Over the decades, kidnapping in Nigeria has evolved into a lingering, pervasive security threat and fast-paced and multifaceted criminal enterprise. It is now perpetrated by diverse armed groups and criminal gangs operating across the country, on land and at sea, pursuing different agendas and driven by different motivations: political, ideological, financial, social and cultural.
The roots of this phenomenon can be traced to abductions by Niger Delta militants in the early 2000s. The militants would kidnap foreign oil workers and use them as bargaining chips to draw international attention to environmental degradation and underdevelopment in oil-producing communities.
Over time, the practice became increasingly monetised. Desperate to secure the release of their staff, oil companies were quick to pay hefty ransoms. Given how lucrative their stock-in-trade had become, militants went from kidnapping oil workers to kidnapping local politicians, their relatives or other high-net-worth individuals. The ransoms were likely to have been used to purchase arms and ammunition.
In terms of geographic prevalence, kidnapping for ransom and extortion by criminal groups, including on roads, has been the most widespread manifestation of the crime.
Niger Delta states – notably Delta, Edo and Abia – have long been the epicentre of kidnapping in the country. In the past three years, Kaduna has also become a kidnapping hotspot. According to a Nigeria-based security company Bulwark Intelligence, based on incidents reported in the local media from January 2018 to September 2018, states that record the high numbers of incidents include Kaduna, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Zamfara, and Katsina.
Kidnapping carried out at sea is also increasingly common, specifically offshore from the Niger Delta states where it contributes to increasing insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. Criminal groups pursuing financial gain are responsible for these abductions.
There are also abductions of men, women and children linked to the Boko Haram insurgency, a threat that is more prominent in the north-east of the country.
In April 2018, UNICEF reported that Boko Haram had abducted more than 1 000 children since 2013, including 276 girls from Chibok in Borno state and 113 from Dapchi in Yobe state. The group is also believed to have abducted several hundred people over the past five years in attacks on villages in north-east Nigeria, and in neighbouring countries such as Niger and Cameroon.
Finally, there is kidnapping for ritual purposes. There is an entrenched myth in parts of Nigeria that human body parts used in ritual magic bring wealth, power, protection, and success. Some Nigerian analysts and researchers believe that the majority of victims of kidnapping or missing persons across the country were abducted for ritual purposes rather than ransom or any political objectives. Such claims, notably the nexus between kidnapping and ritual sacrifices, need to be further explored.
Kidnapping incidents are generally underreported in Nigeria. Many people do not trust the police or fear that contacting security services will put their loved ones at greater risk. This results in a lack of reliable official crime data in the country.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), using data from law enforcement agencies of member states, 277 kidnappings were reported in Nigeria in 2007; 309 in 2008; 703 in 2009; 738 in 2010; 600 in 2012; and 574 in 2013. No data were provided for 2011.
In 2015, the Nigeria Police Force reported 886 kidnappings. About 630 people were reportedly abducted between May 2016 and May 2017. A recent Bulwark Intelligence threat analysis indicated that kidnapping figures remained relatively stable in 2017 and 2018.
While the abduction of foreigners attracts much attention, the great majority of kidnapping victims are Nigerian nationals.
High-net-worth individuals are the main targets: businessmen, politicians, traditional leaders and their family members, including schoolchildren, religious leaders and public servants. Random citizens are also kidnapped, particularly on the street. In May 2018, gunmen reportedly kidnapped 87 passengers from several vehicles along the Birnin-Gwari-Kaduna highway in Kaduna state, north-central Nigeria.
It is believed that more often than not, a ransom is paid to secure a victim’s release. Kidnappers usually tell victims’ families not to involve the police or security agencies, which do not support making ransom payments.
In 2009, Nigeria’s 36 state governors met in the capital Abuja and urged the federal government to take a tougher stance on the matter by bringing the full weight of the law on culprits. In September 2017, the Senate passed a bill imposing the death penalty for abduction, wrongful restraint and confinement for ransom.
Some states already had laws against abduction and kidnapping. The laws passed by 16 out of the 36 worst-affected states prescribe capital punishment for kidnapping, especially in cases where a victim has died while in the custody of kidnappers.
Several units within the federal police are dealing with this threat, including the anti-kidnapping units and the Intelligence Response Team. Hundreds of officers have been deployed to patrol the highway linking Abuja, Kaduna, Zaria and Kano to tackle kidnapping along that road, which records scores of incidents.
These measures have yielded mixed results. Suspected kidnappers are frequently arrested and gangs dismantled, but security services remain mainly reactive. The crime continues apace and the search for more effective measures continues.
Kidnapping in Nigeria has become a multifaceted criminal phenomenon. Although its magnitude can be put into perspective, given the size of the population and the prevalence of other prominent security threats, it remains a serious threat to the security and the well-being of populations.
If more proactive and effective responses are not developed to address the socio-political economy underpinning it, the situation could further deteriorate with the proliferation of criminal syndicates across the country, and beyond.
William Assanvo, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – West Africa, ISS and Don Okereke, Nigerian Security Analyst and Security Controller, MacGREGOL Security Ltd