Monday, 03 May 2021 05:37

Hobson’s choice: To pay or not to pay? - Umar Yakubu

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The hardest choices require the strongest wills – Thanos of Avengers.

I recall a movie by one of my favourite actors, Mel Gibson, titled, Ransom. The plot was about a multi-millionaire’s son being kidnapped with the assistance of crooked police officers. The ransom payment of $2 million was agreed to be delivered by Mel Gibson, the father. On his way to the drop off, he changed his mind and decided to go on live television and announce a reward of $4 million, double the amount, for anyone who assists in the return of his son alive. As with human materialism, pleonexia set it. The cops started shooting each other, and to cut a long story short, the boy was saved, and no bad cop got any money.

But that’s just a movie and no one should try that stunt here in Nigeria. But I draw inference from the statement of Governor El Rufai about the need for friends and families to stop paying ransom for their kidnapped relatives. On one hand, this makes a lot of sense. We may ask whether previous payments led to a reduction in the acts of kidnapping for ransom. Or if the subsequent killings reduced. On the basis of media reports and available statistics, the cases of kidnapping have actually risen. Just last week, three students were killed during kidnap negotiations — a very painful loss of young, innocent lives. As at the end of April, Kaduna State reported that 323 persons were killed and 949 kidnapped by bandits in the three prior months. We must note that cases of these incidents are under-reported, and the number could actually be much higher.

There have been several reports of the kidnapping of those delivering ransoms, which has created a new sphere of business – we now have professionals who earn a living from the delivery of ransoms to criminals! One kidnapper from Kano asked for the payment of ransom in cryptocurrency. This business is evolving and growing faster than our GDP. Since it’s a novel area, there is so much room for new tactics, that our current law enforcement infrastructure cannot cope with the pace of evolution. The enforcement agencies have the capacity, but not the willpower to act. Countries such as Venezuela, Somalia, and Mexico have not recorded decreases in the incidents of criminal abductions within their territories for years. On the basis of data available from Statista and other online sources, Nigeria was ranked number eight among global kidnapping hotspots in 2009. By 2014, it was number five. By 2017, number three. Kidnapping seems to flourish in fragile states and conflict-prone countries, as the vacuum left by the government must be filled by some activity or other, usually in terms of organised crime.

On the other hand, it’s difficult for a parent not to respond when asked for ransom for a kidnapped offspring, or even relative. It is the only option left on the table because, unlike the earlier cited movie, there is little faith in the ability of Nigerian law enforcement agencies to rescue the victims of this nefarious activity. Are they to merely pray? Hope? Wail? Or just pay? More recent kidnappers have become sick savages, and as such it makes sense to rush to take the more realistic option, despite unknown outcomes.

The kidnapping business must be stopped. And immediately. There must be a balance of terror at some point. We can’t afford the nuisance, alongside others vices like terrorism and banditry. South America countried like Colombia and Brazil have been battling these crimes for decades, and so also have India and others in deep conflict, like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Most of the kidnapping in those countries are of visiting foreigners. Earlier on in Nigeria, kidnappings mostly affected foreign oil workers, but of recent citizens have been kidnapping co-citizens, in dog eat dog fashion. The poor are kidnapping the poor. There is no unity in poverty and misery. The rich are providing information on themselves. Kids are conspiring to kidnap their parents. Jealous relatives and neighbours are providing information and snitching on each other. Colleagues in offices are conspiring against each other too! When did we become so low and with hardened hearts? It’s evidently not caused by poverty, nor the absence of religiosity.

Since the primary motive for these crimes is money, we need to try a cocktail of solutions, as the current ones aren’t mitigating the problem. The immediate thing to do is to accelerate the complete phasing out of cash transactions in the country. The current technological infrastructure in Nigeria supports this. Where there are exceptions to make cash deposits or withdrawals, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) can provide adequate controls to ensure that the details of such transactions are taken. This won’t cost the government a kobo. The deposit money banks would bear the cost through the expansion and updating of current technological transaction platforms.

As controls are put in place, money launderers and other criminal elements will be forced to possibly seek other means of transaction. The only other like option will be the use of cryptocurrencies. Whether we like it or not, that technology is coming to greater use very soon. Our government likes to ban what it doesn’t understand. When you ban such, you drive it underground to an arena that our law enforcement lacks the depth to engage. As such, just like what the European Union has started, we have to start developing controls. We should legalise the use of cryptocurrencies, but subject them to regulations. There comes a time when we have to apply economics to fighting crime. Some countries are legalising Marijuana and taxing its users. This is cheaper than funding law enforcement and creating room for rent-seeking activities. Most bans simply create ‘rich’ public officers in what should have been the regulatory space.

Of course, we must continue to support our law enforcement agencies. Technology has to come in. We will never have men enough to cover ungoverned spaces. Our current population growth rate is 3 per cent, and there is no real policy effort at slowing this down.

Finally, we have to stop toying around with constant bio-data registrations and harmonise all the existing ones. We have the biometric verification number (BVN), international passport, voter/s card and now the national identification number (NIN). Every agency is collecting the same set of data, while wasting valuable time and resources.

These are all economic approaches to addressing criminal justice issues. The current criminal justice system, of course, must continue to be strengthened in all ramifications. There is no time to lose.