Friday, June 14, 2024

Criminalised Ransom Payments And The Burden of Responsibility

In a bid to amend the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2013 over a month ago, the Senate criminalised the payment of ransom to abductors and imposed a jail term of 15 years for paying kidnappers and terrorists for the release of any person wrongfully confined, imprisoned or kidnapped. The amendment also prescribes death penalty for the crime of abduction in cases where victims die and life imprisonment in other cases.

The bill was passed following the consideration of a report by the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, under the chairmanship of Senator Opeyemi Bamidele who believes quite curiously that ransom payments fuel the Kidnap industry.

At surface level, the lawmakers’ argument requires the benefit of scrutiny. Nigeria is a country not new to the intricacies of incentivizing bad behaviour: many have long realised the futility of seeking to engage the Nigerian government in peaceful dialogue and have acknowledged rather regrettably that the only language the Nigerian government understands is force. The Niger Delta militants understood this early enough and applied it. Boko Haram worked on the same template.

In both instances, their efforts were rewarded by not just a listening ear but also offers of amnesty by which money was a big motivating factor, although it is important to add a great context that such armed groups looking to force the government’s purse must have the right ethnicity and/or leverage, and most importantly, not be from the South East, or their cases would be vastly different.

Paying ransom does indeed embolden would-be kidnappers as well as others who are already making a killing in the shadow industry. In 2020, SBM Intelligence reported that nearly 20 million dollars have been exchanged as ransom between kidnappers and families of victims between 2011 and 2020. The epidemic has gotten worse since then, which means the number (which was only reported figures) are now higher and rightly so if adjusted for inflation.

Beyond this, this proposed legislation which seeks to criminalise ransom payments must be called out for what it is: a clear deflection of government responsibility. In understanding the economics of Nigeria’s Kidnap industry, whatever insights given must squarely account for government’s gross irresponsibility which has in turn fuelled a security crisis that has in turn swallowed members of the ruling elites among others. Kidnap (in Nigeria) as a vice became an issue at the end of the oil boom of the 1970s which ushered in a period of poor economic developments, exacerbated strikes in Nigeria’s academic sector, poor social services and crucially, the return of the military at the end of 1983.

The problem saw a rise with the Niger Delta agitation against environmental abuse and exploitation by international oil companies and the agitators became militants in the 1990s. The militants deployed kidnappings of oil workers and police escorts as a tactic to bring the government to its knees and the international community’s attention. The main drivers of this industry are simply poor economics or poverty economics. The militants did not invent kidnap for ransom.

It was a security problem nationally before they incorporated it as a tool in their struggle. The economic problems that made Kidnap for ransom a thriving industry in the 1970s are still present with us generations after. The government’s decision to push the burden of responsibility on the taxpayer is a very disingenuous way of taking its hands off the problem, especially when it has simply not done enough for economic growth to give kidnappers a better option.

There are several ways to take down this bill (not yet passed as it requires assent by the House of Representatives and the President). First, we need to be clear on enforcement. Most ransom payments are done with the aid of the police. The military has also paid ransom for some of its abducted officers. There was a report recently that the air force paid terrorists in the North West to retrieve a dangerous anti air weapon so as to forestall its use against the President’s plane who was scheduled to travel to one of the states.

I am saying that payment of ransom is a policy that cannot be exterminated as state agents that are supposed to implement the law are actively engaging in it. Secondly, the law will not achieve anything other than an empowerment of the police to scapegoat families of victims who pay ransom to kidnappers without its knowledge (aimed at collecting a share of the spoils). It may most likely turn out to be a shakedown tool by law enforcement agents on a hapless citizenry who the law is already aiming to burden with the task of national security.

Will the bill, if passed into law, reduce kidnappings? No. If anyone believes that I have a newly constructed Third Mainland Bridge to sell to that person. As a matter of fact, it will increase ransom payments as desperation will set in for families of the Kidnap victims who cannot rely on the security agencies to keep them safe.

It is not hard to foresee how the law will turn the police into official ransom brokers by victims who are seeking to escape the law. This is not to say the police have not been facilitating such payments. This will embolden them officially as the capacity of the Nigerian state continues to decline.

Improving security must come with a realisation from policy making quarters that we simply cannot legislate our way into national security. The government has failed to do the hard work of preventing the situation from boiling over and has resorted to draconian crumbs to put the genie back into the bottle, but the bad news subsists that ship has long sailed.

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