12 Dec 2023

Organised crime in Africa / Ethiopia kidnappings: terrorism, transnational organised crime or banditry?

Kidnapping and extortion have risen to an alarming degree, leading to substantial economic and security challenges in the country.

Ethiopian Electric Power announced in early October that six of its employees had been abducted and were being held for ransom at an undisclosed location in the Oromia region’s Eastern Shoa zone. The news had been announced beforehand on social media.

The kidnappers demanded 10 million Ethiopian birr (ETB) (approximately US$1m) in cash for the safe release of each victim – ETB60 million in total. This incident is not the first of its kind, yet the ransom request was about ten times more than previous ransoms. Kidnappers previously demanded between ETB150 000 and ETB1 million (approximately $100 000).

Kidnapping and extortion have been on the increase in Ethiopia. Following the 2018 transition, armed dissidents previously based in Eritrea established themselves in Ethiopia after the new political leadership assumed office. While armed groups like the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA or OLF-Shene) are often blamed for these incidents, a lack of thorough investigation means reliable information is lacking. The result is significant concern among the public, but limited attention from law enforcement agencies.

This is a complex problem. Different actors employ different modus operandi, and kidnapping serves various purposes for different actors. While pure financial gain drives some, others use kidnapping to further a political agenda, such as fuelling instability or showcasing their presence in a specific area of the country. Even in cases where the same armed group was a primary suspect in multiple kidnapping cases, the motive and modus operandi have varied from time to time, or from place to place, depending on the armed group’s factions or affiliates.

In 2019 in Dembi Dolo, an Ethiopian town near the South Sudanese border, 21 university students were abducted. To date, 12 are still captive, and those who were rescued could provide no real information on their kidnappers. The unidentified kidnappers did not ask for ransom money. The whereabouts of the abducted university students are unknown, and the motives of the kidnappers, allegedly OLA members, are unclear.

The kidnappers demanded ETB10 million for the safe release of each Ethiopian Electric Power employee

In May 2021, the Ethiopian government designated the OLA a terrorist organisation, meaning that crimes perpetrated by this group are generally considered acts of terrorism. The Attorney-General’s Office has prosecuted intermediaries and accomplices to kidnapping for acts of terrorism under its anti-terrorism legislation.

‘As long as alleged kidnappers are OLA members, we usually invoke the anti-terrorism proclamation to prosecute them, even if this is an in absentia trial,’ a senior prosecutor at the Oromia Regional State Justice Bureau told ENACT on condition of anonymity. In an in absentia trial, perpetrators are not arrested.

The OLA has continuously denied involvement in kidnapping for ransom, suggesting that other individuals or groups might be posing as the OLA.

In a further example, public officials have been abducted and assassinated by armed groups in various locations in the country. In areas such as the Oromia region, 50 employees of the Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote’s cement factory were kidnapped for ransom, which the company paid in cash. Earlier kidnappings in this area resulted in killings without demanding ransom. Some kidnappers kill their victims after demanding or receiving ransom, as was the case in the killing of six children in the Amhara region in December 2019.

The provision requires no more than proving that the defendant demanded or received ransom after kidnapping the victim

Some cases where kidnappers have demanded ransom were easier to prosecute, said an Oromia Regional State senior prosecutor. He said the regional prosecutor often invoked Article 590 of the Criminal Code to prosecute such cases. The provision requires no more than proving that the defendant demanded or received ransom after kidnapping the victim. This might have created a sense of successful investigation and prosecution.

However, the justice system was reactive and evaluated effectiveness based on the number of cases prosecuted, not by the nature of the crimes, said another senior prosecutor at the Attorney-General’s office who requested anonymity. ‘Admittedly, we did not go beyond [treating the situation as an act of isolated banditry],’ the Oromia Regional State prosecutor said.

None of this limited investigative and prosecutorial action has deterred kidnappings. As a result, the Federal Attorney-General is now contemplating the idea of federal investigation and prosecution. ‘Initially, we thought this problem was something that could be contained by our counterparts in regional states,’ said a senior prosecutor at the Directorate-General for the Prosecution of Transnational Organised Crimes, a division of the Attorney-General’s Office.

To unmask the actors and networks involved, it is important to approach the problem through an organised crime lens. Worrying allegations suggest that financial institutions may be complicit by revealing individual account balances to kidnappers before or during abductions. This was confirmed by multiple sources within law enforcement agencies who spoke to ENACT on condition of anonymity.

This engagement of financial institutions extends beyond the disclosure of victims’ account details. A journalist who requested anonymity told ENACT that the cash collected as ransom found its way back into financial institutions in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries like Kenya and South Sudan, where it underwent processing as legitimate transactions.

More than 275 children have been kidnapped in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region by armed groups from South Sudan in five years

These funds, collected from victims, their families and friends, were suspected of fuelling conflicts and facilitating transnational organised crimes, like illicit arms trafficking and financial offences, said a police officer. Yet these points have not been verified through investigations. This is made more difficult as victims often fear reporting incidents. They lack trust in law enforcement as they suspect police officers could be collaborating with kidnappers, prosecutors said.

These kidnapping and extortion crimes are starting to extend beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Cross-border kidnappings have happened in several areas. Some of these incidents involve ransom demands, such as when Ethiopian gunmen crossed into Sudan in 2021, abducted three merchants and demanded a ransom equivalent to SDG 5.4 million (approximately US$9 000) for their release.

However, not all cross-border kidnappings are motivated by ransom. The recurring kidnapping of children in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region by armed groups from South Sudan is worrying – more than 275 children have been kidnapped in five years.

Whether it is terrorism, organised crime or isolated but recurring acts of banditry, Ethiopia must conduct a thorough intelligence-driven investigation into kidnapping for ransom and formulate a customised strategy to address these issues.

Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, Horn of Africa, ENACT Project, Addis Ababa, and Messay Asgedom Gobena, Assistant Professor, Ethiopian Police University, Ethiopia

Image: KWDesigns/Flickr


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