By Arinze CHIJIOKE
While many celebrated the Christmas and New year holidays with their loved ones, the families of five engineers working with NELAN Consultants, an Enugu-based consultant engineering firm, were left devastated by news about their sudden disappearance In the first of these two-part series, Arinze Chijioke captures the plight of families of the missing engineers.
TWO months after the five engineers deployed to a road project at Effium in Ohaukwu Local Government Area, in Ebonyi State were declared missing, their families remain hopeful that they would one day return home, even though their hope appears to be getting dim.
Wife of one of the missing engineers, Patricia Onyemeh, 58, and her children spent the holidays indoors, praying and hoping for the return of the head of the family, 64-year-old Nelson Onyemeh.
For them, there was nothing to celebrate as nothing could fill the vacuum created by his disappearance.
On November 2, Patricia was with her husband, a Director at NELAN Consultants, in their Enugu house when he called four engineers to join him at a location in Ebonyi State the following day for supervision of the second phase of the Abakaliki Ring Road project.
“He asked them to get ready the next day as they would be travelling with him to Abakaliki for their routine supervision of the Ring Road project,” she said.
The project, which is in Effium, Ohaukwu Local government Area of Ebonyi State, is funded through a repayable loan from African Development Bank, AFDB, and meant to contribute to socio-economic development, poverty reduction through improved road transport infrastructure, reduced road maintenance costs and vehicle operating cost and travel time.
On November 3, the five engineers, including Nelson Onyemeh, Ernest Edeani, Ikechukwu Ejiofor, Samuel Aneke and Stanley Nwazulum, travelled from Enugu to Ebonyi.
Part of what they had planned to do that day in Abakaliki was to check out an accommodation a certain man identified as Ken Okeh was helping them to find as they were supposed to be resident within the location of the road project.
They had scheduled a meeting with Okeh at 3.00 pm that day after visiting the road construction site. They travelled to the location in Effium with the project vehicle, a Toyota Hilux and arrived at about 2.00 pm ahead of the scheduled meeting.
It was gathered that on arrival, the team allegedly called Okeh and announced their arrival at the site. But that was the last time anyone would hear from them as they were subsequently reported missing in a suspected case of kidnaping from the project site in Ohaukwu as they supervised the road project.
On Tuesday, 30th Novemb, 27 days after the incident, during a security meeting organised by the state’s elder statemen led by former governor, Martin’s Elechi, the Christian Association of Nigeria among others, the Governor of Ebonyi State Dave Umahi, was quoted as saying that the suspect arrested in connection with the abduction confessed that the engineers had been “killed and buried”.
This came six days after the governor held a meeting with the wives and other family members of the missing engineers.
Umahi however, did not inform the abducted men’s family of their “death and burial” and they received the devastating news through the media.
“It has been a home for us two and life without him is meaningless,” said Patricia.
Several efforts to get through the governor
When she read the story that her husband, alongside other engineers, had been killed and buried, Patricia became depressed.
She told The ICIR that people started coming to her house to console her and the children.
As several thoughts and questions raced through her mind, she again summoned courage on December 1, 2021 to write the governor, demanding to know if indeed her husband had been killed and buried as reported in the news.
This is sequel to the letters she wrote earlier dated November 11 and 23, where she explained her ordeal and thanked him for inviting the families of the missing engineers for a briefing at the government house.
Patricia said she received a response from the Governor telling her that he was working to confirm the true position and that he had sent security operatives to the location where the said kidnap occurred. and they were attacked and four of them were killed.
“More security is coming from Abuja with trackers. I need proper information before I can say something to you. I am doing everything possible including suspending all civil servants and political office holders from there. I know how you feel but give us more time,” Umahi was quoted as saying in his response.
On December 4, Patricia sent another message to the governor suggesting an open communication with any identified contacts of the abductors and suggesting the release of suspects detained over this matter, if it became a consideration to accepting the option of ransom and the application of effective peace-making mechanisms to ensure the abductees are returned alive.
Again, in his response, the governor allegedly assured her that he was “working all options”.
