Abuja-Kaduna Expressway is an all-important federal road that connects the North-west zone to the capital of Nigeria. The highway has continued to mean everything bad and ugly that includes armed robbery, kidnapping, degradation and auto crashes. AGBO-PAUL AUGUSTINE reports on the ugly faces of the road.
The Abuja-Kaduna highway is one of Nigeria’s busiest and most important road that provides access to the most populated region of the country: the North West. As the major road linking Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi states, millions of Nigerians daily rely on the hugely plied and worn out expressway.
By implication, anything that happens on the 162km Zuba-Kaduna Road and the new Bwari-Jere-Kaduna axis resonateS in the capital city of Abuja.
The dualisation of Kaduna-Abuja Road which passed through Kaduna, Niger and FCT was carried out by the administration of Nigeria’s former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida. At completion, the road was a cynosure, a test of Nigeria’s resolve to be among the fastest developing nation in the world.
Even as the road was then considered one of the best roads in the country, there were no plans by successful governments to ensure its maintenance and the events that followed were not surprising as the road decayed to the level that it became a nightmare for the millions that dare.
The decay, first started with cracks, then pot holes and then gullies that burst tyres and snap tyre rods that led avoidable accidents and loss of lives. The trend continued until the Obasanjo administration made attempts to patch some of the gaping holes on the road.
Within the last decade, the busy federal road metamorphosed into a deadly zone for Nigerians. The tranquility noticed when driving on the road could fool any into believing that the expressway is devoid of hibernating anti-social elements that find haven in the savannah grasslands line the road.
When deaths were recorded daily due to over speeding, drivers’ errors and stress and recently, deadly potholes, not much was said about it. The Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC and a handful of police officers one sees on the road do much of the clearing of the carnages when they occur.
Indeed it attracted less attention from the seat of power, even though thousands of lives were lost until the deadly auto crash that claimed the life of the former minister of state for Labour, James Ocholi (SAN) in early 2016.
The real sense of danger indeed, became felt on the Abuja-Kaduna about eighth years ago when groups of armed robbers began to terrorise innocent travelers, every fortnight. Their unhindered successes encouraged them further to graduate to daily operations.
These dare robbers then switched to targeting late night travelers by blocking the highway with logs and stones, a situation that led drivers to brand the area, 40km to Kaduna city as ‘Bermuda Triangle’ due to the likelihood of occurrence of misfortune.
Their timing are between 7pm and 9pm and 11pm and 1am. The evening time targets business people, contractors returning from Abuja oblivious of the dangers. While the late night attacks target luxury buses heading to Lagos and the Eastern part of the country.
The situation pushed police and other security agencies to the limit. With the Kaduna State government setting up of a special task force under the code name ‘Operation Yaki’ some normalcy returned to the road.
Night luxury bus drivers in a bid to avoid these dare devil robbers on the Abuja-Kaduna road went wild, taking a dangerous driving tactics including driving against the traffic.
One of the buses, it could be recalled had the added misfortune of suffering a tyre bust and running into a sleeping family home at Sabon Maro in the Rijana, Kachia local government area. All passengers survived but not all the sleeping family made it out alive. That tragic incident was an eye opener to many.
In spite of attempts by government to improve the quality of the road, the dual carriage way continued to decay, reaching an all-time level that major portions of the way completely collapsed, leaving motorists to drive on long stretches of bare laterite.
The areas before Jere about 73km from Abuja were the worst, making the Abuja-Kaduna axis the most dilapidated of the two sections of the carriage way. The Kaduna-Abuja section was relatively fair.
Even with the attendant accidents, robbers now dared security agencies by robbing motorists at day time, but because of the poor returns from such robberies, the anti-social elements took to the more profitable kidnapping.
Way back July 2016 when our correspondent undertook a tour of the highway, the Kaduna-Abuja road had already become a long stretch of ‘kidnappers den’ with daily reports of one incident and the other.
