It is not clear what logic is behind the thinking that demolishing kidnappers’ properties would be an effective deterrent to kidnapping. But whether it is a deterrent or not, a few states have unthinkingly enacted laws empowering their governments to demolish or confiscate kidnappers’ properties. Interestingly, some of these states don’t even wait for the courts to prove the guilt of kidnappers before their properties are brought down. Timidity and perhaps also ignorance have not allowed the victims to test the validity of the laws in the courts, or if not the validity, then at least the processes. For even if the laws were valid, and I doubt if they are in light of the constitution, there is no kidnapper’s property that has so far been demolished in accordance with due process.
One of the kidnappers involved in the abduction of Professor Kamene Okonjo, mother of the Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was demolished shortly after he was arrested. The courts had not yet heard nor judged the case when the government hastily brought the property down. Chief Bonaventure Mokwe, the detained proprietor of the Upper Class Hotel in Onitsha is in court to prevent the Anambra State government from confiscating his property. It was brought down after some dry skulls were found in the hotel premises. He is yet to be found guilty of the crime, but the government has gone ahead anyway to demolish the hotel.
In neighbouring Delta State, the Uncle P Guest House, estimated to be worth about N150 million, and owned by a retiree, Mr Pius Ogbeni, was also brought down, allegedly on the orders of the state government, for harbouring a kidnapper. The suspect had lodged in the hotel, like any other guest, for five days before checking out. His alleged victim was said to have been rescued in very controversial circumstances from the hotel. Today, no one is even sure where the victim was rescued from. But while the case was yet to be heard, let alone tried, the hotel was brought down.
Kidnapping is of course a very serious crime that should not be condoned. But so, too, are murder and armed robbery. If the last two do not cause an abridgment of due process, there is no reason not to subject kidnapping to the ambits of the law. Apart from the dubiousness of the kidnapping law itself, and the indefensible, if not immoral, haste with which the governments demolish properties, there is a clear lack of rigour in the anti-kidnapping law. Has the death penalty curbed or eradicated armed robbery?
In light of the abduction of Mike Ozekhome, a prominent Nigerian lawyer, it will be hard to counsel restraint in tackling kidnapping. But counsel I must. Let the states, which have passed laws on kidnapping, take a second and more reasoned look at the laws. More importantly, let them follow due process and not jump ahead of the law in their populist desire to fight kidnapping. I suggest that victims of government’s arbitrary application of the law test the matter in court, and test it to its limits. I doubt they can lose if there are still enough judges who can call their souls their own, and who understand the deeper import of law and justice.