Ransom Kidnapping, Hostage Taking And A Bewildered Nigeria

Ransom Kidnapping, Hostage Taking And A Bewildered Nigeria

By Reuben Abati

On March 31, 2009, the Alex Ekwueme Foundation organized in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory a one-day international summit titled "Resolving Kidnapping, Hostage Taking and Local Terrorism in Nigeria." The organizers sought to achieve the following three goals: "to help raise awareness about the growing phenomenon, to strengthen the capacity of national security and public safety agencies to deal with this problem, and to assess how businesses and government can develop strategies and policies to deal with kidnapping and hostage-taking in Nigeria."

It was a successful event. It provided a good opportunity for various stakeholders to reflect on how terribly the menace of ransom kidnapping and the associated vices are hobbling Nigeria and exposing the fault lines in the country's governance process. The choice of the theme was most appropriate but even at the time, no one could have imagined that the situation would worsen so soon, with the phenomenon spreading to Northern Nigeria where ransom kidnapping had not previously been a serious issue.

On April 16, a Canadian and a Rotarian visiting Nigeria, Mrs Julie Ann Mulligan was abducted on the streets of Kaduna by armed men who demanded a ransom of N100 million. The police negotiated this down to N5 million, a drop point was arranged for the payment of the ransom, but most unusually, the police foiled the kidnappers' plans and arrested three of them. Mrs Mulligan is now a free woman. Newspapers report that another foreigner, an Egyptian was also kidnapped in Kano.

Thus, ransom kidnapping and hostage taking are no longer restricted to the Niger Delta area, or Southern Nigeria. With reported cases in Lagos, Abuja, Owerri, and now Kaduna and Kano, this brand of terrorism has become a nationwide phenomenon; the entire country is now a kidnappers' den. As at 1999, kidnapping was not yet such an alarming problem except for reported cases of ritual kidnapping particularly during election periods, or as the myth states, whenever there was a change of currency. Nigerians in the South West have always talked about how human parts are used for money-making rituals or to acquire spiritual power, or the social menace of child theft; so, such phrases as gbomogbomo, ajaale or the link between Clifford Orji and the sale of human parts have been part of the local discourse. Ritual kidnapping is linked to metaphysics, ransom kidnapping is more about cash. By 2003, with increased agitation in the Niger Delta, militant groups in the area (MEND and others) had begun to kidnap oil company workers in order to press home their points about a re-negotiation of Nigeria and the Niger Delta stake in it. Gradually, this degenerated into large-scale criminal activities involving hostage taking and ransom-collection. What was adopted initially as a tool of ideological struggle has since become a major source of livelihood.

As the problem grew into a national security crisis, the initial targets and victims were mainly foreigners working in the oil and gas sector: Americans, Germans, Italians, Koreans, the Chinese, Filipinos and the Lebanese, but the kidnappers have since expanded their nets to cover Nigerians: children, even children as young as three years, the relatives of rich men or political figures, particularly their wives or parents, the business elite, and just about anyone who can pay.

Recently, Nigeria began to feature very high in the global survey of terrorism and hostage-taking. At a time when the authorities are talking about re-branding Nigeria, ransom kidnapping is re-branding the country negatively. The law enforcement agencies are unprepared for the challenge, the fact that they managed to arrest three kidnappers in Kaduna notwithstanding. There is a dearth of knowledge and expertise about the nature and dynamics of the phenomenon.

In terms of style and rhetoric, there can be no doubt that the Nigerian kidnapper or terrorist has been watching television a lot, and that what we are dealing with is in part, a copy-cat syndrome. In many parts of the world- Iraq, Colombia, the Phillipines, Afghanistan, Iraq, India, Russia, Palestinian Territory, Mexico, Nepal... hostage taking and ransom kidnapping are often adopted as popular tactics of exerting pressure on government. International media coverage of such incidents has created a high level impact. Nigerian local terrorists and kidnappers could well have stepped out of the pages of a Hollywood filmscript or CNN. Unresolved issues in the Niger Delta have also forced many of the militants or their poor imitators to resort to ransom kidnapping in order to gain attention and or policy concessions.

The weakness of the state security infrastructure has not helped. Nigerians routinely take the laws into their hands knowing that the state and its institutions are inefficient. The kidnappers are so bold, they have no regard for the law. The more frightening thing though is that Nigeria is also beginning to breed its own gang of psychopaths. Kidnappers according to those who have encountered them are heavily into drugs and alcohol. They wield dangerous weapons which they threaten to use at the slightest provocation. They humiliate and assault their victims. Small arms proliferation, and the inability of the state to check Nigeria's gradual transformation from a drug-courier country into a drug-using country highlight the tragic dimensions of the affair.

