The governor of Nigeria's oil-rich Rivers state has signed into law a bill prescribing life imprisonment for kidnapping offenses. Hundreds of people have been abducted in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta since 2006, most of them in Rivers state.
Nigerian officials say 300 people were taken hostage in the volatile Niger Delta in the first nine months of 2008. Hundreds more were believed to have been seized since 2006 in the unruly region, where kidnapping for ransom has been a thriving business.
Foreigners, mostly women, children and oil company employees, were the usual targets, taken hostage and released after the payment of ransom. But now more and more victims are middle or working-class Nigerians. Even the poorest are snatched off the streets now, for ransoms as low as a few hundred dollars.
The new law says kidnappers in Rivers state face imprisonment for life without the option of parole. A Niger Delta- based attorney, Reginald Atudo, described the new legislation as the right law at the right time. "The purpose of kidnapping was no more to putting pressure on government to press home demands for development, but for gain-making, commercial- to now make money out of it. By issuing the enactment in Rivers state it will go a long way to discourage other kidnappers. So I think it is the right law at the right time," he said.
Violent crime has surged in the Niger Delta since militants, who claim to be fighting for a fairer share of the region's natural resources, launched a campaign of sabotage against the oil industry three years ago.
Criminal gangs have taken advantage of the chaos, carrying out kidnappings for ransom and armed robberies that have left the region's residents in a state of insecurity. Sofiri Peterside, a human rights activist in the Rivers state's capital of Port Harcourt, says the new law does not address the root cause of the problem. "That law actually was extensively criticized by members of the civil society because it does not really address the root cause of the problem. So it is not a step in the right direction."
Other states in Nigeria's southeastern region are pushing for tougher legislation to tackle the problem of kidnapping, including the death penalty. The Imo state parliament this week adopted the death penalty for kidnapping in the state.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International says attempts to introduce the death penalty for kidnapping in Nigeria are 'a retrogressive step.'