News / Africa

Nigeria Kidnappings and Lawlessness Increasing

Nigerian policemen providing security against kidnapping rings. (File Photo)
Nigerian policemen providing security against kidnapping rings. (File Photo)
Anne Look

This week's kidnapping of 15 schoolchildren in the Niger Delta region is the most recent example of rising criminality and insecurity in Nigeria that could pose a threat to holding free and fair elections next year.  

Gunmen hijacked a school bus on Monday in Nigeria's southeastern state of Abia and reportedly are demanding more than $100,000 in ransom for the 15 children on board.

Abia state is in the country's oil-rich Niger Delta.  The region has increasingly been plagued by reports of kidnapping and crimes such as hijacking and armed robbery in recent years.

Nigeria's minister of police affairs, Adamu Maina Waziri, says negotiations are underway with the childrens' kidnappers and that security forces are rolling out new strategies to curb what he calls the "pervasive" problem of kidnapping in the country.

"Measures have been put in place," said Adamu Maina Waziri. "And in the next 90 to 120 days, we will be able to deal decisively with kidnapping in that our capability and capacity to intervene in issues of kidnapping are going to be enhanced with training and other ways that we are looking forward to."

In the run-up to nationwide elections next year, President Goodluck Jonathan has made fighting kidnapping a government priority.  In an address at the inauguration of new chiefs of Nigeria's armed forces earlier this month, Mr. Jonathan called for them to partner with local authorities.

"Nigeria is facing the worst internal security challenges," said President Jonathan. "Every day, we have kidnapping and some militia to arise in one part of the country or the other.  You must work collectively with the police to ensure that we put this ugly part of Nigerian history behind us as soon as possible.  The government will do everything to support you."

Although kidnappers in the Delta region typically have targeted foreign oil workers, like the three French workers who were abducted from an offshore rig last week, they are increasingly abducting Nigerians.

Doctors, journalists, politicians and their relatives have been among those taken in recent months, although most were released after ransoms were paid.

But there are concerns that rising insecurity and intimidation in the Delta could disrupt Nigeria's efforts to hold free and fair presidential, legislative and local elections.

This month, Nigeria's House of Representatives considered imposing the death penalty for convicted kidnappers.  And President Jonathan proposed forming an elite strike force to go after kidnappers and armed groups.

Sources in the Delta region say government support is needed, as local police can be outgunned and lack the necessary resources to go after well-trained kidnappers.

Delta state police command spokesman Charles Muka says the police have been successful in arresting kidnappers, but he welcomes government support.

"The problem we have is a shortage of the wherewithal to do the job," said Charles Muka. "Happily, the federal government has promised to aid us in provisions of these facilities and, once that is done, be sure that criminals cannot have their way in this state."

Residents of the Delta blame unemployment and corruption for ongoing criminality.  They say the issue of kidnapping is rooted in the turbulence and frustration that has characterized the oil-rich region in recent years.

Nigerian human-rights monitor Casely Omon-Ihabor says the kidnappings started as a way to draw national and international attention to the difficulties of communities living in the region.

"But now, it has spread all over the country," said Casely Omon-Ihabor. "It has become a very lucrative business for jobless youth.  I tell you, if these youth were employed, they would not be kidnapping.  But because they are not employed, because they are idle and not just idle, they are armed."

Some kidnappers are criminal groups seeking money; others are armed militants with a host of demands that include more jobs, reduced corruption and a sharing of the nation's oil wealth generated in the Delta.

Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers, but most Nigerians live on less than $1 a day.

Nigerian political analyst Adekunle Amuwo says kidnapping has grown out of the decades-old question of resource control and the tensions between the haves and the have-nots.

"What the oil-bearing states of the Niger Delta see is that they are getting nothing from the resources that are being taken from their region," said Adekunle Amuwo. "So what criminality has done today, it is a generated form of the resource control fight and contestation because the issue was allowed to fester for too long."

Kidnapping, Amuwo says, needs to be addressed as a symptom of more serious, systemic problem in Nigeria.  

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