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Kidnappers in Uganda seek $500,000 ransom for US tourist

Ugandan soldiers are hunting the gunmen, who abducted the pair around dusk on Tuesday.

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Gunmen who kidnapped an American tourist and her driver in a Ugandan national park have demanded a ransom of $500,000, police said as they launched a hunt for the perpetrators.

“The kidnappers, using the victim’s phone, have demanded $500,000. We strongly believe this ransom is the reason behind the kidnap,” said a statement from police spokeswoman Polly Namaye.

The Ugandan government in a previous statement said the kidnap happened at a national park close to the country’s border with Democratic Republic of Congo, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said early Wednesday.

Ugandan soldiers are hunting the gunmen, who abducted the pair around dusk on Tuesday.

“Four armed men, not yet identified, between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm, staged an ambush and kidnapped an American tourist with his Ugandan driver near Katoke Gate in the Queen Elizabeth National Park,” Opondo said in a statement. But in subsequent releases the gender of the American was given as a female.

“A joint operation by the Uganda police, Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and Uganda Wildlife Authority Game Wardens is underway to locate and rescue them,” Opondo added.

“The priority at this point is to locate, rescue and bring them back to safely.”

Four other tourists, who were present when the gunmen attacked but were not abducted or physically harmed, managed to raise the alarm from the lodge where they were staying.

Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of the East African nation’s most famous wildlife reserves, runs along the frontier with conflict-wracked regions of DR Congo, bordering its famous Virunga national park, Africa’s oldest national park

Numerous militia groups and armed gangs roam eastern DR Congo. Virunga suspended all tourism activities last year following the kidnapping of two British tourists. The Britons and their driver were freed two days after the attack.

Queen Elizabeth, in southwestern Uganda lies some 150 kilometres (90miles) north of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, famous among tourists for gorilla trekking.

In 1999, Rwandan rebels killed eight foreign tourists there, inflicting an enormous blow to Uganda’s  tourist industry.

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“Okada” Wars: How Nigeria’s Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes

First to launch was Gokada in 2018, pioneering an Uber-style system for two-wheeled transport

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"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes
ORide driver arrives on motorbike taxi to attend meeting at company headquaters, Ikeja in Lagos, on August 19, 2019. - A growing number of ride hailing services have stepped into the chaos -- bringing order to the "okada" motorbike taxis that have long whizzed perilously around Lagos. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Banker Yemi Adegbola used to leave his home in Lagos before 4 am each day, but would still arrive late to work because of the notorious traffic in Nigeria’s biggest city.

Now, he says he has “dumped his car” for one of a raft of new motorbike ride-hailing apps that developers hope can speed up journeys for the roughly 20 million residents of the economic capital. 

For years, the jams — known locally as “go-slows” — have been a nightmare for Lagosians. 

Potholed roads, reckless driving and too many cars have helped turn the daily commute into an ordeal that often lasts for hours. 

People miss appointments and business suffers as one of Africa’s largest markets grinds to a standstill.

"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes
Regular motorcycle taxis “okada” queue for passengers without helmet or kits for safety unlike Uber-style branded motorbike taxis in Lagos, on September 4, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

READ: Facebook to curb fake news using Yoruba and Igbo languages

Sensing an opportunity, a growing number of ride-hailing services have stepped into the chaos — bringing order to the “okada” motorbike taxis that have long whizzed perilously around Lagos.

First to launch was Gokada in 2018, pioneering an Uber-style system for two-wheeled transport that had already been successfully rolled out by firms elsewhere.

It has since been followed by other operators like Maxokada and ORide — and the competitors are looking to overtake each other with better technology, lower prices and more services.

‘Open market’ –

Before these startups, Lagosians in a hurry had to put their faith in the army of unregulated “okada” riders weaving hazardously through the traffic.

Often untrained and unfamiliar with the city, they were seen as dangerous and blamed by the police for a rise in petty crime.

The authorities clamped down and in 2012 banned the 100cc bikes from 475 roads and highways around the city.

This year, some 3,000 motorcycles were impounded and destroyed for violating the restrictions, police said.

The ride-hailing apps provide a striking difference. 

Their drivers are decked out in bibs and helmets in company colours, carry safety kits with them and have more powerful bikes that can make longer trips. 

ORide drivers park motorbike taxis to attend meeting at company headquarters, Ikeja in Lagos, on August 19, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Passengers are charged an Uber-style tariff, and no longer have to resort to haggling each time they hail a ride.

