Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kidnap express: Abductions are the new way of making money in Nigeria

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Driving home through the darkness on Sept. 6 towards Nigeria's main oil city, Port Harcourt, Archbishop Ignatius Kattey and his wife had no idea an armed gang was about to seize them. Yet it was not an extraordinary event. The kidnapping of Nigeria's second-ranking Anglican cleric, who along with his wife since has been freed, was merely another instance, albeit at a higher level than usual, of a crime residents of the swampy Niger Delta have become grimly accustomed to.

Kidnapping in the oil region is invariably for ransom. Foreign oilmen used to be the usual targets, but rich Nigerian businessmen, prominent academics and even soccer stars have become increasingly vulnerable. The threat of kidnapping has also gotten much worse this year in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city and its economic hub.

There are so many abductions across the country nowadays they rarely get into the news. During the first half of 2013, Nigeria had the most kidnap attempts in the world, accounting for 26 per cent of all such recorded incidents. Mexico was second with 10 per cent and Pakistan third with seven per cent, reckons NYA International, a London-based firm that gathers intelligence on crime.

This year's tally of kidnappings is expected to be higher in Nigeria than in 2012 or 2011, when 500 and 475 were recorded respectively, a security expert says, but the true figures may be still higher.

"Half of all cases are not reported," he explains, "with some people preferring to handle matters privately."

Because people have little faith in the police's ability to arrest the perpetrators or negotiate with them, the victim's family invariably resorts to settling quickly with the criminals.

In some of Nigeria's 36 states, there has been progress in tackling the kidnappers. Still, beefed-up security in some southeastern states, such as Akwa Ibom and Abia, may merely have pushed the gangs westward to cities such as Lagos, where burgeoning middle-class districts are increasingly being targeted. A flashy car or a swanky suit can be enough to catch a villain's eye.

In "express kidnappings," as they are dubbed, victims are rarely kept for more than a couple of weeks. Most of them are freed, after the cash has been handed over, in three or four days.

"It's a new way of making money in Lagos," the security expert says, "but now it's all too easy."

When Lagos police arrested a gang of 10 kidnappers in July, one of them explained he had held his Chinese boss for three days because he felt unfairly treated. He devised a plan with his driver to abduct the boss, and they extorted $51,000 from the company. Another man said he had kidnapped a friend out of jealousy, keeping him for two days before freeing him for $3,000.

It is against Nigerian law to pay ransoms, but most people and most companies cough up, though many deny doing so. Captors usually start with huge demands before being haggled down. Settlements of between $12,000 and $30,000 are standard, though there have been instances of people getting away with as little as $600.

The kidnappers who snatched human rights lawyer Mike Ozekhome in August initially asked for the Nigerian equivalent of $915,000. He was released 20 days later. The amount paid is unknown. Until policing improves and people refuse to pay, the scourge of kidnapping will persist -- and the best of lawyers and churchmen will be vulnerable.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 D7

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