The decision by the Senate nearly two weeks ago to start the process of making a law that would stipulate the death penalty as punishment for kidnapping has sparked debate across the country. How effective would the death penalty be as a disincentive against growing commercialisation of hostage taking? This is the key question. Opinions are as diverse as the number of people who reside in the country. There are two identifiable camps in the debate. They are those who believe capital punishment will eliminate widespread abduction and those who feel it will exacerbate the criminal behaviour and lifestyle.
The latest debate resonates similar deliberations that emerged in 1984 when, as military head of state, Muhammadu Buhari introduced the death penalty (by firing squad) for people convicted of drug trafficking. When the first two convicted drug traffickers were shot publicly under the law enacted by Buhari’s military government, it signalled the iron determination of that government to cleanse the nation of the abhorrent stink of being perceived in the international community, as the drug trafficking capital of the world. Buhari’s government also wanted to convey the message that the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, must not be seen as or turned into a transit centre for drug traffickers. Whether the execution of the two convicts helped to reduce drug trafficking in Nigeria or whether it indeed boosted the criminal practice remains an unresolved debate.
There is a primary assumption that death penalty is not the best way to reform a convicted criminal. Opponents of capital punishment say the penalty deprives the convicts of an opportunity to serve their time in prison, an opportunity to be reformed and to be reabsorbed into the wider society. Those who disagree say no one has the divine right to take the life of another person or to endanger the lives of other members of society. Therefore, any violent crime that leads to the demise of another person should be penalised by putting the perpetrator to death. This is what is widely regarded as the Mosaic law that advocates retributive justice.
The debate over the effectiveness or futility of death penalty, as a deterrent against serious violent crimes is based on moral, legal, social, cultural and religious arguments about crime and punishment, the sanctity of human life and the need for society to protect its members from losing their lives through the deliberate actions of others.
On paper, the argument that death penalty is not an effective deterrent seems to carry a lot of weight. Using drug trafficking as a case study, why, for example, do criminals still engage in drug trafficking in countries where the death penalty law exists? Last year, for example, four Nigerians were executed in Indonesia for drug trafficking despite the fact that everyone knows Indonesia has tough laws against trade in illegal drugs. Why, for goodness sake, has capital punishment not succeeded in eliminating drug trafficking?
Arguments over whether capital punishment can deter certain genres of crime and criminal behaviour has always remained in the public domain. It rises and ebbs with whatever topic that is given prominence in the media. This time the debate has returned to the front burner ever since senators agreed to discuss a law to deal with incessant kidnapping that has become a blight on the image of the country and a disturbance on the freedom of citizens to move about freely without fear or restraint.
The fact that kidnapping has just now attracted the attention of senators years after it became an uncomfortable sore in our psyche shows not only how we respond belatedly to serious threats to our lives but it also demonstrates the extent to which everyone has been held hostage for long in their domain for fear of falling victim to kidnappers. A problem such as kidnapping that has crippled economic activities and requires urgent national attention has been overlooked by politicians in their quest for instant wealth.
When the Senate discussed the issue two weeks ago (Wednesday, 4 May 2016), you could notice from the tenor of their voices that some senators or their relatives had already been adversely affected by kidnapping. This shows that, unless high profile members of society are directly affected or overwhelmed by problems that batter ordinary citizens every day, the problems are unlikely to be attended to. Unless a problem has consumed a member of the privileged class, political leaders are likely to under-estimate the scale of the problem and, therefore, look the other way.
During debate on the problem of kidnapping, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, made a direct reference to how his relative was abducted and how he was directly involved in the negotiations. He said: “Just recently, one of my relations also was kidnapped. So, I believe I am talking as an expert or an experienced person in kidnapping. I know the psychology of kidnappers because I stayed for two days with them… These are normal human beings who are sometimes looking for money and also afraid of security agencies. I think there are three types of kidnappers. There are some who kidnapped either to make a statement or to intimidate the government, like the Boko Haram people and the Niger Delta militants. Then there is another type of kidnappers, these are just normal armed robbers. Sometimes, they just kidnapped you, put you in the boot and they can even use the vehicle as an escape or they use it to rob.”
Ekweremadu seemed to criticise civil society for collaborating with kidnappers through payment of ransom intended to set free a family member, who is held hostage. He said: “We have encouraged this type of kidnapping because we panic and pay money most times. This kind of kidnappers, when they take you, they put you somewhere else and they can refer you to negotiate so that they can set you free and go for another business. Most times, our people are reluctant to delay or endure the inconvenience or the hardship and then they quickly negotiate and if we can discourage this kind of kidnappings, the only way forward is to insist that you will not pay.”
It is alright for Ekweremadu to advise families whose members have been taken hostage not to pay any money but to persevere and endure the prolonged period of waiting, praying and negotiating. He should not tell that to families that lost their members because they could not fork out the outrageous amount of money demanded by kidnappers.
When you are confronted by cold-blooded and thick-skinned men, boys and young women who kill to make money, when a gun is pointed at your head, neck or navel, all you want is to get out of the hostage situation, to secure your freedom regardless of how that liberty is secured. Quite frankly, it is unwise to advise a family to sit and wait while kidnappers subject their relative, brother, husband, wife or child to psychological trauma, constant bashing, and insufferable conditions that even Ekweremadu himself would not like to experience.
It is not the responsibility of innocent citizens to fight crime and criminals and to suffer the consequences. Citizens are not trained to fight violent crimes and they must not be turned into members of a make-shift civil defence corps. It is the duty of security forces to confront and apprehend kidnappers; it is the responsibility of security forces to provide for the security and safety of citizens by responding forcefully to reports of kidnapping and dealing with those who take hostages for commercial reasons. Kidnapping of citizens has escalated and must be stopped. It must be stopped by security forces, not by ordinary citizens.
Someone has argued that if the death penalty proposed by the Senate is enacted into law, it would turn kidnappers into callous killers. Kidnappers will have no reason to return their victims alive, knowing full well that once they are captured, tried and convicted, they will be executed. In this context, it is difficult to see how the death penalty would scare kidnappers. Another reason the death penalty for kidnappers might not appeal to a majority of our citizens is that all problems in society are not solved through capital punishment.
Nigeria has a habit of moving unsteadily between lawlessness and order, and between excessive expression of anger and cool-headed approach to national problems. While some senators may have emitted smoke through their nostrils during discussion on how to deal with kidnappers (a sign of uncontrolled anger), the problem still remains with us. The first step toward solving the problem will be to equip the police and other security agencies with state-of-the-art weapons and intelligence gathering communication tools that will enable them to eavesdrop on conversations by kidnappers, to identify their location and to apprehend them without too much fuss.
We must strengthen our security forces and intelligence units. They must be paid salaries and allowances that are commensurate with the risks of their jobs. They must be motivated. Those who excel must be recognised and rewarded.
It is a grave mistake to assume that we can eliminate kidnappers through the death penalty. It is a fallacy. Everyone, particularly the state and Federal Governments as well as the security agencies and religious and community leaders must unite to tackle kidnappers and their get-rich-quick business models. In the end, the challenge that faces the nation is how to reverse the current mentality of kidnappers that suggests that “Monkey dey work but baboon de chop.”