The Kidnapped Nation


Two weeks ago, this column in a piece entitled “Neither at War Nor in Peace” lamented that Nigeria has entered a new normal. We are neither a nation at peace or in a declared war. Instead, we are perennially in a state of psychological and physical siege. Even in that state, our government continues to live in perennial denial, behaving as if they are presiding over a normal democratic state. That hybrid status puts us in a unique category among troubled nations of the world.

Side by side with a count of Nigerians who have recently been killed, abducted, kidnapped or just missing, we have entered a new category of a nation with more hostages than those at war.  When Hamas militants and hotheads attacked Israel on  October 7, 2023, they took a little less than 250 hostages. That led Israel to the ongoing Israel-Hama war whose end we do not yet know. Today in Nigeria, kidnappers and bandits are holding any number of Nigerians as hostages as we speak. No one, not even the police, knows exactly Nigeria’s total hostage population, where exactly they are being held, who is holding them and for what reasons beyond ransom. We have hostages of bandits and terrorists dating back to the president Jonathan days and stretching to the present. When Buhari handed over to Presdient Tinubu, I am not so sure he handed over the precise number of hostages held by different criminal groups allover the country!

Those Nigerians kidnapped or abducted are hostages of an adversary without a face and without a name. Worse still, those that are killed by these criminals are victims of a nameless evil. An enemy without a clear identity has entered the fray of Nigerian’s insecurity. They invade, fiercely assault, collect hostages, execute innocent people in cold blood and disappear into thin air. They then make contact with the families of their hostages to demand huge sums as ransom. The negotiations are mostly between the affected families and the bandits, hoodlums and terrorists all wearing interchangeable badges. The final onus is on government to take over from there. But the government seems to be in quandary. It does not know exactly the identity and character of whom to negotiate with in these many instances of serial and viral kidnapping. With each new instance of kidnapping or abduction, the faceless enemy shows a different colour. Government is comfortable in the thinking that it is dealing with crime control. I am not so sure.

One question that has not been addressed is whether we are dealing with random bands of criminals and killers or a concerted force with a larger political purpose. The instances of kidnapping and abductions are many and widespread. They seem to wear differential regional badges. The ones in the North East tend to be inspired by ISWAP, Boko Haram and retail versions of Sahelian jihadism. In the North-west, they tend to be sundry opportunistic criminals originally bred by residues of geo -ethnic  and religious animosities but now fired by poverty and economic desperation. Further south, in the mid section of the nation, the crisis of killings and kidnappings takes on a more sectarian and occupational character. Angry migrant herders, mostly Moslem,  against equally angry impoverished settlers farmers who are presumably Christian.

In the South-east, what began as separatist anger has blossomed into an enterprise of criminality powered and controlled by political and business moguls. In the cities of the South-eest and Lagos, urban criminal gangs and cults carry out opportunistic attacks to kidnap for quick cash or in quest for victims for the more gruesome harvest of body parts to fuel a thriving trade in rituals for money.

This national canvas of internal warfare has been with us for the better part of the last eight years. We have just entered a new phase in both the magnitude and geographical location of kidnapping and abductions. In the past one month, many incidents have occurred in and around the Abuja area. Families have been thrown into tragic mourning and anxiety as bandits have routinely abducted many members of families and executed some without even waiting for the requested ransom. In the Abuja kidnappings, the quantum of ransom sought has tended to be so huge as to befit the reputation of the capital city as the home of huge free cash.

In one celebrated instance, a friend of an affected family said to be a minister in the immediate past Buhari government disclosed that he had to come up with a princely N50 million to free remaining members of a family even after the innocent girl, Nabeeha, was executed by her captors.  As families and concerned citizens try to grapple with existing cases, the criminals are at work with new exploits, new abductions and more dastardly killings especially in the Abuja area.

While the ring of kidnappings closes more on Abuja, the time has come to ask whether there is a larger political purpose to the latest onslaught of bandits and criminals on Abuja. Yes, Abuja is attractive to all manner of criminal enterprises. Some see it as the centre of a criminal tradition of government in which there is a disproportionate relationship between work and reward. Politicians and their hangers on enter Abuja literally as destitutes only to emerge a few months down the road as mega billionaires. Some who came to Abuja by night bus have been known to fly home a few months later in their personal private jets. Such gold rush reputation can attract mega criminals who convert vulnerable innocent people into merchandise and hostages of greed in order to get a share of the city of gold. Beyond the economic ecosystem of Abuja, there remains a perennial political question mark about the city in the geo ethnic and sectarian calculus of those interested in Nigeria’s future. To this extent, I want to insist that the latest spate of kidnappings, abductions and killings in and around Abuja constitute a clear and urgent to Nigerian politicians.

At the highpoint of the fundamentalist assault on Nigeria, Abuja was the scene of some of the most severe terrorist attacks. The United Nations offices, the Police Headquarters, churches in neighbouring areas, the facilities of THISDAY Newspapers and sundry other places were hit by a gale of terrorist bombings. The terrorists took direct responsibility for the attacks. Therefore, the interest of forces seeking to destabilize Nigeria through attacks on Abuja has never been hidden.

