In the mid-1990s, Colombia somehow gained the unwholesome reputation of being the kidnap capital of the world. That is aside from its reputation as the cocaine epicentre of the globe.
It got so bad that when visitors knocked on your gate, you fear that they had come for you. That was exactly what happened to fashionista, Amalia de Hazbun, also known as ‘The Golden Needle of Colombia’ when someone knocked on her gate sometime in the mid-‘90s.
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I met her years later, after that knock on her gate. She was sitting in her posh house in Barranquilla, a city with a carnival so old no one has bothered documenting its origin. In her 70s at the time of our encounter, Amalia, a great beauty and a fashion icon, dresses Colombia’s elites and carnival queens are honoured to wear her designs.
Like most Colombians, Amalia had been troubled by the kidnap plague that had infected her country. She had been watching the news. When she saw kidnap victims being freed or rescued, she was shocked by how unkempt they looked. Their hair tousled, eyes wild, face swarthy, bearing the horror of their experience. She spoke about this with some annoyance, an irritation directed at the TV crew that capture these victims as they are emerging from their nightmares.
So on that day, they knocked on her door, many years before, she was almost certain they had come for her. So she reached for the first thing she could think of, the only thing she couldn’t do without—her make-up kit. She was never going to be taken without it because she didn’t want to look like the other victims on TV on the day she would be freed.
“God knows I would never let them see me looking miserable like that on TV,” she said, lips pursed, eyes travelling into the past, imagining the horror of such a thing happening.
Fortunately, it was not kidnappers who came for her that day, so she and her makeup kit stayed home. It was just someone who wanted something of no great consequence. But the memory of that panic has stayed with her.
In Nigeria today, we are living in this constant state of panic. It would seem we are living in the manner Amalin de Hazbun and her other compatriots lived in then. We are in constant dread of all the things that could kill you in this country.
Kidnapping for ransom has become an industry so huge it is almost impossible to imagine it is being run by just riff-raff wildlings with guns.
Newspapers and websites run dozens of stories of kidnappings, some more shocking than others. The latest big one, of course, being the school abductions in Niger State— another one for the growing count of school abductions. There are other worrying stories like that man who kidnapped his older brother’s wife. And sometimes they are bizarre, like the time a kidnap gang leader himself was kidnapped or that kidnapper who ended up as a passenger in the car of a man he had once kidnapped.
Stories of kidnappings are now a kobo a dozen in Nigeria and for some reason it seems the industry is expanding while the country dithers, watching as people are being hunted on the highways and in their homes and taken. And like Amalin, we are being advised to prepare for eventualities, especially when you are most vulnerable. “When travelling, wear casual comfortable clothes and shoes.” Just in case you are taken. You wouldn’t want to be caught in a suit and fancy shoes. That long trek in the bush will make you feel sorry for yourself.
Other than worrying over our safety, for those who have the luxury to, it is worth pondering over the fact that the authorities have not commissioned a comprehensive research into this menace, its origins, the social and economic dynamics behinds it and have not devised a strategy to combat it. It seems to just watch as the menace threatens to set the country afire.
Like everything else, ethnicity finds a way of creeping into the issue. Not without reason. It is a fact that a good majority of the kidnappers, based on accounts of the victims and those who escaped being kidnapped by whiskers are of the Fulani stock. While the Miyetti Allah has been all over with its gutsy defence of anything and everything Fulani, it is natural to expect that they would have and could have played a greater role in stemming the growing hazard some of its members are becoming.
The question of their culpability in the problem is one to ponder over as well. Those militias who have been running wild, exacting vengeance in the name of the Fulani herders might have outgrown their masters, as all little monsters tend to do.
This is why those who are championing the rise of the Yoruba ‘omo burukus,’ goading them on as they try to evict certain tribes from certain parts of the country need to be careful. If the lessons of Boko Haram and these criminal herdsmen have not shown us that wild things are not meant to be kept on a leash, then nothing will. The likes of Sunday Igboho might seem like a godsend at the moment, but what will happen when the threat he is being unleashed on is gone?
Of course, the likes of Dr Ahmad Gumi, who is making overtures to the Fulanis also need to be careful not to become a mouthpiece of bandits. The absence of government presence in their lives, which they choose to live far from civilisation, is no excuse for the crimes some of them are committing.
Of course, none of these would be happening if the government has been more responsive, if justice is seen to be done to the kidnappers, and other criminals wherever they are from and whatever tribe they belong to. It is this complacency, this attitude of amusing ourselves with wild things turned playthings that is pushing the country to the brink of chaos.
The biggest tragedy is that those whose duty it is to stop it seem to be revelling in just watching the horror unfold.
There are moments when silence is not golden. This silence is not even aluminium.