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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Abuja’s Kidnapping Quagmire: How Safe is the Center of Unity? – By Matthew Ma

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“It is pretty alarming and shameful to hear that a group of abductors has managed to invade the capital city of a nation without facing any resistance. Such a situation not only puts the safety and security of the citizens at risk but also raises serious questions about the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies and the government’s ability to protect its people. It’s a matter of great concern and calls for immediate action to bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure the safety of the residents.”

Those who have not experienced kidnapping cannot comprehend how traumatic and devastating it can be on the life of an individual. It will be hard for them to grasp or understand the gravity of a city being held hostage by kidnappers. However, for those who have gone through such an ordeal, the gravity of being held hostage by kidnappers is a nightmare. The fear and anxiety that they feel is overwhelming, as they never know who might be next. The constant threat of being taken away from their loved ones and held captive for ransom is a traumatic experience that can leave a lasting impact on the victims and their families. The psychological and emotional toll of such an event can be devastating and requires specialized care to help survivors overcome their trauma. The saying that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom has been a famous aphorism throughout history. People from different cultures and backgrounds have interpreted this statement in various ways. Some believe that it implies that having a fear of God is the foundation of knowledge and understanding. This interpretation suggests that recognizing a higher power can lead to a better understanding of life and the universe. Others interpret it to mean that having a sense of awe and respect for a higher power can inspire one to seek knowledge and wisdom. However, despite the positive interpretations of this proverb, some people have also misinterpreted it. For instance, some Nigerians have used it to mean that the fear of kidnappers is the beginning of wisdom. This interpretation is a stark contrast to the original meaning and highlights how proverbs can be taken out of context and used to justify certain beliefs or actions. Overall, the sense of this proverb is subjective and can vary depending on the individual’s beliefs and experiences.

Recent reports suggest that the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), which houses the capital city of Nigeria, Abuja, is currently in the midst of a grave crisis. The FCT, which was once known for its peaceful and secure environment, is now plagued by a growing sense of fear and unease among its residents. This situation has arisen due to the alarming surge in kidnappings within the city, which has become a matter of great concern for everyone. The kidnappings have been reported across various areas of Abuja, including residential and commercial areas, and the problem shows no signs of abating. The kidnappings are not limited to any particular group of people and have affected locals and foreigners alike. The kidnappers use sophisticated techniques, such as tracking their victims’ movements and trailing them before abducting them, to carry out their heinous crimes. The victims are usually taken to unknown locations, where they are held captive until a ransom is paid. The situation has caused a lot of anxiety and distress among residents and visitors, who are now wary of moving around the city, particularly at night. The local authorities are taking the matter seriously and are working tirelessly to address the issue and restore calm to the city. They have mobilized themselves in the affected areas and have intensified surveillance. They are also collaborating with relevant stakeholders and neighboring regions to tackle the problem holistically. Despite their efforts, the situation remains a cause for concern among residents and visitors alike. The question now is, how safe in the center of unity?

The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Nigeria has always been known for its relative tranquility and security. However, in recent times, the city has been gripped by growing cases of kidnappings as it continues to surge. Last November, my uncle was kidnapped in the heart of the city. He told me how his wife and children ran around to secure his release. The kidnappers demanded a huge ransom, but after some negotiations, part of the ransom was eventually given. He was released after one week of captivity. Barely six days into the new year, seven persons, all members of the same family, were abducted by gunmen around Zuma 1 in the Bwari Area Council. During the incident, one person, simply identified as Alhaji, was shot dead while two policemen sustained injuries during a gun battle with the kidnappers. The deceased, said to be a relative of the abducted family members, was informed of the incident and rushed to rescue them but was killed by the gunmen. On the night of 7 January, some armed men invaded Sagwari Layout Estate in Dutse, also in Bwari Area Council, and abducted nine persons, including a mother and her four children. The kidnappers, reportedly dressed in military uniform, proceeded to a nearby hotel and kidnapped a receptionist and a barman on duty. A security guard, who was also a victim but was lucky to escape, narrated his ordeal to Punch newspaper. A witness, Wilfred Akikayo, told the newspaper that the gunmen, who were bearing sophisticated weapons, broke the entrance of the estate back fence and exited through the top of a mountain close by.

