By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
The presumption that has sustained kidnapping, that abductions are invariably followed by ransoms, must be falsified. The evil business can’t remain lucrative.It has been all too easy for kidnappers. Ransoms are routinely delivered. But what options do terrified and traumatized families and friends of victims really have? The final solution may lie in a collective determination not to accede to ransoms.
But such a resolve must be inculcated in the public by the government and must be nurtured and groomed by the existence of a very visible, efficient, elite, intervention force that can summon submission and trust from affected families.
Such an agency must inspire the sort of confidence that would enable an affected family rely on it without running the risk of a moral crisis and without the inevitability of intra family recriminations that would follow a botched operation.
Such an elite arm of the police must have the institutional capacity to relieve a caring and dutiful husband of all feelings of irresponsibility and guilt his refusal to ransom a wife in deference to the authority and judgment of the agency would ordinarily provoke. An agency whose decisions and actions would , in those circumstances , be considered the best moral alternative.
If the refusal to co-operate with kidnappers does not translate to inexorable death for victims then the public can buy into such potentially perilous obduracy. Any conscientious refusal to pay a ransom one can afford , would test one’s love for the victim and one’s moral convictions about the superiority of the seemingly more abstract general good. The calculations in the heat of the confusion and chaos will always be partly transactional.
How isn’t a wife’s life more valuable than money and property? And why risk such a loss in pursuit of lifeless ideals? Calling the bluff of kidnappers won’t be an easy decision. But morality demands the subjugation of the self to the collective and calls for great personal sacrifice in furtherance of the greater communal good.
Tortured by the anguish in the deathly cries of the hostage, repeatedly served them by the kidnappers to lend peremptoriness to the already sufficiently macabre negotiations, harrowed relatives can hardly think. All the aces are held by those whose demonic interests are served not by pity but by cruel unpredictability and nerve racking flightiness. Affected families are always left limp, prostrate with shock and dread, lost.
Elsewhere professionals do the negotiations but in Nigeria where the police haven’t quite earned trust, and are embraced by even the helpless with a degree of residual suspicion, families often cower to threats and keep the police away from negotiations . And widespread distrust for the police, while not altogether irrational, really helps no one because all that will be left is the servicing of every whim of the abductors.
A man was abducted some days ago somewhere in Lagos, his family has reportedly, with trepidation and apologies, tendered 100 million naira cash to the kidnappers who have collected the deposit , expressed their displeasure at its meagerness and held onto the captive.
But for how long would the kidnapper collect his ransom and walk away unperturbed? How would commercial kidnapping cease if the police are content with just the safe return of victims which they would rather have reported as rescues? Yes, Olu Falae was supposed to have been rescued until the family ,recovering from grief ,set the records straight. Ransom and not the police secured the elder statesman’s release.
And why are the police seemingly always unaware of any ransoms paid? In the Falae case, cattle rearers, got away with him , on foot, and got away with their ransom. Don’t ask me how? Such a high profile case, same opacity, same elusiveness, same surreality.
It is true this tragedy once approached monstrous proportions between 2008 and 2013. While it can be said to have been contained, the residuum and its flares have managed to keep millions chronically anxious. The terror lies in its randomness, in the apprehension of the severity of the brutality meted to victims and that 10 percent chance of horrible death in the booth of a car or in a forest, bloated and forgotten, to be ripped by vultures and stray dogs.
What started as part of the struggle for resource control in Niger Delta later gradually degenerated and spread until that epochal siege by kidnappers on Aba. Aba is one of the biggest centers of commerce in the country. When the original preys, foreign oil workers , abandoned the Niger delta, the large appetite of militants had to be serviced by what was once considered cannibalism. Fellow citizens, black and thick nosed, became meat, edible .
Port Harcourt was ravaged, foreign businesses migrated and the garden city became a desolate country. I inspected a property on sale in Port Harcourt in 2008. The children’s toys, the ward robes replete with suits and gowns , the artworks abandoned on the walls and suit cases left half filled and half closed, told a tale of a certain expatriate family and their hurried, impromptu flight.
When I was told by the real estate agent that the house was going with , not just the furniture but with, all, including the note books of nursery school children, sorrow descended and I walked away. With the amnesty programme and Gov Amaechi’s industry, Port Harcourt was reclaimed, the militants were positively engaged, deterrence was made robust by effective policing. A specially trained police squad was visible and active.
Unfortunately some of those who had made livelihood out of militancy came to realize that they weren’t qualified for the amnesty largesse and they went back to the south east with their criminal expertise, large appetite, vengeance and greed. After a year of unchecked nuisance, everyone perceived wealthy or associated even remotely with wealth fled the rural areas in Igbo land.
