Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The worsening insecurity in the country

THE alarming rate of kidnapping in Nigeria in recent times, particularly in the South-East and South-South states has compounded the already frightening insecurity situation in the country. Before now, Nigerians had contended with the onslaught by armed robbers that have overrun the entire country. What started as a local problem largely as an aftermath of the civil war in the south quickly spread to other parts of the country. Today, no part of the country is free from the ravages of violent armed robbers. Not even in the far northern states, where life used to be absolutely safe. No more again. Armed robbers have taken root all over the country.

Since the advent of violent armed robbery, the government has done everything within its power to address the problem. The most violent approach, perhaps, was the setting up of armed robbery tribunals whose judgment led to the conviction and execution of hundreds of armed robbers by firing squad. That was during the military era in the 70s and 80s. It was erroneously believed that the option of firing squad for convicted robbers would bring the menace to an end. But that was wrong. Experience has shown that not even the public execution of the robbers could stop the deadly evil. As it were, there were cases of people whose cars were stolen even at the execution ground. That only ridiculed the option.

After a long concerted effort by government, it became obvious that the solution was ineffective as the number of robbers increased by the day. Following that reality, the armed robbery tribunals went under and public execution of convicted robbers was stopped or suspended. That in a way meant that the criminals had won as the situation went back to square one. Some people had insinuated that the public execution approach was a military solution. A civilian government would be incapable of meeting force with force. Hence, across the federation, there are hundreds of convicted criminals on death row languishing in prisons of which the state governors are reluctant to accede to their execution.

Ever since the demise of the tribunals and public execution of robbers, it is not clear what other option government has adopted to deal with the hydra-headed problem. Whatever strategy is in place certainly is ineffective given the increased number of armed robbers all over the place. While top government officials, politicians and the rich are given security coverage; the ordinary citizens are left at the mercy of the men of the underworld. Nothing can be more frightening than to be confronted with the reality that one is not safe in the country, not even in the serenity of one's home.

While the country is still battling with armed robbery, the most frightening kidnapping monster gradually crept in. I have used armed robbery to illustrate the emerging ugly trend of kidnapping because the two have similar origin. While armed robbery started as fallout to the civil war, kidnapping started as fallout to the armed conflict in the Niger Delta region over resource control. The proliferation of arms in all cases is the driving force. When an environment is created for the proliferation of arms and ammunition, then there is anarchy. Kidnapping and armed robbery are twin sisters; as such, the solution to the two is the same. The economic engagement of the idle minds in gainful employment is the way out.

In a spate of three years, kidnapping and hostage taking have spread from the Niger Delta creeks to the mainland. The monster has spread and taken deep root in the Southeast where thousands of able bodied but unemployed youths abound. Within the Southeast, Anambra State is the epicenter followed by Imo and Abia. In Anambra State for instance, residents sleep with half an eye! There is apprehension everywhere. The situation has got to the point whereby the banks are often closed and only operate skeletal services. Criminals who now target both the expatriates and all classes of Nigerians whose family could provide large ransom have infiltrated what started as pockets of abduction of mainly foreign oil workers in the Niger Delta as part of the "struggle to liberate the region".

A Police Affairs report released last week said the Southeast is the kidnapping region of Nigeria. The report says about 512 persons have been kidnapped in Nigeria this year alone, up by nearly 70 per cent from 2008 figures. Given the worrisome trend, virtually everybody is at risk of being kidnapped. Nigeria is currently among the top ten kidnapping countries. That has placed her among the ranks of Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya Region of Russia and Philippines, where violent criminal activities are rampant.

The effects of unbridled armed robbery and kidnapping on the economy are enormous. While the country is in the throes of infrastructural decay including lack of electricity for industrial development, the added woe of escalating criminal activities have dealt a heavy blow on the country's quest for foreign direct investment. The news at the disposal of the international community is that Nigeria is most unsafe to live and have investment. Thus, before any foreigner contemplates of coming to Nigeria, he or she would not only be calculating the high cost of investing in the country but also the safety of his or her life. Without doubt, this is the most unfavourable development in the country.

If Nigeria were placed side by side with the other countries in the kidnapping club, it would be found that most of those countries are at war. No sane person would dream of investing in a war torn country. The only viable investment in such crisis-ridden countries is arms and ammunitions, for that is what is profitable in the main. That explains why there is arms proliferation in the country. Given the conflict in the Niger Delta, some armed merchants must have found a ready market for their product. And so, more arms are being smuggled into the country. But since Nigeria is not officially at war, what we have at present is a break down of law and order due to security lapses on the part of government.

Kidnapping has assumed frightening proportion because the Federal Government took it as a problem of the Niger Delta. Evil is like cancer, it sticks at a spot and spreads from there if untreated. That was how armed robbery started as a problem in the south before it spread to other parts of the country. Since kidnapping had never been part of our cultural experience, the cankerworm would have been nipped in the bud if it had not been confused with militancy and taken as a localized problem in the creeks.

But even at that, the problem has not become endemic in most parts of the country, particularly the west and the north. What it means is that it could still be contained if the authorities are willing and determined to address it. If nothing is done to deal with this problem, I am afraid that in the next five to 10 years, armed robbery would be a child's play to kidnapping. It would get to a point when travelling from one part of the country to the other would be a major risk. Kidnappers would then hijack travellers on the highways and abduct as many as they want. The situation is tending toward that ugly scenario.

Against this backdrop, the security meeting convened last week at the instance of the Senate to address the problem is a step in the right direction. According to reports, the Senate had summoned the Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr. Shettima Mustapha, the Minister of State (Internal Affairs), Mr. Demola Seriki and some top security chiefs behind closed doors on the worsening security situation in the country. Chairman of the Senate Committee on Information and Media, Senator Ayogu Eze said the meeting was "informed by a recent motion in the Senate urging the Federal Government to take urgent steps to address the high rate of kidnapping and security lapses in the country".

At the end of the meeting, he said "we are satisfied that what needs to be done is being put in place to ensure that our country does not run into anarchy". It is important that the meeting is treated with the urgency it deserves. Whatever strategies were fashioned out to deal with the problem should be seen as a short-term measure. There is need to address the problem on long-term basis. The only viable solution is to work towards creating employment for the masses of able-bodied men and women roaming about the streets. The Federal Government can't do it alone. The states and local government councils should be involved. The Senate should involve the security chiefs of these tiers of government whenever strategies are being worked out. A collective effort is required to deal with the problem.