Toni Kan: Before I am kidnapped

by Toni Kan

Niger Delta militants

We must participate in securing our selves or the next time you open the newspaper it might be your own face you see in the metro section with the caption: Lagos Blogger Kidnapped!

It is a hot and somnolent afternoon. I have taken the day off work to catch my breath and two friends are keeping me company at home when the message comes in. It is from my wife – “Call Nnenna. She was kidnapped.”

That was my wake up call.

I have heard talk about people being kidnapped and huge sums being paid as ransom. There have been high profile cases. The Okonjo; the Nkiru Sylvanus and the Bamigbetan cases, to name just two recent ones. But newspaper stories are usually no more than that; newspaper stories. The characters and personalities and personages are far removed. They are not our friends or brothers or sisters. They are subjects, people that certain things happened to. We may empathise but we do not lose sleep over it so much. “Oh, na big man dem!” You will hear people say.

But it took that text message to put me on notice that the next person that is kidnapped could very well be me or you for that matter. The kidnapping menace now presents a clear and present danger to all of us whether we have money or not, whether we live in the city or in the suburbs.

Nnenna is a banker friend. Pretty and fair complexioned she is always well dressed and likes her jewelry. She drives a modest car and lives in a modest neighbourhood. Compared to me and my family, one would say we are fairly well off on account of where we live and those other indicators of social standing

Nnenna doesn’t do the club scene. Her routine is pretty simple; work, church, the usual weddings weekends. Unlike me who, because of my engagements as a writer, journalist and public relations practitioner, is constantly on the move with a million events to attend and most of those at night. I would say that compared to Nnenna, I am more often in harm’s way and that is what makes this particularly scary:  you cannot tell who is a target. Everyone is now a potential kidnappers’ target.

Two things happened before I received that text message from my wife. Deji, a dear friend of mine had sent out a broadcast message calling on the Lagos State Governor to launch an “Operation Know Your Neighbour” as a means of helping stop the kidnapping scourge and when I didn’t forward it to my contacts, Deji had called to tell me off for not being engaged enough.

“E fit be you o or me,” he said but I had laughed and told him to stop being so dramatic.

Then, last week, I took a trip home to Delta state and was regaled with stories of kidnappings. My Uncle said that the heat in the wake of the Okonjo kidnap had chased the criminals out of the Asaba-Ibusa-Ogwashi Ukwu axis but while the heavy hitters have left town, young boys made aware of how easy money can be made by kidnapping your neighbour have now jumped into the fray.

For the first time, my father and I stayed in a hotel in Asaba. We were scared of being made sport of by young school boys whom we heard now demand for ransom as low as N30,000 per victim.

How did we get to this point? Well, the blame is usually laid at the doorsteps of the Niger Delta militant group, MEND who routinely kidnapped foreign oil workers for huge sums. In time, I heard last week, non-MEND members began to provide logistics support to MEND. They learnt the trade, found how lucrative it was and moved the game down river, away from the creeks into the major cities and suddenly, the targets were no longer expatriate oil workers but fellow Nigerians and it started off, almost innocuously in the sense that the general populace was not to be bothered. If you didn’t have money, didn’t spend lavishly, didn’t drive a big car or live in a mansion, you practically didn’t have to worry about kidnappers. But all that has changed now. Every Nigerian is fair game and the kidnappers have now become more brazen, there is now an atavistic recourse to mindless violence.

There has also been a sea change in the modus operandi. Before now, most kidnap victims were almost always returned alive. The intent was never to harm. The kidnap victim was never the objective. The objective was money and the victim was no more than a bargaining chip.

That seems to have changed. Today, kidnappers routinely kill their victims even after huge sums have been paid as ransom.

Last year, the Delta State House of Assembly, alarmed by the growing trend, proposed the “Delta State Anti-Kidnapping and Anti-Terrorism Bill, 2012” proposing death sentences for kidnappers. The state governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, refused to assent to the bill arguing that the death penalty is outdated and proposing life sentence instead. The arguments fall on both sides; the possibility of a death sentence would make kidnappers more vicious some argued while others were of the opinion that the possibility of a death sentence would be a major deterrent.

While the argument rages, the menace has come to Lagos and whatever comes to Lagos “sells like hot cake.” The city and state has the most high profile celebrities, some of the most affluent Nigerians, a very active night life and major traffic jams. These are all cannon fodder for kidnappers.

While kidnappings have been going on constantly in Lagos, it took the kidnapping of Honourable Bamigbetan to bring it to the front pages and now everyone is scared and asking the state governor who is the Chief Security Office to do something.

As we begin to seek solutions (and hopefully before Christmas when the crime rate hits the roof) the Lagos state government should look to Bogota in Colombia. In the 90s, Bogota was the crime capital of the world. Kidnapping was the order of the day and it started just like it did in Nigeria with foreigners as the major targets then it percolated down to the common people.

In 1993, there were 4,352 intentional homicides aside kidnappings and robberies and bomb blasts and when the government crackdown didn’t work, the state adopted hat was called “Communidad Segura” (community security) a participatory and integrated security policy that saw the citizens and security agencies working hand in hand to root out criminals from within the polity something akin to the “Operation Know Your Neighbour” that my friend Deji has proposed.

Did “Communidad Segura” work? It did. It did not eliminate crime but by 2007, intentional homicides in Bogota had dropped to 1,401.

We can do the same in Lagos. Kidnappers do not live in the bush. They rent flats and hotel rooms. They have people who look out for them. The security agencies know who they are. We must all get involved. If you have neighbours who you think may be carrying on a shady business report to the and  police. If you notice strange entrances or exits, report to the police or put it on Facebook and twitter. We must participate in securing our selves or the next time you open the newspaper it might be your own face you see in the metro section with the caption: Lagos Blogger Kidnapped!

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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