Kidnapping for lucrative ransoms has become a big business in some countries in Africa, and the criminal act affects Chinese nationals as well as other foreign workers, say analysts. They say that due to China’s massive presence on the continent, whether in oil or other industries, it is inevitable Chinese often end up being targets.
The problem has not gone unnoticed by Beijing, and earlier this month, Chinese officials and representatives from local Chinese companies in Nigeria held a video conference to discuss security issues.
The oil-rich country is Africa’s largest economy and China is a key partner, having invested billions of dollars over the years. Some 8,616 Chinese were working in Nigeria in 2020, according to the latest available data from the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University.
Nigeria is home to Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, as well as opportunistic criminal gangs known locally as “bandits,” both of whom often kidnap locals but also pose a huge threat to foreign workers.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has regularly vowed to crack down on insurgent groups and armed gangs in the country, while a new bill passed by the Senate last month makes paying ransoms a crime.
Why the Chinese?
Asked why Chinese might be favored targets for kidnappers, Cobus van Staden, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said, “One of the contributing factors in all of this is the perception you see in African countries that Chinese people keep lots of cash on hand.”
A “sweet pastry” for kidnappers — that’s how Chen Hanqing, a Nigeria-based engineer, described himself and the many other Chinese nationals working on infrastructure projects in Africa.
Chen told China’s state newspaper the Global Times that Chinese are prime targets for violent militants and that one compatriot who had been kidnapped by an armed group had described the experience as “hell on Earth.”
It’s difficult to find clear statistics on the number of Chinese who have been kidnapped in Africa because “these cases are often not publicized either from the law enforcement side or the Chinese side,” van Staden said. It’s also not always reported when victims are freed and whether ransoms are paid.
“We do, however, know that in some cases in terms of how the Chinese deal with it, they do pay the ransom” van Staden said, adding, “I think in some places the corporates would be more likely to pay ransoms than the embassies.”
Increasingly, Chinese companies are using private security firms to protect their workers, he added, pointing to Frontier Services Group, based in Hong Kong and Beijing, which recently provided security for Chinese executives visiting work sites in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The meeting earlier in the month, involving Chinese officials and stakeholders, was attended by the head of the Ministry of Public Safety’s working group, Yin Guohai, as well as China’s ambassador to Nigeria, Cui Jianchun, and its consul general, Chu Maoming. Also in attendance were representatives from numerous Chinese companies operating in Nigeria, including Dejin Mining and Dahua Paper.
According to a summary of the meeting on the website of the Chinese embassy in Nigeria, Yin Guohai commended Nigerian authorities for “the successful destruction of a group of kidnapping criminal gangs” and noted, “Many Chinese citizens who were kidnapped had been rescued.”
Cui, however, said Chinese working in the country still faced numerous security risks, “posing a serious threat to production” as well as affecting the quality of life for workers.
Earlier this year, three Chinese nationals working on the Sino-Hydro Power Dam in the central state of Niger were kidnapped by armed men, and two of their local colleagues were killed.
Last year, gunmen kidnapped four Chinese rail project workers and killed their police escort in Nigeria’s Ogun state. The workers were freed less than a week later according to media reports, with the Daily Post Nigeria newspaper reporting that an “undisclosed” ransom was paid.
Nigeria isn’t the only place where Chinese corporations face security threats.
The mineral-rich and conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo is another country where kidnappings have occurred. Last November, five Chinese nationals working at a gold mine in the eastern DRC were kidnapped.
The abductions prompted the Chinese embassy in the DRC to issue an alert, warning citizens not to go to high-risk provinces there, and for the Chinese Foreign Ministry to warn about security risks in African countries, according to the Global Times .
Shortly after that warning was issued, local authorities said people were kidnapped and two Chinese nationals killed during an attack by a militia on a mining camp in the eastern DRC.
Van Staden noted that the fact that there have been warnings from Beijing and that meetings like the one between Chinese officials and the Nigerian government are taking placed showed the kidnapping issue was “clearly receiving high level concern.”
Oluwole Ojewale is an analyst at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. He told VOA that extremist groups or criminal gangs are looking for profitable ransoms. Ojewale said because of that, he thinks large Chinese corporations will now have money set aside for such security risks and will either pay ransoms or use private security operatives to try to protect their staff.
Asked whether the level of threats Chinese face in Africa — which is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to build and invest in infrastructure in various regions of the world to promote trade — will lead to a decrease in direct foreign investment, Ojewale said he thinks profits will likely trump security concerns.
“I don’t think Chinese businesses will pull out … irrespective of how volatile the environment is,” he said.