On May 29 this year, armed bandits kidnapped 13 year old Umar (not his real name) along with 155 pupils from the Islamic school he regularly attends in Tegina, a densely populated town in Niger State. The kidnappers have since demanded over 100 million naira for his and the other pupils release. While 15 of them were reported to have escaped, it has been over 70-days since Umar along with the other students were last seen. They have sadly been left to the cold-hearted hands of their abductors.
Barely a month later, on June 17, Aisha (not her real name) along with other students of the Federal Government College Yauri in Kebbi state was abducted by gunmen from their school. While two of the kidnapped students, Maman and Farida (not their real names) escaped from their abductors, it has been over 50-days since their abduction. The parents of Maman and Farida have since thanked the heavens for their safe return. However, the same cannot be said of the families of Aisha and the other abducted pupils that are still in agony over the whereabouts and welfare of their children.
Now, if your child was among these set of children still in captivity and left under the mercy of their kidnappers, what would you do? These abductions have followed a pattern that began in December last year targeting schools, when over 300 students were abducted from Government Science Secondary School in Kankara, Katsina State. While many of us cried out and urged adequate security in schools across the country, the abductions became more frequent and it seems we have become used to it.
Thus, from Kankara to Kagara, Jangebe to the Greenfield University and College of Forestry in Kaduna, many Nigerians have become somewhat placid, dwindling the public outcry against these abductions. Most of these abductions are high profile kidnap-for-ransom cases that made headlines when they occurred. There have been countless other cases which have not attracted much attention and public knowledge. Such case involves the abductions of individuals or a handful of people from their houses, farms as well as while traveling. In such cases, it is family members, relatives or friends of the victims that bear the brunt of the kidnap-for-ransom scourge that has become a malaise across the country.
According to SBM Intelligence, a consultancy research firm based in Lagos, Kidnappers have abducted at least 2,371 people across the country in the first half of this year. That averages out to about 13 people per day.
These are indeed daunting figures. Many of the abductions occur mostly in the North region of Nigeria and demand tens of millions of naira in ransom. Erstwhile, kidnappers targeted wealthy people and foreigners. Now they strike indiscriminately and the most recent are students in public schools – the most accessible education option for most rural children.
Accounts of freed or rescued victims of kidnap-for-ransom victims are rife with sordid tales of their harrowing experiences in captivity. Many victims have narrated how they were forced to live in the bush, under unsanitary conditions. They have described how they were made to trek for miles in the forests without food or water during the dead of night. They have told of how they were being maltreated and physically abused while in captivity.
Late last month, it was reported that the kidnapped Islamiyya school pupils were being kept in poor condition in 25 different camps. Along with physical abuse, examinations on victims have also revealed that many of them were sexually molested and abused while in captivity.
For many of these victims, life in the hands of their abductors was the worst nightmare they could ever imagine. They live with the constant reminder of the sordid ordeal they had to undergo long after it happened. Many of the victims after gaining freedom have been known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are accounts of children getting frightened whenever they hear loud banging. There are even accounts of victims having Stockholm syndrome i.e. identifying and empathizing with their captors especially after spending long spells with them. I just hope the affected children are receiving adequate treatment for these mental health issues and not left alone with their burden.
There is no doubt that the payment of ransom for kidnapped victims is fuelling the kidnap-for-ransom industry in the country. The kidnappers have so far built a grim industry abducting people and largely operating with a guiding ideology of “money”. They have discerned that kidnapping hundreds of students guarantees publicity and government involvement in negotiations which could mean millions of naira in ransom payments. While the government has maintained that it will not pay ransom for kidnapped victims, many parents and family members of the victims have gone ahead to pay. There are several tales of how parents and family members had to sell their properties to raise ransom monies.
As the kidnap-for-ransom “industry” seems to be flourishing, the kidnappers have become much more emboldened, demanding for money, specific items and foodstuffs. For instance, the kidnappers of the Greenfield University students demanded a ransom of 100 million naira along with 10 motorbikes. The abductors of some residents of Kiyi and Anguwar Hausawa community in Kuje and Abaji area councils in Abuja, demanded food items in the ransom payments that includes bags of rice, noodles, spaghetti and seasoning cubes. Late last year, the families of those kidnapped from Ushafa in Abuja were instructed to include loaves of bread and cigarettes in ransom payments.
There is no doubt that the spate of Kidnappings has led to the loss of lives and many victims have been killed in the course of their abduction, custody or release. Many more have been injured. This is in addition to huge amounts of money lost to ransom takers. A major reason why kidnappings persist is because the benefits of the crime exceed the costs. Thus an obvious solution is to raise the costs by imposing harsher and surer penalties. Stricter measures, such as life imprisonment or the death penalty, may not be completely out of place in dealing with the kidnapping menace.
While we go about our daily activities, let us remember that there are several Umar’s and Aisha’s who are still under captivity. While we take our children to school and pick them up during closing hours, we should remember that there are several innocent children that have been left to the mercies of their abductors.
As a parent, a sibling, a daughter, as a Nigerian, my heart goes out to the parents and families of abducted children still in captivity. I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through not being able to see their kids, hold their kids or wrap them up in loving embrace. For the government whether Federal or State, the onus of responsibility is on them to ensure the safe return of these children and bring to an end once and for all, the kidnap-for-ransom plague.