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Nigeria's kidnapping culture on the rise

New trend sees wealthy locals the targets of criminal gangs.

Nigeria has a reputation for kidnappings of foreign workers by rebels, such the scene this photo depicts, taken in the Niger Delta on Jan. 31, 2007. But in 2009 the country has seen a rise in kidnappings of wealthy Nigerians by criminal gangs. (George Esiri/Reuters)

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.