Mr. Egbe Donatus and wife, Confidence, woke up with their two children, Joseph and Godwin, on Sunday, March 15, 2014, hail andhearty without an inkling that the hand of a child-snatcher lurked in the shadows.
By nightfall, one of their children was gone and a search party would turn up nothing. Their second child, five-year-old Joseph, had simply vanished without a trace.
For the next two months, the plight of the Donatus would mirror the popular saying that it is sometimes better if one’s child dies than for such child to go missing without a trace.
The day Joseph went missing in the front of the small two-bedroom apartment where the family live in Church Village, Ipaja, Lagos, became etched in their memory.
“I wondered if Joseph was taken by ritual killers. I could not imagine what they might have done to him. I always cried each time I remembered the day he went missing,” Donatus narrated to Saturday PUNCH.
Donatus, a commercial motorcyclist, was away at work that Sunday, when he received a call to come back home. He got home only to meet a crowd of residents gathered in front of his house.
A mother’s agony
The missing boy’s mother, a petty trader, explained that few minutes before he was kidnapped, she came back from church with her two children – Joseph and his elder brother, Godwin.
She said, “Joseph told me he wanted to go and play with one of his friends beside our house after we came back from church but I told him he should give me some minutes to shower.
“I rushed in, bathed and changed my clothes. I came out again a few minutes later and did not see him. I thought he had wandered off to his friend’s house next door. I went there and called him but I got no answer. I went to his friend’s house and they said he had not been seen there either.
“I became worried, I started screaming his name. We went from door to door. Neighbours and other residents too joined me. We searched everywhere. I screamed and cried but my child was gone. But I knew he could not have wandered off because he had never done so before. I knew something was very wrong.”
The residents of Church Village and neighbours of the Donatus organised themselves into search parties and knocked on doors. Among the crowd searching for the boy and knocking on doors to enquire if anybody saw the boy, was a friendly and concerned woman called Mrs. Beatrice Iwu, restaurateur, who operates Feed Well Restaurant in the area. But the groups couldn’t find the boy.
Then on May 12, the Donatus family got a break.
Donatus’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Oluchi Emereole, got a call from a young man in Enugu, who knew about the missing child.
The woman said, “I got the phone number of one Mr. Fidelis from the young man. The man told me that a lady he knew in Enugu, the daughter of Mrs. Iwu (the restaurateur who also helped in the search) had been arrested for kidnapping and selling a child.
“He told me the child was kidnapped in Lagos and when he gave me the child’s description, it matched that of Joseph.”
Our correspondent spoke with Mr. Fidelis, a prophet, who narrated how he got a call telling him about a lady called Esther, arrested in their village, for kidnapping a child.
He said, “I was in Lagos when I received the call. I know both Esther and her mother (Iwu). The mother lives in Church Village, Ipaja. Apparently, Esther had sold the child to another woman, who later returned him when he refused to eat.
“When the buyer demanded a refund, a fight broke out. But neighbours who were suspicious about the deal that caused their fight called the police.”
Immediately Donatus got information about the child, who was then kept in custody of the State Criminal Investigation Department of the Enugu Police State Command, he proceeded to Enugu to see if the child was his.
“I got to the SCID in Enugu and the police asked me about my missing child’s complexion, his height and his name. When I told them his name was Joseph, the Investigating Police Officer said the child was not likely to be mine,” he said.
Joseph had been given another name, Success, by his buyer, Saturday PUNCH learnt.
“But when they brought the child out, lo and behold, it was my child. He ran towards me and hugged me, shouting ‘daddy!’ They asked him who his father was and he pointed to me. They asked him the name I called him and he said Joseph. I wept for joy. They told me everything that happened and how he was recovered. They told me Joseph was sold for N350,000. I begged them to show me the woman who sold her but the police did not,” Egbe said.
How I was kidnapped – Joseph
During Saturday PUNCH’s encounter with Joseph’s parents at their home in Lagos, they had reunited with their lost son. Joseph played on his mother’s lap in the front of their home, joy clearly written on both parents’ faces.
With an uncanny detail, albeit in a child’s way of speaking, Joseph’s intelligence was apparent as he told our correspondent about the day he was kidnapped and taken on a long trip to Enugu.From his narration, Joseph’s kidnappers put him in a vehicle headed for Enugu that same day he was kidnapped.
Joseph said, “I was rolling tyre with my friend in the front of our house. The mummy living over there (he pointed in the direction of Iwu’s house about 50 metres away) came and cover my mouth with handkerchief.
