt — one of them spotted a wallet in a guy’s pocket. He went through it, saw a ₦500 note and was visibly irritated. Why didn’t he declare the money when we were robbed? After they beat him, they searched his wallet a bit more and saw something that annoyed them even further — a passport photograph of him in army uniform. The first thing they did was tie his arms together with someone’s shoelaces. They tied them so tight, his arms looked like they’d lost all blood and were going to fall off at anytime. Then the real beating started. My God, they beat him. Even when he cried and begged and said he’d only gone to army school and wasn’t a practising soldier, they beat him. I thought he was going to die. Then they called his brother and told him they didn’t want ₦2m anymore. They now wanted ₦5m. When his brother said he had only ₦700k, they told him to keep it for his funeral because it wouldn’t get him out of there.
In the 60s, my dad was transferred to Jos, so my entire family had to move there. We stayed for almost ten years and returned to Lagos in 1970 after the Biafran War ended. My parents thought it was safer down south and I could get free education. But because of my time in Jos, I can speak and understand Hausa. So I asked one of them why they beat him so much.
It was a mix of fear and hatred. He explained that regardless of how small or harmless a trained soldier looked, he was dangerous. Even though he didn’t have a gun, it was only a matter of time before he got one of theirs and caused problems. Basically, he was a danger to them. They tied him to a tree for the remainder of our stay there.
The other reason was they hated soldiers for selling bullets to them at exorbitant prices. According to him, they got bullets from soldiers at a ridiculous ₦1,500 per bullet. So they were taking out the frustration on him.
Every day, they gave us rice and beans mixed with palm oil and cooked with stream water in a bucket. They used whatever stick they found to stir, and served us on a polythene bag laid on the ground. We drank dirty water from the stream.
On the third day, the man from the car in front of us, who I later found out was Dr. Bashir Zubayr, confronted their leader. They spoke in Hausa. He wanted to know if his car would be safe on the road so he could leave after his bail had been paid. It was when the leader responded I knew nobody was coming to save us. His response? “I’ve spoken with the DPO. He said your car is safely parked at the station”.
The next morning, we were woken to the sound of livid announcements: “Who is Michael*?”
Michael was the guy whose driver ran away. When he presented himself, he first got a beating. Then, a scolding.
Here’s what happened: Michael’s dad was a retired top-ranking military officer. To save his son, he sent four pickups full of soldiers to the area where we’d been abducted. Following due process, the soldiers first went to the closest police station to ask if they’d heard about any kidnapping. The police said no, then called our abductors to be careful because there was a rescue party looking for us. They didn’t put on their phone flashlights overnight like they usually did. The soldiers did come into the bush with their pickups but didn’t find us, so they left.
As they beat him, they explained that if the soldiers had found us, gunfire would ensue, and many of us innocent people would die of stray bullets because we wouldn’t know how to navigate and hide in that situation.
On his next phone call, he begged his dad not to send another rescue party. They increased his bail to ₦10m.
On the fifth day, my wife had managed to pay ₦1m, and others had paid in millions too. But Dr. Zubayr paid ₦10m, and they were happy, so they lined us up, gave us ₦2k each and led us to the nearest stream. There, they left us. We spent two hours before we found our way back to the road. If we didn’t have the soldier who navigated our way out for us, it would’ve taken much longer.
Nobody stopped for us. Would you stop for a bunch of bloodied and rough-looking people? After some time — I can’t say how long — someone approached us with Dr. Zubayr’s car. They’d been informed we were getting released and had been parading the road looking for us. They blocked the road with the car so we could seek help from travellers.
Someone took my apprentice and me to a bus park in Lokoja where I borrowed a phone to call the friend who gave me the Abuja job. He sent money through a POS person, and we paid for another bus to Lagos. When a driver in the park heard my story, he wasn’t surprised. People get kidnapped all the time. According to him, we weren’t even safe where we were. We could be attacked at any time by gunmen who needed to raid shops to restock food and supplies.
I couldn’t sleep on the bus to Lagos. When the other passengers saw my swollen face and heard my story, they were gripped with fear. Our driver had to be extra alert, calling his friends who were also travelling to find out what was ahead. On two occasions, we had to stop because he was informed there were robberies happening ahead.
Back in Lagos, someone told me to go to the police. To do what? Pay and write a statement? I already lost my trust in them.
I still do interstate travels by road. I’m 58, and I hardly get jobs anymore, so when I do, I can’t reject them. I have a family to feed, and I still haven’t fully paid off the ₦1m debt.”