On Saturday night, April 10, 2021, the ugly news of the kidnap of a senior Claretian priest and renowned professor at the Imo State University, Owerri, Rev. Fr. (Prof.) Izuchukwu Marcel Onyeocha cmf started to filter into town. The next day, Sunday April 11, the news was everywhere in Nigeria and overseas, especially in the social media, and there were many versions of it. At midnight that Sunday, April 11, Fr. Onyeocha was miraculously freed by his abductors.
In this interview at the Claretian University Hospital, Owerri, where he is receiving treatment, Fr. Onyeocha shared his agonizing experience in the hands of his Fulani herdsmen abductors. It is touching, heartbreaking and harrowing.
Fr. we thank God for your freedom. There are many versions of both your abduction and release. What exactly happened?
What happened was that I went to Enugu for a wedding. One of my former students was wedding at Enugu. He had written his Ph.D on my Philosophy and he wanted me to be present at that wedding. He even went the extra mile of getting a driver to drive me to that place because I wasn’t well. After the occasion, we started coming back and on the way our car developed a small problem of “Break & Quench.” It started from Enugu and if you re-started it, it started until we got near Ihube Junction, it wouldn’t start anymore. So, the young man (the driver) got an okada to take him to Okigwe Roundabout to get an electrician because we suspected it was fuel pump. So, they brought a fuel pump within 15 minutes and it was noticed that it was not fuel pump that was at fault. By then it was getting to 6pm, that Saturday evening. So, the electrician called to see where he could get the Coil, as many had already closed shop. They eventually got the coil and were back in about 15 minutes. Then he fixed the coil and everything was alright. It was when he was closing the bonnet, that these people swooped from the bush, and attacked us.
How many of them?
They were six in number and they are all herdsmen. They were armed with unsheathed machetes and other weapons inside their bags. They dragged me out of the car and started punching me, kicking me, and hitting me with the flat side of their machetes. It was terrible; they were hitting my head. They left marks on my face. They kept dragging me into the forest for more than an hour. All this happened in the forest; they didn’t take me to any building.
While these things were happening, nobody helped you – No security people around?
Everybody ran away, even the driver and the electrician. I didn’t know if anybody came anyway. It was the herders that told me that they were not interested in those people (the electrician and driver) but me, the big man sitting in the car.
It was completely dark; I couldn’t see anything, may be they see in the night because they were walking as if they were walking on the road, through potholes and mounds. Since I couldn’t walk by myself, they dragged me and if I fell down, they beat me. We got to a place and they sat down. It seemed they cleared that place. We sat down and they were threatening me, that they will cut off my head. They asked me to use my phone to call my people to send them N50 million. I said I didn’t have such money. Even, they said they were going to use my phone to video the cutting-off of my ears and after which they will remove one of my eyes to show the people that they were serious. They said they were giving us some time to meet their demand. So, later at about midnight, they moved from that place to another dark place. Then, after about one hour, they moved again to another place till Sunday morning. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t hear any sound; the sound of anybody, vehicle etc, and there was no footpath there.
I was saying my prayers quietly throughout. And they were using my phone all the time, not their own, playing computer game with it until they exhausted all the airtime. Then eventually, they said okay, they came down to N15 million. I said to them, ‘I’m not sure I’ve seen one million naira cash put together and I’m sure I’ve not seen it. But they said, it doesn’t matter to us, sell that car and people will pay at least N10million to buy it and send them the money. And the negotiation continued. They were threatening me, every minute throughout the ordeal. Around 5pm (Sunday), they said okay, you know your phone will run out soon and if these people don’t bring N15m, we will kill you this night and then move on, and go where we can get money. This is business, this is our job to get money; so they should stop wasting our time.
Then around 6.30pm, there was a sudden change of heart as one of them said, if we release you now, can you find your way to the Express Way? I said, I don’t know where I am unless you show me the way, but if you release me, I will thank God, I’ll thank you. They said, no, no, your people should bring N15m. Sell that car. If you sell it for N10m, we will take it.
The change of heart I noticed was when they sheathed back all their weapons and went to one side. They were no longer standing behind me with their raised machetes. They now stand among themselves and conversing among themselves in their language and if anybody called me on my phone they would put it on speaker and will mention their demands.