Before December 25, 2021, travelling home had become a ritual for Onyemeh and his family, not only because it is a time when he gets to make merry with his family but also because it is that period of the year when he extends his hands of fellowship to members of his community who would always besiege his village home to receive gifts.
“A lot of people depend on my husband because he never stops giving. If anything happens to my husband, it is going to be a huge loss to many families, most of whom had called after we did not return for Christmas last year, “she said.
It is well over two months since she last saw her husband, Patricia fears for what her husband is passing through.
Depression stares her in the face. Like her, family members of other missing engineers are going through a lot of emotional and psychological trauma.
Esther is forced to go through pregnancy without her husband
“I’ll be back soon”. These were familiar words Samuel Aneke, 53 said to his wife as his job took him away from his family many times, and in the past, he would keep to this simple promise.
There was nothing to warn his pregnant wife Esther that this time would be different when he made the promise again on October 30 before leaving his home in Adamawa to join his colleagues for the second phase of the Abakaliki Ring Road project.
Three days after he got to Enugu, Aneke left his family house in the Enugu South Area to NELAN office – located along Abakaliki Rd, GRA, Enugu – from where he was supposed to take off with other engineers.
“When he left the house that Wednesday morning, he called me and we spoke around 8:55 in the morning and he asked after me and the children. I told him we were fine and missing him already,” she recounted.
She added that he had informed her that part of what they would be doing in Abakaliki was to check a building someone was helping them to find as they are going to be resident in the area where the road project was located.
“That was the last conversation I had with my husband till date,” Esther said, as tears welled up in her eyes.
She said it had not been easy ever since, especially for her children who have continued to ask her about their father and when he would return. She added that her world has not remained the same.
“I bear the pain alone” she said as tears trickled down her checks.
“He told me he was coming back”.
She said that although the children had become used to his absence due to the nature of his job, he never missed to call them before they go to school, when they returned home and before their bed time.
He would also spend quality time with them when he was home, putting them through subjects like Mathematics and monitoring their academic performance.
Edeani was full of life a day before he travelled to Ebonyi
It was a tensed and emotional atmosphere at the home of Earnest Edeani, as tears flowed freely down the cheeks of his wife Loveth Edeani, 40, and her four children and she picked up a picture of her husband.
According to Loveth, her husband was full of life on the night of November 2 when he returned to Enugu from Cross River where he was working.
Like his colleague Aneke, he too was often away from his family and they were happy to have him home for a whole month before the call that took him away.
“We made food that night and ate and we all slept. In the morning of Wednesday, November 3, we woke up and I prepared the children for school and when I got to my husband, I asked him if I was looking good on my sportswear, and he said it was okay,” Loveth said.
Before taking the children to school, she reminded him about where to leave the key when he left the house. He responded with a nod and that was the last conversation they had before his disappearance.
He had told her that he would be travelling to Ebonyi with other engineers for a road project.
At 1.00 pm, after they had left that Wednesday, she called his phone, but it was not connecting. At first, she though it was as a result of poor network signal at his location, but when she called again later, it was switched off.
On Thursday, November 4, after attempts to reach him failed, she became worried. She frantically searched for the phone number of his boss Onyemeh, but that number too was switched off.
“I finally got the secretary’s number and I was told they had gone missing where they went to supervise the road project. I cried endlessly and did not know what to do,” she recalled.
Now, with two months gone and no trace of her husband’s whereabout, Loveth battles depression. What is most worrying for her is that there is no idea as to where her husband is and what he is passing through.
“The day I read the story that my husband and the other engineers had been killed and buried by their abductors, I fell to the ground and other teachers in my school had to lift me up “she said.
“I thought I was going to die”.
Ever since, going to the school where she works as a teacher has been a struggle and every time her children would ask her about their father, she would tell them that he was coming back soon.
She also told The ICIR that her husband had been the one taking care of his younger ones and his aged father in the village.
“Even when my brother died, he made his own contribution towards the burial and promised to attend, but he could not “she said.
“He could not even attend his sister’s wedding”.
