By SamÂ Uzo Nwankwo
For the second year running I have been warned by my kinsmen not to dare come home for Christmas. My family would be easy prey for prowling kidnappers. Now for a rural â€œboyâ€ like me, this is nothing short ofÂ tragic. A calamityÂ of unimaginable proportions.Â No matter what I may be today, I am essentially a village man at heart.
Prior to my beingÂ plucked out, the village was myÂ entire universe. It was there that the first bonds of my life were formed: where my peers and I attended the village primary school, hunted for rabbits, fetched firewood from the farm,Â trekked to the stream to fetch water, set traps that never seemed to catch anything,Â shot at birds which were always too smart for our catapults,Â took our vengeance onÂ the lizards which were not as smart.
In that process eternal bonds were formed with the land and with my peers, countless uncles, Â aunties and cousins. Bonds which have ever since kept bringing me back to my village, the land of my birth.
As an adult today, I have attended some of the best schools in this world, Â Achimota College in Ghana, Imperial College in the U.K., Â been to some of the most exotic cities in this world, and can therefore be considered as a man of the world, comfortable with â€œcivilizationâ€ and everything that modern living or technology has to offer. Yet there is no place in this whole wide world that gives meÂ as much joy and relaxation as time spent in my village.
Where else can I slip into my pair of shorts and slippers and joyfully trek around, from one homestead to another, renewing acquaintances and exchanging greetings amidst raucous laughter? Where else can I sit with those my peers of yore , now members of my age grade, reminiscing about our past adventures, exchanging endless banters amidst endless bottles of drinks? Where indeed, would I happily accept that all my learning and engineering expertise count for nothing and has not made me anything special before my peers, some of who may be stark illiterates ?
In whose company would I revel despite the fact that they feel they have theÂ natural license to direct anyÂ type of insult at me and I would joyfully join in the ensuing laughter ? Â ”â€¦..see your huge eyes almost popping out of your headâ€¦..is it not because you have refused to respect me ? Give me another drink,Â anu ohia â€¦. !!â€œ
In most parts of the world, the standard reaction to kidnapping is to REFUSE TO PAY RANSOM. The reason is simple. Once you give in , there will be no end to it. You create an industry. The initial decision mayÂ prove painful and difficult and may even lead to a loss of life if the kidnapper is a truly vicious type.Â But you mustÂ stick to the principle of paying no ransom because you are saving tomorrowâ€™s potential victims.Â Once you resolutely show thatÂ you will not yield to such pressure, the criminal looks for other means.
It was for this reason that kidnapping and hijacking fizzled out as a tool for pursuing the Palestinian cause in the 1970s and 1980s. On October 7 , 1985 PalestinianÂ fighters seized an Italian cruise ship in Egyptian waters and demanded the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners by Israel. They were ignored. To prove their determination they shot and killed a 69-year old , wheel-chair bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, and pushed him overboard.
After a 2-day stalemate, Egypt (not yet aware of the murder of Klinghoffer) offered the hijackers a safe passage in exchange for the release of the ship and itsÂ passengers. The terrorists were already airborne when the world learnt of this killing and quickly, U.S. navy F14 fighters scrambled and forced their plane to land in Sicily, Italy, where they were tried, convicted and given long prison sentences.
More recently, on September 1, 2004, Chenchen separatist fighters led by Shamil Basayev seized 1100 hostages, including 777 school children,Â in a Beslan school and demanded that Russia ends the second Chechen war. Russia refused to yield and instead mounted a rescue operation that proved catastrophic .
When therefore the first white oil worker was kidnapped in the creeks of the Niger Delta the simple (even if painful) response from President Obasanjoâ€™s government should have gone thus: â€œSorry, Mr. Militant, we do not pay ransom. If this resolute stand had been taken I am convinced that even the home country of the victim ( which , no doubt was mounting pressure on our government) would perfectly understand this principled stand in private.
This is because , in a similar situation, they would do exactly the same. But what did our government do ? They quickly and secretly organized a ransom package for the brigands through the state government to get the hostage freed. They then came out in the open to announce to us all that no ransom was paid !Â But who were they deceiving? Those who were paid knew they had been paid. So did their friends whoÂ saw them suddenly swimming in unimaginable wealth.
THUS WAS BORN THE KIDNAP FOR RANSOM INDUSTRY IN THE NIGER DELTA, MIDWIFED BY A VISIONLESS, LILY-LIVERED GOVERNMENT BEREFT OF THEÂ LEAST IDEA OF HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY MANAGE A CRISIS.
When theÂ hoodlums ran out of whites to kidnap it was only natural that they should start picking rich Nigerians and their children. After all, the kidnapping business was just too lucrative to give up simply because all the whites had fled the creeks. The industry spread to other parts of the south, particularly Igbo land.
From Abia to Anambra the new business took off with a vengeance. In short order we overtook the Niger Deltans in both the frequency and viciousness of the trade.Â But it seems that Ngwaland, where I come from , had been voted the headquarters of these marauders !!
