One of the most traumatic experiences anybody can undergo is to be violently abducted. Snatched from one’s regular, known serene world into a world governed by drug-controlled youths is a life-altering experience. I have been there. I know how it feels to be dispossessed of one’s liberty by criminals. I know how relations feel in the uncertain days of the abduction. I know how the kids feel that their father may never return. I know the emotions that run through a wife.
I also know how it feels to see one’s security aide killed with a single shot to the neck, blood gushing out in angry ferocity, how his widow and two kids look up to you for help. I know how it feels to be in captivity for 16 days without food, without one’s routine medication. I know how it is to be blindfolded for 16 days. It is not fun. It is not a party. It is deathly traumatic. It is deeply humiliating, bewildering and depressing. It is frightening.
A typical kidnapper is a violent person. There is verbal violence. There is of course physical violence. At no provocation, the victim could be slapped, kicked or given a blow to the head. The intention is to instill fear. So, fear is a constant when in the custody of kidnappers. They brandish their weapons – guns, knives, machetes. They use the gun-butt both on the victim and on the floor; at least my captors did. I was harangued, insulted, beaten for no other reason than I said that I didn’t have one hundred million naira to redeem myself. That though I was a government official at the time, I knew the government would pay no ransom.
In the den, the victim loses a sense of time. Blinded-folded, day and night merge into one long experience. The weakness of the body at a particular time may suggest it is late in the night. Same with the eerie quiet of the environment, or the hooting of the night bird. Morning is heralded by birds chirping. Late noon is dictated by the languor of the late afternoon early evening sun. Time freezes, yet it moves. You try to hope, dare to hope really, that you would ultimately get out alive. The kidnappers say ‘if you leave,” not ‘when you leave. Death is a permanent presence. It hangs in the air. Even when not spoken, it is known as the ‘X’ factor. The uncertainty of it all is killing. Their occasional acts of kindness, like leading you blindfolded to use the urinary do not help. Or by the time you return from the urinary your bed has been re-arranged. They remind the victim that the situation is abnormal. Yet the victim shows gratefulness. A sinking man would clutch at a straw!
In the days of captivity, faith in God becomes a powerful source of hope, an anchor. Faith is tried, shaped and steadied. It becomes poignant when in captivity you hear church songs accompanied with organic melody wafting through the loudspeakers a short distance away. A few meters away innocent souls are worshipping the God you know. They are unaware that in a tiny dirty room near them a son of God is pining away in sorrow, fear and misery.
The kidnappers let you know that mistakes do occur. The mistake of a fit of anger by a drug-intoxicated kidnapper. The mistake of recognizing one of the abductors and saying it openly while in custody. Or the mistake of a botched rescue operation. The consequence is death. They mention death as something they are deeply familiar with in a most cavalier manner. If you die we will bury you in a shallow grave. We will throw your body into the river. We will still collect the money for ‘our work.’ The scoundrels!
Some of the kidnappers are very much aware of the social contradictions of the world, of their country. They give lectures to their victims. Why should okada be banned? Why are there no jobs for graduates? Why is food so expensive? Why are rents so high? Why are primary schools in such a horrible state? Why do governors use so many cars? When you buy things from shop owners do you collect the change? Why do policemen harass okada riders? My guard told me that he went into the ‘work’ when a policeman dispossessed him of the two thousand naira he managed to work in a day. When he got home his wife accused him of giving the day’s takings to a girlfriend. Ever since he started the new work, his wife doesn’t make trouble anymore. But all policemen, he said, were Enemy Number One!
In the immediate aftermath of the experience, fear of the unknown becomes a companion. Nothing is taken for-granted. Any item person or experience that resembles the horror of the days in captivity brings stress. For some, they need the attention of a psychiatrist or a psychologist. In Nigeria, the pastor-therapist steps in. Some have been known to develop high blood pressure related ailments. Fast heart beats. Terrible dreams. Nightmares. Waking up with a start in the middle of the night sweating. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I know a victim who died suddenly in the post-kidnap period when thieves came to his area. He thought they had come back for him. He had a heart attack. I know of a victim who died in the custody of the kidnappers while being moved from one location to another. He was massive. His weight therefore did not help him.
So when some states pass the death sentence on kidnappers they seem justified. Kidnappers have no respect for life. They deserve no mercy. In the spirit of the Mosaic law of tit for tat it is in order. But as a society let us not degenerate to the depravity of killers as we once did with executing armed robbers in public at Bar Beach. The greatest punishment for kidnappers should be life in prison. That way, they stay alive and regret their dastardly act all their lives. They may have a chance at restitution. But the punishment is served in life, not in death.
The Federal Government, supported by the states, should set up a Special Forces Unit trained to prevent, trace and capture kidnappers.Registration of SIM cards on presentation of a valid ID card should be compulsory and should be taken more seriously than it is currently.There should be massive employment programmes for the youths of the country. In the courts there should witness protection programmes to assure witnesses who testify against kidnappers of their safety. For the victims, recovery takes a long time; some never recover till they die. But the sanctity of life ought to be respected by the state.
Prof. Eghagha is a visiting member of editorial board, The Guardian.