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Breaking the back of banditry

In 1984 when Ronald Reagan was re-elected US President (much to the chagrin of my friends and I), the opening sentence of his victory speech…

In 1984 when Ronald Reagan was re-elected US President (much to the chagrin of my friends and I), the opening sentence of his victory speech was, “Good habits are hard to stop.” Damn it, bad habits are also hard to stop.

Last week, in the wake of the massacre of 67 rice farmers at Zabarmari, Borno State, we discussed here some of the unpalatable options that our military and government may consider in order to end the insurgency. This morning, in the wake of weekend’s mass abduction of boarding secondary school students at Kankara, Katsina State, we could discuss some of the options before us in order to end banditry and kidnap for ransom once and for all.

Number one; if it is possible, let us convince the bandits that this life of violent crime that they have chosen for themselves cannot pay. Or maybe it can pay handsomely in the short run, but sooner or later the modern nation state will find an answer to it and the bandits’ ancestral community will pay a heavy price in lives, economy and culture. The kidnappers and bandits’ chosen career reminds me of a passage in a book about the American Mafia, which early last century was dominated by Italian Americans and some Irish gangsters.

The Italians arrived late in North America. Others had already occupied all the juicy sectors, so they carved a niche for themselves in the only open sector, which was organised crime. They had a historic advantage in the area because Sicily back home in Italy was already overflowing with mobsters. There is some parallel here because the pastoral community in Nigeria is arriving late to the dinner table. For centuries it plodded through the bushes rearing cattle, with no housing, education, health care or any amenities while urban people fed fat on its milk and cattle. When it finally arrived, all the juicy sectors are gone, so its youths took to insanely violent crime.

I do not know if there is a way to talk the pastoral youths out of kidnapping, so let’s consider the second option, which is to undertake a phenomenal increase in the number of Nigerian policemen and soldiers to half a million each. Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah said at the Umaru Shinkafi Security Summit last July that banditry is possible because there are too many ungoverned spaces in Nigeria. If we can place a guard company of 200 mobile soldiers in every local government in Nigeria, deep in the bush, that is only 154,000 soldiers. It may look expensive, but not nearly as expensive as the price we are now paying for insecurity.

Things would have been much easier if we can stop the inflow of small arms into the country. More than 10 years ago, the late President Umaru Yar’adua set up a committee on the inflow of small arms. It has not made much headway. It might not, when you remember that the United States had and still has serious trouble stopping the influx of cocaine into its territory. Without small arms, smuggled in or locally manufactured, violent crime will drastically reduce, so we must not give up on that option.

Right now, the government’s most potent weapon against kidnappers appears to be the Inspector General of Police’s Intelligence Response Team, currently headed by DCP Abba Kyari. This small force has cracked many high profile kidnap cases and has apprehended hundreds of kidnappers and bandits. The question to ask is, why can’t the IGP have several dozen more teams like this one? If the majority of kidnap cases end in arrests, pastoral youths may begin to realise that their new vocation does not pay.

Isn’t it time that we begin to plant locator devices in all our private and commercial vehicles? It should be a simple device that the driver could just push as soon as he runs into bandits. All other vehicles in the vicinity should also do the same. This system will however be useful only if the security agencies have the ability to arrive at the scene within minutes. This could be either because there is a military garrison in every local government, or because there are enough helicopters to ferry troops in from nearby super camps. Many readers will say this is a tall order, when police vehicles currently amble along on highways with poor maintenance and little fuel in their tanks.

The government may not have the money to buy and deploy 1,000 helicopters. Or if it does, the police will not maintain them any better than they currently maintain their vehicles. From observation, Federal Road Safety Commission maintains its vehicles much better than the police do, so maybe it should be put in charge of the helicopters. If we can’t afford choppers, surely we can afford drones. Drones could arrive at a crime scene very fast, could follow kidnappers into the bush and map their routes, and could also attack them. Kidnapping will stop in its tracks if drones begin to appear overhead at the crime scene and track kidnappers into the bush.

Next is the issue of mobile phones. The current kidnapping epidemic would never have been possible without the coming of mobile phones. How else would kidnappers be able to contact family members, negotiate for ransom, arrange pick up points and announce the release or killing of victims as the case maybe? Someone should tell MTN, Glo, Airtel and 9Mobile that the GSM revolution solved our communication problems but it has brought with it a huge collateral damage. There must be a telecom solution, and we must task them to produce it with the same urgency that the world’s pharmaceutical firms are looking for a COVID-19 vaccine.

If we were still in the military era, the Robbery and Firearms (Special Tribunals) Decree would have been quickly amended to extend public execution from armed robbery to kidnapping. May be it wouldn’t make much difference; Prof Shima Gyor wrote in 1984, just when the Buhari military regime resumed public execution of armed robbers, that execution will not stop armed robbery any more than accidents will stop people from entering motor cars. Maybe, but it would give citizens and victims’ families a certain sense of satisfaction. There was an American Philosophy professor who wrote, back in the 1980s, that when a terrible crime occurs, it is important for the authorities to apprehend and punish someone even if he was not the real culprit, in order for citizens to feel at ease. I do not subscribe to that, but it’s worth thinking about.

There are other, slightly more traditional options still open to us. Two or three years ago, Sarkin Zamfaran Anka in Zamfara State, Alhaji Attahiru Ahmad, advocated that there should be a general agreement that no one should pay ransom for a kidnap victim. Kidnap will stop if no one pays ransom, and the Emir quickly observed that the kidnappers will kill some victims, but then stop the kidnap business. Trouble is, who is ready to sacrifice his father, wife, daughter or very close friend in order to make a point and stop the kidnap business? Social bonds are far too strong for such rational calculations. A doctor once advised a family not to spend any more money on treatment for their father because he would not make it; they replied that they would rather go bankrupt even if he will not survive.

The other traditional option was what a pastoral community leader told Kaduna State Governor Nasiru el-Rufa’i at a stakeholders’ meeting last year. He said community elders lost control over their youths because their cattle herds are depleted and the youths no longer aspire to inherit the herds after the elders pass on. If that is the case, what does it cost Northern state governments to procure hundreds of thousands of cows, from as far away as Texas, Argentina and Tibet, to replenish the elders’ herds, if that is what will bring the youths back under their control?

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