The proposal by the Senate to enact a law banning payment of ransom to kidnappers and making it a criminal offence for those connected with such payments is obviously in tandem with international best practice against kidnapping. Kidnapping globally ranks as one of the meanest offences against which organised and serious countries take stern exception. But in climes where ransom payment for terrorist acts have been banned, the structure to prevent, mitigate and rescue victims have been put in place. Unfortunately, this is not so in Nigeria. From all indications, therefore, the Senate proposal is like putting the cart before the horse. The lawmakers ought to be very concerned about the failure of official security architecture that has made kidnapping so easy for the criminals; and that lacks an effective mechanism for rescuing kidnap victims. It is from this prism that attempt by the Senate in Nigeria to criminalise ransom payment can be best viewed.
Senator Ezenwa Francis Onyewuchi brought an amendment bill to the Terrorism Act to make ransom payment a criminal offence that will attract 15 years’ imprisonment. Ostensibly, the proposed law seeks to discourage the huge industry that kidnapping has become with kidnappers running into sudden stupendous wealth once they can successfully abduct any hapless citizen. The bill which seeks to substitute Section 14 of the Terrorism Act (2013) provides that:
“Anyone who transfers funds, makes payment or colludes with an abductor, kidnapper or terrorists to receive any ransom for the release of any person who has been wrongfully confined, imprisoned or kidnapped is guilty of a felony and is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment of not less than 15 years.” The bill has scaled second reading.
This provision is unnecessary for now given the circumstances of the spate of kidnappings and general insecurity pervading all parts of Nigeria presently. Until government takes more proactive actions to stem the state of helplessness of the average citizen, it is a double tragedy to subject them to further harrowing experience when they act in self-help, in the face of the failure by government to ensure the safety of lives and property. Unless and until government plays its part effectively, any bill, Act or legislation will be dead on arrival.
There is no doubt that the international standards in ransom payment for terrorist acts is firmly and correctly against such payment. This position was well articulated by former U.S. Undersecretary of State, David S. Cohen when he said:
“I think that there is no doubt that the payment of ransom just fuels the appetite for additional kidnapping operation and that is true whether it’s Somali pirates, a terrorist organisation, a drug gang—its true across the board. So point number one is we firmly believe that the right approach is to get to a place where ransoms are not paid and that the people who are contemplating that tactic recognise that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
The key point to note is “to get to a place where ransoms are not paid,” which connotes that relatives of kidnap victims are not only aware of. But have implicit confidence on government’s competence and capability to rescue the victims, as in the prompt rescue of U.S. citizens all over the world when terrorists strike. A case in point is the precision and promptness with which the U.S. rescued 27-year old Philip Walton who had been abducted in Niger and brought to Nigeria by the hoodlums. He was rescued on Nigerian soil in October 2020 while Nigerians kidnapped within our borders languished in the forests. Even in countries where the no ransom policy is avowed, specific exceptions are often made where circumstances dictate, albeit, discreetly.
The principle of no ransom payment is laudable in the long run. The argument is that it would discourage further perpetration of the antisocial act and ultimately ensure a safe state where citizens can be happy. But there is also the responsibility of those who hold the levers of power in the society to perform their duties of ensuring a safe and secure polity as envisioned in the social contract they swore to uphold. A situation where they have failed through incompetence, neglect and corruption, shifting responsibility to the hapless citizen is callous. A case in point is the abduction of Greenfield University students in Kaduna State. For 40 days, the agonising parents received little or no assistance from government, other than lip service by hapless Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai. By their own account, the parents had to organise and paid huge ransom to rescue their children and wards after 40 harrowing days. It is unimaginable that these parents would then be subjected to 15 years’ imprisonment for doing their best for their loved ones in that peculiar circumstance.
So, rather than legislate against victims of governmental neglect, attention should be focused on putting in place a robust security apparatus that will make kidnapping unimaginable for the perpetrators and where it happens, a prompt and efficient system to neutralise the perpetrators. The spate of kidnappings and other criminal tendencies are fuelled by impunity. Government should take responsibility to ensure the safety of lives and properties in a just, secure and equitable federation. It is only then that measures to discourage ransom payment will resonate well with the citizenry.