Security experts and analysts generally do not think highly of a bill before the National Assembly that seeks to criminalise payment of ransom to kidnappers.
The bill seeks to amend the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act, 2013. It was sponsored by the senator representing Imo East Senatorial District, Ezenwa Onyewuchi, and prescribes a 15-year jail term for anyone in Nigeria who pays ransom to free a kidnapped victim.
The bill, which has scaled second reading, was presented at the Senate plenary in July.
According to Mr Onyewuchi, the bill essentially seeks to substitute Section 14 of the Principal Act, which reads: “Anyone who transfers funds, makes payment or colludes with an abductor, kidnapper or terrorist to receive any ransom for the release of any person who has been wrongfully confined, imprisoned or kidnapped is guilty of a felony and is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment of not less than 15 years.”
Mr Onyewuchi said history had shown that even when ransom was paid, the life or safe return of a kidnapped victim was not guaranteed.
But lawyers dismissed the bill as “dead on arrival” and “impractical” even if passed by the federal lawmakers.
“For instance, how can you determine proof of ransom which requires a kidnapper to come and confirm that he collected ransom?” asked Frank Tie-Tie, a human rights lawyer. “It is impractical and the National Assembly should not waste scarce resources on a venture that serves no cause,” he said.
Dead on arrival?
Timothy Avele, the Managing Director of Agent-X Security LTD, said the bill is essentially a “death sentence on kidnap victims and their families if it can be enforced.”
Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at SBM, said the bill is emblematic of policy thinking that focuses on the wrong end of the spectrum.
“The law seeks to criminalise the legitimate and quite honestly, one of the most human of instincts – the desire of everyone not to allow their loved ones go through pain or suffering.
“It is wrong and immoral of a government which has failed to deliver on protecting the lives and properties of Nigerian households all over the country,” he said.
Mr Effiong said ransom demand, while being a driver of kidnapping, is not one of the ‘key drivers’.
“It is the structural economic, political and social drivers of the problem that should occupy lawmakers, not people trying to secure the freedom of their loved ones.”
Mr Tie-Tie stressed that such a law cannot be enforced. “Some laws are naturally unenforceable. No matter how you make them, you cannot enforce them because they are unnatural and are bound to die a natural death for lack of enforcement,” he explained.
“When this bill becomes a law, it will be useless, so why embark on such a venture? People will not obey it and it will have no effect.”
Mr Tie-Tie said the proposal is highly insensitive, considering the fact that security forces have been unable to stem the tide of insecurity in the country, especially kidnapping and banditry.
“When these occasions happen, the victims with their families are left helpless. There is no encouraging history of the police rescuing kidnap victims in the past and present, therefore the citizens can only resort to self-help which is negotiating with the kidnappers and bandits for the purpose of releasing their loved ones. This is the reality of Nigeria today.
“To start criminalising self-help without providing security and other alternative help to the citizenry is not only insensitive but highly irresponsible of any arm of government, particularly the National Assembly at this point.”
Nzube Akunne, a Lagos-based lawyer, agrees with Mr Tie-Tie.
“Our criminal jurisprudence hovers around two main pillars of mens rea [intent] and actus reus [the physical act] and which may be lacking in ingredients for the offence to be created by the payment of ransom to secure the release of a kidnapped victim, especially where the ransom is paid in cash and without any trace and the perpetrators cannot be apprehended. It will therefore be difficult for the law enforcement agencies and the eventual prosecutor(s) to prove the offence in a court of law,” Mr Akunne said.
“I doubt it (the bill) will move the needle. In a country where ransom amounts are rarely ever disclosed and Nigerians are left to their devices in terms of negotiating with these gangs, I struggle to imagine how the government will be able to enforce this law,” SMB’s Mr Effiong said.
Insurgents and other armed groups have found kidnapping for ransom lucrative, making the crime pervasive in Nigeria.
High-profile Nigerians used to be the target of kidnappers but this has changed with the highways now the hunting ground for kidnappers with ordinary Nigerian becoming preys.
In 2015, James Adichie, a professor of statistics and father of award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, paid an undisclosed amount of ransom for his release following his kidnapping on a highway in the southeastern part of the country.
But in recent times, as the industry spreads across the country, people in low and middle-income classes are increasingly becoming targets.
According to a report by SB Morgen (SBM) Intelligence, a security and political risk analysis firm, there were fewer incidents of individual kidnappings, and larger amounts changing hands in the past half decade compared to now when there are a lot more incidents for smaller amounts.
But the sheer number of incidents, speaking to the democratisation of the kidnap industry, indicates that the kidnap economy now makes more money.
The SBM report revealed that between June 2011 and the end of March 2020, at least $18.34 million was paid to kidnappers as ransom in Nigeria and the larger proportion of that figure (just below $11 million) was paid out between January 2016 and March 2020.
