BY TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA, Assistant Lagos City Editor
THE Chairman of Ejigbo Local Council Development Area (LCDA), Kehinde Bamigbetan, was yesterday full of thanks to God and appreciation to friends and associates who supported the family with prayers before he was released Saturday night.
To the utmost shock of his family, he walked home unaccompanied and unhurt around 9:30pm after earlier reports of his release on Saturday morning, which turned out to be false, had heightened fears of a mishap in the release of Bamigbetan. But all doubts ended when Bamigbetan stepped into his living room to be received by a bewildered gathering, which were deep in prayers for his safe return.
Looking slightly emaciated and still dressed in the white lace he wore on the day he was abducted, he rushed forward to hug his wife, shook hands with family members and breezed into a room with just one mission on his mind: check on his children, who had been locked away from the throng of visitors.
When he was about to be released by his captors, according to him, they asked if he could drive, and he replied in the affirmative. They took him out, blindfolded and drove him for four hours before he was dropped at the Badagry checkpoint, where a car was provided and he drove himself home.
He breathed his first air of freedom at exactly 9pm when he took control of a manual saloon car, singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” to himself as he drove home. He was instructed to park the car beside the bridge close to his house and trek home.
After being reunited with his family and enjoying a special moment of privacy, he stepped outside into the night devoid of moonlight and took the moment to relive his experience of the last five days, which to him, looked like five weeks.
“We were coming in from work last week Monday around 11pm and we had entered my street when a saloon car overtook us and blocked us. We tried to reverse back, but from the vehicle came three men with rifles asking us to stop. As we were reversing, they fired into the vehicle. The driver reversed into a pole and we got stuck. So, I stepped out. I was trying to see if it was somebody I could recognize.”
He continued: “They asked why we were running, I said maybe the driver was afraid. Speaking in Queen’s English, they said he shouldn’t have run, and they ordered me to enter the vehicle. They moved into the main road and drove towards Isolo. From that point, they pushed my head down and for the next four hours, we were on the road.”
“We arrived at a place and I was blindfolded and moved inside a pitch dark room with only a carpet. I was asked to face down and from there, I lost track of time. They started agitating that they were graduates, they didn’t like what they were doing but there are no jobs. One claimed to be an engineering graduate, one studied Human Resources management, another said he was already in final year in a United States varsity when his father’s shopping complex was demolished and he had to be recalled home. One said he was an okada operator and government had just outlawed his source of income. They were generally bitter about youth unemployment.”
Strangely, on the morning he was abducted, Bamigbetan had experienced a strange feeling he could not explain and had almost cancelled his engagements for the day, but his vacillation cost him dearly. According to an inside source, the council boss is usually tidy about his Mondays. On such days, he is always out before 9am and dressed in suit. So, they suspected something was amiss when they saw the chairman strolling around the premises at midday.
“That morning I had a strong premonition that something unusual was going to happen to me,” he recalled. “I didn’t leave home until 2pm and I left only because we had two events, a CDA tour and another meeting with CDAs on flooding. My instinct was not to leave home but I ignored it after waking up with a great sense of fear.”
“When I finished that meeting, I had to do two assignments that would take me to the island. So, I decided to go and sleep over on the island. Unfortunately, I finished both assignments early because Asiwaju Tinubu was traveling and immediately gave me audience. On other days, I usually wait a long while before I get to see him and I could be there till 2am sometimes.”
“So, since I was through with what I came for on the island earlier than I thought, I told the driver to change the route on our way home. He came in through Ikotun and the kidnappers were coming from Isolo. As soon as they saw a jeep enter the street, they picked on our car. They weren’t lurking around for me. I was just unlucky on the day. When they caught up with us, the picture just fell into space, but I knew people would be praying for me and that was the hope I clung to.”