In the last three years, Abuja has recorded close to 50 kidnap cases involving over 200 persons. From January 2021 to June 2023, there were about 40 documented cases affecting a staggering 236 victims. Between October and December 2023, there were 13 recorded kidnapped incidents and 80 victims. In a chilling repetition of an alarming trend, the abduction of over 23 residents in Dei-Dei town, situated off the Kubwa-Zuba Road in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), reignited concerns about the escalating wave of mass kidnappings in Abuja. This unfortunate incident unfolded in three housing estates, bringing to the fore the disturbing reality that kidnappings, often orchestrated by people donning military uniforms, persist despite official denials from the police. The details of this incident, reported with vivid clarity, underscore the urgency of addressing the pervasive insecurity that has gripped the nation’s capital. During the same period, a similar incident took place at the nearby Arab Road residential area in Kubwa town, also along the highway, where kidnappers abducted seven residents believed to be sharing the same base in the bush with the Dei-Dei operators. Recently, at least 85 persons, including travelers and residents, were said to have been abducted by terrorists in Katari along the Kaduna-Abuja highway near Katari in Kachia Local Government Area of ​​Kaduna State. It is understood that the criminals killed more than four residents. The breakdown of those abducted by the bloodthirsty terrorists indicated that between January 7, 2024, a total of 85 persons were seized. Just days after that, 22 people were abducted from Kawu village in Bwari Area Council.

On January 13, a young lady identified as Najeebah Al-Kadriyar, who was kidnapped alongside her five sisters and her father in Abuja, was reportedly killed by her abductors. Journalists reported that the victims were abducted on January 2, 2024, in the Bwari Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory. The bandits later freed the father to go and look for the ransom to secure the release of his children. His brother, Alhaji Abdulfatai, who led police to foil their abduction, was shot dead by the bandits. The family was ordered to pay a ransom of N60 million – 10 million for each girl as ransom before January 12. However, they were unable to raise the money, and the assailants reportedly killed the oldest of the six girls, Najeebah, and dumped her body somewhere for her parents to bury. Several Nigerians took to social media to mourn the death of the deceased. Former Minister for Communication and Digital Economy Issa Ali Pantami confirmed the news of Najeebah’s killing. He said he had spoken with the father of Najeebah over the remaining kidnapped girls. Earlier, Bashir Ahmad, a former aide to former President Muhammadu Buhari, called on the police to take necessary actions on the matter. Reacting to the development, the spokesperson of the Nigeria Police Force, ACP Olumuyiwa Adejobi, says the police have intensified efforts to rescue the remaining victims.

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Data from reliable sources reveal a disturbing pattern. The Kuje Area Council, in particular, has earned notoriety as a hotspot for kidnappings. The Nextier Violent Conflict Database documented a surge in kidnapping incidents, with two recorded in May 2023 and three in June 2023. The statistics underscore the urgency of addressing this menace as part of broader security reforms. From January 2021 to June 30th, 2023, 40 kidnap cases were recorded in FCT Abuja, with a staggering 236 victims. These incidents translate not only into human tragedies but also substantial economic losses, with alleged ransom payments amounting to ₦653.7 million between 2021 and 2022. A 2020 report by SB Morgen further revealed that Abuja ranked 11th among places with rampant abductions, emphasizing the need for comprehensive and sustained efforts to curb this menace. This situation has raised the question of whether the center of unity can no longer hold. Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, is not only the political nerve center of the country but also houses the headquarters of various security agencies, including military and para-military organizations. Yet, the city is traditionally regarded as a haven for kidnapping and other criminal activities, even with the high concentration of security personnel in the city center and its surrounding areas. The security situation in Abuja seems to have grown from bad to worse as there is a high number of kidnappings, robberies, and attacks by ‘one-chance’ operators. These incidents have caused great concern amongst both residents and authorities and have led to calls for better security measures and vigilance by all concerned parties. The surge in ransom kidnappings in Abuja has plunged its populace into a profound sense of fear and instability. This troubling trend, observed across various regions of the Federal Capital Territory, including Bwari, Abuja Municipal Area Council, and Abaji, underscores the broader security predicament gripping Nigeria, amplifying concerns about the severity of similar incidents in other states.

