Hussaini Ismail, a Shari’a Court judge, spent 53 days in the captivity of kidnappers in the dreaded Rugu forest in Katsina State. In this interview with Mohammed Babangida after his release, the Islamic jurist and school teacher tells PREMIUM TIMES how he was kidnapped, how he taught the kidnappers how to pray and how he was freed after the payment of a ransom.
PT: How were you kidnapped?
Mr Isma’il: I was sitting in the court chamber around 3 p.m. with some of my staff when we saw two motorcycles carrying four gunmen carrying AK-47 guns drove into the premises. As soon as they walked into the chamber, they said they were there to take the judge. By then, I was already running towards the door leading to the emergency exit with one of my staff, Bashir. One of the gunmen chased us. When we reached the door and it was locked, Bashir was trying to open it when the one chasing us held me by the shirt. I turned and pushed him backward and exited through the door but I unfortunately fell down after colliding with a wall. The gunman pointed his gun at me and said I should stop running. Another gunman quickly came and grabbed me by the shirt and started dragging me.
Meanwhile, other court members were already running helter-skelter and before you knew it, the court became empty.
PT: Did anybody try to save you?
Mr Isma’il: No. Almost everyone was running for his life and I didn’t see anyone coming to help me even after I was asked to climb one of the motorcycles. Three of us, with the two bandits, climbed one motorcycle while the two others climbed the other motorcycle.
PT: Where did they take you?
Mr Isma’il: Well, I can only say we drove for more than five hours. Immediately after leaving the court premises, they drove on high speed toward the bush and immediately we started the journey, one of them blindfolded me. But the forest, I later learnt, was in the Zamfara part of the Rugu forest. Though I was blindfolded, I knew that the area was rocky. We stopped more than three times for them to clear the path we were to follow.
We finally reached the top of a very big hill where we met other gang members. I was still blindfolded but I knew they were many because voices increased. It was already dark when we reached there.
PT: What was the first thing they did when you reached the hill top?
Mr Isma’il: Before we even reached, they checked my pockets and took away my money amounting to over N40,000 because I had just collected my Sallah package from an Islamic school I teach. So, when we reached there, one of them kicked and told me to kneel down. Over five guns were pointed at me as one of them, whom I believe is the Oga, asked me for money. I told him that his boys had taken the money but he shouted and said not the one in my pocket. He said they needed plenty of money and that was why they kidnapped me. I told them I am not rich but a civil servant waiting for monthly salary. He struck me hard with his gun on the head. He repeated it for more than three times before he finally said they would kill me if I failed to give them plenty money.
But I insisted that I had no money. One of them said they should not kill me today but let me be till the following morning. Before they let me sit down, one of them slapped me with his cutlass on the back while the other one kicked me on the stomach. The Oga shouted that they should remove the rag they blindfolded me with so that I could see how he would kill me. I was so scared but they did nothing. What I learnt is that they were just frightening me to ensure that I quickly link them with my relatives. Because in the night, one of the gunmen staying with me said he could see I am a good man and that I should tell my relatives to quickly get the ransom money because he wouldn’t like to see me suffering in their hands.
PT: Are they old men or young?
Mr. Isma’il: No. Very young. The oldest among them should be around 27 but all the gang members should be around 18, 19 and 20. And they are all Fulanis because they only spoke to me in Hausa but their conversations were all in Fulfulde. Those who are 20 and above are called captains. They have military ranks for themselves. But it is only captain and commanders that are the leaders.
PT: How did they get across to your family?
Mr Isma’il: While I was being kidnapped, one of them made sure they picked my phone. In the morning, they took the phone and because my line is MTN, they took my number and used the phones to call my wife. The lines that work there are 9mobile and Airtel. So, that was how they started discussing with my wife who linked them with my in-law, her father, and other well-wishers.
PT: in the days you spent, what did they give you to eat?
Mr Isma’il: Spaghetti and beans. Sometimes bread. That was what they eat and it was not even regularly that I was given food.
PT: How about prayers?
Mr Isma’il: Well, they didn’t care to pray even though they’re Muslims and I spent days praying by intent as prescribed in the Islamic law. I would just assume that I had performed my Taimama and then pray. It was after some days that one of them, after seeing me moving my fingers as I pray from where I sit, he asked what I was doing and I told him. He then said that I should be praying accordingly, that they would not stop me from praying.