In the later parts of the Buhari administration, criminals and armed zealots became intensely interested in Abuja.  Followers of then imprisoned Shiite leader, El Zakzakky, carried their war for his freedom into Abuja city center. They engaged security forces in days of sporadic episodes of gunfire right in the centre of Abuja. Further down the line, a horde of ISWAP and Boko Haram foot soldiers invaded the precincts of an Abuja maximum security correctional facility and freed nearly every inmate including numerous dangerous terrorists. Still further the road of tragedy, fanatic terrorists mounted an assault against the centre of power, engaging soldiers of the presidential Guards Brigade in a fire fight that led to the death of a number of officers. At some point, schools and major institutions in the outskirts of the city had to be shut or evacuated for fear of terrorist invasion. So, Abuja has been a place of interest to a competing avalanche of criminals and armed factions with diverse interests and motives.

But for the rest of us, the city is our national capital. It is the seat of the federal government. It is home to all major diplomatic missions in the country.  In response to the repeated instances of security threats on Abuja, nearly every major diplomatic mission in Abuja has issued frightening travel advisories  warning their citizens against unnecessary travels to nearly all parts of the country. In the latest one in later 2023, the United Nations warmed all its staff in Nigeria to avoid nearly every state in Nigeria for fear of being kidnapped or abducted. The Nigerian government itself has repeatedly tacitly admitted the state of universal siege around the country by agreeing that combined military and police security operations are ongoing in all of our 36 states.

Ironically, until the last one week, the new Tinubu government had feigned indifference to the threat of massive insecurity in and around Abuja. Understandably, it is hard to pay attention to personal security when you are surrounded by armed goons of state security and elite wings of the armed forces. So, both the presidency and the FCT administration had feigned indifference until a week ago. While the spate of kidnappings, abductions and killings raged, Mr. Nyesom Wike, Federal Minister of the FCT, was to be found more in Port Harcourt, capital of his home state of Rivers where he is waging an endless war of political attrition against the state governor, Mr. Fubara, his now rebel surrogate. At last, both Mr. Wike and his boss the President have finally thought it necessary to summon meetings with security chiefs on the bad situation in Abuja. If tough talking and grand standing could end insecurity, we probably would not have any more kidnappers and bandits left in Nigeria by now.

There is now an urgent need to interrogate the existing approach and machinery of internal security in the country. The existing system has not worked. Nothing indicates that Mr. Tinubu’s approach to the problem is in any way different from that of his predecessor. The popular myth was that Mr. Buhari as a former soldier with combat experience would end insecurity as he himself publicly undertook to do. But instead, after his eight years in office, the insecurity around Nigeria has graduated into a nightmare emergency situation. There is therefore little hope that Mr. Tinubu who literally does not know the difference between a rifle and a pistol will fare any better.

He has appointed new service chiefs and decorated them with new ranks and many shiny medals. He has appointed a familiar ex -police man as NSA.  But the problem is not that of appointments and fancy titles. It is one of resources and strategy. The old strategy of throwing money and armed men in Hilux vans allover the place has not quite worked.

The government has recently bought a few helicopters from Turkey and the United States in addition to a consignment of Super Tucano jets from the United States. Many experts argue however that you do not wage a low intensity internal security war among your own citizens with the instruments of an all out war as if you were out to conquer an external adversary.  Unintended collateral casualties and human rights violations are bound to result, thereby deepening the internal bitterness among the populace and making resolution harder. We already have had quite a few of these, regrettably.

Budgetting for an increase in defence and security spending in a season of galloping inflation is futile. It leaves less money for actual security spending. In addition, much has been said about leakages  and corruption in the administration of Nigeria’s security business. Our insecurity has been around for so long that it has bred an industry of its own corruption enterprise in a country where government is seen as a criminal enterprise.

More importantly, in all the instances of kidnapping, abductions, terrorist attacks and other security breaches around the country,  the staging theatres have been the ungoverned spaces. Our vast forests, bushes, savannahs and farmlands have been the favourite hiding places for bandits and criminals. The criminals strike the governed and inhabited areas and take their hostage into the ungoverned spaces from where they demand and negotiate ransom. Admittedly, the manpower available to the armed and security forces is inadequate to man these ungoverned spaces.

That creates the imperative of employing available technologies to ensure effective coverage of the entire national space. This calls for increased investment in areas like satellite surveillance and coverage of the entire Nigerian space including night vision scoping. The use of drones needs to be guided by proven know how to avoid the kind of ‘accident’ that led to avoidable loss of innocent lives in Kaduna State recently.

In all of this, we cannot diminish the overwhelming place of social factors associated with poverty in the epidemic of new crime from that we are witnessing. The ultimate long term situation is for government to ameliorate the prevailing poverty while taking effective active security measures  to make crime and criminality  unattractive for citizens.

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