All along they were asking some tricky questions like, what place is this? I told them I didn’t know and I didn’t know actually. At about 10pm, they said you will walk by yourself if we let you go. I said, if you showed me the way, maybe some people will help. They said not yet. They were waiting till midnight. At midnight, they said, alright, let’s go. They were holding me by the shoulders as we were walking. Then they came to a footpath, a road junction where the foot path joined. One went right the other went left. They said okay. They pointed towards the right and said, go there, you’ll get to a village first and you’ll ask them how to get to the Express Road.
So, it was a dead end they were sending me. That place was a Quarry, a construction site, there was no road leading anywhere. Below it was a gully, on top of it were high piles of latrite, and as I was trying to find my way, a huge rain started. There was no shade and all the rain fell on me. By the way, they also gave me back my handset, so, I used the torch of the handset, and was raising it, calling for help. Well, I saw some light flash but they would flash and then disappear. They were perhaps afraid too. Eventually one of them mustered the courage, approached and flashed his light on my face from behind; I turned, showed my face and introduced myself etc. They were security people, I think guarding the Quarry. They had to take me by the hand like a little child.
Meanwhile, that rain was so severe that the mud almost reached my knees. They brought me out from the forest and took me to where the other security people were. They were armed, legitimate security men. They used their phone to call the armed forces, military team. They came in their patrol vehicle immediately; put me in the vehicle around 1 am. They said they would take me to the nearest hospital but I said don’t take me to any hospital; take me to any Catholic Church. They took me to a Presbyterian Church. But I said, no it’s the Catholic Church I want to go. So, they now turned and only then I knew that the Express Way they were talking about is about 20kms from where they dropped me. They took me to St. Mary’s Cathedral Okigwe. Everybody had gone to bed. Two seminarians came out, and the priests started emerging. They took good care of me that night. Meanwhile, when the Cathedral Administrator came, he said the police called him and said I was in the Cathedral. The priests did me proud and brought me back to Owerri safely. Now, I’m at the Claretian University Hospital for evaluation. I can now stand and walk.
What do you think informed their change of heart becoming kind after threatening to kill you?
Will I tell you? Isn’t it God? Who else can do it? They saw I was a priest and they tore my clothes and threw them away saying, it doesn’t matter to them. All they needed was their money. They just changed suddenly and gave me back my phones. Even one of them asked if I could give him the bigger phone and I said take the phone if you want. He said no.
What was their language? Were they speaking English?
They were speaking good English but that was when they were talking to me. To themselves, they were speaking their language. I didn’t understand a word throughout the ordeal. I think when they began to have a change of mind, instead of their drawn unsheathed weapons, they now sheathed them back and instead of standing behind me, they now went apart, about six feet away, conversing quietly, while I was seating where I was seating. I cannot say this or that informed their change of heart, I think God.
Don’t you think that their oga, having heard the tension generated by your kidnap, may have told them to release you immediately?
Well, not that I was aware of because they have their own phones too with which they were communicating. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t know what informed them but they were very calm; gave me my phones back.
What food were they serving you?
I ate nothing. I had one bottle of Eva Water, that’s what I drank on Sunday morning around 7am. That’s all I had until I came out. They made me an offer and went and bought malt, biscuit and bread and they were offering me, I said no, that I was sick and needed to go home and take my medicine.
Which means there is a village nearby where they bought the snacks?
There was a place where one always went to and came back with a black bag full of the things they need. They knew what they were doing.
Do you think the villagers are not aware of their presence and menace around the area?
Those people are clever. I think during the day, they parade themselves as herdsmen but at night, they do what they do.
How old are they?
They are teenagers. I think the oldest of them is not more than 22 years.
Were you blindfolded?
They didn’t blindfold me. But they made me look in the same direction they were looking and I could see them with the corner of my eyes but what could I do. Even if I look at their face, will I fight them?
We thank God you did not stay as much as Bishop Moses Chukwe stayed in kidnappers’ den
Yes, but what I would say is let nobody experience anything near what I went through. I think it is the worst type of thing anybody can experience; not even for a minute.
Did they bring in other victims within the period?
No, I was the only person they held and in that case, I knew that the chances are only as slim as that, to say let’s go without their getting what they were looking for. Even when they say go, I thought they were going to shoot me from behind. They didn’t shoot me. They just left. I think it is God.