By Azuka Onwuka
Within a week, a former minister and her husband were kidnapped along the Kaduna-Abuja highway; the wife of the Central Bank Governor of Nigeria was kidnapped along the Benin-Asaba Expressway; four students and two teachers were kidnapped from a secondary school in Epe, Lagos. A week before, four landlords were kidnapped in Isheri, a border town between Lagos State and Ogun State. Many other kidnap cases may have occurred within that same period but were not nationally known because of their location and profile of the victims. In spite of all these cases, we still carry on as if kidnapping is not a serious problem in Nigeria.
When kidnapping for ransom started in the Niger Delta in early 2000s, many Nigerians found it funny and even rationalised it. The reason was that only the expatriate staff of multinational oil companies were targeted. It was seen as a form of protest by the Niger Delta militants against the pollution of their environment through oil exploitation. Comedians even made a joke out of it that the militants once kidnapped fair complexioned Senator Ben Murray-Bruce (sometimes they used Prof Pat Utomi), thinking he was a White man until he spoke pidgin English to them, and they hurriedly released him because they knew no ransom would be paid.
But the jokes had not dried up in the mouths of the comedians before the kidnappers changed targets. The expatriate workers either left the Niger Delta area or got better security. The kidnappers began to kidnap top political figures. Still many Nigerians laughed over it. “They deserve it,” was the refrain from many Nigerians. “Let them cough up some of the money they stole from us.”
Soon the top politicians either left the Niger Delta or got better security. The kidnappers began to kidnap the rich and prominent. Soon they began to kidnap the common folks, the elderly, the royal fathers, community leaders, religious leaders, and schoolchildren. It was then that it dawned on many that kidnapping for ransom was a danger. But many Nigerians people still saw it as a Niger Delta problem.
Because of the proximity of the South-East to the Niger Delta, kidnapping soon spread like cancer to it. Many southeasterners fled the zone. Traditional marriage rites that used to be done in the ancestral home of the bride were taken to cities like Lagos and Abuja. Many Igbo who would usually travel home with their families during the Christmas period avoided home. Some of those who were not from the South-South or South-East even saw it as an opportunity for ethnic ridicule of the two zones as the den of kidnappers. But they seemed to have sneered too fast.
The state governors and the police and the community vigilante groups in the affected areas intensified efforts in combating the menace. Many state Houses of Assembly passed legislation of death penalty for kidnapping. The homes of those confirmed as kidnappers were destroyed and shown on TV. By 2012, the kidnappers were virtually eliminated, especially in the South-East. Travelling through the zone became safe.
The kidnap menace spread to the South-West as well as the North-Central. Those who did not want to face the reality still continued to see it as nothing serious as well as a crime perpetrated by the people of the South-South and South-East. The menace continued to spread from state to state and soon got the North-West and the North-East. The identities of those arrested for different kidnap incidents showed that the perpetrators were from different ethnic groups and social backgrounds. The arrested suspects of the kidnap of the wife of the CBN governor were even said to have two soldiers and a dismissed soldier among them.
Another issue was that the kidnappers were no longer going to the homes of their targets but abducting their victims on highways.
Why is kidnapping for ransom spreading and thriving? The answer is simple. It gives high returns with less risk unlike armed robbery which involves a lot of risk and high uncertainty. In spite of insider information, armed robbers may storm a building and discover that the targeted money was moved 30 minutes before they arrived or that the person with the key to the safe has escaped. But in kidnapping, if the target escapes, they pick up his wife. If the wife is unavailable, they abduct the child. If that one fails, they take the aged father or mother or even brother.
And because of fear of losing a loved one, the family of the victim are usually willing to pay the ransom. Even when the police have found out the hideout of the kidnappers, they are usually not eager to storm the place for fear that the victims may be killed. They usually step in after the ransom has been paid and the victim released. Some kidnappers are known to have kept their victim for up to three months, waiting for the demanded amount to be met before releasing their victim.
The ransom can be as high as N50 million in cash. The kidnappers count the ransom and confirm that it is complete, before releasing their victim. Armed robbers are not that patient and meticulous.
If you offer many kidnappers jobs for them to stop kidnapping, they may reject the job or take the job and still continue with kidnapping.
Armed robbery, drug trafficking or fraud does not pay as highly and as certainly as kidnapping. That is why it is spreading like cancer. The only profession that pays as handsomely and as certainly as kidnapping is politics. Those who hold executive and legislative posts swim in money. One thousand computers can be supplied for N1bn to a state or the Federal Government. Like Abdulmumin Jibrin alleged, he had collected N650 million from the House of Representatives, while the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, and House Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila, had collected N1.5bn and N1.2bn respectively.
And even though many kidnappers are usually caught after the ransom is paid, every kidnapper usually believes that he will outsmart the security agents and enjoy his largesse.
Kidnapping is a worse crime than armed robbery. Only terrorism destroys a city than it. Armed robbers target only those who are rich and are suspected to have money. If they attack a home and don’t find money, they leave, although sometimes they kill or injure victims. But kidnappers don’t leave a scene without a victim. There have been cases where kidnappers abducted some wealthy men but found out that the family could not raise the ransom. So the kidnappers invited their wives or children, held them and released the wealthy men to go and get the ransom if they wanted to see their wives or children again. The mental torture suffered by the kidnapped and their family is indescribable.
Kidnappers, like terrorists, destroy the economy of a place. The reason big cities like Lagos and Abuja don’t feel the impact of kidnapping much is because people in big cities don’t even know the identity of the person living next to them or what is happening to such a neighbour, unlike in towns and villages where people know one another.
One way to curb kidnapping is for the states to enquire from past and present governors who have curbed kidnapping in their states how they achieved success. Such knowledge will help a lot. Community policing via vigilantes is also very useful.
Whatever needs to be done to eradicate kidnapping should be done. Kidnapping for ransom is a crime that creates fear in a state or country and scares away citizens and foreigners, thereby killing the economy. It must be fought from all angles like the monster that it is.
Azuka Onwuka is a Public Policy Analyst.