On 18 September 2021, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director-General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, took to social media to thank God that her brother had survived what was initially thought to be a failed kidnapping but later upgraded to an assassination attempt. The Obi (or Ruler) of Ogwashi-Uku, His Royal Majesty, Obi Ifechukwude Aninshi Okonjo II, had survived an attack nearly nine years after their mother, Mrs Kamene Okonjo, was held captive for five days before being released unharmed. At the time, Okonjo-Iweala was the Finance Minister of Nigeria.
For a long time, kidnappings by militant groups in Southern Nigeria was a dirty little secret. Wealthy and powerful locals as well as international business executives, particularly those in the oil industry, accepted the risks of potentially being held captive for a few days. Ransoms paid by OECD-member state head offices were often expensed as a “cost of doing business” and expats were well paid – a three-year stint in Nigeria could pay off a mortgage. Police escorts for foreigners on business trips to Nigeria was the norm and it was not uncommon for heavily guarded residential compounds to be stormed by thugs looking for petty cash held in home safes.
The problem of kidnappings in Nigeria came to light in 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in the north-eastern town of Chibok. It took years to free some of the girls, some of whom were forced to marry their captors, and over 100 girls remain in captivity. The militant group inspired others to start targeting school children in Northern Nigeria which was a different operating model from that in Southern Nigeria.
Between 2011 and 2020, around $18 million were paid out in ransom, with the chunk of that amount being exchanged from 2016 to 2020. This influx of cash has facilitated a whole new generation of criminals, says Bulama Bukaty, an analyst at the Extremism Policy Unit of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
According to Bukaty, about 30,000 bandits are currently operating across Nigeria. The numbers are truly staggering. This year alone, nearly 1,300 students and teaching staff were abducted from local schools, 300 of whom are still missing. But this time around, the criminal gangs are not only picking up women and girls as Boko Haram did. They have, instead, expanded their ‘target market’ and no longer discriminate over gender, age, or social status.
President Muhammadu Buhari has been reassuring the people of Nigeria that the government is doing all it can to tackle the situation. Since his inauguration in 2019, Buhari has deployed special security forces to nearly 30 out the 36 Nigerian states to take out bandit camps and hopefully, instill some fear amongst those who aspire to join the business.
Similarly, Information Minister Lai Mohammed – in a recent interview with Reuters – reinstated that the government has been working hard to rectify the security situation in the country. “We are winning the war against insurgency and banditry,” he said, without divulging any details of the operation.
Both Buhari and Mohammed have also been urging people not to give in and pay ransom to discourage the culprits. Whether the people of Nigeria are willing to listen is another story. There is a general mistrust of the government and its ability to control something that is already threatening the very social and economic fabric of the country.
Is the kidnapping situation in Nigeria that bad?
Nigeria is one of the top countries in the world for kidnap-for-ransom along with Venezuela, Mexico, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. What all of these countries have in common is high rates of corruption which has weakened the very institutions that are supposed to protect and serve them. So yes, it is bad and residents are advised to remain vigilant.