“She (Iwu) carried me to her house and locked me inside. She said she would kill me if I shouted.”
He pointed to the house. “When she locked me inside here, a big car came and she put me inside it and we left. The journey was long. The woman told me not to talk inside the car.
“When we got there, he locked me inside a room and later, a woman took me away. They gave me food but I did not eat because my father told me not to take food from a stranger. I was always crying, the woman shouted at me and took me to the woman that put me in the vehicle.”
The police investigation
Saturday PUNCH learnt that Iwu was arrested and detained at the Gowon Estate Police Division, Ipaja, but has since been released under controversial circumstances. Her son, who was also detained at the same station, was released a day later.
When our correspondent contacted the Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of the State Criminal Investigation Department, Enugu, Mr. Jonathan Towuru, he said at the moment, the case was no longer in his hands.
“We arrested three suspects in the case and it has been charged to court. The boy was released to his father after a positive identification with the involvement of the Enugu State Ministry of Gender Affairs,” he said.
However, on the Lagos end of the investigation, things seemed to have heated up as the family and residents of Church Village at a point broached the idea of destroying Iwu’s house in retaliation.
Having been calmed by the Divisional Police Officer, Mr. Segun Titiladunoye of the Ipaja Police Division, that justice would be done, the residents desisted.
Contrary to the rumour that Iwu and her son had been released, Titiladunoye said they were still in his custody.
He said, “You must understand that the person who actually perpetrated the kidnapping of the child has been charged to court in Enugu.
“We should have even allowed the Enugu command to carry on with the entire case but I had to approach my area command for advice on the course of action. He has advised that we refer both the woman (Iwu) and her son to the State Criminal Investigation Department in Lagos for investigation.
“When we arrested the woman, we realised that her daughter who is now facing prosecution in Enugu was the one who actually kidnapped the child. The woman (Iwu) said she travelled when the daughter came home to kidnap the child and we have found facts that support her alibi.
“The son who is now in our custody was the one who gave the daughter the key with which she gained access to the house and perpetrated the kidnap. The SCID would determine the culpability of the woman and her son when we transfer them.”
Kidnapping for slavery still rife – Experts
Policemen who are familiar with the investigation into Joseph’s kidnap told Saturday PUNCH that the boy was likely going to be used as domestic slave.
“He would have been used for all sorts of work, the same way people use equipment for domestic work. If the boy was bought for a ritual purpose, he would not have been found. But the woman who sold him would not have cared if she was selling him to a ritual killer, anyway,” a police officer in the Enugu command, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said.
Reports of kidnappings and attempted kidnappings in Nigeria have been on the rise in recent times with mob justice being the preferred way to go for residents who catch suspected kidnappers.
Such reports show that the victims are abducted especially for money ritual murders and modern-day slavery.
According to Walking Free, an international movement fighting to end modern slavery, there are at least 700,000 slaves in Nigeria.
Child rights advocate, Mrs. Esther Ogwu, who has now taken the Donatus family’s case before the Human Rights Commission for further action, said there were many pointers, which residents could look out for to prevent modern-day slavery.
She said, “It is necessary for people to understand that a lot of people are not likely to treat their own children like an animal. These things happen around us, but a lot of people just seem to shut their eyes to them.
“When you see a child who is being maltreated in your neighbourhood under severe conditions, you have the responsibility of reporting such to the authorities. The children may be a helpless victim of kidnap for domestic slavery like in the case of Joseph.
“What is the assurance that when the person who bought the boy got tired, she would not use him for rituals? No child should be subjected to slavery and people need to be sensitive to this. Cases of many of such children that we have rescued from abusive homes show that modern-day slavery is still very common.”
Modern-day slavery seemed to receive a renewed international focus with the threat issued by the leader of the extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, that he would sell into slavery more than 200 schoolgirls of the Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, kidnapped on April 14, 2014.
The British organisation, Anti-Slavery Society, states,” Although there is no longer any state which legally recognises, or which will enforce a claim by a person to a right of property over another, the abolition of slavery does not mean that it ceased to exist. There are millions of people throughout the world, mainly children.”
Founder of the Children’s Anti-Corruption Initiative Nigeria, Mr. Omololu Akinwande, whose organisation has worked to eradicate child labour and exploitation of children in Nigeria, said it was unfortunate that modern-day slavery was receiving very little attention from the Nigerian government.