OLAMIDE FAMUWAGUN captures the anguish of parents in a Lagos slum over the unknown whereabouts of their children

Hot tears rolled down the distraught face of 57-year-old tyre repairer, Oriyomi Onikoyi, while recounting the agony of his four-year-old daughter, Alimot’s disappearance in the Otto Ilogbo community in Ebute Metta, Lagos to Saturday PUNCH.  

The four-year-old was stolen by unknown persons under the nose of her parents on a Friday and has yet to be seen till date. Sadly, it appears like daily wishful thinking for the 57-year-old that one day his daughter would return home.

Onikoyi, whose simple daily routine included going to his shop to fend for his family, stated that the incident happened on a day like any other. He said, “It was like any other day, I had gone to my shop and Alimot went to the mosque to pray that day. When I got home that night, I shared with my children, including Alimot, the goodies I bought. We were all outside at the time, in front of my house. The children were playing at the house frontage with my wife and I watched them. Then, there was an outage for a minute and electricity was restored almost immediately. By then, Alimot was nowhere to be found.

“I searched everywhere that night. I even called on neighbours to assist me to look for her but it was all to no avail. We raised the alarm the next day and began searching for her again but as I speak, she is still missing. It was such a strange thing because my other children were still in front of the house when electricity was restored but only Alimot was missing.”

Onikoyi told Saturday PUNCH that the harrowing experience almost claimed the life of his wife and made him lose sleep for six months.

He said, “My wife almost died during that time. She still thinks about the whole thing and I just started sleeping properly six months ago. I haven’t been sleeping well at all these past few days. I am constantly thinking. My late first child was also named Alimot. After she (first child) died, I named her (the missing child) after her and now she’s missing. It is truly heartbreaking.’’

Speaking on his efforts to recover his missing daughter, the tyre repairer said he had spent close to N1.8m to search for his daughter, adding that he had not stopped looking for her till today.

He said, “I have spent almost N1.8m on efforts to look for her; I went everywhere to look for her. I reported the incident at the Denton Police Station, Iponri Police Station, Area ‘C’ Police Station and the Ikeja Police Station. My wife even advised us to go to Radio Lagos to make announcements. We did that too but we still haven’t found her. I went to Kwara and Oyo states to meet some seers and they told me she was still alive. This disclosure gave me a bit of hope and even with two years gone by over the incident, I haven’t stopped searching for her.’’

A community’s agony

Commonly known as a slum in the city, the Otto Ilogbo is a community with diverse twists and corners. Our correspondent who visited the community observed wooden homes with weak structures, and residents living on shanties. The wooden homes are navigated by unstable planks capable of falling any careless walker.

The community is made up of 14 major streets namely; the Palace road, Akinfuje Street, Osuro Street, Ajayi, Omidiji, Bridge Road, Iddo, Esugayi, Ogundimu, Akinlolu, Ballo Street, Fagbayi Lane and the Fagbayi Street. The popular areas in the community are the mosque, houses, church, school, barrack and the quranic school.

Onikoyi’s agony mirrors the agony of some other parents in the community to an incident regarded as recurrent.

Another resident of the community, 48-year-old Samuel Okorafor, a father of three (missing child excluded), lamented the loss of his two-year-old son, Daniel.

He said, “I went to the market on a Wednesday and when I returned home,  I saw that my wife had gone to grind pepper opposite our house and the children went with her including  Daniel. I left them in the care of their mother and went out around 6pm. However, when I came home around 9pm, I saw that our neighbours had gathered in front of our home and they told me that Daniel was missing. I was in shock and I asked my wife what happened. She told me she washed some plates, went outside to throw away the dirty water and by the time she came back into the house, she didn’t see Daniel and his elder brother.

“After a while of wondering what was happening and searching for the boys, we saw the elder brother approaching. I asked him where his younger brother, Daniel was and he told us that he called him to go home but he refused. He said Daniel kept walking away without answering him. We went out to search for him that night but unfortunately we did not see even a trace of him.

“After a fruitless search, I reported the case at the Denton Police Station and the Iponri Police Station. They directed us to a motherless baby home at Surulere. We went to Mushin where they kept missing but found children but it was to no avail. At the Iponri Station, the Divisional Police Officer ordered that an investigation should be carried out on the matter because Daniel wasn’t the first child to go missing in the community. Since then, nothing has been done. We also went to the Nigerian Television Authority but we achieved nothing. My wife is still agonised by the incident; she doesn’t like to speak about it. Now, I am simply looking unto God. I don’t see this place as safe anymore; I’m even planning to leave the place with my family.”

Adjoined by the National Theatre to the East and a high-rise Lagos Mainland Hotel to the West lays the impoverished, untidy community.

