When he opened his eyes, he began to cry. He spoke in a slow but steady voice that conveyed deep sadness, despite the joyous occasion. He would stop and cry again.
A small crowd gathered to celebrate his safe return from the den of his kidnappers. Many comforting hands touched him. Intermittently, there were songs of praise to God for the safe return of the chairman who was abducted on his Ona Iwa Mimo Street, Ejigbo, last Monday.
Outside, some well wishers gathered in groups. The celebration of his return began early for them. Wine bottles were opened and at the sound of the cork, a shout of “KOK”, Bamigbetan’s nickname, rented the air.
On Friday, the kidnappers told their victim they were satisfied with him. That was when the news of his release filtered out. But he was not allowed to go until 9:30 pm on Saturday. At around 9: pm, they took him, blindfolded, into a car and drove towards a check point. He was asked to drive the car and drop it at a particular point where they would take over.
“They asked me if I could drive a manual car and I took charge of the car at 9:30 pm. They said I should not look sideways. So, I obeyed. The first thing I did was to start singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness’,” Bamigbetan said.
The car is a navy blue Peugeot 406 with Anambra registration number NKK 553 AH.
Bamigbetan’s family was full of gratitude. The mood inside the green duplex on the lowly Eni Iwa Mimo Street was boisterous. The long faces were gone; so were the meetings. But the singing, dancing and the prayers remained.
Rev. Bisi Bamigbetan, the eldest sibling of the chairman who had led the prayers, said: “We thank God. We prayed and fasted and God heard us. Thank God for everyone that stood by us. We nearly lost hope, I said ‘let your fear be replaced with faith’. I went upstairs to shower when I heard the shout of joy. I rushed out naked; I was not conscious.”
Bamigbetan’s twin sister, Mrs. Taiwo Jacobs, remarked: “I am so happy because we have been expecting him since Wednesday. It got to a stage we were all crying, trying to reach people who can help us. God has remembered us. It is the favour of God that brought him back. “
Another sister of his, Mrs. Funmi Adenuga, said the family thought the kidnap would not last more than two days but the kidnappers kept the family in suspense up till the last minute.
Bamigbetan had a premonition that evil was lurking around that day because he woke up trembling with fear, he told The Nation yesterday. “I tried to find out where the fear was coming from but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to go to work that day but for two events that I had to attend. After that, I went to see our leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. I had wanted to stay the night on the island but I didn’t. I even changed my usual route. I came through Ikotun while the kidnappers came through Isolo. They saw my Sport Utility Vehicle and overtook us, and then I remembered all the premonitions and fear that I had that day.”
A shot from an Ak-47 was fired to stop Abiodun Olayiwola, Bamigbetan’s driver. Sensing danger, he tried to reverse and escape but missed his way and hit an electricity pole, forcing the car to a stop. Several shots were fired into the engine missing Olayiwola by whiskers. Then he opened the car and ran, shouting to his boss to do the same.
“Why didn’t you stop? Why are you running away? Did you do anything wrong? Next time always stop and don’t run ok?” the kidnappers told Bamigbetan immediately he alighted from his vehicle. They bundled him into their own car, put a tight blindfold over his eyes and forced him into the car. Then they kicked out a man who had been taken before him and drove on high speed towards Badagry. It was then they informed him that someone had paid for his life.
“The blindfold was very tight and I could not even raise my eyebrows; so, I didn’t know where we were going ,” he said. But immediately his brain kicked into action and he engaged his captors. He told them they got the wrong person and all his life he had worked for the cause of the poor, both as student and labour activist. He pleaded that as Chairman of a local council, he had provided free medicare for the elderly and free education for children. The men remained silent. When they got to their destination, they brought him down from the vehicle and pushed him into a dark house.
Bamigbetan did not know the exact location of the house he was taken to but said it was around Badagry.
He said: “When you are kidnapped, you are put down so you can just hear the movement; you can’t see. The only thing you know is the point where you are picked up and dropped. The place was dark; you are put on the carpet, laid onto the carpet blindfolded.”
He lived in this darkness for two days.
That same night a phone call was put through to his wife Fatima. “Madam, we have your husband. Somebody has paid for his life, but we will not kill him if you can bail him out. Don’t call the police, rally round your friends and get the money. Then they demanded for $1m” Fatima said yesterday.