READ: MTN Nigeria launches mobile money transfer service

A traditional “okada” ride can cost between ₦50 and several hundred naira — depending on the distance, area and the mood of the driver.

New entrant, ORide kick-started its services in May and is looking to tap into the abundant opportunities with 3,000 trained drivers. 

The firm — part of the OPay online payment service — is looking to expand operations as part of a $50 million push and already works in six other cities in Nigeria.

“It’s an open market in which everybody has something to offer. There’s so much to cover in Nigeria,” Iniabasi Akpan, OPay country manager, told reporters. 

Unlike other players which allow users to hail a ride both online or on the streets, passengers can only pay via the OPay app, developed by Norway’s Opera Software.

The firm has comprehensive insurance that covers both riders and passengers and secures its drivers with asset financing contracts that ensure they pay back the cost of their new bikes in 18 months.

Bumps in the road –

Overall, the two-wheeler taxi market is forecast to reach $9 billion worldwide by 2021, according to India-based Tech Sci. 

But it has not been all smooth riding since the apps launched.

Accidents remain unavoidable in the confusion of Nigeria’s roads, online apps have faltered, drivers have looked to inflate fares and corrupt officials still prey on road-users. 

Gokada in May announced over $5 million in new funding and said it hoped to branch out into other forms of transport and eventually push outside Nigeria.

"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes

But last month, the firm shut down for two weeks after its chief executive, Fahim Saleh encountered some of the navigational problems when a short journey ended up taking much longer. 

The driver he ordered took 15 minutes to pick him up, admitted he wasn’t using GPS and then set off on a circuitous route to the destination.   

READ: Sierra Leone to launch National blockchain Identification system

“How could I be the CEO of Gokada, the company that pioneered motorcycle ride-hailing in Nigeria and be experiencing this?” Saleh wrote in an online post. 

“I told the pilot to pull over to the side of the road, I would hop over the median and wait for an Uber. ‘This is what it has come to,’ I thought.”

The disappointment chimed with the gripes of some Nigerian users who have complained of navigation problems while using the various apps and accuse drivers of deliberately taking longer routes to increase fares.

Firms have sought ways around the issues.

Gokada re-launched its 2.0 service with a fresh fleet of bikes after giving drivers more training and incorporating features like helmets with inbuilt mobile headsets.

ORide has a monitoring unit set up to track its drivers. 

Despite the bumps in the road, riders told reporters the apps were helping them bolster their business and offering a key lifeline.

"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes
Opay workers sit to monitor riders in the field at the company’s control room, Ikeja in Lagos, on August 30, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

“This scheme has taken many out of poverty by creating jobs,” ORide driver Johnson Onipede told reporters, sitting on his light green bike as he waited for his next ride.

Onipede said his main headache remained one familiar to all Lagosians — venal local thieves.

He said riders needed help getting small gangs of thugs, known as “agberos” or “area boys”, to stop their extortion and harassment.

“Both the government and company should help us to stop the agberos and area boys because they are making life unbearable for us.”

READ: The brain behind West Africa’s premier smart card manufacturers

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Like Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s “pathetic” health system loses reputation

The public health system has steadily deteriorated, whereas before, people came from overseas to be treated in Zimbabwe

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Like Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's "pathetic" health system loses reputation
A visitor carries a stuffed doll for a patient at Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare September 9, 2019. - For Zimbabwe's doctors, few institutions reflect their country's decay under Robert Mugabe than the once-vaunted public hospitals, now deteriorated, under-equipt and failing. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

For Zimbabwe’s doctors, few institutions reflect their country’s decay under Robert Mugabe than their public hospitals, once vaunted but now under-equipped and crumbling.

Latex gloves serve as urine bags, operating rooms lack light bulbs and patients are often required to refuel their own ambulances, medics say.

Mugabe, who died last week in Singapore at age 95, may have swept to power as a liberation hero, but his rule was marked by economic collapse that left his people scrambling to survive.  

Zimbabwean doctors note the symbolism of Mugabe seeking treatment 8,000 kilometres from home in Singapore’s gleaming Gleneagles clinic, where the cheapest suite costs around US$850 a day.

“It is very symbolic that the former president who presided over all the system for three decades can’t trust the health system,” said Edgar Munatsi, a doctor at Chitungwiza, 30 kilometres from the capital Harare. 

