Taraba is the only state in the North East that is not devastated by Boko Haram insurgence. Some residents of Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Yobe and Adamawa who were displaced by Boko Haram hostilities had enjoyed taking refuge in Taraba State. But peace has now eluded Taraba. The state is seriously hit by a wave of kidnappings, buoyed by humongous amounts of ransom cash.
No day is complete without news of abduction of a person or group of persons. The Nation gathered that this year alone, about 847 persons have been taken into the bush and over N600million ransoms paid. Some victims were killed even after ransom was paid. There is no gainsaying that in Taraba, kidnapping is a lucrative industry for criminals.
Out of the 847 kidnapped victims, 100 are government officials, whose cases were recorded only from January to September, this year. Governor Darius Ishaku said the state government has paid over 250 million naira to free hapless victims from their abductors. Out of these cases, 30 were recorded in September alone, the governor has said.
The kidnappers ambush vehicles plying highways with passengers; they enter towns, rural areas and homes and abduct people at gun point. The victims include the entire social spectrum. Government officials, the rich and their wives and children, small and big businessmen and women, poor farmers, senior lecturers and students, mothers with their breast-feeding babies, the clergy, lawmakers, judges, police chiefs and even military officers, have been kidnapped. Anyone can be kidnapped, it was learnt.
Taraba State is naturally endowed with many thick forests, grassy mountain ranges and rivers with gallery vegetation that can serve as tourism sights to spin revenues. The armed forces can also use the thickly forested areas to train officers in warfare. Unfortunately, these areas have become safe havens for deadly kidnappers.
At least, some 2,000 persons have been taken for ransom in the last three years. In January, this year, Governor Ishaku’s Chief Press Secretary (CPS), Hassan Mijinyawa, was abducted in Gashaka Local Government Area. He was kidnapped with his driver, Hussein. At the same place and time, though in separate vehicles, one Ogundele Olutosi, who had come from London, was also kidnapped on his way back from Sardauna. Ransoms were paid in millions of naira before the abductees were released, after spending several days in the bush with their captors.
Perhaps, the United Methodist Church in Nigeria (UMCN) is the worst hit by the kidnap epidemic in Taraba State. Thirty-two members of the church have fallen victim, of which three are pastors. Other men of God of other ministries, including the bishop of Spoken Word Ministry, have been taken and ransoms paid. Many of the victims have been traumatised. Some are in hospital beds struggling with life.
The kidnap groups are open to negotiating ransoms. But if their demand is not met, they do not hesitate killing their abductees and dumping the bodies anywhere. This has raised overwhelming fears in the state where the citizens are predominantly poor farmers and low-income civil servants. The fear prevents the victims and their family members from sharing their experiences with the police or newsmen. Apparently, they are warned by their captors that when freed, they should not talk about what they have passed through or seen. So, the fear of kidnappers has become the beginning of wisdom in Taraba, which prides itself as “Nature’s Gift to the Nation.” But fear is not a solution to this monster that has taken a firm footing in the state.
Worried by the menace, Governor Ishaku has signed into law an Act prescribing death penalty for kidnappers. Yet, there seems to be no deference. Petty traders cannot attend rural markets; farmers are not going to the farm in spite of the rains; business activities have been paralysed, as the state grapples with the scourge of kidnapping gangs. The insecurity in the state has forced a curfew in the state capital since June 17.
It has been difficult speaking to the kidnap victims because of fears of the widespread form of terrorism that has plagued the state. For instance, when The Nation correspondent visited the UMCN Secretariat at Mile Six, Jalingo, the bishop of the church, Bishop John Wesley Yohanna, confirmed how 32 of his members have borne the brunt of the scourge. He directed his Administrative Officer, Rev. Emmanuel Ande, to brief our correspondent on the incidents. Ande shifted the ‘burden’ to the victims, with a promise he would call them to speak directly to The Nation. But after several visits to the secretariat, Ande said the victims had declined to speak.
The exact number of persons who have been killed by kidnap gangs in Taraba State cannot be exactly ascertained. Neither the government nor the police have precise figures. The police said most of the kidnap cases are not reported to them. “Many people have been killed by their abductors, and many more are missing,” a source told The Nation.