Our correspondent, who visited the community, learnt that children between the ages of two to four years old had been strangely going missing after the death of the community head in 2016.

The head of the Lagos Mainland security, Ishola Agbodemu, told Saturday PUNCH that 10 children went missing in the community since 2016. But several visits by our correspondent three months this year revealed the disappearance of about 15 children in the community.

Some of the affected parents refused to speak to our correspondent on the explanation that they didn’t want to recollect the agonising incidents, while it was gathered that others had fled the community without any means to reach them.

The community has become a dreaded place for other parents who heard cases of the missing children.

Worrisome statistics on missing children

In celebration of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30, the International Committee of the Red Cross noted that disappeared persons across Africa were 64,000 cases with Nigeria recording over 25,000 missing people.

The delegation for the Red Cross Nigeria, Yann Bonzon, in a statement stated that out of the over 25,000 reported missing in Nigeria, over 14,000 were children.

Bonzon stated that there were more children in the country whose fate remained unknown.

He said, “Sadly, the almost 14,000 children registered do not capture the full scope of this often-neglected and tragic humanitarian issue. There is no doubt that there are more children whose fate remains unknown.”

Bonzon added that the Red Cross had more than 5,200 documented cases of unaccompanied children in Africa.

On June 22, reports noted that there incessant disappearances of children in the Wakari Local Government Area of Taraba State.

Troubling cases of disappearance

Fifty-eight-year-old Ager Samuel is another parent who had suffered the agony of losing a child. Samuel described the disappearance of his two-year-old daughter as hell, stating that he left the community after the heartrending experience.

Samuel noted that his missing daughter, Joy, was outside playing with her friends and her older sister took some cake to give to Joy who he said was nowhere to be found.

He said, “I was in my brother’s place which was two meters away from mine that day. My children were also there with me playing in front of his room. My brother initially gave them (the children) cake but the older one came again to collect another to share with her sister. However, she came back to me and told me that she didn’t see her sister to give her the other half of the cake.

“I looked everywhere. I informed my brother and we raised the alarm. All the women in that area came out and we searched for her but she was nowhere to be found. I immediately called my wife and told her. We then went to the police station to make reports but nothing was done. We also reported to the elders in the community but nothing was done.

“My wife and I went through hell after the incident. My wife couldn’t eat nor sleep throughout that week. She couldn’t take her bath, and she kept saying she would rather die. I also went through hell and it wasn’t easy for me. I have left the community. As I left there, I heard that the child of one of my close friends in the community went missing. It is something that has been happening over and over again.”

On her part, Selepha Saluhu, lamented that efforts to find her three-year-old son, Faruq, who disappeared in June, were abortive.

The 38-year-old housewife, who was too sad to speak, managed to mumble a few words to our correspondent, stating that Faruq didn’t return after leaving home to buy sachet water nearby with his friends.

She said, “Faruq disappeared after he went to buy sachet water with his friends. His friends came back but we never saw him again, even till now. My husband has gone everywhere but efforts to know his whereabouts were abortive.”

Some women in the community who spoke to our correspondent over the matter said every day they lived in fear and dread whose child would be next. The women lamented that the worst pain for a parent was not knowing whether a child was alive or dead. They added that they were taking precautions to avoid being victims.

In October 2021, The PUNCH reported that three-year-old Noheem Ishola disappeared in the Ogundimu area of the community.

It was gathered that the victim and his two siblings were on their way to their grandmother’s house when two people started a fight in the area.

The victim’s father, Rafiu Ishola, said, “I don’t know how my child got lost. But I feel they were followed to that area because the fight started by those people was unnecessary and immediately they took my boy, everywhere cleared. When his siblings didn’t see him, they ran to their grandma’s house to tell her. Their mother cannot sleep or eat. The incident has affected her a lot because it’s not the first time a child would be missing in the community and would not be found.”

 Police, experts speak

Commenting on the issue, the state police spokesperson, Benjamin Hundeyin, stated that there were no new records of children missing in the community.

He said, “I am not aware of any new report of a missing child in that community. There has been none in recent times.”

In his view, a security expert, Akin Adeyi, stated that the community had not done enough to address the issue thereby making them culpable for the matter, noting that the police should comb the area and unravel the mystery surrounding children disappearance.

He said, “If children are going missing in the community and nothing is being done, the entire community is suspect in this case and in the midst of them, they have people who are into nefarious activities or a group of people that are doing that.

“It’s not possible that kidnappers would be coming from outside to kidnap the children and nothing is being done. They should look inward. This government in particular at this time seems to have left everybody to his or her own fate.”

