FG must rescue Abuja-Kaduna train abductees

families of kidnapped passengers

THE failure of the government to rescue the over 68 passengers of the Abuja-Kaduna train 37 days after their abduction by terrorists, demonstrates the growing impotence of the Nigerian state in the face of existential challenge from non-state actors. Emboldened, the terrorists have been posting pictures and videos of their victims online, broadcasting boasts and taunting relatives of the abductees and the government. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should admit that the Nigerian state and its security forces have been severely weakened; they require radical overhaul.

Some inescapable facts stare Nigerians in the face: the security agencies are over-stretched, ill-motivated and uncoordinated. Some agents are compromised. They cannot be relied on, as a former Defence Minister, Theophilus Danjuma, once said, to protect citizens from marauders. Second, Buhari’s approach to tackling insecurity has failed woefully. Arising from these, a dysfunctional and corrupt political leadership and general leadership failure keep Nigeria unerringly on the trajectory of state failure. A new, effective counter-insurgency strategy is therefore imperative.

While Buhari was issuing ineffectual rescue orders and hosting unproductive meetings with the security agency heads, the terrorists were confident and sure-footed. Boko Haram claimed responsibility; the bandits issued gloating videos and photographs demanding ransom and threatening to kill the hostages. Tauntingly, they uploaded pictures of a baby delivered in their captivity by one of the two pregnant women among the captives. Nigeria has never had it so bad.

On Monday, Buhari once again charged the security agencies to go all out and rescue the hostages. He also ordered them to locate and eliminate terrorists, criminals and the kidnappers. Nigerians are perplexed by the failure to translate such tough words into effective action.

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Moreover, the Nigerian Armed Forces, despite being stretched in the last few years, are still globally regarded as an effective, professional fighting force that has distinguished itself in international peacekeeping missions and proved its mettle on the battlefield in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Congo. The respected Global Fire Power website ranks it Africa’s fourth most powerful military after Egypt, South Africa and Algeria. But analysts point to incompetent political leadership and corruption as factors weakening the vaunted institution in recent times.

Surely, it is another sad indictment of the political and security leadership that the abductees are still in captivity 37 days after terrorists waylaid the Kaduna-Abuja train, killed eight passengers in a rain of bullets, injured 26 others and took 68 hostages, including pregnant women and children. Hauntingly, the episode forces Nigerians to relive the horror of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram eight years ago and several mass abductions since then. Over 100 of the Chibok girls are still unaccounted for.

After eight years of this, the military and intelligence agencies ought to have professionally fashioned measures to obtain intelligence, interdict and pursue the criminals in the first few hours after a kidnap.

It is doubly disconcerting that again, the incident occurred in Kaduna, with its multiple military garrisons, police and paramilitary camps. There have also been a series of mass kidnappings and bandit attacks in the state, including on the Kaduna Airport and the Nigerian Defence Academy, where terrorists killed an officer and abducted an Army major. These incidents suggest that the security forces should have been on high alert.

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Understandably, Buhari said the military was constrained in launching a frontal rescue operation because of the overriding need to protect the abductees. The bandits, he said, are using the hostages and other civilians as human shields. They have also threatened to kill them if ransom is not paid, or if their imprisoned gang members are not released.

However, experience around the world informs us that all options should remain on the table. A report by Chatham House found that when confronted with hostage crisis involving their nationals, governments opt for negotiation, prisoner release or exchange, ransom payment or persuasion of other foreign governments or regimes that have some influence/leverage with the terrorists to intercede. Hostage rescue, always risky both to the hostages and the rescuers, is a last resort.

Many militaries have developed expertise in this. The United States Special Operations Command doctrine says successful commando rescues require “speed, shock, surprise and violent action.” Afflicted for over 12 years by terrorism and insurgency, the Nigerian military should accord priority to acquiring expertise in special operations. The Army, Nigerian Air Force special operations forces and the Navy’s Special Boat Service should by now have such capability.

With the terrorists demanding the release of some of their detained commanders and financiers in exchange for the abductees, the government finds itself in a difficult position that requires tact, hostage crisis management and expertise to resolve.

Prevention and quick response are critical. Criminologists say the first 24 to 48 hours following an abduction investigation – referred to as the “golden hours” – are critical to its successful outcome. It requires strong, dynamic leadership supported by clear defensible decision-making; backed up by systems and structures designed to collect and evaluate information quickly.

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The security forces have to develop new strategies, and the capacity to respond, and give hot pursuit when terrorists strike, especially in places where they have been active. Intelligence-gathering and deployment of technology tools are essential. Urgently the State Security Service and the military must develop hostage rescue capability, maximising training from the militaries of friendly countries and reputable international military contractors. After terrorists abducted and killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the US Federal Bureau of Investigations created a special squad, the Hostage Rescue Team, ahead of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Since then, the FBI said the HRT has responded to nearly 800 high-risk incidents within the US and around the world.

There is no excuse for the SSS, police and the military not to track and locate the kidnappers hiding within the country. Buhari must task them to rescue the train hostages and every other kidnap victim in the country.

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