Perhaps more serious is the widespread poverty and unemployment in Nigeria. Not a few persons who have survived the ordeal of kidnapping have reported that the kidnappers in our midst are mostly young, educated ones who complain about hunger and unemployment. Relatives of prominent politicians have been abducted, and here, the kidnapping may be politically motivated, but there is almost always a class dimension to the problem: the poor turning against the rich and demanding ransom as punishment. The rich class in Nigeria is limited by its lack of enlightenment. They provoke criminal behaviour and turn themselves into special targets because they failed to realise long ago, that their safety lies in ensuring social security and justice for all Nigerians.

But it is the country that is now suffering. Nigerians are no longer safe in their own land. Investors are discouraged. Nigeria has become a high risk investment destination. In Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Republic of Benin, you could take a walk on the streets at any time of the day as a tourist, in Nigeria, you will need bodyguards to do so. Should anyone still expect tourists to troop to Nigeria, either for the Calabar Carnival, or the Argungu fishing festival or the Eyo festival in Lagos? The culture of hardwork is being destroyed. The payment of ransom promotes a culture of extortion which reinforces a growing belief among Nigerian youths that hardwork is old-fashioned. It is the failure of the Nigerian state that is writ large.

Out of desperation, a number of Governors and state Houses of Assembly are recommending the death sentence for kidnappers. The thing to do is to enforce existing laws, and until those laws are repealed, all the rhetoric about death sentence amounts to nothing. And even if a death penalty is eventually adopted, have the proponents forgotten that there is a shortage of hangmen in Nigerian prisons? There was an advertisement of vacancies recently. Not too many Nigerians want the executioner's job. In any case, why is it so difficult to enforce existing laws. Sections 31, 252, 310, 311, 330, 331, 364, 366-368, and 371 of the Criminal Code deal with different aspects of the issue, with Section 364 prescribing a punishment of ten years imprisonment for anyone who is guilty of the felony of kidnapping. Since 1999, how many kidnappers has the Nigerian government sent to jail?

Dr Ekwueme in March observed that the problem of hostage taking is "spreading fast like wild fire and it is not a matter that can be left entirely to the security agencies to handle". Still, there can be no alternative to effective law enforcement and providing security for the people. Ransom kidnapping and hostage taking succeed due to the failure of intelligence gathering and the absence of pre-emptive intervention strategies. Hostage takers are human beings, not ghosts. They live within our communities. They use cell phones. The authorities in Kaduna were quoted as saying that it is difficult to trace the location of kidnappers through their phone calls because they always do "conference calling". That can't be true.

What is more likely to be true is that our police men and the other agencies are dealing with a problem they are not trained to handle. They require training in the management of terrorists: their psychological profile, how to track them, and how to negotiate with them. We don't even have a data base that any state official can consult about the behaviour of kidnappers. Is there any database anywhere, which has been properly analysed, in order to establish trends and patterns? Nigeria's response to the challenge has been episodic and completely unco-ordinated.

This is explained by the complete absence of structures for helping victims to manage trauma. Kidnap victims, the ones who are lucky to escape are left alone; they are expected to be grateful that they survived. The Nigerian authorities should seek international partnership to access existing knowledge and expertise, and this should not involve the setting up of any new bureaucracy, after a fashion, which would then become a conduit for looting public funds. Public enlightenment is necessary, focussing on the tactics of kidnappers and kidnap-evasion strategies.

The casualty rate in Nigeria is said to be low, kidnapped persons are often released after ransom has been paid; and usually the period of abduction is relatively short. But it is not every victim who has a good story to tell. There have been reports of torture, harassment and the trauma of forced imprisonment. Rape of course will never be reported, because of the stigma. The Nigerian government must take a decisive stand. The law is very clear in criminalizing kidnapping, and yet governments at all levels negotiate with kidnappers; political figures are quick to boast that they helped to secure the release of kidnapped persons. The primary responsibility of government does not include encouraging hoodlums.

The ultimate area of intervention is good governance at all levels. Create employment, put people to work, re-build confidence in the Nigerian economy and society. Failure to act decisively can only further embolden the kidnappers. Only a few days ago, President Yar'Adua referred to a plan to wipe out all the militant camps in the Niger Delta, following the expiration of a period of amnesty declared by his government. Dealing with kidnappers and hostage takers may not be that easy. The kidnapper is perpetually on the prowl. He does not wear a uniform, he can easily blend into the crowd, he has no distinguishing features, and he can strike anywhere and whenever he chooses. Every time he does, he exposes the soft underbelly of the Nigerian state and its vulnerability.