Missing Girls Expose Kidnap Capital as Nigerians Pay Ransoms

Four armed men ransacked Antony Akatakpo’s home in front of his wife and two children in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, shot him in the leg and bundled him into the trunk of his Mitsubishi Endeavor.

Akatakpo, the 34-year-old breakfast show presenter at Wazobia FM who’s known as Diplomatic Akas Baba, was driven to a forest hideout and held blindfolded for a week, fed on plain bread and threatened with death unless his family paid a 10 million naira ($61,289) ransom. He said he was dumped on a city highway on March 20 after the gunmen received less than half the sum they demanded.

“I was praying and calling on God to help me, rescue me,” he said by phone from Port Harcourt, the hub of Africa’s biggest oil industry in southeastern Nigeria. “They wanted to collect their own share of the money I was making for my family.”

Nigeria has become Africa’s kidnapping capital. It ranked third globally last year after Mexico and India, according to London-based consultancy Control Risks Group. While seizures for cash like that of Akatakpo are a daily occurrence in Africa’s most populous nation, the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls by Islamist militants in the northeastern village of Chibok focused international attention on the issue.

“Kidnappings have been happening all over the country, it’s not just confined to the northeast, it’s not just confined to the south,” Ibrahim Mu’azzam, a professor of political science at Bayero University in the northern city of Kano, said in an interview.

Niger Delta

More than 1,000 people were kidnapped in Nigeria in 2012, the highest on record, according to Red24 Plc, a Glasgow, Scotland-based security services company. The kidnappers in the oil-rich Niger River delta used to target mainly foreigners, who accounted for more than half of the victims in 2007, according Control Risks. Last year, 84 percent were Nigerians.

That’s partly because kidnapping a foreigner will probably involve lengthy negotiations that will reduce the ransom and force the abductors to keep the victim alive for an extended period, said Peter Sharwood-Smith, the Lagos-based West Africa regional manager at risk consultancy Drum Cussac.

“If a wealthy Nigerian is taken hostage, the negotiations will usually be directly with the family, who are emotionally involved, and this usually leads to a quicker and simpler payment, and usually means the authorities are not even notified,” he said.

Oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Chevron ramped up their security in the wake of attacks by an insurgent group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta that declined in 2009 after a general amnesty.

Security Provisions

“Oil companies have significantly bolstered their security provisions,” Tom Newell, Africa response analyst at Control Risks, said by phone from London. It’s easier to kidnap “nationals who adopt less robust security measures and are nevertheless reasonably affluent. The primary target group tends to be middle-class, relatively wealthy Nigerian nationals.”

Frank Mba, a national spokesman for Nigeria’s police, didn’t answer five calls and three text messages to his mobile phone seeking comment. President Goodluck Jonathan’s spokesman, Reuben Abati, didn’t answer three calls and one text message to his mobile phone.

In December 2012, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s mother was kidnapped and held for five days. Her captors told her she was abducted because her daughter didn’t yield to pressures to authorize payments for unverified fuel-subsidy claims, Okonjo-Iweala told reporters after her release.

Wealth Disparity

“Crime has flourished because of the extreme disparity of wealth in that region, when you have comparatively wealthy people living cheek-by-jowl with comparatively poor people,” Newell said by phone from London. “That sets a breeding ground for kidnappings.”

The West African nation is struggling to create enough jobs, even as the International Monetary Fund estimates the economy will expand 7.1 percent this year. The unemployment rate has risen to 23.9 percent in 2012 from 13.9 percent in 2000, Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Godwin Emefiele told reporters on June 5 in Abuja, the capital. The youth unemployment rate in the delta is 40 percent, according to a 2011 report by the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta.

As long as poverty, unemployment, corruption and weak security aren’t addressed in the north and Niger delta regions, Nigeria will be plagued by abductions, said Ryan Cummings, the Cape Town-based chief Africa analyst at Red24.

Islamist Groups

“These structural issues will need to be remedied in order to address Nigeria’s kidnapping for ransom and extortion concerns,” he said. “Kidnapping is an established threat in Nigeria and is likely to continue to be so for the foreseeable future.”

In northern Nigeria, Islamist groups have also carried out a series of kidnappings, that of the girls at their school in Chibok in Borno state being the most spectacular example. In January, the U.S. Embassy in Abuja said militants loyal to Boko Haram abducted women for marriage as “slave brides.”

Gunmen abducted about 20 ethnic Fulani women on June 8 near Chibok when they attacked a settlement known as Garkin Fulani, according to Alhaji Tar, a member of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria. Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is a sin” in the local Hausa language, has waged a campaign to impose Islamic law in Nigeria that has killed thousands of people over the past five years.

Hostages Murdered

Islamist militants held French engineer Francis Collomp for almost a year before he was freed in November. Three Lebanese, a Filipino, a Greek, an Italian and a U.K. national working for Setraco Nigeria Ltd. were seized in a February attack last year at their residential compound in the northern state of Bauchi. They were eventually murdered.

The latter kidnappings were claimed by Ansaru, a splinter group of Boko Haram. It said it carried out the attack in response to “the transgressions and atrocities done to the religion of Allah” by European nations in countries such as Mali and Afghanistan.

Sanctions List

The United Nations Security Council is expected to add Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, and the group’s faction Ansaru to the council’s sanctions list for al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, by the end of this week or the beginning of the next, according to a Security Council diplomat in New York, who asked not to be named commenting on ongoing diplomatic negotiations.

Shekau and Ansaru will be the first Boko Haram-linked individual and entity to be added to the council’s list.

Some victims are just unlucky.

Mike Ozekhome said he was reading newspapers at about 3 p.m. on Aug. 23 as he traveled from Benin City to a family funeral at his home village of Agenebode. He didn’t see the roadblock until his driver suddenly slowed down his Toyota Prado SUV.

About 10 young men with rifles and machine guns dragged the 56-year-old lawyer out of his car, he said. His captors gunned down four policemen who were alerted to kidnapping and then drove Ozekhome into a remote swampy outpost.

He shared a single sweat-drenched mattress with two others, took toilet trips under armed guard and contracted malaria, he said. Ozekhome was released 20 days later after his family paid an amount he won’t disclose so not to encourage criminals.

“I wasn’t profiled or targeted, I simply ran into them,” Ozekhome said at his office in Abuja. “In our detention camp I later found out we were about 13 there and some of them were poor women.”

For now, Akatakpo said his abduction won’t force him to leave Port Harcourt. He said he wants to work with the local Rivers state government to help bring down rates of kidnappings and help find opportunities for impoverished youths.

“They have to make a living for themselves,” said Akatakpo. “The gun is what they use to eat.”

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