By Emmanuel Nduka and Ebi Kesiena
More than five weeks after the disappearance of five construction engineers of NELAN Consultants who were in Ebonyi State, south east Nigeria to supervise the Abakiliki Ring Road Project, details of their fate remain sketchy, even as family members have alleged that the Ebonyi State Government remains complacent in the matter.
The engineers were deployed from neighbouring Enugu State on November 3 to the road project at Effium community in Ohaukwu Local Government Area of the state, in continuation of routine supervisory work. Since then, family members and friends have not heard from them.
The Abakiliki Ring Road project is worth $150million, and is funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB). The five NELAN engineers were contracted by the Bank to supervise the project.
With the real truth of the matter still hanging in doubts, NELAN says it believes that the disappearance of its contractors is not unconnected to the differences the contractors had with Governor Dave Umahi. The contractors, reportedly refused to yield to the schemes of the Governor, which they say amounted to interference and threat
Benjamin Ezeagwu, Co-Partner, NELAN Consultants, told Arise news that “The governor was insisting that he would be instructing the contractors on what to do on site and that they would be issuing payments to the contractors on site. The Team Leader, engr Nelson Onyemeh pointed out to the Governor, specific provisions of the contract that stipulates that it is the duty of the consultants to issue instructions to the contractors and to prepare and sign their certificate.
“The Governor said that NELAN should return and relinquish the project vehicle which as per the contract, is supposed to be used by the contractors. But due to the government’s hounding of NELAN, NELAN had to give up one of the vehicles and was using just one.
“The governor insisted that the one that they were using should be dropped as well. Engr Onyema was like, ‘if I drop this vehicle what do I continue the work with?’ So that was where the series of problems started and the governor said he was very stubborn and all that”.
He added that: “So when all this things started happening, we became very uncomfortable, the way the governor was pressuring us into doing their bid contrary to the provisions of the contract.
“For instance, he said project meetings should be held in Government House and engr Onyemeh told him that this will amount to interference. Engr Onyemeh specifically explained to him that project meetings are held in project offices, and that if minutes of meeting are raised and it shows that the governor was there and that it was held in the government house, he would incur the wrath of AfDB”.
The area in which the project is situated, according to the police, has been riddled with communal clashes. The police, as well as the governor have blamed the engineers, stating that the engineers were aware of how volatile the community, and still did not seek clearance from the police before proceeding to work.
Patricia Onyemeh, wife of the lead Engineer, earlier informed that family members were called for a meeting by the governor, who assured them that his government was making efforts at ensuring that the missing persons are rescued. But days after the meeting at a security summit, she said the governor reportedly announced their death and subsequent burial.
“I heard over the news that the missing engineers are dead and buried and no member of my family was contacted. I have been in touch with the governor, nobody contacted us. I was in shock and pain. My children also heard it over the social media, because of this, I contacted the governor again to get a confirmation. On December 1, he retracted what he said,” he said.
Her son, Obinna Onyemeh, said, “We were informed that they were not supposed to go there, if they were to go there they should have informed him (the governor) before going, so that he would have provided security. This is a place they have been visiting for over one year without any problem why now”.
While the AfDB has admitted that it is aware of the disappearance of the engineers, it has refused to speak any further on the matter, even as members of the family are seeking justice. They have demanded the engineers be produced, whether dead or alive.
Again, is NELAN’s consultancy role in the AfDB project a determinant factor on how and when the project funds are disbursed?
Even so, the $150million contract sum is huge enough to cause the troubles, up to the extent that many parties may be interested in cutting their undue shares, hence the corrupt tendency to abduct and kill. Thus, the engineers may have abducted only to make them incapable of executing their supervisory contract, while their preferred candidate company takes over.
The Governor’s Efforts So Far
Governor Umahi at a Security Summit organized by the state’s Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and founding fathers, announced the immediate suspension of all civil servants from the conflict-torn Effium community.
He alleged that the perpetrators of the dastardly acts in the area were funded from both within and outside the state.
“The coordinators of the two Local Government Development centers from the area are removed from office while salaries of permanent secretaries from the area have been suspended.
“I will approach the state House of Assembly on the way forward concerning the chairman of the council and the two assembly members from the area,” he said.
According to Umahi, political office holders could not be receiving salaries, and go into sponsoring killings and destruction of people’s property.
Umahi’s remarks indicated that the five had been killed as reported by family members.
“These workers who knew nothing about the conflict were on that site to help the state actualise the road project.
“The suspects arrested over the incident have confessed that the workers have been killed and buried and we sought to know the location of burial to pacify the victims’ families.
“The police team which visited the area for investigation were ambushed and two offlcers have been reported missing or killed,” he said.
Ezeagwu in a complaint letter written by the firm’s lawyer, Mr Tagbo Ike of Ike and Associates to the Inspector General of Police, Usman Baba, and made available to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), said the victims had travelled from Enugu to Effium with the project vehicle, Toyota Hilux with registration number ERR 001 EB and had arrived Effium about 2pm ahead of the scheduled meeting.
“On arrival, the team called Okeh and announced their arrival at the site to him.
“The call put to Okeh was the last heard from them till date and spirited effort made by the firm, families and friends of the victims yielded no fruit as their respective phones remained switched off.
“No word has been heard of them till date and the vehicle they travelled with has not been seen anywhere,” Ezeagwu said.
He listed their names as Nelson Onyemeh, Stanley Nwazulum, Ernest Edeani, IK Ejiofor and Samuel Aneke.