Ransom money in a reporter's 2023 Nigerian elections coverage budget
by Rudolf Okonkwo, 17 October 2022
While putting together a preliminary 2023 Nigerian election coverage budget, I debated whether I should travel from the southern part of Nigeria to the northern region by road or air.
At about N100,000 ($230) a flight, four return trips from Abuja to the country's east, west, south, and north would cost a million naira. It did not take long before I knew I had little or no option. On the day I started leaning towards going by road, having convinced myself that a road trip would let me see more of the country and meet more people, I got a text from a friend. In the text, she asked me to contribute money towards a ransom payment for her family friend kidnapped in the 28 March 2022 terrorist attack on an Abuja-Kaduna passenger train.
During the train attack, the terrorists killed 14 persons and abducted 63. Amongst the dead and abducted were prominent members of the Nigerian upper middle class who had become used to avoiding the dangerous Nigerian roads by using the train services.
Though kidnappings on roads across most parts of Nigeria are common, this one rattled the ruling class. The government quickly directed security agents to rescue the victims. When that did not bear fruit, the government secretly set up a negotiating team to retrieve the abducted.
Weeks later, with no success in sight, family members started to privately negotiate with the terrorists. Reports began to emerge of hundreds of millions in ransom payments that families paid to secure the release of their loved ones. In mid-August, the government announced that the terrorists had fooled its negotiators. The government had agreed to the demands of the terrorists, including freeing their members in prison. The government also paid the hospital bill of the wife of one of the terrorists who gave birth, only for the terrorists to refuse to fulfil their part.
Meanwhile, the terrorists continued to taunt the nation by releasing heart-wrenching videos of them torturing their abductees and threatening to kill them if the government failed to respond to their demands.
In early September, the government requested INTERPOL's help in arresting one of its lead negotiators, Tukur Mamu. Mamu was arrested in Cairo, Egypt, while in transit to Saudi Arabia for the Lesser Hajj with his wives and children. The government extradited him to Nigeria, searched his home, and found evidence linking him to local and international terrorists operating in Nigeria.
Tukur Mamu is currently being held in a detention facility of the Department of State Service (DSS). Mamu, the publisher of the Desert Herald newspaper and the media aide to Kaduna-based Islamic cleric Sheik Ahmad Abubakar Gumi, is facing charges of collusion with "local and international terrorists".
On Wednesday, 5 October 2022, almost six months after the train attack, the last 23 hostages were released. The government did not disclose the terms of their release. Local newspapers quoting family sources estimated that the terrorists received over N6 billion (about $13.3 million) in ransom. Some family members told journalists they paid some of the money in US dollars.
As Nigeria prepares for the hotly contested 2023 election, politicians are crisscrossing the country to campaign. Even the most optimistic of them hold their breath, hoping that the country's insecurity challenges, like recurring decimals, will not thwart the process.
Regional, religious and ethnic divides
The current president's mismanagement of Nigeria's diversity and the presidential tussle between the top three candidates epitomize the conflict lines in Nigeria. The regional, religious and ethnic divides are aligned with the candidates' profiles.
The prospect of two Muslims at the top of the ruling party's ticket is tearing the north apart. Minority northern Christians fear that having a Muslim president and vice president for the first time in Nigeria's new republic would embolden Islamic fundamentalists already determined to erase them from the region.
In another, unlikely, scenario, young people across the country seemed to have hung their hopes on a former governor from the southeastern region, Peter Obi. If he won the election, he would be the first person from the region since the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970 to lead Nigeria. If he fails, with the widespread support he has been getting, members of his Igbo ethnic group - the vital third part of Nigeria's tripod (Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa) - would count it as another attempt to marginalize them.
While the northwest remains a hotbed of bandits, from Zamfara to Niger state, the northeast is the home of Boko Haram and ISWAP. When the Boko Haram and ISWAP terror groups are not attacking each other in search of dominance, they wreak havoc across the region. Political observers continue to wonder how practical it would be to hold an election in that axis of terrorism when more spaces are ungoverned than are governed. From Benue to Plateau, the Middle Belt region has continued to be a land where blood flows freely, as armed Fulani herders attack farmers incessantly.
In the southeast, criminal elements, some associated with a breakaway faction of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra, continue to attack security personnel and the national electoral body's facilities. They have publicly announced that elections will not be allowed in the southeast. Recently, they started storming political gatherings to disperse participants and destroy political party infrastructure. A high-profile assassination attempt on a senator from the southeast has sent chills down the spines of political actors from the region.
It is no surprise that according to the Global Peace Index and the Fragile States Index, Nigeria is at the bottom of the class with the likes of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.
Shortage of police and military personnel
The International Police Science Association (IPSA), in its 2016 World Internal Security and Police Index, reported that there were only 219 police offers for every 100,000 Nigerians, or about 450,000. Nigeria ranked among the worst countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average was 268. And while Nigeria is the sixth most populous country in the world with 220 million people, it has only 223,000 armed forces personnel - 31st in the world, fewer than Morocco, Algeria, or Japan.
The degree of internal conflicts facing Nigeria is unprecedented. Yet, the country is under-policed and underprotected.
At the 16 July election in Osun, a state with a population of 4.7 million, the Nigerian police deployed 21,000 police personnel. In Ekiti, a state with a population of 3.3 million, the police deployed 17,000 police at the 18 June election. Extrapolating these figures to 20,000 police officers for every 4 million people shows that for Nigeria to secure its general election in February 2023, it needs a police force of 1.1 million men and women for its 220 million people.
At the end of this calculation, I asked myself which is more cost-effective - to pay the N1 million it would cost for flights, or instead use a vehicle to travel across Nigeria during the election, and get friends and associates to put together the N100 million needed to pay ransom to bandits, armed herdsmen, and terrorists if I were to be kidnapped while covering the election.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include "This American Life Sef" and "Children of a Retired God", among others.