In Nigeria, kidnap-for-ransom has become a disturbingly booming enterprise over the past few years. There are frequent reports of violent attacks, resulting in the abduction of locals, either along highways where terrorists hold sway or in the comfort of their homes.
According to the Nigerian Financial Intelligence unit, the trend has become one of the largest sources of terrorism financing in the country.
As a result, two years ago, the Nigerian authorities attempted to put a rein on it by criminalising the payment of ransom. The bill, which amends Nigeria’s terrorism law, imposed a lengthy jail sentence of at least 15 years for paying a ransom to free someone who has been kidnapped and made the crime of abduction punishable by death in cases where the victims die.
It was believed that making the payment of ransom punishable would discourage the rising spate of kidnapping. But the move has neither addressed the raging crisis nor improved law enforcement’s ability to nip cases in the bud.
In a rather distressing trend, Nigerians are now resorting to crowdfunding for ransom on social media to secure the freedom of their family members and relatives. On the heels of the abduction of a family of six in Abuja and the killing of one of the sisters, Nabeeha, following the father’s inability to pay the required ransom of ₦60 million, there have been at least five crowdfunding campaigns on social media, particularly on X, amounting to about ₦230 million ($252,500).
Terrorists had invaded the residence of the family in the Bwari area of Abuja and shot three police officers, including a relative who had arrived at the scene with the police. A family member told HumAngle the relative died from the gunshot.
As a result of the outrage that trailed Nabeehah’s murder, Nigeria’s former Minister of Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, announced the donation of ₦50 million from his friends. Pantami supervised an ambitious NIN-SIM policy that sought the linkage of the National Identity Number with SIM cards in order for the authorities to be able to track kidnappers and other criminal elements.
‘Crowdfunding’ for ransom has been a common feature in rural areas where terrorists continue to enjoy some level of unprecedented influence and sophistication, but making it to social media shows that the enterprise has not only become more lucrative but pervasive, experts told HumAngle.
In rural communities in the North West, there are instances where locals seek donations in mosques and public spaces and even approach wealthy benefactors for loans to pay ransom. It is not any different in the North East and the oil-rich Niger Delta.
“People have been crowd-funding ransoms for several years in so far as many of the individuals or families that have been targeted for ransom payments by bandits have had to resort to seeking donations or loans from the broader community or local elites who can serve as benefactors,” said James Barnett, a specialist in Nigerian politics and security at the U.S. think tank, Hudson Institute.
“But the social media attention that several of the most recent kidnappings around FCT and neighbouring states generated has meant that the crowdsourcing has been online. That this is happening in such a public manner is a sign of how routine and normalised ransom payments have become in Nigeria, which is itself a terrible indictment of the impunity that bandits and kidnappers enjoy.”
James continues that announcing the amount raised on social media before victims are released could inform terrorists and their network of informants that “the family had wealthy benefactors whom they could exploit even more”, as was the case with the family of six.
It is a double-edged sword. Kidnapping for ransom always poses a dilemma because “most people will not consider refusing to pay the ransom and thereby losing their loved ones. But, of course, if people are regularly meeting the demands of kidnappers, the criminals have every reason to continue kidnapping and increase the ransom,” James added.
Between July 2022 and June 2023, no fewer than 3,620 people were abducted in 582 kidnapping incidents across Nigeria, with ransom payouts amounting to ₦302 million out of a cumulative ₦5 billion ransom demanded.
Ransoms are the lifeblood of the kidnapping economy. They are used to purchase more weapons as well as other basic commodities like food, drugs, phones, and fuel that the terrorists need to sustain their operations and carry out more vicious attacks and abductions.
“Ransom enriches the treasury of armed groups and they funnel the same money to acquire sophisticated weapons, drugs and foods. These ransoms received from victims and their families aid terror financing in the country,” Oluwole Ojewale, an analyst at the Institute of Security Studies, told HumAngle.
There is also a social element to it. Many of these terrorists are attracted by the notoriety or the prestige, particularly among their peers, that comes from conducting successful large-scale kidnappings.
Confidence McHarry, a security analyst at Lagos-based think tank SBM Intelligence, believes crowdfunding ransom on social media signals a desperately “hopeless” situation that will impoverish more people and make a lot more desperate.
“What makes this shocking is the fact that it is happening on social media. We shouldn’t be surprised. It is a domino effect that people do not see coming. What this does in the long term is that it is going to make Nigerians a lot more desperate and poorer as well as make the government’s work a little harder.”
Crowdfunding or not, McHarry said the payment of ransom no longer guarantees that the victims will be released unhurt or alive. “In the past, when a ransom was paid, there was a 90 per cent chance that the victims were going to come back alive, but data from SBM is showing that chances of being released unhurt have significantly reduced. The gentleman agreement is no longer there.”
So far, local media reported that four corpses were found when Nabeehah’s uncle went to pick up the remains of his niece.
The state’s capacity to address the raging kidnap-for-ransom epidemic seems inadequate, the security analyst points out.
“The capacity to address the issues has been so reduced and normalised that government agencies do not seem alive to handle and prosecute these issues because it appears the current security orientation is heavily lopsided in its programming towards regime security. As a result, it leaves little will for national security. That means much of the security threats are ignored as far as it does not affect the president directly,” he argued.
McHarry said the current state of the economy makes the allure of kidnap a lucrative thought and exercise. Therefore, authorities, he offered, must adopt preventive measures and address socio-economic drivers to reduce the number of kidnappings.
Ojewale agreed with him but added that authorities must also bolster the capacity of law enforcement agencies to track the movement of armed groups involved in abductions.
“Addressing the crisis must encompass a whole-of-government and society approach. The starting point is to foster human development through access to qualitative education, employment opportunities and community policing. Government and the private sector must make concerted efforts to lift more Nigerians out of multidimensional poverty,” he said.
“The use of modern technologies to track ransom negotiation calls with precision is equally paramount. These technologies are insufficient or grossly lacking with the law enforcement agencies in the country. This is the area that the government must also prioritise as the current administration plans to improve security governance in the country.”
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