“Do not try to fight a lion if you are not one yourself”. African proverb
The widespread relief at the release of 334 schoolchildren abducted by criminals in Kankara, Katsina State, was genuine. There may have been a few who would have preferred a longer version, or a different, more tragic outcome of this demeaning drama because it would bloody political noses. They would be people who live in the short term, opportunists who live in expectation of more evidence of the failure of President Buhari to govern well, or at least as the circumstances demand. Furthermore, our sad history of living with large-scale violence will make most Nigerians reluctant to entertain conspiracy theorists. The vast majority of Nigerians only saw hundreds of children who could be theirs retrieved from fates similar to other schoolchildren in Borno and Yobe States, or abducted and inducted as fighters for terrorists. But it would be wrong not to revisit an event that started with fear and pain and ended with justifiable relief.
Long after the children were reunited with their parents, Kankara will continue to be a major reference point in the nation’s journey towards losing its many battles against organised crimes and armed groups. Tragically, history will record Kankara as an event waiting to happen, an episode that speaks to the character of our lives today, and a reminder of the limitations of an administration seemingly resigned to its challenges. Kankara shed cruel light on a President with little empathy and no sense of occasion or urgency. It exposed the vulnerability of the country’s defences as well as the widening gulf between the citizen and the state. It brought home the agony of communities that have lived with routine abuse by criminals in many parts of the north. In its scale and sheer audacity, it registered new frontiers in the progress of violence into the lives of simple, hardworking folks who had asked nothing of leaders other than to be left in peace to live with their poverty.
For a long while, the nation will remember the image of a President who continued with his holiday in the face of an unprecedented outrage just a few dozen kilometres away. It will recall pictures of a harassed Governor Masari travelling south to console parents and the community, and then travelling north to brief the President on efforts to secure the children. It will recall the days of panic and anger and dejection as hours became days and Boko Haram claimed to be in possession of the boys. The nation will recall statements by the governor that he was negotiating with the kidnappers who had released a video showing the children begging the President to call off rescue attempts and free them. It will recall the freeing of the boys in terrible images and their clean and neat appearance before the President the next day. It will recall a President urging the children to go back to school and study science and to persevere the way he persevered through three lost elections before he became president.
Beyond the drama of the abductions and release of the children, the nation will note, with great foreboding, the fiasco around the release of the children, which is still playing out. In terms of what it says about the security of the nation under this leadership, it is even more frightening than the kidnapping itself. Governor of Zamfara State claimed he brokered the freedom of the boys through familiar intermediaries without paying ransom. Governor of Katsina State said the boys were retrieved following negotiations and intervention of friendly groups and no ransom was paid. Both said Boko Haram was not involved in the kidnapping. The military said it was responsible for the flawless operation, which resulted in the release of all the boys. Minister of Information hinted that there was a push from external interests. In the midst of all these, whispers rose into loud allegations from some APC quarters that a governor in the north west zone was sponsoring bandits and kidnappers. There would have been no prize for guessing that the suspect governor would be from the PDP stable. Before long, the governor of Zamfara State strongly denounced the attempt to link him with the criminals. He only used his extensive influence and experience in dealing with bandits and kidnappers in and around his state to facilitate their release, he protested.
It is perfectly conceivable that both governors and the military all contributed in averting a major tragedy, but the fallouts and the escalation of kidnappings in other areas of Katsina State and elsewhere after the release of the boys suggest that Kankara was an untidy job that covered more than it revealed. It is conceivable, but improbable, that the kidnappers were hemmed in by respect for governors and professionalism of the military to hand over every child they were holding and walk away to forage for victims elsewhere. Payment of ransom by thousands of families and governments is routine, and many in authority have learnt that you have to share a bed with criminals these days if you want some respite or relief when they threaten to make leaders look particularly bad. There are sound reasons why, in many cases, its concealment is well advised, particularly when it could serve as an impetus for more crimes, or it stains the integrity of some parties. To ask if the kidnappers were paid ransom could be idle speculation unless the question is directly related to developments that are linked to the mode of settlement. Hundred or more kidnappers could have been persuaded to free the children in return for their own freedom from arrest or in place of a fight they will not win. Equally possible, kidnappers could have been ‘settled’ and allowed to go free as the price for freeing the boys. What is more difficult to believe is that kidnappers were persuaded to hand over the boys without inducement and allowed to go forth and sin no more.
There are many disturbing developments from the Kankara episode. One is the deeply-worrying allegation that a governor is sponsoring bandits and kidnappers. Virtually all governors in the north who live with violated communities have engaged in negotiations and inducements to bring an end to rustling, banditry and kidnapping. Far from eliminating it, it would appear that it has fed fat from the desperation of leaders with heavy responsibilities and little power and the abject vulnerability of populations to armed criminals. It is possible that the allegation is about scale here, and one would hope that partisan politics are not at play. Those who make this allegation must not be allowed to disappear into our mountain of woes the way the boys’ kidnappers did. We want to know how deeply the state is involved in the activities of bandits, but we are unlikely to know. The mention of Miyetti Allah as a facilitator in the release is also worrisome. We need to know if there is the involvement of this body and its nature because it will indicate the degree to which banditry and legitimate leadership relate, but we are unlikely to know. We need to know if kidnappings of other school children and others, which appeared to have risen in and around Katsina State are related to Kankara, but we may never know. We want to know when it will be safe for children to go back to school, but we may never know. We want to know if Kankara was a one-off or an escalation of the routine, but we will not know. We want to know if Kankara made us safer or more insecure. We will know the answer to this if more villages and highways and schools are attacked.