In his holistic approach to rebuilding Abia and repositioning it for greater possibilities, the Governor, Dr. Alex Chioma Otti, has launched an initiative to sanitize the cattle market in Lokpanta which, for many years now, has acquired a reputation as a criminal hide-out and operational base for kidnapping rings within the Umunneochi and Ihube axis of the Enugu-Port Harcourt highway.
In the last couple of years, that portion of the strategic expressway has become another Luwero Triangle in Uganda where innocent people are regularly ambushed, abducted for ransom, robbed and killed for nothing.
The criminalities in that area had been going on for years and became heightened in the last five years even with the presence of many security checkpoints mounted by the Nigerian military, the Police and other security outfits. There had been chilling narratives of how huge ransoms were paid by families of kidnap victims under the nose of the military men in the area without the security agents lifting a finger.
It will be recalled that so many kidnap incidents had occurred within the Lokpanta-Ihube-Uturu stretch, in spite of the ubiquitous presence of the military on that route. One of such celebrated cases was the abduction of the former Prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, His Eminence, Dr. Chukwuemeka Kanu Uche who had to pay the whooping sum of One Hundred Million Naira to his abductors whom he identified as Fulani herdsmen.
When he regained his freedom, he came on national television to narrate his harrowing experience and accused the military of alleged complicity as the incident happened very close to one of their checkpoints. A bullion van was said to have passed through the checkpoint to pick up the ransom.
The information in the public space is that the kidnappers who masquerade as herdsmen operate from within the cattle market which habours many brothels in collaboration with some locals.
The previous Governors of Abia State before Dr. Alex Otti could not take any decisive action in ridding the market of the criminals that operate from there and curbing illegal activities like prostitution, extortions and harassments by men in uniforms. The impunity demonstrated by the cattle traders is too well known to the regular users of the road. From time to time, the road is blocked by the traders with their cattle and trucks that bring in the animals from the Northern parts of the country, making free passage impossible.
Commuters often resorted to uncharted routes in the neighbouring villages to be able to get to their destinations.
These people also took over the median of the expressway by building shanties on them and conducting their businesses from there. Indeed, what prevailed within and around the cattle market was outright lawlessness.
The traders believed they were above the law, to the point that at a stage they refused to move into the holding bays that were constructed to receive the hundreds of trucks that bring in the cattle. Instead, they preferred to park the trucks along the expressway, and thereby causing regular traffic gridlocks. All the efforts that were made by past Governors like Orji Kalu, Theodore Orji and Okezie Ikpeazu were repeatedly rebuffed.
It is against this background that Governor Otti deserves commendation for the swift and firm action he has taken to tackle the lingering mess at Lokpanta. Based on available intelligence on the notoriety of the criminal activities in the area, the Abia State Government had to move in bulldozers to pull down the illegal settlements within the market, including a 160-room brothel that is being used by kidnappers and other sundry criminals as staging posts.
The Government has resolved that the market which was conceived as a daily market should remain so. People should come and transact business and go back to their homes. It was never conceived as a residential market. And there is no such market anywhere in Nigeria to the knowledge of this writer. Why should the Lokpanta market be a difference?
The Security Adviser to the Governor, Rtd Navy Commander MacDonald Ubah has made it clear that the whole exercise was to sanitize the area and rid it of criminal elements. He explained that it was not a vendetta mission targeted at the Northern traders contrary to the insinuations by mischief makers. He noted that discussions were held with the leadership of the market and it was agreed that the market should be a daily one.
The retired Naval Commander said that ransom for kidnap victims around Uturu-Umunneochi axis were paid in the market, a situation which prompted the government to, among other measures, carry out deliberate actions including demolition of brothels and shanties in the market. He emphasized that the actions the Otti-led administration had taken on the market were in the best interest of the traders and people of the State.
The government should remain resolute and ensure that the squatters and the criminal elements do not regroup and stage a come-back. To this extent, it is advised that the State should put in place a strong enforcement team to ensure that the market does not return to its old infamous ways.
Dr. Nwosu, a Public Affairs Analyst writes from Umuahia.