But the funny thing is that one day, that same person asked me to teach them how to pray because they were just doing it as they wished (laughs). I had to tell them the number of Raka’ats every particular prayer has and how to even do the prayers. I also taught them how to do Islamic supplications after every prayer. I also taught them how to perform ablution. Some of them, I learnt, were eager to learn and when the others came and found their colleagues praying not their normal way, they asked me to teach them too. So, I gradually became a sort of an Islamic teacher to them and because of that they reduced the beatings and harassment. But they kept asking me for money.
PT: What other things did you notice?
Mr Isma’il: If I should be honest with you, I would tell you that those young boys are not necessarily the one benefiting from the ransom because they kept talking on phone with their leaders who must either be in the city or in their villages but don’t even necessarily enter the forests.
PT: How did you know that?
Mr Isma’il: Almost five of them that I spoke with, because we gist in the evening with some of them that are staying with me, told me that they were tired of the activities but they could do nothing about it. One of them even said if I could help him get a job in Katsina where he would be getting N1,000 daily to feed himself he would drop his arms. But he said he was afraid of his leaders.
Only two of them told me that they were into the activities because their cattle were stolen. One of them said his family cattle were all stolen and he would continue to terrorise people for that.
But overall, those benefiting from the ransom money are not in that forest because they kept telling me they were afraid of sabotaging their big ‘ogas.’ But they didn’t tell me anything.
And one more thing, they are also afraid of death because one of them said whenever they were going out they felt it could be the last time they would be doing so. And in the night, when there is any strange sound in the camp, they would all hide in shrubs.
They also said that they know when they die, Allah will punish them for what they are doing. They told me that on several occasions.
One more thing I noticed is that they are stark illiterates because they can’t read or write anything. When they received calls, they would give me the phone to check who is calling or to check if they still have air time to call. They also used to give me their phones to search for numbers for them to call or send messages. They have families in their villages that they call regularly and some of them even go home to sleep and buy essentials for the rest.
PT: Some people are saying that the bandits are being overhyped; that they don’t have the weapons to …
Mr Isma’il: (smiles) It is when you are kidnapped that you will know. I have seen guns and bullets. When I had spent 41 days with them, one of them told me they were battle ready. I have seen guns and bullets as I said. Everyone has an AK-47 gun and there were even spare guns kept. They also have some weapons. They are deadly and they have weapons. And they have strategies because they kept changing place for me, taking me to like three different places in the forest.
Let me tell you something very strange. One of them once said Islamic preachers are part of the reason they (bandits) are increasing and when I asked him how, he said we don’t pray for them to repent; that we were always praying for their damnation. He said they listen to sermons in the towns but no Mallam is even praying for Allah to help them repent. He said they don’t like the way we (Mallams) are doing. I told him I am not a Malam but a judge but he said we are all the same.
PT: Some of your friends in the security agencies said you escaped from them. What actually happened, was ransom paid?
Mr Isma’il: One million naira was paid by my family, students and well-wishers.
PT: Who took the money to them and what happened after that?
Mr Isma’il: Initially, those bringing the money said they would come on Monday but they didn’t. There was a four days delay because it was on Friday that the money finally arrived. In those days, they nearly killed me because on Wednesday when the ransom money was not brought, their leader was angry and beat me. I gave up returning home alive. They suddenly became hostile to me because they were eager to collect the money. The second-in-command even called my wife and asked her to bid me farewell, that they would kill me that night. It was scary. They received the money eventually on Friday but decided not to hand me to the one who brought the ransom.
When he asked them for me, they told him to go that I would follow him later. He too was beaten by them when he said he would not leave without me. They beat him and took away his phone before they let him go.
When they collected the money, one of them gave me water and detergent to wash my head and wash my clothes. I had not changed clothes or taken bath for 53 days. When I washed my clothes and took bath, he said that I would be released that day. The second-in-command told me sorry, promising that I would see my family that day.
Around 8 to 9 in the night, the four of them took me on two motorcycles and took me to a place in the night. We drove for more than three hours before they finally stopped and told me to go away. I trekked for hours before I could see any sign of people. That was how I started looking for a vehicle.
But aside the money aspect, I know that prayers helped a lot. I was always praying for myself that one of them said I shouldn’t bother praying that they wouldn’t kill me. But I told him that when you’re in need of Allah’s help, you need to pray earnestly. Also, my students in Katsina and elsewhere intensified in prayers. Special prayers were also held in Jumu’at mosques for my release.
PT: Have you forgiven them?
Mr Isma’il: I can’t. I have not forgiven them, honestly, because I was emotionally and physically attacked. My family, friends, students and well-wishers also suffered to get me out. I think it is best left to God. But I have not forgotten them.