“It says a lot about the current state of our health system.”

Mugabe’s death has left many debating the legacy of a man who ended white minority rule and was initially lauded for advances in public health and education.

In his nearly four-decade rule, Mugabe later brutally repressed opponents and oversaw a catastrophic mismanagement of the economy that led to hyper-inflation, food shortages and misery.

Mugabe was not alone in seeking overseas care. Current Vice President Constantino Chiwenga is away for several weeks of treatment in China.

Like Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's "pathetic" health system loses reputation
A visitor carries a stuffed doll for a patient at Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare September 9, 2019. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

It is not hard to see why.

In Chitungwiza hospital, a glowing sign promising “Quality Health” welcomes patients, but conditions inside say otherwise: Operations are often cancelled for lack of anaesthetic, Munatsi says.

The hospital recently issued an internal memo warning its poorly-paid staff against “eating food made for patients.”

Two-decade crisis –

The situation is equally dramatic in paediatrics at Harare Central Hospital, one of Zimbabwe’s top clinics. Cleaning is done only twice a week, for lack of staff and detergents, doctors told reporters. 

The operations are often postponed for lack of running water and nursing staff, in a country mired for two decades in economic crisis.

“In theatre, we have linen full of blood and faeces and you can’t do the laundry,” said one doctor.

He requested anonymity, like many of his colleagues, for fear of reprisals from President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.

Only one of three paediatric operating rooms at the central hospital is working.

“We have a four-year waiting list for inguinal hernias, the most common condition in children,” says one of the specialists.

Without treatment, this hernia can cause male infertility.

Drug shortages, obsolete equipment and lack of staff: the mix is sometimes deadly.

“It is heart-breaking when you lose patients who are not supposed to die under normal circumstances,” Munatsi said.

‘Pathetic’ –

Since the early 1990s, the public health system has steadily deteriorated, whereas before, people came from overseas to be treated in Zimbabwe, recalls one senior doctor.

That is a legacy of the Mugabe years as the country was tipped into endless economic crisis  — three-digit inflation, currency devaluations, and shortages of commodities.

Like Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's "pathetic" health system loses reputation
A patient carrying her drip walks assisted by a relative along a corridor inside Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare September 9, 2019. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

In hospitals, patients and loved ones who experience the situation daily, are resigned.

“It’s pathetic,” says Saratiel Marandani, a 49-year-old street vendor who had to buy a dressing for his mother. 

Given her age, she should receive free health care. But the reality is starkly different.

“Only the consultations are free (…) if you need paracetamol, you need to buy it yourself.”

His mother will have to do without the ultrasound she needs. At 1,000 Zimbabwean dollars or 100 euros, it’s beyond his reach.

Doctors say they sometimes have to pay out of their own pocket for patients’ medication, or even just their bus ticket home. 

At Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, Lindiwe Banda lays prostrate on her bed. A diabetic, she was given the green light to go home. But on condition she paid her bill.

“But I do not even have five Zimbabwean dollars (less than one euro) to pay for the transport,” she said in tears. 

“I can’t reach my relatives. I think they have dumped me. They don’t have money, but they should show some love”.

If hospitals and patients are penniless, doctors too cannot escape Zimbabwe’s ruin.

Like Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's "pathetic" health system loses reputation
Dr Peter Magombeyi poses as he answers to an interview, in Chitungwiza, 26km south-east of Harare, on September 8, 2019. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

Medics have just begun their latest protest to demand a pay rise after salaries lost 15 times their value in a few months and consumer prices spiralled out of control.

“We are incapacitated,” says Peter Magombeyi, a doctor whose salary is the equivalent of 115 euros a month — a pittance that requires him to do odd jobs to get by.

“We are very aware” of the problems, says Prosper Chonzi, the director of health services in Harare.

“The health system reflects the economy of the country.”

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This Nigerian chess club is helping slum kids checkmate hopelessness

The goal of the club is to provide a space to play and learn the game for the young inhabitants of the slum

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This Nigerian chess club is helping slum kids checkmate hopelessness
Chess consultant and player Tunde Onakoya (C) displays a copy of a chess magazine showing a photograph of world Chess champion Magnus Carlson during a tutorial with children at Ogolonto in Ikorodu district of Lagos on August 17, 2019. -In front of chess boards in Lagos, children are busy, concentrating. They are thinking about the next move they will make, as part of a project that is supposed to bring hope to a slum in Nigeria's megapolis. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Crowds of children bustle around chessboards in Nigeria’s Lagos, figuring out their next moves as part of a project aimed at bringing hope in one of the city’s impoverished slums.

