Agonies of parents whose abducted children remain missing years after

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Afeez Hanafi

In a dramatic turn of events, life suddenly gave way for grief and anxiety took centre stage in the household of Mr. and Mrs. Ogidi following the abduction of their four-year-old child, Elo, during a church service at Christ Embassy in Oregun, Ikeja, the heartbeat of Lagos.

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On each passing day, the parents went through harrowing pains in fruitless search for the charming little girl, day and night. At the height of the anguish, they felt fate was too harsh on them. The gruelling heartaches persisted for about seven weeks until Friday, August 24 – five days to her fifth birthday – when cheering news filtered in from Edo State, about 300 kilometres from Lagos.  Little Elo had been found in an orphanage located in Benin City, Edo State capital. Joy overwhelmed the couple like a raging torrent. It shook off the despair that seemed to have found permanent abodes in their hearts. Friends and families joined in the ensuing euphoria, posting videos of jubilation on various social media platforms. It was incredible!

“I shed tears of joy and asked myself if it was true. It was too good to be true. I did not know what to say. I was just shouting and crying. That moment was so precious. It is something I will never forget. The fears, the pains, all disappeared immediately I saw my child again. It (the abduction) was not something I pray for my enemy to experience.

“I am very happy now and my joy is full to see all my three children running up and down around me,” Elo’s mother, Rita-Soul, a gospel musician, recalled during an interview with Saturday PUNCH earlier in the week.

Like the excited mother, the girl’s father, Afokoghene, let out exultant cheers to celebrate the joyous moment. “I was crying. The six weeks of living in fears and uncertainty was like many years to us, but we are very happy now,” the music producer added.

While the Ogidis continue to revel in the afterglow of an eventful reunion with little Elo, the Okparas have no inkling of when they will stop weeping over the whereabouts of their two female kids abducted more than two years ago.

Aged four and two respectively as of then, Chinasa and Chikamso were stolen on May 14, 2016 by an apprentice known only as Rose in a stylist shop run by their mother on Cemetery Street, Ajegunle, a densely populated community in Lagos.

Rose had enrolled in the beauty shop four days earlier waiting for the slightest chance to execute her sinister motive. The opportunity eventually came that Saturday afternoon. Within 15 minutes when the kids’ mother, Ijeoma, rushed to a market opposite her shop to get some foodstuffs, the abductor struck. She fled with the girls on the pretext of buying them snacks at an adjoining confectionery store. Since then, sorrow has taken a vintage point in the life of Ijeoma and her husband, Emeka, as the hope of finding their inestimable ‘jewels’ fades by the day. And if the degree in which grief elongated time for Afokoghene while Elo was in hostage is anything to go by, two years must have stretched to decades – and still counting – for Ijeoma. Money spent, effort made, vigils kept; all appeared to have gone down the drain.

 Looking weary and dejected, Ijeoma, in an encounter with our correspondent during the week, shared the agonising times she battled with on a daily basis.

“There is no time I will be alone without thinking of them. Two children, not even one, stolen at once. And I did not have any other child then. There is nothing I have not done to search for my children. I go to different churches and sow seeds. I shed tears every day,” she said in a voice fraught with gloom.

 “There was a day somebody called my husband on the phone and said he was with our children in Oshodi. He asked my husband to send him N10,000 recharge cards. It was raining that morning. My husband went out in the rain to buy N5,000 recharge cards which he sent to the caller. The man called back and said he would not release the children if my husband failed to send the remaining N5,000 recharge cards.

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“He ran around to borrow N5,000 from a neighbour to buy the cards. After sending the recharge cards, the man called him to come to Oshodi under the bridge. He said he was in a car with Chinasa and Chikamso. While it was still raining, my husband rushed there and waited for the man. Each time he called the man, he would tell him he would soon show up. He was there for hours waiting for the man. At a point, the man stopped picking his calls and eventually switched off his phone.”

Distraught Ijeoma lamented that while they contended with the antics of fraudsters, some policemen at the Lagos State Police Command headquarters in Ikeja, where the case was transferred to from the Ajeromi Police Station, collected thousands of naira from her husband “for investigation and mobilisation” without any positive result.

 “Each time we went to the police headquarters, the policemen handling the case would collect money from my husband. There were times we paid N10,000 on each visit. Some other times, we gave them N5,000. We stopped going there when they demanded N50,000 from us. They said they would use the money to travel to Delta State to look for our children. That time, my husband had spent all the money in his account,” she said, fighting back tears.

 “Chinasa is six now while her sister is four. I hope I will see them again someday. Any time I see their mates playing around, I feel sad,” the 29-year-old added, before crying uncontrollably.

Incidences of missing or abducted children have turned a number of parents to victims of mental torment, especially when the whereabouts of such children are perpetually shrouded in secrecy.