Hapless motorists and others continue to pay heavy tolls in ransom, humiliation and deaths. Although, mostly unreported, the bulk of the victims of kidnap along this route are largely unknown faces, common Nigerians without any public status.
The media is only awash when the kidnappers hit the rich and influential as it was with the kidnapping of the Sierra Leone Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Major General Nelson Williams who was kidnapped at Sabon Maro, 50km to Kaduna.
Others high profile kidnapping cases along the road include that of a colonel in the Nigerian Army, Samaila Inusa, who was reportedly killed by his abductors hours after he was held on March 25, 2016.
In a similar manner, Rev. Iliya Anthony, vice-president, United Church of Christ in Nigeria, died
in the hands of his adductors. The man was kidnapped along with the president of the Church, Rev. Emmanuel Dziggau and Rev. Yakubu Dzarma, who were later released.
Also, a former executive director, NNPC, and now a director in Dangote Group, Mansur Ahmed, was reportedly kidnapped along the route and later regained his freedom.
Member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Garba Umar-Durbunde, was also snatched away on the road by gunmen and held for two days until ransom was paid.
Umar-Durbunde, who represents Sumaila/Takai Federal Constituency of Kano State, and who was driving to Kano from Abuja, described the gunmen as “well armed with deadly weapons.” Describing his encounter with them as “terrible.”
Eighth months ago, the former minister of Environment in former president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, Mrs. Laurentia Laraba Mallam was kidnapped on the route alongside her husband.
The gunmen kidnapped Mrs. Laraba Mallam and her 73-years-old husband, Mr Pius in Jere, area of Kagarko local government area.
It was reported that the duo were kidnapped on Monday night on their way to Kaduna from Abuja. The driver of the former minister was also shot on his left hand by the gunmen.
A businessman who only wished to introduced himself to our correspondent as Sule was kidnapped along the Bwari-Jere road section along his wife and two kids.
“They ambushed me and other vehicles after appearing from the bushes with guns and chanting war songs and shooting in the air.
They took my wife and two kids knowing that I will come for them. At the end, I gave them N10 million to secure their release deep in the buses about 10 km from the road,” he disclosed.
How they operate
Findings by our correspondent reveal that the network of the kidnappers is so sophisticated that they evade the eyes of security officers stationed at strategic positions along the road.
Most of the security men are mostly seen at u-turns, which the kidnappers cleverly avoid.
Sources claim they usually come in a convoy of motorcycles and ambush motorists by blocking the road. After seizing their victims, they head towards the border between Niger State and Kaduna along the Birnin Gwari Forest.
It was also revealed that they prefer natural inhibitions like rain or tornado times to operate. They also prefer to stay at the beginning of a slope with no nearby U-turn, far from security men.
Locals informed our correspondent that the kidnappers have informants in several villages and communities along the highway. The informants often spot motorists who may have stopped to answer the call of nature or whose vehicles had developed mechanical faults.
Some we understand, try to even lend a helping hand only to delay the motorist ahead of the kidnappers’ arrival.
As the victims are apprehended, they are often shouted down and threatened with guns and later dragged out of their vehicles.
After ordering them to lie flat, the kidnappers do a quick check on the victims to identify ones that have good bank accounts and confiscate all their phones too.
After dispossessing the other occupants of their phones, they carefully check the bank account balances of their victims through the last SMS they got from their banks.
Through their bank account balances, the easily pick their victims and head to the bushes leaving the ones that would offer nothing to go. In some cases, all occupants are taken.
The kidnappers are known to use starvation and torturing as a weapon. This is after disorienting the victims with difficult and long-winding treks and random shooting in the air.
The ring of criminals deplore all tactics to evade the eyes of the law. The informants operate like an independent group, the kidnappers are the biggest risk takers, the negotiators and strategist would remain unseen.