Several factors have contributed to the deteriorating circumstances in Abuja. One of the primary reasons is that the capital city and several of the most violent states in Nigeria, located in the northwest and central regions of the country, are adjacent to one another. Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa, and Niger are states with a history of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists, as well as militia attacks. According to data from the Nextier Violent Conflict Database, the northcentral region alone experienced 402 violent incidents between January 2021 and May 2022, resulting in 1,981 fatalities and 962 kidnappings. Numerous other parts of the country also face different security challenges. As a result of these security concerns, residents are often compelled to flee violent situations, especially in rural areas.

The issue of kidnapping in Abuja is intertwined with systemic problems such as weak security structures. Kidnappers often operate with impunity, taking advantage of the fragile security structures and lack of proper law enforcement policy in Nigeria. In the past, the government launched military operations involving the bombing of suspected hideouts to tackle banditry and rescue victims of kidnappers. But since the kidnappings spiked, there have been no arrests or prosecution. This lack of accountability, combined with the authorities’ failure to step up security and intelligence operations, contributes to a deep-rooted sense of mistrust among vulnerable citizens that puts them at odds with the government. Many have also criticized certain state authorities for negotiating with bandits and introducing amnesty schemes, saying they should instead focus on protecting citizens in the first place. Negotiations and impunity, critics say, end up encouraging criminal activity as perpetrators know they will be able to negotiate conditions for safety at least or even get paid huge ransoms. The government has, on many occasions, promised to tackle insecurity, but they now blame local and state authorities for the increase in mass abductions.

Numerous times, the government said they must improve security and warned the policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles. According to them, this kind of policy will backfire with disastrous consequences. Yet, people continue to pay ransom in exchange for the release of their loved ones. But the federal government has also come under fire. Experts say the members of the country’s security agencies are overstretched, poorly paid, and underequipped, while the police forces are primarily centralized and unable to handle internal security challenges. Others have also criticized the government for granting amnesty to “repentant bandits” for playing a role in the recent release of kidnapped victims. Criminality must be eliminated, not mitigated. Sadly, the government does not have the political willpower in Nigeria to achieve that. Bargaining with the enemy (the bandits) is a sign of weakness. Even if you want to bargain, do it from the side of strength by carrying out a risk analysis of what is happening, and then you prioritize the risk by attending to each security threat as it comes. There is a need to invest in Nigerian security by setting up CCTV cameras and checkpoints and deploying military personnel across the affected areas in Abuja. I am curious to know whether the CCTV cameras that were installed during the previous administrations are still operational. It would be great to know if any maintenance or repairs have been done to ensure that they are still effective in monitoring the area they were installed in.

Another problem of kidnapping in Nigeria deeply rooted in a systemic issue that has yet to be adequately addressed is a fragile judicial system. The country’s judicial system has proven to be ineffective in many cases of kidnappings. This is often due to a lack of resources, corruption, and political interference. As a result, many victims and their families are left without justice or recourse, perpetuating a cycle of impunity that only emboldens kidnappers further. To truly combat this issue, it is crucial to address the underlying problems within the country’s justice system. Amnesty International exposed the appalling state of Nigeria’s justice system, saying that they are filled with people who have no regard for the wellbeing of Nigerians. The organization said that the Nigerian justice system is utterly failing the Nigerian people, calling it a “conveyor belt of injustice, from beginning to end.” In a detailed and scathing 50-page report, the organization reveals how at least 65 percent of Nigeria’s kidnappers have never been convicted of any crime, with many awaiting trial for up to ten years. The organization decried how most prisoners are too poor to afford a lawyer, with one in seven inmates awaiting trial having access to private legal representation – with only 91 legal aid lawyers working in the country; and how appalling prison conditions, including severe overcrowding, are seriously damaging the mental and physical health of thousands. The problems in Nigeria’s justice system are so blatant and egregious that the Nigerian government has failed to recognize them. Although the government has promised several times to reform the justice system, the reality is that those in prison stand little chance to get justice. Those without money have even less opportunity. Some could end up spending the rest of their lives in jail without ever having been convicted of a crime. Sometimes, case files are missing, while other times, many inmates awaiting trial are presumed guilty despite the fact that there is little evidence to prove they committed a crime. Amnesty International also revealed how people who have not committed any crime are locked up in jail along with hardened criminals. Amnesty International emphasized that the Nigerian government has, on numerous occasions, stated its willingness to reform the justice system. However, despite many presidential commissions and committees recommending reform, the government has failed to implement the recommendations. Instead, the new administration set up new committees and commissions to study, review, and harmonize the previous recommendations.

