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The safety of a prison

Responding to the request of Nnamdi Kanu’s lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor for guarantees that his client will be safe if he returns to Nigeria from where he jumped bail, Justice Justice Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court, Abuja, was reported to have observed that the best guarantee for the safety of the fugitive Kanu was being in a Nigerian prison, because even judges are being kidnapped these days.She  spoke  a few days after Justice Abdul Dogo of the Federal High Court, Akure was kidnapped. A few days after she spoke, Justice Chioma-Iheme of the  Court of Appeal, Benin, was abducted. A few days after Justice Binta’s remark, Kanu advised the judge to move into prison with her family for her own safety.

Senior police officers, professionals, schoolchildren, priests and traditional rulers are rubbing shoulders with villagers and other vulnerable and unfortunate Nigerians in the dens of kidnappers. In many parts of the north, ransoms have crashed as kidnappers’ success has been netting more and more of the poor, and the going rate these days could be as low as N150,000. Her lordship may or may not have been casual in her remark, but she might just have uttered the most valid comment about life in our nation today: a prison is the safest place to be for anyone but the most fortified political leaders and the wealthy.

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Any prison, but a Nigerian prison in particular, is a terrible place to be. Apart from the denial of basic human freedom, you have  the vast majority of inmates living under the most inhumane conditions, especially if they are awaiting trial. Everything that makes life a little less agonizing has to be bought or endured. Violence, sexual abuse, all forms of dehumanization and rampant corruption on the part of prison officials are every inch a part of what all our prisons are. Yet, being in a prison is, quite possibly, as the judge said, the best guarantee against being kidnapped. If Kanu wants to play hero and live to pursue his dream, he should not be so dismissive of the counsel of the judge. But he is no hero, and  he will not return and face his charges  if all kidnappers in Nigeria are put in jail.

Kanu has the luxury of jumping bails, hurling insults at his nation and living it big in foreign lands while many of his compatriots suffer in our prisons. Other Nigerians are in the more serious danger of coming to terms with the possibility that being kidnapped is now a constant threat we all have to live with. Our spaces have shrunk, in some instances to the sizes of prisons. Now we weigh the dangers of undertaking basic social functions such as attending weddings , visiting to offer condolences to distant relatives, visiting schoolchildren or having them travel distances to come home, undertaking business trips, attending places of worship, going to work and coming back home, going to farm or to markets. Entire highways  that were necessary death traps have been virtually ceded  to kidnappers, choking other decrepit highways that are still vulnerable to audacious kidnappers who appear to multiply in numbers by the day. Many parts of our major cities are now kidnapper territory. Hundreds of miles of farmlands have gone uncultivated, taking the shine away from the much touted national revolution in rice production.

You would think that the targeting of those in the upper echelons of society will push  political leadership at all levels to move beyond the routine. The facts on the ground suggest you would be wrong. Remember the length of time President Buhari’s relation and prominent traditional ruler in his hometown of Daura spent with kidnappers who picked him up from his house  in daytime? Is anyone in a position to say how many people are kidnapped and what happens to them? Certainly it will not be the police, since most kidnappings are now settled entirely between the relations of the victim and the kidnappers. Is anyone in a position to challenge the impression that kidnapping is the fastest growing industry, and its levels of sophistication belies the possibility that it  is a passing crime anchored by a few marginalized elements?

And then, those big media events when suspected kidnappers are dragged before the media to render full confessions for spectacular and mundane kidnappings. What happens to all those kidnappers ?Why do we not see and hear of arraignment and prosecutions of kidnappers? Are they all holed up in prisons and other detention facilities where law-abiding citizens could  also be safe from kidnapping? How many kidnappers have been convicted, and if there are any, why do we not hear of it so that it discourages others and gives some comfort to the population?

It will be tragic if the nation accepts to live with kidnappings, banditry and do-it-yourself justice from security agencies under pressure and reeking of complicity. Massive amounts of money were used to buy-off kidnappings of expatriates and other officials of oil companies in the Niger Delta a decade ago. The fact that those crimes were clothed in a comprehensive amnesty programme that had room for every segment of oil-producing communities also helped generate local support behind a major reduction in the scale of kidnappings there. Northern governors who are throwing a few millions at bandits and kidnappers should be commended for their efforts, but these are problems with roots and dimensions far deeper than the governors’ pockets  can match.

Nothing has exposed the poverty of political will, ideas and concern of President Buhari’s administration than the burgeoning industry of kidnapping. Since the nation began to be swamped by banditry and kidnappings, nothing has been done by this administration beyond throwing the same beleaguered police and over-stretched military at a problem they are ill-prepared to handle. Is it possibly the case that the nation has no substitutes in the entire policing and defence and security institutions to replace their current leadership which has clearly failed to reverse threats and challenges that diminish the utility of the state in the eyes of ordinary folks? Are  those who should know afraid to tell the president that a major review of the place of basic social structures that have collapsed is now a major national priority? Are governors themselves complicit in destroying those time-tested structures that gave communities cover and security and support for the formal institutions of state? Does the president plan to leave a legacy of eight years of the most unimaginative and uncaring administration?

Those who think these questions hurt, or are unfair to the administration  should reach out to the president and advise him to change his approach to the nation’s problems. He needs to  do things differently; think strategically and engage Nigerians with more compassion. It is not acceptable that citizens are safer in prisons than in their homes or at work.

Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja

jm1bukar@gmail.com

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