Back in their hide-out they began to question Bamigbetan on his activities. To authenticate his story, they dispatched a group to the council secretariat to verify his claims at the break of dawn. The spies went to the council secretariat and mixed with the group of sympathizers, asking questions. Nobody suspected them; they looked just normal.
“Interestingly, the second day they dispatched a group of their boys to the council to go and research and the result of that changed their attitude towards me because they said everywhere they went people said that I helped the poor and I was a nice person. They became much more realistic about what they wanted,” Bamigbetan said.
Bamigbetan said he was tied face down in the flat for the first two days. To reduce the risk of having to relieve his bowels, he began to drink water and coke. “One day, I will drink water, the next coke,” he said. In the dark room where he was kept, he could only lie on the floor. “There were AK-47 rifles everywhere and I knew it is only God that can save me through grace.”
The kidnappers were tracking the news report and soon the profile of their high calibre victim began to emerge. But the news reports almost ended the kidnap incident in a fatality. A national newspaper –not The Nation- had reported that council chairmen in the state were contributing N1, 000,000 each for his release. The kidnappers brought the paper to him and demanded an outrageous sum for his release, based on that report.
“I was able to debunk that story as a lie, that it was not true and that settled it,” said Bamigbetan. Unknown to him, however, another group involved in the negotiation for his release had told his family the same outrageous ransom. They kept pestering his wife for the money until Saturday night.
“They were still calling me up to the last minute asking for money. They said I should prepare to become a widow and that they will tell me where to pick his body. I was tired and afraid. I began to beg them. But I thank God he is back and alive,” Mrs Bamigbetan said.
According to Bamigbetan, the kidnappers were seven and they divided themselves into two categories. One group was hardened; it was responsible for the threat and abuse while the other group was more humane. “After the younger guys took over, things became easy; they gave me a mattress to sleep on, cooked indomie for me, bought me fruits, washed my clothes themselves and forced me to eat and take my bath.”
The kidnappers seemed to have been forced into criminality by the social circumstances in the country.
“The guys involved made a very clear point, many of them were graduates, have not been in jobs for years, and many of them have gone to take that risk, according to them, because they cannot match the millions and the billions that we talk about with what comes into their own pockets. They cannot understand why we budget billions of naira and graduates cannot get jobs so they have come to take their anger against the system. In that circumstance, one was just a victim of circumstance, it is clear no one is safe. It can happen to anybody at any time, but I don’t think we are prepared to handle this,” Bamigbetan said.
The kidnappers would not release him, until he had made a promise to take a very strong message to the government. “They asked me to take this message to the government – that they are angry. They said how can an engineering graduate not have a job for eight years and the government is budgeting billions annually. They said as the elections are coming, they too will be doing their elections with their guns.
“The boys said they just wanted to take their own share of the national cake, which has been denied them.” Bamigbetan sees this as another evidence of the rot of Nigeria under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) -led government.
“It’s a social question; the need to redistribute wealth in favour of the poor and the working class has become such a very imperative necessity, if Nigeria is going to move forward. That is the message they asked me to pass on – to let people know that they are not happy having to carry AK 47 around town at the risk to their own lives. Some of them are Human Resources graduates; some of them are Engineering graduates and this is what they have to do to survive. It’s a sad commentary on how the PDP government has been able to run this country. It shows you very clearly that no sane Nigerian seeing the challenges that we have should ever allow this party continue in power. The PDP government is really exposing us to danger.”
But there was still the issue of a ransom, some online news platforms claimed N15m was paid to secure his release. Bamigbetan would not confirm if such money was paid.
He said: “All of us are still exposed; there is no protection. There could be reprisals. Who is going to protect me against reprisals? I don’t want to be too salacious with information. I may not be able to control the consequences. It is not the issue of ransom, but safety. Former Anambra Deputy Governor paid a ransom and he was still killed.”
Bamigbetan seemed to have become a changed person after his ordeal. He has rededicated his life to the service of his people and to God. He also called for a special status for Lagos State to be able to cater for the millions of residents and migrants from other states. But he insisted he would not use a police security detail.
“I don’t use security details; I have never used security details. I am not too sure if it will change now. I believe in God’s protection, I work for the poor and believe that the prayers of those people will save me. I made my mind that if I work for the people they will pray for me. It is a stronger power”.