He further narrated: “They asked who I was, I said I work with Fashola and I am a journalist, I didn’t know they took my bag containing my laptop. They asked for my password, opened my laptop and started checking my details. They said you are a local government chairman; you are the one stealing our money. I told them I didn’t steal money and I started elucidating my programmes of free meal and uniforms for children in schools, free drugs for everybody in our PHCs and several skills acquisition initiatives.”
“When I told them I don’t have the kind of money they were demanding, which is $1 million, they went brutal. They tied me to a chair and gave me serious beating, with blood flowing through my nostrils. I now discovered that the idea of we don’t have money would not work here, I needed to engage them. I told them I had friends who could render assistance and I should be allowed to contact them.”
“We were on that when media reports starting rolling in. They even showed me a newspaper report that all the local government chairmen had contributed money to pay the ransom. Later, they said someone who wanted my position had paid N35 million. I laughed. They asked why, I said am not saying what you said is not true but N35 million is too much a price to pay on my head. We came to an understanding and they came back later to say they were not satisfied with the negotiated sum; that they needed more.”
“At that point, I started praying because it was from there I remembered the strong premonition I had the morning I was captured. I was not sure where the trouble would come, but I knew I was in danger. I just started praying for mercy and Divine intervention while reciting my favourite Psalm.”
“Suddenly, at some point, they started treating me nicely, asking what I wanted to eat. They washed my clothes, prepared food and fruits for me. Took me from the carpet to a room with mattress and switched on the AC and encouraged me to sleep. They told me they came to the council the second day and listened to what people were saying and they found out that everybody said I was good. They said they believed I could be of help to them in the future. Their perception of me changed when they saw the newspaper reports of the kidnap.”
Commenting n the recent wave of kidnappings in Lagos State, Bamigbetan doubted that the nation’s security operatives and apparatus could manage the level of sophistication of the criminal gangs. “Imagine them sending people to the council to find out things for themselves the day after I was captured; that shows you that they know what they are doing.”
“We don’t have the capacity because ordinarily, when they were making the calls, the nearest cell sites should have detected our location. We were in a place for five days and nobody had an inkling of where we were, but I know that it is God’s intervention that made my release possible. It is not about the ransom. This is why I thank everybody who offered prayers for us. When you looked at what happened to Dr. Nwike, former Anambra State deputy governor, his ransom was paid yet he was killed.”
“The way I have approached politics here, trying to assist and cultivate people paid off. They could see through my sincerity. There were other people held captive in the room. Our eyes were blindfolded and we were not allowed to talk to one another. To engage in a conversation with our captors, we were told not to open our eyes even with the blindfold. Once you attempt to see them, they would fire. We had been strictly warned because they don’t want to be identified. Moreso, the blindfold was so tight that you can’t even open or move eyeball.”
On why he shunned using police orderlies, he said he had never for once believed in police escort. “It is a test of your faith with people. If you truly want to serve people and you are doing it from your heart, you don’t need police protection. Even the police are seeking God’s protection, so why don’t we all go straight and look towards the same God for protection.”
“I pray and try to do good deeds daily because those good deeds would pray for me and be my cover whenever I run into problem. That has been my philosophy. If the police had been with me, what would have happened, three AK 47 rifles to one policeman, would he wait? When you know that you are on your own, you are forced to work for the people genuinely. I have never taken a police orderly to anywhere because I believe in the God and people I serve.”
His wife, Fatima, sat speechless, absorbing all the narration. Intermittently, she would wave to the clouds, at other times, she would sigh and let out a loud moan or simply nodded along. “I thank everybody, I thank God he is back. Now, I believe in the power of prayers. I didn’t expect that to ever happen to anybody in Lagos. So, when it happened, we couldn’t do any other thing than to resort to prayers. Friends, political associates, neighbours and well wishers came and offered prayers and fasting, we were holding vigil everyday,” she said.
“We never expected him back, my husband just appeared miraculously. The kidnappers were still calling us that day that my enemy will become a widow soonest, that I will carry my husband’s corpse. I was just crying, begging them on the phone not to make me a widow. We were just shocked when he walked in later that night. I am so happy he came back unhurt.”