Twenty-nine-year-old James Udobong, an Akwa Ibom State indigene, had always nursed a dream all his entire life – becoming a footballer for Nigeria’s national team.
After training as hard as he could in 2003, Udobong found his way to Abuja, to participate in an Under-17 trial. His hopes were high, his energy feverish, but he was dealt a soul-crushing blow.
Udobong was not picked. And so ended his hope of ever becoming a football star.
To survive, he was repairing phones at Wuse Market but soon, he could no longer pay his shop rent, according to claims.
Thus started Udobong’s journey to the criminal world of phone robbery.
He was one of many other robbery, kidnapping and fraud suspects rounded up by the Abba Kyari-led Inspector-General of Police Response Team, recently in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, for terrorising the residents.
Udobong said after he could no longer make ends meet, one of his friends suggested that he followed him to Transcorp Hilton and other five star hotels in Abuja, where they could target customers who were drunk in order to steal their phones.
He said, “My friend also taught me how to place orders online for expensive mobile phones. We tell the dealers that we were buying the phones on behalf of a prominent politician lodged in any of the five-star hotels we choose to use.
“When the dealer makes delivery, we take him to a floor of the hotel and take the phones inside a door under the guise of delivering it to the politician but the dealer wouldn’t know that door leads through a staircase downstairs.
“Usually, after taking the phone, I jump inside a waiting taxi in the ground floor and leave the hotel. But in my last operation, I brought the dealer to Transcorp and asked him to wait outside the room in order to show the phone to my principal. I got into a lift and went to the ground floor. But I was arrested by waiting security men at the hotel.”
Udobong was handed over to the police who recovered all the phones he stole from the dealer – iPhone, Infinix Note, two tablets and two Samsung Galaxy phones.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that the IRT had been trailing the suspect after several complaints by victims prompted the police to put hotels on alert.
Other suspects recently arrested by the IRT are Benedict Otanwa, Sunday Okopi, Monday Ijiga, Christian Akanaga, James Udobong, Abba Ayuba and Aliyu Abdulganiu. They were all arrested in separate operations in Abuja, Niger, Nassarawa and Kogi states.
One of the suspects, Akanaga, is said to be a banker arrested for allegedly defrauding another banker based in Akwa Ibom State of N140m in a forex deal.
The police said Akanaga allegedly swindled the banker under the guise of selling the dollar equivalent of the said sum to him but he eventually diverted the money for his own personal use. He was accused of defrauding many other suspects in the same fashion.
Otanwa, Okopi and Ijiga, all natives of Benue State were arrested by the IRT in Nasarawa State for carrying out several robberies.
A source stated that the gang robbed a popular pharmacy and snatched a Toyota Sienna in Yanyan, Nasarawa State.
Otanwa, 26, a resident of New Yanyan area of Nasarawa, said he was an engineer with a company that got contract in Abuja until he was sacked.
According to him, the company he worked with lost all its contracts when the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan came to power.
He said, “I was married but I could not even provide for my family until I met someone called IG. I told him about my problems and he gave me some money. After a while, he introduced me to three other friends of his – Oteh, Sunday and Monday Ijiga. He showed us a pharmacy and said we should rob it. On our way, we saw a Toyota Sienna. IG and Oteh had guns on them and they snatched it from its owner. After we sold off the car, I was given N5,000.”
Ijiga, 27, in his statement said he joined the gang in May 2016 when he searched for a job in vain. According to him, the last operation was his third with the gang.
Meanwhile, a retired soldier-turned car dealer, 39-year-old Salisu Bello, was also arrested for stealing cars.
He allegedly enriched himself by diverting used cars he was contracted to deliver to their owners and selling them off.
Bello had reportedly been arrested in the past for the same crime.
But in April 2016, he allegedly ran away with a car valued at N5m belonging to a Yoruba monarch. After the case was reported, he was trailed to a remote village in Niger State where he was arrested.
He said in his statement, “I was enlisted into the Nigeria Army on January 15, 1996 and retired in November 2012 after I sustained an injury in Operation Lafia Dole in Borno State.
“I stepped on a mine in the forest and from there, I sustained serious injuries that made me quit the army. After my retirement, I became a car dealer and I usually buy cars from Benin Republic for sale in Nigeria.
But last year, I ran into trouble. Someone gave me money to buy him a car and when I got to Benin Republic, I was drugged and the money was stolen. I called the police in that country to assist me to trace those who stole my money but they could not.
“I sold the monarch’s car for N3m in order to use part of the money to settle my debt.”
Also paraded was Abdulganiu, a Kogi State indigene arrested for taking part in the kidnap of a 70-year–old man. The victim was only released after his family paid a N2m ransom.
The 26-year-old father of four denied being a member of the gang who kidnapped the septuagenarian, but said he was recruited by the gang leader, one Don Jee, to negotiate ransom with the victim’s family.
He said, “I am not a kidnapper, I am a secondary school teacher. The leader of the kidnap gang, Don Jee, approached me and asked me to help him speak with the man’s son because he could not speak English.
“After he was kidnapped and the ransom was paid, I was given N150,000 from the ransom.”
All the suspects are currently being detained at the Force Headquarters, Abuja. The police said they would be charged to court as soon as investigation was complete.