The next kidnapping challenge in Nigeria is characterized by the inadequacy of law enforcement’s ability to prevent and respond to these crimes. The current state of law enforcement in the city needs to be improved when it comes to preventing and responding to crimes. Numerous security challenges need to be addressed in order to prevent and respond to crimes effectively. According to a recent report by the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, the city is facing several security issues, including a need for a more reliable and robust security presence. This is particularly challenging for the already overburdened police force, which is struggling to provide adequate protection to all communities. Some areas are receiving more police assistance than others, which highlights the issue of unequal distribution of resources. The report also sheds light on the corruption and bureaucratic obstacles that hinder the handling of kidnapping cases, making it even more challenging for law enforcement to do its job effectively. This is a worrying trend that we need to address urgently. Furthermore, economic inequality and limited opportunities exacerbate the problem, creating an environment where criminal activity can thrive. Criminals often exploit vulnerable individuals for profit, which is why it is crucial to address the root causes of the issue. Significant steps need to be taken to address the problem. It is essential to invest in resources and training for law enforcement personnel to ensure that they are well-equipped to handle the challenges they face. Additionally, the government needs to address the issue of economic inequality and provide more opportunities for individuals in vulnerable communities. This will help create a more conducive and just society where criminal activity is less likely to thrive. Without taking significant steps to address these underlying problems, the situation will only continue to worsen, leading to more harm and suffering for the people of the city.

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The government, security agencies, and mobile companies need to improve the SIM, NIN, and BVN linkage policy. The current policy that governs the linkage of Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards, National Identification Numbers (NIN), and Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent times. Mr. Isa Pantami, the former Minister of Communication, said failure to use the NIN, SIM, and BVN policy will encourage criminality, especially kidnapping, in the country. Mr. Pantami said this while replying to a quote from an X user named Mentus, who questioned why Nigerians queued up for months to secure the National Identification Number (NIN), which would later be futile in fighting crimes. Mr. Pantami, who supervised the NIN-SIM policy as a minister, said the problem was not with the policy but the failure of relevant institutions to use it. He blamed the ineffectiveness of the policy on institutions meant to safeguard the citizenry but ignored it despite its relevance in tracking and getting essential user details. The NIN-SIM policy has been working. However, the relevant institutions fighting criminality are to be requested to ensure they use it effectively when a crime is committed. Lack of using it is the main problem, not the policy. Reacting to the kidnapping of the six sisters and their father, the former minister, in an earlier tweet, said one of his friends had raised N50 million as a contribution to the N100 million ransom the kidnappers demanded of six sisters in Abuja. He also said in another tweet that he had spoken with the father of the girls after one of them, Najeebah, an undergraduate, was killed by the kidnappers after he (the father) reportedly failed to meet the deadline for the payment of N60 million ransom. The question now is, why are relevant authorities failing to use this method to combat kidnapping? Are there some people benefiting from these loopholes?

