The months-long train hostage crisis in Nigeria has ended, but it leaves behind traumatised survivors and their families, and lingering questions around the country’s inability to protect its citizens, conduct rescue operations, or negotiate an outcome that might forestall the need for costly concessions and payment of billions of naira.
“We learnt the bitter reality of how vulnerable we are as Nigerians and how clueless, insensitive and selfish our government has proven to be by their action, or inaction,” Aliyu Mahmood, a relative of one of the abductees, told HumAngle.
Although the last of the hostages have been released, there is still palpable anger.
The Middle Man
In March this year, a band of well-armed gunmen, linked to Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram, derailed a Kaduna-bound train as it travelled from the capital Abuja. They stormed the train carriages and dragged 63 people into the forest.
First, families waited on and appealed to the government for help. But when that was not forthcoming, they began to look around for someone to help them, someone to act as a middle-man to establish a link with the abductors and convey ransoms to exchange for their loved ones. They collected money and, little by little, abductees were released in small groups. Over the next weeks and months, the number of hostages remaining in the bush gradually dropped to 23.
Then, at the beginning of September, it was announced that this key link between the families and the kidnappers had apparently been broken.
Nigeria’s domestic intelligence agency, Department of State Services (DSS), had detained one of the lead negotiators. Tukur Mamu, the publisher of Desert Herald, was arrested in Egypt, where he was en-route to Mecca. He was then taken back to Nigeria, where he remains in custody.
The DSS in an affidavit to a judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, accused the negotiator Mamu of “aiding and abetting acts of terrorism” and “terrorism financing”.
Despite attempts to obscure critical details of Mamu’s situation, HumAngle can say with a high degree of confidence his predicament is connected to his handling of the ransom payments.
During the period of Tukur’s involvement, there was a great degree of tension between parties involved in the process of negotiations. The Daily Trust newspaper had previously reported the nature of the long-drawn-out bargaining for the release of the passengers.
What went wrong?
An expert in hostage negotiations told HumAngle that introducing third-party intermediaries into the negotiations is a very high-risk strategy.
Retired Federal Bureau of Investigations agent Gary Noesner told HumAngle the ideal hostage negotiator must be capable of immense self-control: “If they can’t control their own emotions, how can they expect to exert influence over another person?”
Speaking from the United States, Mr Noesner said he has not followed the details of the train kidnappings and has not worked in Nigeria. Mr Noesner spoke to HumAngle about his extensive experience in hostage negotiations in the US.
He has overseen hundreds of cases during his career. He was not directly commenting on events in Nigeria, and yet there is relevance in what he told HumAngle.
Hostage negotiators, he said, should also be genuine, sincere, trustworthy and likeable.
It is also a requirement they be a law enforcement officer. In the US, it is the responsibility of the state to manage situations where criminals are threatening the lives of citizens, and only law enforcement can do that with the proper authority.
Any intermediary used by a responsible negotiator cannot be a neutral third party, he said. They must act at the instruction of the law; “In other words, if an intermediary will not agree to do what we want, we do not use them.”
Mr Noesner said in the past he had known situations where a third party inserted themselves into the process and created problems. It created a risk that the middle man could misrepresent the negotiation position of the victim, or make monetary offers that are unrealistic. This, he said, could result in serious harm.
The family’s desperation and uncertainty led them to organise themselves and carry out a series of protests in Abuja and Kaduna. They were driven to use an intermediary to negotiate.
The government, through the committee established in the military chief’s office, also worked with the negotiator. However, the relationship between the committee and the intermediary was frosty. According to an abductee’s relative who spoke to HumAngle on condition of anonymity, during the negotiations, there were noticeable gaps in synergy between the security agencies.
The use of an intermediary appeared to have been the option left for the families, mainly because of the government’s passive attitude and poor handling of the crisis, particularly in the earlier days.
In July, the abductors released a video that showed them beating the captives with sticks. The negotiation process appeared to have run into a brick wall. The captives in the video spoke about this frustration. “Our relatives attempted to save us, but the government prevented them,” said one.
Lessons from America?
What could Nigeria learn from its international partners to improve the standards for addressing kidnapping and hostage situations? In the US, the FBI conducts hostage rescue and negotiations, including those that happen overseas. Could their methods improve the government’s ability to resolve apparently intractable hostage situations?
In some ways, these methods could be seen as controversial, and counterintuitive to politicians, conventional law enforcement, and people who are victims of terrible violence perpetrated by criminals and terrorists, even in America.
In September, Mr Noesner, a 30-year veteran of the FBI, spoke to an audience at an American university about what he had learned during his career.
He talked about a particularly arduous 85-day siege in Montana where the FBI was faced with a group of anti-government rebels who had taken hostages and barricaded themselves in their property. The “Montana Freemen”, as they were known, said their land was no longer part of the United States, and the government had no power over them.
When the opportunity to talk arose, more gung-ho elements of law enforcement wanted the FBI to take control of the situation forcefully. Mr Noesner told his audience: “They said, ‘What are you going to tell them when you get in the room?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to tell them anything, I’m going to listen.
“And you know what? It began the process by which they all surrendered.”
The Kaduna train kidnappers had other demands, ones that did not involve money.
It is understood that they were seeking the release of some of their colleagues, arrested by the state, and held in prison.
It is also believed there were a number of children belonging to the kidnappers, who they wanted back from the Federal Government. The children are thought to have been captured during a raid by security forces. Their present whereabouts are unknown.
HumAngle understands that over the months, the government tried to resolve some of these other demands. But the government’s approach was unable to muster the resources and leverage to get the perpetrators to free the victims without the ransom payments. Neither the government nor security forces had the tactical capabilities to conduct a rescue operation.
A security specialist, Chidi Nwaonu of risk management consultants Peccavi Consulting, notes that controlling the current trend of kidnapping would be challenging, but not impossible. The first step, he says, is prevention; making it harder for people to take hostages and escape.
Chidi also suggests that building the capacity to respond to kidnapping incidents would require preemptive measures, quick response and having a tactical force to find, fix, and disrupt kidnap gangs before, or after a hostage operation. This would also go hand in hand with exploiting intelligence to counter the threat.
Aliyu Mahmood feels relief about the resolution of the saga, the victims came out alive and physically unhurt.
“For this, I would give them credit and a pat on the back”.
But he echoed concerns about the mismanagement of the crisis and how civilians were left to handle it for so long.
This “caused fortunes to be paid as ransom and consequently enriching the terrorists with liquidity [cash] to stock their armoury which is rather sad, awful and unforgivable”, he said.
HumAngle has previously noted the need for authorities to build the structures and capacity to intervene during and after kidnapping incidents.
This approach would mitigate third parties’ use and provide families crucial support. It would also avoid problematic concessions and enable security forces to have an organised procedure for tracking ransom payments and gathering evidence and intelligence on the perpetrators.
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