Commercial motorcycle riders who once , sadistically, rent the tranquility of rural communities with ululations whenever a big man was ‘carried’, when kidnapping appeared to be a leveler, later became veritable targets . Gangs sprouted and mushroomed faster than ‘achara’ weeds and were forced by competition and scarcity to negotiate and accept ransoms sometimes below ten thousand naira.
A man was once taken off his ‘okada’ and beaten silly for days and released. The poor one had no one to negotiate let alone pay for his release. He had depleted the resources of the kidnappers by a few packets of noodles. But it was in Aba that the depths of savagery was plumbed. At its peak , Aba folded, crumpled. The residents, hemmed in by fear that walked the streets for weeks, ran out of everything , particularly hope, and ran away.
They scampered out, and scurried to the already infested but less hostile rural areas. The once vibrant city, the symbol of strength and doggedness, the enyimba city, fled to live another day. When bullion vans needed to be clothed and only helicopters could move cash in and out of Aba, defiance remained a virtue.
But when busloads of school children became targets , all pretentions to courage and stoicism were discarded and the doomed town fled. ‘Osisikankwu’, a notorious veteran of the early Niger Delta militancy ran a brutal but sophisticated operation and used a whole village as operational base. Many lost their lives, many lost their livelihoods, the politicians waffled , fumbled and fiddled. We must always remember.
The JTF came, thank God for our army, and restored order in Aba and Abia state and some kidnappers who escaped the military dragnet retreated into the villages in the other southeast states. Kidnapping has damaged some of the social chords that bind the Igbo nation.
‘August meeting’, that lofty tradition that brings women from the cities home to bond with those in the village for two weeks every August , to hold strategy sessions on women empowerment and betterment of Igbo communities has been largely destroyed.
Life in rural communities in the southeast thrives on homecomings and repatriated funds. Kidnapping decimated the communities as it severed the link between the cities and the villages and blanched the villages of the light the cities lent to it. Poor congregants in church services prayed with eyes wide open and parish pastors, who were easy preys until churches made a rule of not paying ransoms, worried about the apparent triumph of evil and shrinking collections.
Left desolate and hopeless, communities embraced self help, assembled and armed vigilantes. States governments joined, promoted the vigilantes, enhanced their capacities and tacitly endorsed jungle justice. By 2014 december, kidnapping had been fairly well contained in the south east.
When violence crept back into Rivers state in the run up to the elections many trembled. They foresaw the escalation in violence and kidnappings currently bedeviling Port Harcourt and potentially endangering the south east. Because when scoundrels arm the youths to further their electoral fortunes they never give a thought to post election consequences of influx of arms and exposure to brigandage.
A few high profile cases make it to the headlines but hundreds of innocent hard working citizens are now being picked off the streets like rabbits and put through harrowing, mind searing experiences, by kidnappers. And the majority of these go unmentioned , unreported.
In Amuwo Odofin, particularly Festac town and environs, kidnapping, while not rife, has persisted. And amongst the Igbo traders who are the primary targets, it’s a life filled with dread and foreboding. After a prominent transporter narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt in which his police escort was shot, he relocated to Ikoyi. A friend was taken last year and held for over a whole month.
It took that long because the kidnappers had the temerity to insist on a ransom of about 100 million naira which they eventually got. This incident went largely unreported. He has been reduced to a crushed man whose lingering paranoia has to be attended to by an ever present retinue of armed police escorts.
Falae’s case may have a slightly different hue but the process and outcome are the same. An easy pick up, shocked family left panting and prostrate. Negotiations, ransom , police’s claim or dramatization of a rescue, thanksgiving service . Kidnappers go with their bounty. For how long?
We venerate vanity and we worship money. We must collectively denounce the primacy of mammon. That will take sometime. Churches and Mosques should resist the temptation to reward wealth with spiritual recognition. Money alone shouldn’t buy wives, shouldn’t win elections. Materialism is a social cancer.
Youth unemployment and widespread poverty can fuel the spread of any crime but a crime of such great immorality would need other social factors to thrive. After all kidnapping is not common in Guinea Bissau. Materialism has destroyed our soul. We must collectively take another look at life and money.
A special, distinct, well resourced branch of the police must be established, trained and equipped to warn, intervene, negotiate , mingle and break hostage taking. To collate data, to research, to gather intelligence, to collect evidence, to apprehend and prosecute. Such a high profile unit will generate public confidence and will make commercial kidnapping a bad business. Boko haram is not our only war. Kidnapping must be confronted with urgency and sophistication.