LAGOS, Oct 28 – Kidnapping for ransom, popularised by armed militants in Nigeria’s southern troubled oil hub, is spreading across the vast west African country to become an all-too-easy money spinning venture.
Kidnappers make demands of anything between 700,000 dollars and three million dollars (470,000 to two million euros) for a victim, though negotiations often bring the sums down considerably.
In the first six months of this year, more than 500 people were abducted across the country, with 10 of them killed, according to the Police Affairs Minister Yakubu Lame.
This is a considerable jump over the 353 recorded as seized in Nigeria in 2008.
Taking captives in Nigeria is "an attractive economic venture where the return on investment is amazingly high," Festus Eriye, a columnist in The Nation daily newspaper, wrote recently.
Owei Lakemfa, a senior labour activist, agreed.
"Kidnapping has become such a lucrative industry," he said, adding facetiously "it is perhaps only the mismanagement of the Nigerian Stock Exchange that has stopped it from being listed on the stock exchange."
Olufemi Ajayi, head of Risk Control Services Nigeria Limited, a private security outfit, was recently cited in the media as saying that more than 90 billion naira (602 million dollars, 407 million euros) has so far been paid as ransom to kidnappers since 2006.
Abductors usually target individuals they believe have money or whose associates can afford the ransoms.
Clerics, government officials, artists, politicians, traditional leaders and even toddlers have fallen victim.
"The action (of kidnapping) which started from the kidnapping of oil expatriates moved to men of God and children," Lame said.
National police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu said "police anti-terrorist units are being strengthened to combat the horrible crime."
One of the most prominent victims recently was the secretary to Kaduna state government, Waje Yayok, who was held incommunicado by his abductors for more than a week. He was seized in the Muslim-dominated north.
Last month the government also disclosed that another attempt to kidnap two ministers had been foiled.
Governor Gabriel Suswam of southern Benue state, meanwhile, recently raised alarm over what he said was a plot to kidnap himself and his wife, asserting that the trend is scaring away potential investors.
A Canadian woman, Julianne Mulligan, a Rotarian on an international exchange programme, was kidnapped in northern Kaduna State last April but freed several days after.
Militants active in the oil producing Niger Delta have admitted abducting dozens of mostly foreign oil workers in the past three years.
While there is no public admission of money exchanging hands for freedom of abductees, it is widely believed that ransoms are paid for the release of captives.
A Roman Catholic priest recently abducted in Imo state was freed after several days when the kidnappers realised that the church had no money to pay a ransom, his fellow clergyman Anthony Nwoko, said.
The upsurge in the spate of kidnappings has forced authorities in some states in the oil-rich south — Delta, Akwa Ibom, Abia, Ebonyi and Imo — to enact capital punishment laws against abductions. The federal law prescribes a 10-year jail term.
"Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary handling," Ebonyi governor Martin Elechi, whose brother-in-law was kidnapped recently, said this month as he signed the death penalty for a kidnapping bill into law.
A university of Ibadan political science lecturer, Osisioma Nwolise, blames searing poverty, youth unemployment and social inequality in this sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest economy for the rising crime wave.
Kidnappers recently added a bizarre element to their trade in central Kogi State when they released some local politicians after a huge ransom was paid and swapped them with their wives.