This is how we arrived at the point today where it would be foolhardy for me or indeed any â€œelite â€œ from my area , to go to my beloved village and spend even ONE night.Â Against the vehement protestations of my wife I decided I just had to visit my village in November 2009. So many issues needing personal intervention.
AfterÂ more than a week of constant debate (where will I get money to pay kidnappersâ€¦. you want to kill me before my time!) , I managed to wear down the opposition but she insisted on setting the ground rules : Â You do not go in any of the family cars.
You do not inform anyone of your trip. Â You most certainly do not spend the night !! Â As early as 6.30 am on Saturday 28 November, 2009, I chartered a nondescript taxi from Enugu and, like a spy from an enemy territory, with a bowler hat partially obscuring my face,Â I embarked on SECRET trip to my own home town !!Â I tell you, JamesÂ Bond would have been proud of me !
On arrival I made a detour to pick a young chap from another part of the village whom I wanted to execute some long delayed assignments for me.
Very surprised to see me, his first words to me were â€œ De, I hope you are not spending the night ?â€ Â He then proceeded to narrate how, just the previous night, kidnappers had come to the palace of our traditional ruler and shot dead THREE of his guards outside his gate.
Even though no attempt had been made to gain entry and take the Eze, it was widely interpreted as a warning to the Eze who, I was told, had been working hard to set up a security network to foil the incessant cases of kidnapping raging throughout the community and indeed all the surrounding local governments. In fact I spent a total of just four hours, discharging the duties that brought me, after which I fled !
The anarchy that is reigning in Igboland in general and Ngwaland in particular is frightening and yetÂ no level of government- local, state or federal- seems to beÂ concerned.Â Not only have all people of means stopped going home, they have had to evacuate their parents and other loved ones as well because these people also became targets.
If you live in the US or any part of Europe and your aged parents are at home they can be used to extort the millions you are supposed to have accumulated abroad.Â I have a kinsman who lives in the US and whose mother is so old she can hardly stand on her own.Â She had to be hurriedly hustled out of the village when my maternal uncle whose daughter lives in the US was kidnapped for ransom.
Another uncle of mine whose son is a professor in the US quickly relocated to a far-away city with his wife,Â leaving his other son at home to look after the family home .
In short order, the son at home started receiving threatening text messages to the effect that if he thought he was being clever by removing his parents from their reach, he was deceiving himself. When they seize him they said, his parents will be forced to resurface . Naturally, the son also fled , abandoning the entire homestead !
A very rich and retired oil worker in my village refused to leave the village despite all the mayhem surrounding him. Then one night they came for him. But he and his household were prepared for them.
The gun battle that ensued was such that drove many families into the bush that night. Bullets were raining in the neighbourhood as if an ammunition dump had been accidentally set on fire.
According to them, not since the Biafran war had they experienced such a ferocious battle front.Â Dynamites and grenades were used on his massive gates, to no avail,Â but the marauders would not give in.Â Eventually they scaled the high fence and,Â shouting that no one would be harmed as long as none of their members was killed,Â the man and his household stopped shooting and surrendered. They whisked him away.
The purpose of these narratives is to illustrate the state of lawlessness pervading not just in my home town but in most parts of Igboland today. Kidnapping is now a daily occurrence in this part of Nigeria even though it is only the ones involving prominent people that get into the news.
And there are victims of every grade. There are N50,000.00 ransom victims just as there are N10million ones. We allÂ thought we knew just how badÂ our police force was until a former Inspector General recently confessed in an interview that there are only two ways the Nigerian police could solve a crime : either the criminal is caught red-handed or he confesses !!
Mark zero for preventive policing. Mark zero for forensic investigations. How much hope can anyone repose in such a â€œpolice â€œ force ?Â Ours seems to be all Force on hapless, innocent citizens. Anarchy reigns supreme while those ostriches in Abuja bury their snouts in the National Chop Box.
They probably think it does not concern them, surrounded as they are by the paraphernalia of power. But I have news for them.Â This is how Somalia started. Since 1991, that blighted country has not known a stable central government with central authority.
Everybody with an AK-47 is a law unto himself. A veritable jungle where survival is only for the fittest. The build up to that mayhem was not too different from what we are seeing today in many parts of Nigeria.Â Â Siad Barre was happily ensconced in his palatial surroundings in Mogadishu until the thunder of lawlessness from the countryside engulfed him.
The Federal Government should wake up today and tackle the anarchy that is reigning in the South East. It is not enough to crow about an amnesty in the Niger Delta while a substantial part of the country is slowly burning and dying from lawlessness. Just because our own troubles are not affecting oil exploration does not mean we should be abandoned to perish. PLEASE NIGERIA, GIVE MY VILLAGE BACK TO MEÂ !!
Uzo Nwankwo is an Enugu-based chartered Civil/Structural Engineer