With northern Nigeria increasingly becoming more volatile with violent activities, the bigger and more organised armed groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP are turning their attention to “softer targets” such as schools and public institutions, leaving individual and highway kidnap bounties for smaller criminal gangs.
Since last December, armed groups seeking ransom have kidnapped nearly 1, 000 students and pupils from boarding schools and other educational facilities in at least six separate incidents across northern Nigeria.
These incidents occurred mainly in Kaduna, Zamfara, Katsina, Borno, Yobe, Benue with Niger State being the most recent. About 200 children were kidnapped from an Islamic school in Niger State.
The parents of such students were left to pay ransom to the kidnappers for the release of their children.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how about 20 students of Greenfield University were freed after 40 days in captivity. Their parents reportedly paid over N100 million to the kidnappers who demanded more money.
Meanwhile, security experts believe in most cases where students were kidnapped, the government negotiated with the terror groups and paid ransom even though they always denied such transaction.
For instance, on December 11, 2020, more than 300 boys were abducted from their boarding school in the town of Kankara, Katsina State. Boko Haram claimed responsibility and the boys were released after six days following reported negotiation with the authorities. But the government typically denied any ransom was paid.
Many have also criticised certain state governments such as in Katsina and Zamfara for negotiating with bandits and introducing amnesty schemes, saying such negotiations embolden criminal activities as perpetrators know they can at least negotiate conditions for safety or even get paid huge ransoms.
While alluding that negotiating with armed groups is not the solution, analysts say the government is applying “double standard” by criminalising payment for ransom to kidnappers while also negotiating with abductors.
In a Twitter post earlier this year, President Muhammadu Buhari charged security agents to improve security around schools and warned that the policy of “rewarding bandits with money and vehicles” could “backfire with disastrous consequences.”
Yet, Mr Buhari in March 2018 announced that his government was ready to accept the “unconditional laying down of arms by any member of the Boko Haram group who shows strong commitment in that regard.”
“Come to think of it, security agencies are paying ransom to free their kidnapped staff. Federal and state authorities are also paying,” Mr Avele observed.
“As it stands now, in view of the current security challenges and inability of the security agencies to do anything to tame the ‘beast’, the bill is essentially a death sentence on kidnapped victims and their families.”
Military operations involving the bombing of suspected hideouts of kidnappers have been deployed by authorities but with the country’s porous borders and vast forests, the proliferation of arms and secessionist tensions, the war against insurgency, security forces are over-stretched, poorly paid and underequipped, while the police forces are largely centralised.
In April 2018, UNICEF reported that Boko Haram had abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013, including 276 girls from Chibok in Borno State and 113 from Dapchi in Yobe State.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), using data from law enforcement agencies of member states, 277 kidnappings were reported in Nigeria in 2007; 309 in 2008; 703 in 2009; 738 in 2010; 600 in 2012; and 574 in 2013. No data were provided for 2011.
In 2015, the Nigeria Police Force reported 886 kidnappings. About 630 people were reportedly abducted between May 2016 and May 2017. A recent Bulwark Intelligence threat analysis indicated that kidnapping figures remained relatively stable in 2017 and 2018.
Nigeria also has one of the world’s highest rates of kidnap-for-ransom cases.
Other countries high up on the list included Venezuela, Mexico, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Meanwhile, some Nigerian researchers believe many kidnap victims and missing persons were abducted for ritual purposes rather than for ransom or any political objectives.
While kidnapping incidents are generally underreported in Nigeria, security experts believe a law criminalising payment for ransom will further result in a lack of official crime data as many people would rather keep the negotiation with the kidnappers secret than involve security agents, for fear of jeopardising the chances of their loved ones’ freedom.
Many kidnap victims have been killed in the course of their abduction, custody or release.
For Mr Avele, the way out is for the security, intelligence and military forces to confront kidnappers and their sponsors headlong.
“Hit their forest bases continually until they could no longer feel safe or use the forest as bases and hideout. I strongly suggest specially equipped clandestine tactical ghost teams to do the hunting, backed by actionable intelligence operations.
“State governments must be ready to fund such special tactical teams with logistics. The team should be made of highly motivated officers with guarantee to fully support their families should they be killed in action. No time left. With the way insecurity is spreading fast all over the country, very soon the senators will not be able to go back to their bases for any kind of campaign, that’s if even their Abuja base will not be overrun soon.”
Mr Akunne urged the government to address the security challenges rather than seek to punish innocent citizens trying to secure the lives of their loved ones. They should not adopt “this imbalance strategy to shy away from their primary duties of securing lives and properties of the citizens,” he concluded.
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