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A Nation Held by Kidnappers

When kidnappers begin to release waves upon waves of attacks in the federal capital and a former federal minister can publicly speak about his participation in raising ransom that kidnappers demanded, we are in big trouble.

Inpector-General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun.

The economy has not been looking that good for ordinary Nigerians for many years. Inflation has spiked, people can’t find jobs and the politicians live large.

Inevitably, inequality is leading to higher crime rates, as desperate people are forced to try whatever will allow them to get ahead.

New types of crimes are spreading, but none is as dangerous as kidnapping.

Kidnapping, once a marginal occurrence in Nigeria, has morphed into a deeply entrenched phenomenon.

It has become a big business, both in terms of ransom collected and resources required to contain the crime.

Kidnapping is scarring the nation’s social fabric and posing a significant threat to its security and development.

The Nigeria that I grew up in, even though laden with lack and poverty all around, did not include the traumatic experiences that come with kidnapping.

I may have grown up seeing petty theft and an occasional armed robbery, it did not involve hostage taking, abduction and bold kidnappers who have been able to attack in daylight a major train service, capturing most of its passengers for ransom.

This is a different Nigeria. It is a fearful Nigeria and a Nigeria that nobody wants.

Kidnapping is quickly getting out of hand, such that the government, with all its power and resources, looks helpless to control or manage.

When kidnappers begin to release waves upon waves of attacks in the federal capital and a former federal minister can publicly speak about his participation in raising ransom that kidnappers demanded, we are in big trouble.

Kidnappers now kill traditional rulers for fun, having recently added two kings in Ekiti to their long list of murdered victims.

They take children as a trophy and flog them in captivity.

I may have grown up seeing petty theft and an occasional armed robbery, it did not involve hostage taking, abduction and bold kidnappers who have been able to attack in daylight a major train service, capturing most of its passengers for ransom

The moral and emotional effects of kidnapping on the Nigerian consciousness is absolutely devastating.

The nation has become one of those dangerous countries that they warn you about.

It has been a fast degeneration, a journey that has many roots, starting from occasional kidnap of high-net-worth individuals.

In the mid-1990s, the military regime of Sani Abacha killed Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer and human and environment rights activist for his Ogoni people.

In a widely-criticised trial, Saro-Wiwa was convicted and executed by the military, an action that provoked national and international outrage.

The execution of the Ogoni leaders led to the formation of militant groups in the Niger Delta, just as Nigeria was relaunching democratic governance.

Niger Delta groups sought to control oil resources in their region, resorting to the kidnapping of oil workers and expatriates to bring the issue to international attention.

This period also saw the rise of “militant entrepreneurs,” and opportunistic criminals who mimicked these tactics for personal gain.

That was the genesis of kidnapping in modern Nigeria, a mustard seed grew to giant tree that successive Nigerian governments have not been able to fix.

By the 2020s, kidnapping had emerged as one of the most urgent national emergencies of the Federal Republic.

Kidnapping became more widespread, targeting not just the wealthy or expatriates, but also students, passengers, businessmen, and even children.

Tactics evolved, with kidnappers employing violence, psychological manipulation and sophisticated communication techniques.

The emergence of cybercrime further blurred the lines, with virtual kidnappers demanding online ransoms.

Northern Nigeria has been the deadliest zone, although the Middle Belt and parts of the southern states are not immune.

Jihadists and Fulani herdsmen moonlighting as criminals attack their victims at will. Gangs kidnap for ransom.

Things are falling apart and the only response by some state governments is the enabling of para-military forces who parade the fringes of their cities and towns.

Kidnapping rates in Nigeria are now significantly higher than the global average, even in countries that have been known as the kidnapping capitals of the world.

Data from intelligence organisations highlight a worrying trend.

Fear and uncertainty have been amplified and many Nigerians are gripped by the possibility that someone they love, if not themselves, can become a victim.

Some Nigerians in the Diaspora are afraid to visit the country and foreign governments often warn their citizens about travel to Nigerian cities.

Apart from violence and fatalities, there is also impunity, as perpetrators often go unpunished, getting rich by millions or hundreds of millions of naira, perpetuating the cycle of fear and crime.

Ransom transactions often occur outside formal channels, making them difficult to track and verify. Even reported figures may not reflect the actual ransom paid.

Research by SMB Intelligence claims that Nigerians paid N653.7 million (approximately $1.2 million) in ransom from July 2021 to June 2022, excluding the Abuja-Kaduna train incident, where eight hostages reportedly paid N100 million each, and a Pakistani hostage paid N200 million.

The International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, an independent, non-profit news agency in Nigeria, estimate that kidnappers collected at least N8.98 billion (approximately $18.34 million) between June 2011 and March 2020.

