Soldiers on highways won’t solve kidnapping problem

By Azuka Onwuka

Over the weekend, Mrs Funke Olakunrin was killed along the Benin-Sagamu Expressway in Ore, Ondo State. It was alleged that she was killed by “herdsmen” who blocked the road to abduct people for ransom. Three vehicles were attacked: two private vehicles and a commercial bus. According to the police, two people were killed and eight people abducted. Incidentaily, seven of the abducted were rescued.

The killing of Olakunrin brought the issue of highway kidnapping to the fore again in Nigeria because of the profile of her father. Her father is Pa Reuben Fasoranti, the 93-year-old leader of Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group.

While paying a condolence visit to Pa Fasoranti, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo announced that the Federal Government would deploy soldiers across Nigeria’s highways as a way to curb highway crime. But it seemed the Vice President is not thinking of uprooting this highway kidnap challenge. From Sagamu to Benin, there are security checkpoints mounted by soldiers, regular police, mobile police, customs, road safety corps, and the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. One runs into them within every kilometre on that highway. Sometimes, different teams of security personnel stay within 300 metres of one another. Even though their presence helps to deter crime, motorists bear the brunt of their presence, as they engage more in exploitation than security. And curiously, these security agents are only found on the way to Benin but never seen on the way to Sagamu, which clearly shows that they are not on the road for security purposes.

Strikingly, in spite of their presence on this road, abductions take place regularly on the highways. For example, on the twin border towns between Ondo State and Edo State called Ofosu and Ohosu on the Sagamu-Benin Expressway, the locals had told this writer that the highway bandits strike on the road virtually every day in the morning and in the evening. When they strike, they kill some people, abduct some people and take them into the forest.

A video that trended last week showed some motorists that were saved from death and abduction because of the presence of some policemen in the convoy of one of the vehicles. One of the policemen said that some gunmen stood in the middle of the road shooting at their vehicle. He fired back at them from his vehicle, and the gunmen jumped back into the bush and disappeared. It was the same tactic that was used in the attack on Olakunrin. Six men were said to have stood in front of them shooting at their vehicle. The driver tried to run back and other gunmen emerged from the bush behind him and opened fire on their vehicle.

The Vice President’s comment about deploying soldiers is not a lasting solution to the current highway kidnapping. Osinbajo’s comment seemed to suggest that Nigeria has ceded the forests to the criminals. In so many states, the locals complain that they cannot visit their farms for fear of these bandits who have become kings of the jungles. The senator representing Ondo-North senatorial district, Ajayi Boroffice, said on Monday that he could no longer go to his hometown, Oka, because of fear of kidnappers. Stopping the activities of the highway kidnappers is simple, because their hideouts are known, unlike other kidnappers who hide their victims in unknown destinations within inhabited neighbourhoods.

There is no need to just keep soldiers on the highways when the kidnappers are inside the forests some kilometres away from the highways. The solution is to use the military and the police to flush the criminals out of the forests. Local vigilantes, who know the terrain well, should also be empowered to monitor communities and the neighbouring forests and ensure that the criminals stop having hideouts within their communities. For example, the Oodua People’s Congress has repeatedly said that it is willing to go after the criminals in all the forests in the South-West, but the problem is that neither the Federal Government nor the state governments have given it the needed go-ahead. This makes many people wonder if the government truly wants an end to the highway banditry.

Highway abductions and killings occur regularly on the way to Abuja, or Osun or Ondo or Edo and other places because the criminals have realised that the government has not taken hard steps to flush them out of their hideouts. Because they have a place they can always return to and a place to keep their victims, they have continued to operate brazenly. After a prominent person is kidnapped, people lament, and the matter is soon forgotten until another high-profile case occurs.

There is also a dimension that has made the fight against these highway criminals delicate. It is the ethnicity of those alleged to be orchestrating it. Because of the need to avoid stereotyping the entire Fulani ethnic group, the highway criminals are often described as “herdsmen.” But there is everything wrong with that appellation.

Are highway kidnappers “herdsmen”? The answer is a capital NO. Herdsmen or herders tend animals, especially cows. Where would they keep their cows while kidnapping people and waiting for ransom? But are they Fulani? Reports of many victims of highway kidnapping on Abuja highway, Osun highway, Ore highway, etc, have said that their abductors were Fulani. But that does not mean that only people of Fulani extraction engage in highway abductions in Nigeria.

Kidnappers from Niger Delta, the South-East, South-West and the Middle Belt have also been reported to have abducted people, especially high-profile ones, on the highways. The Elele end of the Owerri-Port Harcourt Expressway is notorious for the abduction of motorists on the stretch of the highway. However, the recent highway abductions linked to “herdsmen” are peculiar in some ways:

  1. The abductors don’t target anybody in particular. It’s random kidnapping.
  2. They open fire on oncoming vehicles until the vehicles crash or screech to a halt, which makes their operations usually bloody.
  3. They kidnap many people at the same time from different vehicles: mass abductions.
  4. They make their victims walk for many kilometres in the forest.
  5. They keep their victims in the forest until ransom is paid.

Some of the highway kidnappers may have been herdsmen in the past who abandoned their trade for crime, but there is no way to confirm that. But while committing these crimes, they cannot be described as “herdsmen,” just as a mechanic who abandoned his trade to become an armed robber is not described as “a mechanic.” No, he is an armed robber. The media, therefore, needs to create a name for them beyond the use of “Fulani herdsmen” or “herdsmen.” They could be called “highway marauders,” “highwaymen” or “highway bandits.”

Another point is that states besieged by these highway marauders should not fold their arms waiting for the Federal Government to solve the problem. There are clear signs that the Federal Government is not doing much to curb the crime or is overwhelmed. Even Daura, the hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari, and Katsina State, his home state, are under siege from bandits. States must take the bull by the horns and flush them out of their domains.

Travelling across the states by road has become a high-risk venture. One cannot predict when and where these highway marauders will strike, and who will be their victims, since they do not use any intelligence to target particular people. And because of the huge returns made from forcing ransoms out of people, these evil men would buy deadly arms and even attract new members, if their wings are not clipped now. Already, Boko Haram in the North-East, bandits in the North-West, killer herdsmen in the North-Central and kidnappers in different parts of the South have worsened the security situation in Nigeria. The activities of these highway marauders have added another dimension to insecurity in the nation. Because of the high level of insecurity in the nation, farmers and others are prevented from engaging in their businesses, thereby escalating the poverty levels in Nigeria.

No country should allow its citizens to live in fear because of some other people. The nation should always ensure that it is in control of all forces of coercion, to avoid becoming a failed state. Unfortunately, Nigeria seems to be ceding that power to criminals.

– Twitter @BrandAzuka