A member of the State House of Assembly, Hosea Ibi, was found dead along Kashimbilla Road, Takum, after the state government and his family collectively paid over N100 million ransom for his release.
An attack last week on travellers near the NYSC Orientation Camp in Ardo-Kola Local Government Area has increased the death toll. It was gathered that some kidnappers had stopped a commercial driver on the Jalingo-Wukari highway near the NYSC camp at 7.pm. They shot severally at the rear of the car when the driver refused to stop. Three passengers died; one is groaning in pains at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) in Jalingo.
As if that was not enough, the kidnappers took two survivors of the car attack into the bush and collected ransom cash. Among the victims was Garba Haruna, who disclosed that no fewer than 23 traders who were returning from Sibre Market, were abducted that day. He said they were taken into the bush and kept in a deserted hut for days.
“We were fed with garri once a day. Two of the traders died there,” he said, and added that the kidnappers used their (victims’)phones to collect N200,000 each from them before they were freed.
The cartels’ modus operandi
Although, the business of kidnapping is nationwide, it has gained a stronger footing in Taraba State. In Taraba, it is not confined to a specific local government arearea. The kidnappers operate in groups called cartel. They are six different cartels, two each, in the Northern, Central and Southern zones of the state.
It was gathered that the kidnappers, most of them insurgents from neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Niger and Libya, are mercenaries who were hired to fight ethnic wars. When their clients could not sustain their payment, they resorted to kidnapping with the goal to extract maximum ransom possible.
As the ‘market’ for the kidnap business becomes wider, there is application of division of labour and specialisation. The process (of kidnapping) is so systematic, technical and complex that members of the cartel are put to different tasks according to their capacity and ability. They then specialise in the roles each is best suited.
The cosmopolitan members, who are indigenes, reside in the cities, towns and villages with the people. They move about with no weapon and mix freely with members of the public like any law-abiding citizen. They can read and write and listen to news to be current with happenings around the world. They spy and monitor the people to know their individual homes and walks of life. Then, they inform their members, who are usually armed in the bush, about their soft targets. Usually, their targets are people they think they can extract maximum ransoms from their relatives. Some of their informants are members of security agencies, it was learnt.
When a person is kidnapped, he is handed to the goons in the bush. Those ones, armed, trek several kilometres with the victims to their den, usually a forested area. At their den are some of their members who are tasked to look after the victims. They also have cooks who prepare meals for them and the victims. The victims are poorly fed, just to ensure they remain alive for them to get ransom out of them.
Then, there are “negotiators.” They are those who contact relatives of the victims to negotiate for ransom cash. The contact is usually on mobile phones belonging to the victims. If they use their phone, they must code it in such a way that it is usually difficult to track their location. As they negotiate for ransom, some of their members come as sympathisers to monitor the relatives’ plan of action.
There is a group that is responsible for collecting the ransom, usually cash, when agreement is reached. The person who goes to deliver the ransom is watched by those in the town, assigned in strategic locations. If you are in company of security officials, they will ring the negotiators and inform them. The negotiators will call and warn you. They will tell you they are giving you the last chance to come alone, otherwise they will kill your relative. At this moment, knowing how heartless the kidnappers are, you would begin to beg the security to stay behind.
Delivery of ransom is another uneasy task. Most of the time, you would trek over three hours before meeting with them. “They would ask you to follow a certain path. After a long trek, they will tell you to go back and follow the other way. They tell you to follow your right and keep coming. After an hour, they will tell you to go back and follow your left. They have people in the bush monitoring to see whether you are coming with weapons or security,” Rev. Simon, a secretary of the UMCN, told The Nation.
Corruption in the kidnap industry
Like many government officials, kidnappers are corrupt when it comes to handling resources, even among themselves. The Nation has uncovered the dishonesty going on in the kidnap business. How do members loot from the collective ransom cash?
The cartel is made up of home-based hoodlums (Nigerians) and hired insurgents who have come from other countries. The armed insurgents are the ones who do the ‘hard job’ in the bush. However, they rely on clues from the home-based members, since they do not know much about the terrain. The home-based members are the accountants who collect the money.