There is an urgent need for the government, security agencies, and mobile companies to prioritize the improvement of this policy to ensure that individuals’ identities are accurately verified, thereby curbing illegal activities such as fraud, cybercrime, kidnapping, and terrorism. The inadequacies of the current policy have led to loopholes that criminals are exploiting to carry out their illegal activities. Therefore, there is a pressing need for a more robust and effective policy that will provide the safety and security of citizens and their personal information. This new policy should be designed to prevent identity theft, SIM swap fraud, kidnapping, and other forms of cybercrime that have become rampant in recent times. The linkage of SIM cards, NIN, and BVN is a critical component of identity management in Nigeria, and all stakeholders must work together to improve the policy. This will require collaboration between the government, security agencies, mobile companies, and other relevant stakeholders. By doing this, we can ensure that our personal information is secure, and we can go about our daily activities without fear of being victims of cybercrime, kidnapping, or identity theft.

It is disheartening, in our view, that Nigeria, with its rich history and potential, is marred by a negative global perception of kidnapping. Nine years after the Chibok girls’ abduction marked a turning point, the nation grapples with an unabated surge in mass kidnappings. Not only does this criminal activity persist, but it has also developed into a sophisticated and lucrative industry for criminals. Even with measures to reduce instability, the threat of kidnapping remains. A law requiring at least 15 years in prison for anyone who pays a ransom to free a kidnapped person was signed into law in 2022. What’s more, the rule provides that kidnappers can be sentenced to death in the event of the victim’s death. The effectiveness of this legislation is still up for debate despite the previous administration’s efforts to strengthen Nigeria’s security posture. Resolving Abuja’s kidnapping conundrum requires a strict commitment from security stakeholders nationwide to revamp security infrastructures. This includes the use of advanced technology, enhanced police presence, and strengthened intelligence networks to thwart criminal activity. Furthermore, socio-economic empowerment must be explored by addressing root causes and investing in education, job creation, and poverty alleviation initiatives to weaken the breeding ground for criminal exploitation. Community engagement is also critical to fostering trust between law enforcement agencies and residents to gather intelligence and prevent such kidnappings. Given the nationwide scale of these criminal activities, coordinated national partnerships and intelligence sharing are critical.

To effectively combat kidnapping, it is crucial to provide security agencies with adequate resources, enabling them to respond swiftly and efficiently to kidnap cases. Collaboration with local communities to gather reliable intelligence is pivotal, emphasizing the necessity of community-oriented policing. The “Rescue Me App,” launched by the Nigerian police, should be widely publicized and optimized to ensure its effectiveness as a tool for public safety. To deter potential perpetrators, strict punishment for kidnappers must be enforced. The Nigerian government should intensify its efforts to strengthen law enforcement agencies, including increasing police presence, enhancing border controls, and establishing security checkpoints. However, addressing the root causes of kidnapping is equally essential. Socioeconomic issues contribute significantly to the prevalence of this crime; taking a holistic approach that addresses these underlying problems is instrumental in reducing incidents of kidnapping. Focusing on socioeconomic development, education, and job creation will create a more stable environment, ultimately mitigating the appeal of abduction as a criminal enterprise. Additionally, security agencies must conduct a thorough self-assessment to weed out compromised elements within their ranks, as reports of security personnel assisting kidnappers are becoming too familiar. Immediate and long-term measures must be implemented to eradicate the blight of mass kidnappings that threaten the very fabric of the daily lives of Abuja’s residents. They deserve a persistent and comprehensive response that goes beyond just a semblance of security.

Failure to effectively address the wave of kidnappings in Abuja not only poses a threat to the safety of citizens but also undermines economic stability and investor confidence. It sends a message of the federal government’s difficulties in managing domestic issues, which hinders Nigeria’s potential for growth. To effectively combat this danger, proactive and systemic reforms must be implemented to address the root causes. While the challenge ahead is significant, safeguarding the capital and restoring confidence requires an unwavering collective determination. Therefore, it is pretty alarming and shameful to hear that a group of abductors has managed to invade the capital city of a nation without facing any resistance. Such a situation not only puts the safety and security of the citizens at risk but also raises serious questions about the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies and the government’s ability to protect its people. It’s a matter of great concern and calls for immediate action to bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure the safety of the residents.

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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