 It is almost three years that Mr. and Mrs. Ojelabi found themselves in such worrying state after their four-year-old son, Michael, was abducted by an unknown woman in front of his school, Mafina Primary School on Unity Estate, along Iba Expressway, Lagos, at the closing hour.

 Little Michael and his eight-year-old sister, Oyindamola, were waiting for their mother outside the school gate to pick them up when the abductor approached them. She lied that she was sent by the mother to pick them on her behalf. When she noticed that Oyindamola, who held her brother firmly, would not fall for the gimmick, she swiftly snatched the boy from her hand and jumped onto a waiting motorcycle with him. Helpless Oyindamola yelled and people responded, but the abductors (the woman and the rider) had zoomed off. The case was reported to the police but till today, there hasn’t been any clue on his whereabouts or the captors.

“We are still on it (his search). We are trusting in God that He would do His miracle one day,” Michael’s father, Sunday Ojelabi, who would not want to dwell on the trauma, briefly told Saturday PUNCH.

Lost in the nostalgia for the fond memories she shared with her three-year-old son (now six), Mrs. Mary Obasuaye could not hide the extent of  the psychological effect of his abduction on her. The boy, Babalola, was lured away from the frontage of his parents’ compound on John Ladipo Street, Ajegunle, on November 22, 2015 while he was playing with his peers.

 Mary said, “There is no day I will not talk about him. I cry about his missing whenever I remember how lively it was to be with him. He was a cheerful boy. Dressing well no longer appeals to me since he went missing. I have been praying very hard for his return. Somebody just introduced a pastor to me today (Wednesday) for another prayer point. His birthday used to be colourful. Since then, I distribute gifts to children to mark the day, hoping that he would return soon.”

The tales of agony were not different for Mr. and Mrs. Nliam, whose four-year-old son, Tobechukwu, was abducted in June 2016. Clocking six on February 25, 2018, Tobechukwu had followed one of his elder brothers whom their mother sent on an errand to a neighbouring street in Olodi Apapa, Lagos. He was heading back home on the order of the brother, who did not want to be accompanied, when he was abducted.

“It is a sad moment. It is something I don’t wish to remember every day, but it is a fresh memory in every day of my life. I believe he is alive and I rely on God for his return. I keep praying every day to see him again,” Tobechukwu’s mother, Mercy, said grimly.

A psychologist, Prof. Oni Fagboungbe, aptly captured the unending anguish of parents of missing children while speaking to our correspondent. Fagboungbe explained how fantasies of a reunion could be very traumatic for the parents.

He said, “It is a very traumatic experience and when experience is traumatic, the effect hardly subsides. The parents continue to feel it most especially when they receive the appropriate stimulus like seeing other children of the same age as their missing children. If they see anything attached to the lost children, they will be reminded and they feel dejected. At that moment, they will go into fantasies as if somebody should just walk in with the child.

“It can affect them to the extent that they may be walking on the road, and be oblivious of other road users or cars. They feel that somebody should turn to the child. It is a very nasty experience. It is more serious than when the child is dead.

“If the child dies, it is easier to realise that the child is dead and that will prepare you to cope better. But here is a situation whereby you cannot even say precisely whether the child is living or dead. So, it is a very serious traumatic experience that hardly goes away.”

On the part of the children, even if found, the don stated that they could become socially withdrawn for the rest of their lives and lose confidence in people.

Fagboungbe said, “Their sense of vulnerability or insecurity will be aggravated. And you find it in what they do. Even when reading or working, the psychological torture they go through become inculcated in their behavioural repertoire.

“They may lose confidence in people for the rest of their lives. They may find it difficult to trust anybody. Everybody to them is suspect and that affects their ability to socialise effectively.”

Although the condition could be remedied, it will take a gradual process, according to the psychologist.

 Children’s safety at the mercy of carefree parents, insecurity

 In the realm of humanity globally, children are divine treasures that should be carefully guarded. Under Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is mandated that children are protected from violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect. The section of the UNCRC also enshrines the protection of children in and out of home.

 It is, however, disheartening that nonchalant attitude of some parents of abducted or missing children is grossly violating this right, thereby subjecting the kids to untold travails – and sometimes tragic deaths as was the plight of two pupils, Isaac Ayegbo, six, and Ayomide Innocent, four, who were found dead in an abandoned vehicle on a church premises in Matogun, Ogun State, in April 2016, two days after they were declared missing from the neighbourhood.

 Perhaps, four-year-old Chibugo Onwekwe, a pupil at Gospel Nursery and Primary International School, Ahoda, Rivers State might not have been kidnapped on February 28, 2018 if her mother who took her and her elder brother, Chibuke, to the school that morning cared more for their safety.

  The kidnapper, who was reported to be on a motorcycle, had stopped at a junction, some metres away from the school gate, where the mother dropped off the kids and gave Chibuke N50 to buy snacks for his sister at a next shop. Immediately the eight-year-old left the spot, the abductor whisked away Chibugo.