Rev. Simon, a Secretary of the UMCN, said he and his wife witnessed kidnappers cutting corners when he trekked several kilometres into the bush to deliver ransom cash for the release of his two daughters who were kidnapped at Sibre, Ardo-Kola.
His daughters, fresh graduates, had just arrived from Ghana and Zimbabwe, where they schooled. After a hilarious welcome, kidnappers visited them at night.
Simon said: “We finally got to where they were waiting to collect the ransom. Then we brought out the money –N2 million. They collected the money and started counting. When they verified it was N2 million, they removed N1.2 million and kept it aside. Then, they called their members who were in their den with my daughters and told them we brought only N800,000!
“Their members said N800,000 was too small, that they would not release the girls. But these ones told them that this is what we could afford so they should just release the girls immediately. The girls were then released.
“It means the negotiators shared the N1.2 million (alone) before sharing the N800,000 with those in the bush.” His narrative explains why sometimes the victims are killed even when ransoms are paid.
Police and kidnappers
Why can’t the police crackdown on the kidnappers? The fact that policing in the country is underfunded, sometimes makesvpolice officers to compromise in their duty of tackling insecurity, it was learnt. The police lack investigative capacity, because of under-training. They also lack modern weapons and high-tech gadgets to combat modern crime. They are easily intimidated during cross-fires with criminals who carry sophisticated weapons. Some police officers, on the other hand, have been accused –some are standing trial– for allegedly colluding with kidnappers as their informants.
Taraba State police spokesman, David Misal, told The Nation that the police are ever willing and have been doing a lot, to protect lives and property, but members of the public are not willing to cooperate with them.
Misal said there are many kidnap cases in Taraba that have not been reported to the police. “We have sent letters to some of the victims to come and share with us their experiences that could help us do the job better, but they did not cooperate.
“We sent detectives to their homes, but they were afraid to talk to them. They told the detectives not to come near their homes for fear that the kidnappers might kill them.This kind of behaviour frustrates our efforts in combating insecurity,” Misal said.
Can’t soldiers do the job?
The 3 Division of the Nigeria Army has launched its second phase of Operation Cat Race (Ayem Akpatuma) to fight kidnappers, bandits and other criminals.
The Operation Ayem Akpatuma is a military initiative for the restoration of peace and security in troubled states of the country. The army said the exercise became expedient due to the upsurge in cases of banditry, kidnapping and other crimes in Kaduna, Niger, Kogi, Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa and other Nigerian states.
During the Cat Race, troops engage in raids, cordon and search operations, road blocks, show of force and checkpoints to combat criminal activities in affected areas. The exercise is in collaboration with the police, Civil Defence, Nigerian Prisons Service and the Federal Road Safety.
Governor Darius Ishaku donated and commissioned two Hilux vans and 26 military motorbikes during the launching of the Cat Race, which took place at Shield Hotel, Jalingo. The motorbikes are to enable the mobility of soldiers in tracking down criminals in remote villages, where armoured cars and other military vehicles cannot go.
However, security challenges, particularly kidnapping, have continued unabatedly in Taraba State, in spite of the launch of the exercise last year. There were reported complaints from villagers that the soldiers, instead of confronting the armed kidnappers in the bush, were busy “collecting kitchen knives and cutleries from households.”
The villagers also accused some soldiers of giving the bandits arms and cover to operate. They cite several cases, including the episode in which the suspected kidnap kingpin Hamisu Bala, alias Wadume, was arrested in Ibi by the police but was reportedly freed by soldiers who allegedly killed three members of the anti-kidnapping squad -the Intelligence Response Team (IRT).
The IRT, led by Abba Kyari, was set up specifically to tackle kidnapping and armed robbery. But it appears there is no harmonious synergy between the police, army and para-military agencies to nurture a comprehensive approach that can solve the kidnap crisis.
Many have lost confidence in the Nigerian army. Only few days ago, three soldiers -Corporal Collins Ameh, Lance Corporal Balogun Taiwo and Private Evans Isibor-were arrested alongside a civilian in Edo state for alleged kidnapping.
However, Brig. Gen. Briggs Daniel, who represented the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 3 Division, Nuhu Angbazo, during the launch of operation Cat Race in Jalingo, told The Nation that the second phase of the exercise, an inter-agency cooperation, will follow a different pattern.