Nigeria is certainly getting deeply sucked in to the kidnapping conundrum as each day goes by.

Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative and Advocacy Centre, Auwal Rafsanjani, revealed in a recent press conference that 24,816 Nigerians were killed and 15,597 abducted between 2019 and 2023.

Instead of getting better, kidnapping has actually gotten worse under the new Tinubu administration.

At his inauguration eight months ago, President Bola Tinubu declared that security would be his “top priority.”

Kidnappers are defying him, as more than 3,600 people were believed to have been kidnapped in 2023, the most ever, according to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

The moment was well captured by Rafsanjani: “It has now been eight months since President Tinubu took his oath of office and yet, things have failed to improve.

Our tracking shows at least 2,423 people have been killed in mass atrocities-related incidents and at least 1,872 persons were abducted since the beginning of President Tinubu’s administration till January 26, 2024.”

As the government acquires drones and other technologies to attack the problem, it is apparent that a new way of thinking is required.

The Nigerian factor always creates new dimensions, and a new vision is necessary to avoid turning Nigeria into one that people are fearful to visit.

Currently, the United States travel advisory is at level three – “reconsider travel.”

It warns its citizens: “Violent crime – such as armed robbery, assault, carjacking, kidnapping, hostage taking, roadside banditry, and rape – is common throughout the country.

Kidnappings for ransom occur frequently, often targeting dual national citizens who have returned to Nigeria for a visit, as well as U.S. citizens with perceived wealth.

Kidnapping gangs have also stopped victims on interstate roads.”

You often see these warnings for high crime nations. Kidnapping has such devastating consequences for victims and their families that it would cause more capital flight and stop an inflow of investments.

Countries that have grappled with it struggle economically.

Wracked by hyperinflation and economic turmoil, Venezuela experiences a significant number of kidnappings, primarily targeting wealthy individuals and their families, and the country is many steps deeper in penury than Nigeria.

In Mexico, drug cartels and organised crime dominate the kidnapping landscape, often targeting business owners, government officials, and families.

Ransom demands can skyrocket into the millions of dollars, with victims sometimes held for extended periods.

Some parts of Mexico have no government other than that established by criminals or vigilantes.

The Philippines’ criminals particularly target Chinese nationals.

Demands can range from $50,000 to several million dollars, fueled by the perception of affluent Chinese communities.

Kidnappings in South Africa is against children and wealthy individuals, with the average ransom demand falling between $20,000 and $100,000.

Opportunistic kidnappings for quick ransoms are also widespread, as the nation of Mandela slid into economic and social degradation.

Colombia is well known but kidnappings have decreased significantly since the peak in the 1990s.

Years after Pablo Escobar, Colombia still grapples with image and economic challenges. Nigeria may not easily get out, if care is not taken.

Other ways to deal with the problem include community policing initiatives, new anti-kidnapping laws that deter crime and ensure swift justice, investing in cybersecurity infrastructure and digital literacy to combat technologies that aid kidnapping

Kidnapping deters foreign investment, stifles economic activity, and fuels inflation due to ransom payments. Businesses relocate or close down, impacting job creation and overall growth.

Some have said kidnapping is driving the falling exchange rate of the naira, reasoning that kidnappers mop up foreign currency in the system after their operations.

Victims and their families suffer lasting emotional and psychological scars, often leading to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The fear of being kidnapped creates a climate of anxiety and distrust within communities.

The breakdown of law and order and the perception of governmental ineffectiveness fuels public anger and erodes trust in institutions and democracy.

It undermines social cohesion and creates a fertile ground for further criminal activity.

It is quite easy for anarchy to rule if people begin to administer jungle justice to correct the problem by themselves.

Nigeria must strength law enforcement and purge, without mercy, agents who may be conniving with criminals.

The police need honest people, training and equipment to have the capacity and intelligence to deal gain an upper hand in the fight against kidnappers.

Crime always has a connection to poverty. Tackling poverty, unemployment and inequality can help reduce the pool of potential perpetrators and foster development.

Other ways to deal with the problem include community policing initiatives, new anti-kidnapping laws that deter crime and ensure swift justice, investing in cybersecurity infrastructure and digital literacy to combat technologies that aid kidnapping.

The challenges are daunting and the government appears so confused and disoriented. Kidnapping is a heinous crime that must be dealt with mercilessly and decisively.

Kidnapping is becoming an organised threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence.

Written by Tunde Chris Odediran

Tunde Chris Odediran studied and practiced journalism in Nigeria. He is now a Technical Communications and Information Technology professional in the United States.

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