Godwin AJOM, Calabar
Boat drivers on the Calabar-Oron waterway are lamenting that despite the money they spend on security agencies, sea pirates are still attacking their boats and kidnapping their passengers.
One of the drivers confided in our correspondent that they spend about N155,000 every month on the security operatives and regretted that they were not getting any protections from the operatives.
Last week, a Nigerian Navy officer, a professor from the University of Calabar and 10 passengers were among those who were kidnapped by sea pirates on that waterway.
Five of the abducted persons have so far been released, among them, the boat driver. The boat driver, Bassey Udo Essien, who is now in the custody of the Department of State Services (DSS), told newsmen that the hijack was done by heavily armed pirates.
Essein said he was freed in order to take one of the victims who fatally wounded by the pirates’ bullets for treatment because the abductors had no form of medication in the camp.
“In the morning of Monday, 17 January 2022, we loaded from Calabar to Oron. Immediately we passed all the rounds and close to the Marine police at about 9:00 AM, we drove in the middle of the water because if we drive by the side of the water those sea pirates will quickly attack us.
“Just a few minutes, about 10 minutes’ drive, we saw them driving to meet us. I increased the speed of our boat to the highest, unfortunately; it was not fast enough because our engine is 115 (horsepower) while theirs is 200 (horsepower).
“I couldn’t slow down because I was trying to escape from them, they started shooting. They shot sporadically at us and unfortunately, the bullet caught one of the passengers by the name Jesam on the face, close to the ear who sat at the second bench of the boat.
“Those pirates were up to eight in their boat fully armed with an AK-47 rifle, some masked their faces while some did not mask face, although I don’t know any of them.
“I was speeding up to cross to the Marine Police territory so they can return but my boat cannot speed than their own. They kidnapped us and took us to one dangerous creek when we just departed Calabar and had not approached Oron.
“At the creek where they took us, they robbed us and collected everything we had – phones, money, shoes, wristwatches, bags, ATM cards, necklace, my boat; everything and also beat us.
“The rest are still in their camp. They are demanding N3 million from each of us and we were 17. The passenger who sustained gunshot wounds, Jesam did not escape. They knew with the gun injury he was at the point of death since Monday and maybe they thought if they allow him there he might die because nothing like treatment in their creek.
“They collected his phone, money and laptop. Since I was the one taking care of the man there, they collected my money about N49,000, phone, seized my boat and allowed me to go with him. They beat me up and forced me to tell them my ATM pin which I don’t know if they have removed everything from the account because they collected my Sim card as well.
“They carried five of us in their boat and told us to lie down. The five of us they freed to go were- one pregnant woman, aged woman and a boy of about four years. Still left in their camp are 12 more persons. They dumped us where we don’t even know but we found our way somewhere in Akpabuyo, let’s say 10 AM because I did not have time with me. Luckily for me and Jesam, we were able to find a bike.
“We had seven girls and10 boys in the boat. My fear for those girls is that those pirates might rape them.
“There was a Navy personnel among us but we didn’t disclose the person because they saw the uniform and asked who the person was, they would have killed the personnel or any uniform man. I told them the uniform is a waybill. The place they kept us is so horrible, mosquitoes and other insects biting us. They kept women one side, men one side.
“While they were taking us to their camp, they forced us to close our eyes and bend down without looking up to see where they were taking us to. Even while they were taking five of us out to free, they blindfolded our eyes, especially mine. It was a terrible experience; they will cook whatever and anyhow food they like and say if you like you eat, if you don’t, leave.
“Eight of them came to kidnap us but in their camp, they are so many. They don’t even have one camp, we learnt they have up to three camps – outside the camp, inside the camp and their main camp which they took us to their outside camp, how much more their inside and main camps. One of the victims who tried to escape was recaptured and was well beaten.”
As a result of the deploring condition of the Calabar-Itu Road, travellers now prefer to access Calabar and Uyo through the waterways. It takes about 30 minutes to journey by water from Calabar to Oron, instead of the over five hours that commuters spend on the road to Uyo, from Calabar.
A boat operator said “piracy on the route has been rampant. For instance, in December 2021, a boat with five passengers was hijacked. A few of the passengers individually paid ransoms of N200,000 before they were released.
“Before then, in 2019, the hijack was on a daily basis which reason we suspended business and protested for about two months.
“The protests took us to the police and navy headquarters in the state. It was as results of the protests and stoppage of boat operations that the two authorities decided to station their gun boats in the Calabar waters while the naval police station theirs on the Akwa Ibom end of the waters to deter militants and pirates,” the source disclosed.
The source further said to support the police, they collectively pay them N5000 daily. According to him, the attraction seems to be the speed boat engines which second-hand price goes for over N5 million naira.
“When they carry out a hijack like this we would normally contribute, say N250,000 to secure release of the boat and its engine but they will never release our both the boat and engine. They will collect our money, collect ransoms and still will not give us back our boats.
“We appeal that attention of the security be focused towards this direction even though we are not scared”, he said.
Reacting, to the security threat, the Cross River State police PRO in the state, Irene Ugbo said their Commanding Officer Marine was yet to officially brief them about the incident.