Every day, Loveth hopes and prays that her husband will return to her and their children because “he did not offend anybody but only went to work and earn money to cater for his family”.
Chukwuebuka’s unfulfilled promise to pay his mother’s hospital bills
Paulin Nwazulum, 58, was only recovering from an operation and had just been discharged from the hospital when her son, Stanley Chukwuebuka, 33 visited her and her husband on Sunday, October 31 in their house in Enugu.
During the visit, she told him she had hospital bills to clear and he promised to pay the bills and give her some money when he returned from Ebonyi.
‘We had been discussing about the road project for a long time and I had been praying for God to bless his work, “she said.
“When he told me that the job had finally arrived, I was happy for him”.
On Wednesday as Chukwuebuka left home in Enugu, he called his parents and told them he was on his way to NELAN office, from where he and other engineers would leave for Ebonyi. After some time, his father tried to call his phone, but it failed to connect.
“At a point, it was off and we felt it was network and even sent him text messages, but he did not reply,” Paulin said.
Later, she sent Chukwuebuka’s younger brother to his house to see if he was back home. When he got there, he was told by other tenants that Chukwuebuka left that morning and was yet to return.
Paulin became afraid and the next day, she and her husband went to NELAN office where they were told that their son had left that morning to Abakaliki with other engineers and that no one has heard from them.
“Since then, I have not been myself, I feel my world has ended because Chukwuebuka takes care of me and my husband. He promised me he was coming back to help clear my bills. Now, I don’t know what has happened to him,” a teary Paulin said.
Ifeoma chooses to stay hopeful
On the morning of November 3, as 56-year-old Ikechukwu Ejiofor’s wife Ifeoma, drove their four children to school, he was seated in the car. When they got to a bus stop close to NELAN’ office, he came down and walked in the office.
He had told his wife that he was invited by Onyemeh, the director of the firm handling the supervision of the ring road project and that they were supposed to travel together to Ebonyi that morning.
When she returned from work, she called his number to know what was happening and if they got to Ebonyi safely, but it was not connecting. At first, she thought it was network related.
“He had told me that where they were going to is a village and that there might be network issues, “she said.
At 9pm, when Ejiofor’s number failed to connect and he was yet to return, Ifeoma became apprehensive and informed Ejiofor’s elder brother, Ejiofor Angus who called and confirmed that the number was switched off. He too thought it was network service failure and encouraged Ifeoma to remain calm and go to bed.
The next morning, when Ifeoma could not bear it anymore, having called his three lines, she went to NELAN office. When she got there, she saw some of the workers standing outside the office and looking stranded. When she asked what was happening, they told her that they were yet to hear from the engineers who left for Ebonyi on Wednesday.
“I threw my bag on the ground, screaming that my husband was among the engineers, “she said.
For three weeks, Ifeoma did not travel to Anambra where she works with an NGO. She kept hoping that her husband would return home. But It is well over two months now and he is not back yet.
“If anyone ever told me that my husband will remain missing for this long, I could not have believed it “she said.
After her second son heard that his father had gone missing, he stopped eating. The principal of his school had to call his mother to come and take him home. He was always crying. As soon as she brought him home, he became sick. His other brothers became sick too.
She said it took the state government 21 days to invite her and other families to Ebonyi concerning the disappearance and that he did not inform them of any death till November 30th when he announced that they were killed and buried.
“He could not provide us with their bodies or show us where they were buried. He could not also provide traces of the car they went to work with that day. If the car was burnt, there should be traces,” she reasoned.
Oblivious of what has happened, Ejiofor’s 82-year-old-mother who is confined to a wheelchair is worried that her son has not called to check on her for many weeks now and constantly questions his whereabouts.
Every time she tries to find out why he has not called to check up on her like he always does, Angus will tell her that he went to work in a location where there is no network and that he will call as soon as he gets back.
“We would always call to check up on her in the village, but for over two months now, she has not heard from Ejiofor and she continues to wonder the kind of work he had gone to do that is not allowing him call, “Angus said.