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Rampant kidnappings for financial and political gain

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Picture: Legnan Koula/EPA – People buy at a cellphone vendor’s shop on a street side in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The writers says with kidnappings on the rise in West Africa, it is time governments to muster the political will to act.

By Dr Mustafa Mheta

In West Africa, extremist and criminal groups have been carrying out kidnappings and ransom raids on schools and business people. The motivation behind most of these cases is none other than extortion.

The culture of criminal gangs is common in many countries in West Africa. According to The Liberty White paper series on Kidnap, Ransom and Extortion, “Africa has experienced a significant increase in kidnappings for both political reasons and financial gain in recent years. Kidnap events in West Africa and parts of Central Africa, where many foreign mining and oil companies operate, are common”. The Liberty White papers suggest that “employers are responsible for the welfare and safety of their personnel. While most companies have detailed risk mitigation strategies in place, kidnappings are not always avoidable”.

Those most at risk of kidnappings include foreign employees of multinational companies (particularly in the mining, oil and construction sectors), non-government staff, tourists and foreign diplomats have also been targets. The situation on the ground seems to be getting out of hand without any improvement despite the fact that governments have been promising to tackle the problem. In early July last year, following six days of attacks, Nigerian authorities closed 13 schools after more than 125 students were kidnapped from a Baptist high school. In addition to the kidnappings, 33 civilians were killed and four churches were burned.

According to Statisense, a Nigerian data company, more than 3000 people have been kidnapped since January.

Instances like those seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Irrespective of the type of kidnapping and the motive for its perpetration, the psychological and financial impact of the problem can be devastating, both for the victims and their significant others. Victims of kidnapping differ in age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, level of education, and country of origin. Although anyone can become a victim of trafficking, certain populations are especially vulnerable to this form of victimisation.

Another contributing factor to this scourge of kidnappings has to do with the prevalence of terrorism in the region. The rise of terrorist organisations like Boko Haram and others has exacerbated the problem.

Some of these terrorist organisations assume a religious flavour and find it fit to go on attacking mosques and churches wantonly. Such widespread violence is devastating for the populations that live there. Not only are many of their lives in danger due to terrorist violence, but any sort of meaningful economic development is extraordinarily difficult to attain when people live under the constant threat of violence. Increasing economic freedom is a proven path that countries can follow to enjoy greater economic prosperity, and one of the most important factors in determining economic freedom in a country is its ability to uphold the rule of law.

Unfortunately, according to The Heritage Foundation’s 2021 Index of Economic Freedom, many of those countries struggle with corruption and lack the robust institutions necessary to protect their people. Significant progress has not been made to combat the violent extremists, and as attacks continue, increasing numbers of people living in those regions are having their homes destroyed and loved ones killed. The combination of widespread terrorist violence and an ineffective government has kept the people living in West Africa from enjoying the benefits of economic freedom.

When economic freedom improves, so does the environment, educational attainment and food security, and health outcomes. It’s a tragedy that those people have suffered for so long, and until the situation improves, they are likely to continue struggling. Civil unrest, terror threats, endemic corruption, and ongoing abductions of Nigerians, including the well-publicised kidnapping of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram, underscore the continuing challenges of combating modern slavery in Nigeria. Modern slavery takes place within the context of human trafficking and sometimes begins with a kidnapping. Yet, kidnapping is not a new phenomenon. However, the modern use of the term “kidnapping” dates back to 17th-century Britain where infants (kid) of rich families have been “napped” (caught in their sleep) for ransom.

Kidnapping is on the increase in Nigeria, and it is prevalent across all geopolitical zones. In the Niger Delta Region or the south and the southeast, militiamen are using kidnapping as an insurgent tactic to abduct foreigners and to seek ransom to finance their violent movement. Opportunist criminals also carrying out kidnapping for ransom. In the northern parts of the country, Boko Haram and other gang groups are reported to have committed large-scale kidnapping.

Conclusively, poverty leads to kidnapping in Nigeria, because some unemployed youths are turning to kidnapping to get the ransom money as a survival strategy. Corruption is not strongly linked with kidnapping, but there is an indirect link between the two where unscrupulous politicians are using youths as political thugs to kidnap opponents or their family members with a demand or to intimidate them.

Governments in the region are not powerless to address those problems.

It’s long past time for them to muster the political will to act. It’s not good to let people live in fear from criminal elements of society, and yet they have an elected government in power. Aluta continua!

Mheta is a senior researcher/head of Africa Desk at the Media Review Network SA and the Dean of the School of Languages at Somali National University, Mogadishu, in the Federal Republic of Somalia