Nigeria's kidnapping culture on the rise

LAGOS, Nigeria — A recent surge in kidnapping in Nigeria has seen prominent members of society — from all-singing, all-dancing “Nollywood” film stars, to the elderly father of a former central bank governor — becoming victims of abductions.

This year has seen a shift in kidnapping. Previously the targets were foreign oil companies’ Western workers who were taken by oil rebels usually in attacks in the energy-rich Niger Delta region. Now criminal gangs are becoming ever more interested in snatching wealthy locals.

“Kidnapping has become a serious criminal problem this year,” said Chief Adewole Ajakaiye, a recently retired police commissioner who has over 20 years’ experience in different parts of Nigeria. “If someone robs a house, maybe they will get a TV and a stereo. With this the profit is much higher — they can make millions of naira even after negotiating the ransom.”

Last month’s abduction of Nkem Owoh, a Nollywood actor known for a song about financial scams called “I Go Chop Your Dollar,” seems to have made high returns for his attackers. At the start of November, Owoh was snatched while driving along an expressway in eastern Nigeria. His abductors originally demanded 15 million naira ($99,000). He was freed a week later for an unknown fee, though local press reports say the kidnappers finally received 1.4 million naira plus the actor’s car.

Yakubu Lame, Nigeria’s minister of police, said in July that 512 kidnappings had been reported in the first half of this year, compared with 353 for the whole of last year. Nigeria is in the world’s top eight kidnapping hotspots, alongside war zones and failed states such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, according to U.S. security group Clayton Consultants.

Stories of kidnapped expatriates in the country have made headlines on many occasions this decade. In recent years, Niger Delta insurgents have abducted scores of foreign oil workers, both to draw attention to their political campaigns and to make a profit. From January 2008 to July 2009, foreign nationals were being snatched in the delta at an average rate of one every 10 days, according to U.S. State Department data — though the vast majority of kidnappings still go unreported.

But, as Western oil giants operating in Africa’s most populous nation — such as RoyalDutch Shell, Total and ExxonMobil — have tightened security and shifted staff out of the delta, attackers have had to start looking elsewhere. These days, oil workers who remain in the delta are confined to guarded compounds after dark.

Of the 35 Britons reported snatched in Nigeria since 2006, only four were abducted this year, according to the British government. Shell says 133 of its employees were kidnapped in the country between 2006 and 2008, but only 19 of those incidents took place last year, showing the start of a downward trend. The company refused to release data for this year.

In a country that has the stark income gaps often associated with an oil economy, and where appearance is a matter of great pride, rich Nigerians can be easy to spot.

“Wealth here is conspicuous. The average Nigerian likes to show his wealth, to show that God has blessed him,” said Ajakaiye. “And when you feel that your right [to also be wealthy] has been taken from you, what do you do? You want to fight for it.”

The shift toward Nigerian victims has also seen kidnapping move beyond the delta, which is in the southeast. The father of Chukwuma Soludo, the former central bank chief, was seized at the end of October in Anambra state. Simeon Soludo, in his late 70s, was released some days later. His family denies paying a ransom. A senior government official was also abducted in the north this summer.

“The expat has become a more difficult thing to seize,” said one security expert in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, who wished to remain anonymous. “So kidnappers have rapidly turned their attention to wealthy Nigerians, their children, even their grandmothers. We can expect more in the leadup to Christmas, when crime traditionally increases here.”

Nigeria’s government is currently debating an anti-kidnapping bill, which, if passed, would mean life sentences for abductors and their assistants. Six of the country’s 36 states have this year adopted the death penalty for the crime, according to Amnesty International. More are considering it.

However, security analysts say tougher penalties are not the solution. In another sign of unevenly distributed wealth and opportunities, jobs are scarce in sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest economy. Many Nigerians are on a daily hunt for instant cash. Some jobless young men, seeing the riches of foreigners and the country’s small elite, turn to crime to plot ways to get rich quick.

“This problem has root causes: unemployment, poverty, a lack of voice and a sense of disenfranchisement, all of which sit against the wealth of a few,” said the security expert in Lagos. “Draconian punishments won’t deal with it.”