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Growing kidnapping culture could destroy our society

It behoves every society to look ahead, to peer through the mists of time and see what might happen to it tomorrow. We often wait for bad events to occur before addressing them, yet a little anticipatory thinking might allow us to foresee them and avoid them.

There is a very serious problem brewing in our midst today. It is small at the moment, but is growing rapidly. As usual, it is not being addressed with any degree of seriousness. And this one could really turn us into toast if it is not given some priority very soon. I refer to the rapidly growing culture of kidnapping for ransom that is taking off in our midst.

Before we consider our problem, let me tell you about another country not so dissimilar to our own. Colombia, a South American nation, has long been plagued by violent crime. The culture of crime began in the form of battles between political militias in the 1970s, and soon became entwined with the murky underworld of drug cartels. Ordinary crime gangs entered the game and grew unchecked and kidnapping for ransom became a commonplace phenomenon.

At its peak not so long ago, Colombia was the “crime capital of the world” with a reported 9-10 kidnappings per day, as well as 100 murders. And those were just the official numbers. You would have to talk to ordinary Colombians to get an understanding of what this does to a society. This is not difficult, because there are many Colombians who no longer live in their country. Decades of conflict and insecurity caused massive brain drain as middle-class people left for safer countries. Only now, when a new government has introduced stringent security measures, is the economy bouncing back.

What is it like to live in a place where kidnapping and murder is so high? If we don’t do something sharpish about our own burgeoning problem, I fear we are about to find out. Kidnapping starts off relatively mildly, when minor criminals discover that by hanging on to victims they can get more money out of them than by merely mugging them. But soon, it becomes unproductive to target ordinary citizens – how much can you get out of the average Kenyan, no matter how serious your threats? So kidnapping soon moves up to targeting the middle and upper echelons of society, where large ransoms are possible for the return of a loved one.

That is where we are heading. The kidnap gangs are now looking for businesspeople, professionals, expatriates and the generally well-to-do. They lie in wait outside clubs, hotels and community centres, and most worryingly, even schools. As more and more ransoms are paid, so a market is created and more gangs enter the game. Soon, the situation could spiral completely out of control.

The ordinary Kenyan has long been vulnerable to sudden and brutal loss of life and assets. The moneyed Kenyan is now realising what that feels like.

Do you need a crystal ball to work out what will happen next? An expatriate who has faced this ordeal is not going to stay in this country long. Foreign investors facing this issue with their staff will soon classify us as a high-risk destination. Kenyans who have heard the horror stories from friends and relatives will soon cut down on unnecessary movement and social activities. Already many international organisations operate an informal dusk curfew. The fear of being next is in everyone.

If you can’t move around freely, you can’t build an economy. How many well-to-do people are no longer walking on the streets or going out at night? How much jeopardy are we placing our recovering tourism industry in? How many professionals and thinkers can we afford to lose? How much future investment are we killing? That kind of damage will take decades to recover from.

The amazing thing is the lack of foresight on this issue on the part of the authorities. Kidnap gangs are not that hard to dismantle, since there are usually witnesses available and their mobile phone numbers can be tracked, as can ransoms paid to them. But where are the arrests? The police force needs to ask itself some hard questions here: why are so many people willing to pay ransoms rather than involve the police? Law enforcers are busy blaming the victims for this – but why does the shunning of the police happen in the first place?

I would urge our leaders to learn from Colombia (or even Nigeria, closer to home) and wake up. When you mix political militias, criminal gangs, terrorists and drug trafficking, you create a problem that takes decades to undo. We have all those ingredients present here, and the mix is becoming explosive. Not attacking this issue with determination and courage now will blight many lives.

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