By Levi Obijiofor
While public attention has focused unavoidably on the impact of the Boko Haram insurgency on Nigeria owing to the frequency and magnitude of murderous bomb explosions in the northern parts of the country and the Federal Capital Territory, a greater majority of our population show little interest in the activities of kidnappers who seem to operate unimpeded in the southeast.
Perhaps something more bizarre would have to happen before everyone – the Federal and state governments, and civil society — would be stirred to take action or pay more serious attention to rampant abduction of citizens in the country. The situation is so bad. People are losing their loved ones and hard-earned income to hard-hearted and callous kidnappers. Kidnappers strike at random at different times of the day and night. No time is safe to stay away from the grubby hands of the criminals.
The fear of kidnappers has turned everyone into prisoners in their own homes. What kind of society are we living in, and what kind of life do we live? We cannot continue to live this way.
Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan admitted that Boko Haram has restricted his movement. This is a sad commentary on the nation’s inability to provide security for the number one citizen. If Boko Haram’s violent activities could restrict the president’s daily movement and official itinerary, who will protect or save ordinary citizens? The ability of Boko Haram terrorists to constrain Jonathan’s movement says a lot about the impact the terror group is having on the nation.
Make no mistake about this. Nigerians are not only living in fear of Boko Haram terror, they are also terrified of losing their lives to social pests known as kidnappers who have turned the southeast into a hunting ground for their victims.
It is difficult to understand why kidnappers have converted the southeast into their headquarters. Kidnapping for money or any other form of gratification did not originate in Anambra State or Imo State or Abia State or Enugu State or Ebonyi State. It was started as a tool for extortion when militant groups in the Niger Delta region engaged in indiscriminate abduction of citizens to press their case for environmental protection and sustainability. At the beginning, the targets were local and foreign oil workers who resided in the Niger Delta, including their family members.
Also included in the list of victims of kidnappers were wealthy businessmen and women, high profile politicians, traditional rulers, musicians, performing artistes and entertainers in the movie industry, senior academics, and just about anyone the criminals fancied who could satisfy their demand for enormous sums of money. Since then, the practice has spread and has become a lucrative source of easy money for criminally-minded youths and elderly men and women of low character.
In its early years, kidnapping was seen by the police and other security officials as a minor problem that was restricted to a local area. However, the moment the problem became more than an irritation, the moment it became uncontainable, the moment the criminals began to spread beyond the Niger Delta and took their criminal activities to Abuja and other cities previously regarded as tight in terms of security, it became clear to Federal and state governments, as well as security chiefs that kidnapping had become a major problem that threatened the lives and property of citizens.
Some state governments have passed legislation that proclaimed kidnapping as a high crime punishable by death. Despite this and other efforts by governments to contain kidnapping, the criminal behaviour continues to proliferate, especially in the southeast. Unfortunately, increasing attacks by Boko Haram terrorists have shifted attention away from kidnapping as a ghastly crime. Even in the face of special armed robbery squads, despite the establishment of vigilante groups by various communities and villages, kidnappers remain too smart to be constrained by crime fighting capabilities of anti-crime agencies.
Here is one experience that occurred late last year in a community in Anambra State. A group of three kidnappers visited a family in that community. One of them remained inside a car parked outside the gate leading into the house. The other two men went straight to the house of their targeted victim. They introduced themselves as messengers who were sent to deliver a special gift to their victim – a woman. They were informed the woman was attending a local meeting some distance away. But the husband was home. The presence of the husband did not deter the criminals.
They lied to the husband that they had a message for his wife which they said they were instructed to deliver directly to the man’s wife. No one suspected them to be criminals because they said they were sent by one of the woman’s children. Kidnappers generally do not bear any marks that give them away as criminals. There were other men in the house who were engaged in a conversation with the woman’s husband.
When the man requested the strange visitors to hand over their message to him, promising that he would deliver it to his wife, the kidnappers insisted they must wait till the woman returned. They sat down and waited for about an hour. How arrogant and brave! As the kidnappers waited, the husband of the woman they were looking for offered drinks to them and the traditional “kola nut” as a gesture of hospitality.
The man did not realise he had welcomed to his house a group of killers masquerading as messengers. How daring can kidnappers get in Anambra State? As soon as the woman drove into her house on her motorcycle, the kidnappers pulled out their guns and ordered the woman into their car that was parked in front of the gate to the house. It was like a fast moving movie. The husband felt like he was in a trance. He could not do anything. An unarmed man cannot challenge armed kidnappers. He watched helplessly as the criminals shoved his wife into their car. During the entire episode, not one shot was fired by the criminals. They came in calmly but they departed swiftly.
The woman was driven away and held hostage for one week in an unknown location before she was released. That was a sad story with a happy ending. These days, a growing number of victims of kidnapping are not so lucky. Kidnappers have introduced a more macabre style of business. They collect ransom from their victims’ families but they still murder their hostages. This is a new, dangerous and worrying dimension in the underworld of kidnappers.
Police and anti-robbery squads are appalled by the behaviour of kidnappers. Families of victims of kidnapping cannot understand why the criminals will collect ransom and still snuff life out of their victims. It does not make sense.
Kidnappers are getting more audacious and bloodthirsty. There is hardly any community in the southeast which the criminals have not visited and left a tale of sorrow. The fear of kidnappers is the beginning of wisdom for many people who reside in various states in the southeast. Kidnapping has become a commercial business through which ragtag criminals earn millions of naira they would never have earned in their lifetime. The money they receive is nothing but blood money.
The problem is so widespread. No one can trust anyone. Villages that previously served as safe havens for people who want to escape the madness and criminality that is rampant in cities are more unsafe than metropolitan centres. Nowhere is protected from kidnappers in the southeast. This is no exaggeration.
The Anambra State government has adopted a strict policy of demolishing houses and other property owned by kidnappers who are known to the people. Yet this deterrent has not served to reduce the frequency of abduction. If anything, the kidnappers are getting more sophisticated in the way they operate.
What is driving the increase in kidnapping? Some people blame it on unemployment. Others say it has everything to do with greed, that is, the desire by many men and women of low character to earn a lot of money fraudulently in a short period of time. Still others attribute the criminal behaviour to a growing band of underprivileged people who feel they have been segregated from the larger Nigerian society. If that is the case, the question must be asked: Why is kidnapping more prevalent and more common in the southeast than it is in any other part of the country in which there exists also a considerable number of less privileged people?
Economic and social deprivations may contribute to the growth in the number of young men and women who take to crime but these two factors cannot be the sole engine that drives kidnapping. Why do our youth see value in criminal activities? Is there any way the government, public and private sectors, as well as other institutions of society help to engage and rehabilitate these youths?
What manner of security system do we have in Nigeria that we cannot extinguish most criminal activities at the onset before they establish extensive followership? What has happened to our social values? Where are the institutions that shape the moral character of our society? The country is gradually and steadily gravitating toward anarchy. Everyone knows about this but no one seems keen to do something to reverse the trend.
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