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Last week, more than 70 bus passengers travelling from Kano to Aba were abducted in Kogi State. The victims included 27 Kano traders on a business trip to purchase shoes and textiles. The traders were released on Sunday following the payment of N25 million ransom to their abductors. Since the traders were small-scale, with capital of only around N300,000, their friends had to mobilise donations from family, friends and business associates in the market to raise the ransom, for which the negotiations were reported by news outlets.
This case isn’t isolated. It’s just the latest example of how transparent the ransom industry is in Nigeria. Our government no longer even pretends to be ashamed of its brazen failure; our security forces and intelligence agencies know very well when ransoms are negotiated; victims’ families know that it is the only way to secure the release of their loved ones; and Nigerians are no longer outraged because we have grown so desensitised. Not only do security and intelligence agents turn a blind eye when ransoms are negotiated, they are reported on occasions to have advised families to pay them. But perhaps that isn’t surprising when even police officers seized on duty have to pay ransom themselves.
Ransom payment has over the last few years been so normalised and institutionalised that it now bears some of the hallmarks of a legal enterprise except that it is more lucrative. Even in the best of times, very few businesses in Nigeria make N25 million in a matter of days. In any case, kidnappers don’t pay taxes, nor are they subject to the repressive regime of bank charges. But despite this, so long as they only target ordinary Nigerians, they hardly have to worry about paying for their crimes.
When they get arrested, they use a portion of their loot to bribe their way out. When they get tired of killing, kidnapping, robbing and raping, all they need to do is to claim they’ve repented; desperate governors will receive them with a grin in the government houses, pose for photos and hand them some additional cash to add to their hoards. Hardly surprising then that kidnapping has emerged as one of our fasting growing industries. Not a week passes without criminals extorting millions. Desperate families are forced to sell off everything they have or incur huge debts to save loved ones. Some crowd-fund offline and online to raise ransoms.
At this speed, I worry that we might soon begin to lead the world in the kidnapping economy. Our country has already become so crime-friendly that we’ve started to attract felons from neighbouring countries. Last Monday, the Katsina State government announced that it has returned nine Nigeriens kidnapped from their country and transported to the state. The government said the perpetrators were also Nigeriens, meaning these criminals believed that they were more likely to get away with their crimes if they hide in Nigeria.
In this situation, it is easy to forget that things haven’t always been like this. A little over five years ago, kidnap-for-ransom was alien to Northern Nigeria. It was something northerners heard of in the South and scratched our heads over. The North had struggled with armed robbers for decades, but those only blocked the highway, mostly at night, and were quick to flee at the slightest hint of police. Today, kidnappers confidently face soldiers and kidnap police officers moving in a group.
We are already in a terrible place, but it can get even worse. It will get worse if we continue to pay off criminals. The thing with kidnap-for-ransom is that the more you pay, the more and longer you keep paying; because with every payment, they build more capacity to aim for a higher target. With every operation, kidnappers glean more experience and get more sophisticated. The longer they survive, the more time and resources it would take to tackle them. In this way, criminals become more powerful than governments and begin to control territories where their laws, or rather lawlessness, reign supreme. We must work to stop this scenario from playing out or escalating and we’ve got to be decisive.
The government is the main player, but all Nigerians have a role. In addition to cooperating with security agents, communities have got to decide to stop paying ransoms and stand their ground no matter what. This is the toughest of decisions when the lives of your friends, family or neighbours are on the line, but I am afraid that it is the only way. The more we pay to save one of us, the more we embolden and empower our enemies, putting not only other families in a graver danger, but ours too. And if we keep paying off criminals while we default taxes, it’s only natural that offenders will keep getting more powerful than our security forces.
I firmly believe starving kidnappers of money is the best way for communities to take the wind out of their brutal sail. But one doesn’t need a crystal ball to know that many families can’t withstand the urge to save someone they love even if that means imperilling the whole world. We, therefore, need a federal law expressly criminalising and severely punishing not only those collecting ransom, but also paying it or aiding its payment. But such a law will only have moral authority if the security services start taking the fight to the terrorists and the criminals plaguing our country.
The bottom line is that we must resolve collectively that we shan’t pay ransom to anyone, no matter what. No ifs, no buts, no equivocation. This will temporarily distress some of us, but it will starve criminals of funds to purchase ammunition and even food, thereby ultimately making kidnapping unviable and saving us all. Conversely, if we keep paying, our danger will only escalate. The situation is a classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. While our individual interest seems to suggest payment, our collective interest demands resilience – and if we all pursue our individual interest, we will all lose.
BY Bulama Bukarti