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The problem with the South East

Last weekend, my brother’s friends, on their way from a funeral in the South East, were abducted by kidnappers who requested millions for their release.…

Last weekend, my brother’s friends, on their way from a funeral in the South East, were abducted by kidnappers who requested millions for their release. It is a testament to how commonplace this has become that when my brother shared the news in our family group chat, the shock wasn’t that it had happened at all, but how much the criminals had the temerity to ask for (N100 million). Eventually, they were bargained down, the ransom was paid, and the abducted men were released. They are safe now, but traumatised.

As a child, I knew about kidnappers: evil men who snatched you off the road when you weren’t paying attention, or who drove you off in their cabs if you weren’t discerning enough not to enter cabs with only men in them (a red flag) and used you for goodness knows what. I had never heard of anyone actually being kidnapped. And certainly not a grown-up. So, while kidnappers existed, they did so in the realm of legends. And there were practical steps that one took to avoid falling prey to them. These days, apart from surrounding yourself with well-armed security, there seems to be no way of safeguarding oneself against it. Everyone has a kidnapping story to share across the country, but the South East, at least anecdotally, seems to be the worst hit.

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine passed by the aftermath of a kidnapping near Enugu town: a dead body by the side of the road. Last year, a reverend father and his companion were kidnapped and held for ransom. In December of 2023, the traditional ruler of a community in Imo State was abducted and killed. And on and on. It is a shame that we cannot travel to our villages without the anxiety of worrying about security. Some return when they must but choose to stay in hotels rather than in the homes they or their parents built (and furnished) out of fear of being targeted for kidnap for ransom.

It is important to understand these kidnappings within worsening security conditions in the region. A friend of mine who was in Anambra State recently to bury her father lamented that the bulk of the funeral budget went on hiring military officers and police officers to ensure that they and their guests were safe. In their case, their fear wasn’t that mourners would be kidnapped, but that without the security, they were somehow being reckless with their lives, and the lives of those who had come to mourn with them.

Just last month, a police station in Neni, Anambra State, was attacked and burned by hooligans. Apparently, the police managed to overcome the criminals who ran away. I have looked taya for updates but who said? We have heard stories of not just police stations being attacked but officers themselves killed by these bandits who seem determined to ruin the South East.

Which way forward? Those who can have already divested the government of the job of keeping them safe. They hire and move around with their own security personnel. Those who can’t pray that these kidnappers are blind to them. These days, one doesn’t even have to be wealthy to be held hostage for money. I heard of someone who was kidnapped (but perhaps the kidnappers didn’t want the stress of keeping him in a room and feeding him), and so they just drove him around until he’d called enough people to raise the amount they were asking for, and then they dumped him somewhere, shirtless and trouserless, to find his way home.

So again, which way forward? Perhaps, one cannot (should not) talk of security without linking it to unemployment and poverty. Kidnapping has become the easiest way to earn money. According to Dataphyte.com, “A cumulation of the unemployment percentages shows that between 2018 and 2020, about four in every 10 persons were without a job in Southeastern Nigeria.” Between 2020 and now, I doubt much (if any) progress has been made.

While I am certainly not making excuses for criminals, and while I am aware that there are those who are motivated purely by greed, we cannot make any progress if the root causes of this kidnapping epidemic and the security issues that enable it—unemployment and poverty—are not addressed. It is only by governments tackling these issues can we hope to restore a sense of safety and normalcy to our communities.

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