Dozens of matches are played simultaneously as participants, as young as three, master a game often considered out of reach for the masses in Africa’s most populous country.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” 24-year-old teacher Tunde Onakoya tells his young charges after getting their attention.

“But it’s how you respond that makes you a champion. Don’t get down when you lose, don’t feel like you can’t do it, just concentrate and do your best.”

Seasoned player Onakoya started the Chess in Slums project last September in the sprawling neighbourhood of Ikorodu, a place where residents often feel cut off from the bustle and business of the vibrant megacity around it. 

The goal of the club is to provide a space to play and learn the game for the young inhabitants of the slum, many of whom are not in school and work to support their families.

This Nigerian chess club is helping slum kids checkmate hopelessness
Children sit under a canopy as they play during a chess class at Ogolonto in Ikorodu district of Lagos on August 17, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Held beneath a makeshift tent in the courtyard of a local bar, in less than a year, the programme has already drawn an enthusiastic following. 

As elderly men sip beer and watch football nearby, a dozen volunteers divide the pupils into groups.  

While some turn their figures into battling action heroes, most are focused and intent on winning.

The youngest children sing rhymes about chess to help them master the rules, as the older ones settle down into intense games. 

They use mobile phone apps to time their moves and record the matches in notepads to review their mistakes and successes later. 

“I want to be a Grandmaster,” one of the children tells reporters, laughing.

‘Food for your brain’ –

Chess — a board game famous for its reliance on strategy — has a tiny but avid following in Nigeria.

The country ranks 88th out of 186 countries, according to the FIDE World Chess Federation’s rating of top players across the globe, but still does not have any Grandmasters.

This Nigerian chess club is helping slum kids checkmate hopelessness
Children raise their hands during a tutorial in a chess class under a canopy at Ogolonto in Ikorodu district of Lagos on August 17, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Other board games are more popular.

Nigeria is a superpower in Scrabble, winning multiple championships and boasting 29 of the top 100 players in the world, more than any other country.

Onakoya says that chess has lagged behind in part due to an image problem.

“There’s this perception of it as being a really difficult game, not as accessible, like for people of a different class,” he says.

Onakoya took chess in primary school and works with private schools as a consultant to add it to their curricula.

“I believe in the game because it helps your cognition, your creativity, your focus. It’s like food for your brain,” he said. 

Last year, he started the club in Ikorodu specifically to reach disadvantaged children.

“Ikorodu is the kind of place where there’s a lot of troubles and poverty. It is a tough place to get to, if you tell someone to come to Ikorodu they will laugh,” he says.

“I felt it would be powerful to help children here because many of them are really talented. If they could master a game that people wouldn’t expect them to even know, it could really show them their potential and give them confidence.”

School sponsorship –

The club already boasts several success stories. 

Ten-year-old Odunayo Olukoya joined Chess in Slums in January. Four months later, she came first in the national chess championship for her age group. 

For Jamiu Ninilowo, 14, taking part has also been transformative. 

The skinny boy worked as a mechanic fixing cars at a garage in Ikorodu instead of attending school. 

He had to earn money for his family after his mother’s leg was mangled in an accident as she picked scrap at a local refuse site to sell on for a meagre profit.

In February, Ninilowo joined the club and is now its best player. 

This Nigerian chess club is helping slum kids checkmate hopelessness
Fourteen-year-old mechanic Jamiu Ninilowo holds a medal he won following a chess tournament at Ogolonto in Ikorodu district of Lagos, on August 17, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

After he won a tournament in April, an impressed donor partnered with Chess in Slums to pay for his secondary education.

“Chess is helping me to be a mechanical engineer by sending me to school,” he tells reporters, proudly wearing the medal he won.

The attention that the project has generated has helped shine a spotlight on more of these marginalised children.

Videos of the budding chess masters shared on Instagram also showcase some of their other talents that have often been overlooked in the struggle to survive. 

One 11-year-old boy even got mentorship from a leading Nigerian architect after he was seen building models out of cardboard. 

“At first, it was about teaching the kids a game that can impact the way they think and boost their confidence, but actually it’s become much more. It’s become a gateway to other opportunities,” says Onakoya.

“It is helping us show them that their lives can go far beyond Ikorodu.”

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