“That kind of community is a community where the police should comb and mount surveillance, deploy district surveillance, deploy mobile and technical surveillance or ask whatever might be responsible for such. The community leaders should also be invited by the police.

“It is an evil society until proven otherwise, children are missing and the community isn’t doing anything?  Even when there are complaints to the police, it depends on the level of seriousness of the complainant at times because if you don’t follow your case up, there’s little they (the police) can do. They work on information given to them and process them to intelligence to be able to unravel whatever mystery is going on. But when the whole community has gone into a conspiracy of silence, how will the police determine the culprit in this case?”

Adeyi advised that the government should confiscate the slum and build a habitable place that would not be an abode for criminals.

He said, “These incidents are enough for the government to make the slum non-existent. The government has told us now that if you’re a landlord and your house is being used for fraudulent activities, the house will be demolished so if children are missing and the place is a slum, then it is for the government to level it, by that a security solution has been provided. The people in the community would be in disarray, they cannot come together in one community again. They would go to different communities; some might even go to their villages. At least, the government says any property that has been used for any nefarious activity would be confiscated because at the end of the day, the government is the owner of every piece of land in this country. The government can give them a deadline; sometimes you take security to the people telling them that they must proffer solutions to a lingering problem. That community should be recovered by the government.”

Another security expert, Dickson Osajie, stated that the government needed to take the lives of its citizens seriously.

He said, “We must understand the notion that children are the leaders of tomorrow, so each time a child goes missing, the future leaders of Nigeria are missing because we can’t have children missing without a conclusive investigation. What I will advise is that the Nigerian Police Force should carry out a sting operation in that environment.

“They should start by carry out a crime mapping of that environment, project detectives and investigators to unravel the mystery behind this criminal activity because we cannot have children who believe and have faith in this country not well protected by the Nigerian government because the priority of any government is the protection of lives. So, if these children are going missing, that environment should be effectively combed security wise, Nigerian government should project intelligence within that environment because we must not look at this as a normal occurrence, human lives must be given priority in any given government. If we have children going missing, the government should be worried about that.

Osajie advised parents of the victims to follow up on complaints lodged at the police stations.

He said, “The parents would have lodged complaints at police stations but do we follow up investigations to a conclusive end? That is the challenge we are having with the police, we don’t have conclusive investigations. Some people report a matter to the police; a file is opened but there is no follow-up investigation. What they should be doing now is ascertaining the extent of nefarious activities in that environment, check the crime rate in that environment and call the community leaders to order. Leaders of that environment should be called to an effective meeting.”

Commenting on the issue, a professor of psychology, at the University of Lagos, Oni Fagboungbe, stated it was important for parents dealing with the trauma of losing their children to accept the reality of what had happened, adding that such incidents were a permanent damage.

He said, “We don’t pray for such because the agony of losing one’s child is a big traumatic experience that will live with the parents forever, especially the mother of that child. The parents can only come out of it momentarily, especially when there are many variables in the environment that will keep reminding them of their loss. They can manage the traumatic experience if they go to experts like a counselling psychologist to assist them in overcoming the experience but to say that it’s an easy thing that will easily go away is a lie.

“No amount of compensation can wipe out the experience, it can only minimise it. The first thing for the parents is to accept the reality. If such parents are Christians, it is advisable they go close to their bibles and they must see experts, who will give them a number of activities to engage in when the experience flashes back into their brains.

“If they can still reproduce, then they should fall on the fact that God who provided the lost one can provide another one. The major role is for the parents to accept the reality that what has happened is a permanent damage that cannot be restored. Gradually, they will come out of it but it will not go away permanently. There are many variables in the environment that will keep on reminding them but their ability to cope when there is a flashback is important.

“No one can develop it for them; they have to do it themselves. Where the parents leave the environment where such had happened to go to another environment is called systematic desensitisation. It involves a lot of activities and one of them is the change of environment to avoid those factors and variables that can easily remind them of what they have been through. Another one is self-counselling which is still accepting the reality that this situation cannot be reversed and that gives them the energy to start dropping the intensity of the traumatic experience.”

Govt speaks

The head of the Lagos Neighbourhood Safety Corps, Lagos Mainland Local Government Area, Mueez Salako, when contacted, declined to comment on the issue.

The Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotosho stated that the community was on the list of communities to be regenerated by the state government, adding that the matter was for the state police to handle.

He said, “It is quite unfortunate. I am not sure the government has that kind of report. The police, however, should be informed since it’s a security and criminal matter. The Lagos State Government has an urban regeneration plan and the community is a part of the places for regeneration. The aspect of the children going missing is a criminal matter which the police are capable of handling.”