Immediate security response
To respond to the cries of Nigerians, the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris on August 5, 2016 then as Acting IGP, represented by the deputy Inspector-General of Police in charge of Operations DIG Habila Joshak, flagged-off “Operation Maximum Safety on Kaduna – Abuja Highway” behind Kateri Divisional Police Station in Kateri.
The action of the police was backed by the military which began a daily air patrol of the highway. Motorists attest to the fact that the new wave of security on the road clipped the wings of anti-social elements on the route.
This security initiative only lasted until the idea of the closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja was effected by the Ministry of Aviation.
Sequel to the planned usage of the Kaduna International Airport for flights in and out of Abuja, while the runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, underwent rehabilitation works, the federal government in January awarded contract for the emergency repairs of the Abuja-Kaduna dual carriageway.
That move was greeted with jubilation, as the failed road finally got the attention of the federal government.
The contract for the emergency repairs of the 164-kilometre road was awarded to Messrs CGC (Nig.) Ltd. at a cost of N1, 058,958,958.54 with a completion period of 50 days.
Surprisingly, the repair works was completed ahead of time, drawing praises for the government. The police and other security agencies including emergency outfits gave the Kaduna-Abuja road a first grade status with all machinery of government available for travellers shuttling the two cities.
The security along the Abuja-Kaduna was water-tight, every 5km has a presence of security and emergency team. Security convoys adorned the road, escorting dignitaries to and from Kaduna.
When our correspondent visited the road during the six weeks Abuja Airport closure, it was clear kidnappers had a hard time carrying out their activities. Investigations revealed that they rather relocated to the Jos-Bauchi Road, targeting rich Fulani herdsmen for ransom.
Indeed the period of the Abuja Airport closure remained the best in terms of commerce and peace along the road. Residents of communities confessed to our correspondent that it was the best of business times.
After the opening of Abuja Airport on April 18, 2017, the traffic wane on the Abuja-Kaduna road and the tight security also gradually disappeared leaving empty tents which in the past served as observation posts. With this, robbers and kidnappers resurfaced, and held sway, once again.
When Aminu Abu, a resident of Akilbu called our correspondent at about 5pm, Thursday last week, his voice sounded like a drowning man gasping for breath.
The disturbed local farmer was only trying to drop the bombshell of the reappearance of dare devil kidnappers on the busy Abuja-Kaduna highway.
“Oga they have come back, they have come back to kill us and take our money,” he cried. It took another 10 minutes of attempts to establish contact with the desperate resident of Akilbu on the Abuja-Kaduna highway, for him to deliver the news of the 20 persons abducted by the resurgent kidnappers.
The Kaduna State Command of the Nigeria Police Force denied the abduction of the 20 travelers, through its spokesman Aliyu Usman (ASP) who spoke with our correspondent.
Some of the freed victims told our correspondent that they were kidnaped along the road at about 10am and freed after paying ransom.
Military, Police in action again
Troops of 1 Division Nigerian Army carried out a clearance operation at Rijana Forest, in Kaduna State on Wednesday, June 14. This is due to the activities of armed banditry and kidnappings that has become the order of the day along Abuja-Kaduna road.
This was revealed in a statement by the director of Army public relations, Brigadier General Sani Usman. The troops cordoned the armed bandits’ camp in the forest where they arrested the suspected notorious gang leader, Sani Ibrahim (alias Burtu), who has been on the wanted list of the security agencies in Kaduna State for a long time.
In a similar vein, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris, has again deployed another tactical operation team on a permanent bases along the route as part of measures to bring a better solution to the menace of kidnapping and armed robbery along the dreaded highway.
Inaugurating the Tactical Operation Team and patrol vehicles at Katari Village, the IG who was represented by the deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) in charge of operations, Joshak Habila, says never again will the police and other security agencies allow kidnappers or other criminal element to hold on any part of the road and other surrounding communities hostage.
He explained that the tactical team will complement the efforts of the Special Anti-kidnapping Squad that was deployed on the same road in 2016.