 “A man sent me a message on the day she was kidnapped. He said he had vital information about my daughter and that I should pay him N300,000. I didn’t reply to his message that day.

“When I contacted him the next day, he suspected that I had informed the police. After I begged and assured him that I would not involve the police, he said I should pay N50,000 to track down my daughter. Since I sent the money into the bank account he provided, he has stopped taking my calls.

“I have been disturbing an official of the Department of State Services in Port Harcourt where I reported the case to assist in tracking the account number. She has been avoiding me,”  the victim’s father, Chibueze, had told our correspondent.

In a similar vein, if the parents of four-year-old Chidogam Wike of Mile 4, Wimpy, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, were conscious of his safety and that of his brother aged six, they would not have left the children behind and attended a burial in the community without putting them in the care of a neighbour.

In their absence, a stranger entered into the premises where the children were playing with their mates and took away the Nursery 2 pupil on the pretext of buying him a toy nearby. Where the boy is and his safety remain puzzling.

It is also worrisome that children are being exposed to abduction owing to inadequate security in many schools, parks, mosques, churches among other public places. For example, some key security measures such as standard perimeter fencing and Closed Circuit Television cameras are not in place in most schools across the country to check the menace.

Children: Sacrificial lambs for poverty

Nigeria is home to very high rate of poverty with over 60 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. The precarious economic condition of the country had forced a lot of people to go off the radar of humanity in a desperate attempt to survive. And in what has become sheer callousness to innocent children, some parents would let go of their kids to assuage hunger and want.

A few days ago, a 23-year-old woman, Miracle Johnson, sold her newborn for N200,000 to an orphanage in Onitsha, Anambra State, blaming her action on frustration and the inability of her husband to take care of the family. She confessed to have used part of the  proceeds to buy a mobile phone.

In July 2017, a 20-year-old woman, Chioma Fidelis, was not hesitant to exchange  her two-month-old son, Favour, for half a bag of rice and cash sum of N200,000 at the nadir of poverty.

The native of Imo State had said that selling the baby was the best decision she could think of at that stage.

She had recounted, “I got pregnant out of wedlock and as a result of the inability to cater for the fragile child, I made that decision.

“The baby was suffering from kwashiorkor, and there was no money to treat him. I sold him to Mr. and Mrs. Anyanwu, who were in dire need of a male child.”

Wickedness towards children had manifested in a more cruel fashion about two years ago when a middle-aged indigent father, Yusuf Bala, used one of his children, five-year-old Ibrahim, as a collateral for 50 kilogrammes of rice at a market in Kano State so that he could feed other members of the family.

There have also been several cases of unprepared mothers, particularly poor teenagers, dumping their newborns in refuse dumps and latrines while the wearisome sight of toddlers turned to beggars by their parents on the streets across the nation is tellingly worrisome.

The Coordinator, Child Protection Network, Mr. Ebenezer Omejalile, attributed some of the factors responsible for child abduction and abuse to the failure of parents, who are primary caregivers, to live up to their responsibilities. He stated that the society had also failed them by giving primacy of place to survival to the detriment of the child’s rights.

He said, “Low level of education on the part of the families also contributes to child abduction. There is also the issue of lack of birth control; people should not have more children than what they can care for.

“For the parents who trade their children for commodities, they are cowards who are unable to face the reality of life.

“To avert child abduction, we need to be the watchdogs of our children. Parents must show them love. We should teach them not to trust just anybody because the people they trust are the ones who betray them. We should also teach them to be contented so that no one will be able to lure them.”

We can’t rescue missing persons without a lead – Police

Reacting to unsolved cases of abduction recorded in the state, the spokesperson for the Lagos State Police Command, Chike Oti, said rescuing the victims might be difficult without having a lead. He, however, said such hindrance did not mean the cases were abandoned.

Oti said, “It is not true we abandon investigation on missing persons. After sending out information for wider awareness, we keep on asking questions. We also send signals to all the formations within the state command to be on the lookout for the missing person.

“There is nothing we can do unless we have a lead that will take us to the location of the missing person. The allegation that money is demanded for investigation is false. Except if the policeman asks the relatives to place an advertorial in a newspaper. They have to bear the cost because we don’t have a budget for that.”

On how to ensure the safety of children, especially in schools, parks, and places of worship, Oti, a Chief Superintendent of Police, said parents and management of those facilities must assume greater responsibilities.

He said, “The Commissioner of Police has advised parents that if they take children to fun spots, they should make sure they keep an eye on them. Under the Child Rights Law, anybody that owns a child owes that child a duty of care.

“The responsibility of the owner of that facility is to make sure that everything that will keep the children safe is put in place. Similarly, administrators of public places such as schools, churches and mosques are duty-bound to ensure that the places are well protected and safe. The police can only patrol those places to provide external security.”

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