Kidnapping has for years been rife in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta; but, experts say the practice is now common across much of the country and kidnappers are becoming less discerning about their targets.
It used to be that kidnappers would target only rich Nigerians and expatriates, mostly those working in the oil industry in the southern Niger Delta region; but, security experts say it is not just foreigners and the wealthy who are at risk.
Last May, prominent Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s father was kidnapped as he was traveling in the country’s southeast. She later wrote that his kidnappers told him he was targeted because his daughter was believed to be wealthy.
The kidnappers are not confining themselves to the Niger Delta. An Argentine man was grabbed last month in the north-central Niger State. Last February, kidnappers abducted an American woman from Kogi State in the country’s center. Both were later released; but, Michael Clyne, senior analyst with risk consultancy Drum Cussac, says kidnappings have been reported in about half of Nigeria’s 36 states.
A number of factors have led to the range and broadening of targets by kidnappers. Rich Nigerians and foreigners have now become riskier to kidnap since some take security precautions to avoid abduction. That leaves kidnappers with no choice but to be less discerning about their targets, and to spread across the country, says Clyne.
“Kidnapping gangs have had to find the best intersection of profit margins and vulnerability of their victims. That intersection usually lies in upper middle class professionals,” he said.
The kidnapping of oil workers was used as a tactic by militants in the Niger Delta fighting for a greater share of the region’s wealth. That was supposed to stop in 2009 when the government started paying them off in exchange for peace, but, Clyne says some militants decided to go elsewhere in Nigeria and continue kidnapping.
“Migration in search of economic opportunity by decommissioned militants was the driver of the change in geographic scope,” he said.
Nigeria’s often-violent local politics also play a role, says Edward Oforomeh, a security consultant and retired police officer. Some politicians employ criminals as part of their campaign strategy around elections. Once those are over, Oforomeh says these criminals turn to kidnapping to make ends meet.
“Arms were given to them to protect their masters. Those arms were not withdrawn. A man has a gun and he has no job; he uses his gun to intimidate somebody else,” he said.
Clyne says reports of kidnappings surged after Nigeria’s presidential and parliamentary elections concluded in April, although they have tapered off in recent months. He says it is hard to know exactly how widespread the problem is; many people do not report kidnappings to police for fear the hostages will be killed if officers attempt a rescue. Family members, friends and employers then have no choice but to negotiate with the kidnappers.
Clyne says ransom demands start anywhere between $10,000 and $754,000.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from Warri, Nigeria.