Kidnapping in Nigeria: Causes and Solutions

Chibok girls

Alexander Ekemenah

What started as a child’s play around 2005 at the beginning of militancy in the Niger Delta has now assumed worrisome national dimension. It has now become a clear and present danger to national security in terms of safety of individuals, their freedom of movement without fear of the men of the underworld.

Kidnapping has become a criminal dynamic or a critical part of the evolution of crimes in Nigeria. It stands on its own special category. It must therefore be differentiated from armed robbery and other forms of criminal activities that threaten lives and properties of the individuals, corporate bodies and the Nation-State. It must be treated theoretically from a different perspective.

The causes are interwoven with the growing complexity of criminality in Nigeria, which in turn is also interwoven with the dynamics of socioeconomic development and political evolution in Nigeria – in this case with retrogression of economic structures and political dysfunctioning. At the very beginning, it was money-making ritualistic phenomenon. Today, it is interlocked with the militancy in the Niger Delta and other contemporary criminal syndicates. Indeed, it is a contemporary off-shoot of militancy in the region which has now assumed national dimension while militancy per see is still restricted geographically to the Niger Delta region.

At the national level, kidnapping became a mean to an end: of negotiating and extraction of money and leverage from families, groups or classes of people and institutions of the Nation-State. In other words, kidnapping is carried out with the specific aim of getting an unwarranted reward from the families of the victims, the groups or classes to which these victims belong in society and finally the institutions of the Nation-State through their involvement in rescue missions or intermediation/negotiation.

The effects are devastating as well as far-reaching: psychological trauma for the victims and their families, the society and the State – in their constituent units. Victims are held against their wills for duration of time – pending the payment of ransoms – denied their freedoms of movement, fed with poor diet and kept in solitary confinement, denied contacts with loved ones and communications with the outside world, get bargained with in monetary terms or having financial premiums/values placed on their heads/lives; having their dignities of human persons degraded to a subnormal/shabby level.

Families suffer along with their victims along above mental and social terrains. Families are stigmatized socially by having their kits or kin kidnapped; forced to suffer in silence or given unnecessary or undue media exposure, forced to enter into negotiation with kidnappers/men of underworld; forced to part with their hard-earned money as ransoms to secure the lives of their loved ones; etc.

At the social level, kidnapping and payment of ransoms reinforced the entire phenomenon itself because kidnappers are justified in their criminal activities as a mean of legitimizing themselves and extraction of “Shylock Pound of Flesh” from a society that cares less about them; a society that abhors them; in short a society that creates the socioeconomic circumstances for their criminal activities to thrive such as through unemployment, official corruption, social hypocrisy or wrong social values; lack of proper civic education, etc.

At the economic level, it creates atmosphere of uncertainty, insecurity of contractual agreements between individuals, between corporate entities and individuals, and between two or more corporate bodies. Private and public officials do not feel completely safe in an atmosphere threatened by general insecurity and more particularly fear of being a victim of kidnapping – even when they are protected by private or corporate/public security details. Kidnapping becomes a trigger for unintended consequences of entering into a contractual relationship in an atmosphere dominated by fear of insecurity or fear of being a victim of kidnapping. Thus it creates and sustains a network and atmosphere of low intensity instability.

At the State level, the thriving of kidnapping means that law enforcement authorities are increasingly becoming unable to stem the criminal activities. It means the laws and legal penalties against kidnapping as a crime against the State are not effective to serve as deterrent against it. Sanctions are seen not to be sufficient. Something drastic perhaps is required. The sometimes inefficiencies of the police, State Secret Service, the paramilitary constabulary forces; the unwieldy nature of the judicial system, especially the length of time required for a criminal case to receive final justice dispensation and dispatch, the hellish conditions of the prison-correctional system – all these contribute to the sustenance of kidnapping as a special category of criminal activities in Nigeria today.

It denies the country the much-needed foreign direct investments in part and restricts or narrows the scope or spread of the investment to particular region of the country where insecurity and kidnapping in particular are higher. Sometimes, foreign investors choose to retreat completely where they cannot invest their resources in the particular location in the country.

Kidnapping discourages tourist travels to the country. It creates negative image for the country abroad as embassies within the country issue from to time security alerts to their citizens at home not to travel to Nigeria or restrict their movements when within the country for fear of having their citizens kidnapped for ransoms or other sinister objectives.

Origin of Kidnapping
Before the advent of the Fourth Republic in May 1999, kidnapping was a rare phenomenon, even though it exists without doubt. But kidnapping in those days is often associated with money-making rituals. In the distant past, it is mainly associated with money-making ritual. During this time it was a kind of criminal and atavistic activity aimed at increasing the criminal’s sources of wealth or primitive wealth accumulation. The victims are mostly young ones who are killed without mercy. In the Southwest part of the country, they are called in local parlance as “gbomo-gbomo” (i.e. child-snatchers or child-thieves). In those days, children are hardly sent on errands over long distances for fear of being kidnapped by this group of men of underworld. They are distinguished from armed robbers or petty thieves. But they are feared even probably more than armed robbers. Kidnappers are often armed with charms with which they bewitch their victims, enticing them or hypnotizing them into zombies and have them taken to their hideouts or covens where they are murdered and have their private or vital organs severed from their bodies for rituals purposes. Corpses of the victims are found later. The culprits usually escape into thin airs.

Kidnapping has therefore been a terrifying criminal phenomenon in Nigeria for many decades.

Today, the dynamic has changed radically. There are hardly kidnapping for money-making ritual purposes in a direct manner any more. Rather, the money-making ritual end has transformed into modern money-making ventures of negotiation or coercive extraction of money from the victims and/or through their families. The methodologies have changed but the objective remains the same. The old crude methods have given way to modern or sophisticated methods of armed kidnapping, spiriting the victims away to hideouts, of making telephonic contacts with the families and opening up negotiation for payment of ransoms.

Kidnapping started in Niger Delta around 2005 as part of the emergent militancy in the region. It gradually came to be sharply distinguished from the mainstream of militant activities: bombing and destruction of oil facilities, clash with security agents of the state – over dispute over oil revenue-sharing between the federal government and states in the region, disputes over environmental degradation as a result of oil exploration and production, disputes over compensations received from multinational oil companies operating in the region from time to time, etc.

It started with kidnapping of foreign oil workers who are regarded rightly or wrongly as agents of the multinational oil companies. They are kidnapped for ransoms or for political negotiations with the oil companies. Rarely were the victims killed which suggested from the very beginning that the whole criminal enterprise was designed and designated as a mean to an end: to coercively extract money from the families or employers of the victims; and also for political objectives.

Over time and space, it evolves into kidnapping of indigenes whose targets varied from one group of kidnappers to another. The targets are males and females, old and young, of all classes in the society.
The promulgation and/or introduction of Amnesty Programme for the Niger Delta militants introduced its own dynamics into the equation. With the introduction of Amnesty Programme in July 2009, kidnapping in the Niger Delta abated as many militants; arms-wielding youths are amnestied and taken off the battle fronts of the creeks for rehabilitation through various institutional training programmes locally and abroad. This was also the period that kidnapping migrated from the Niger Delta to the South Eastern part of the country.

From Niger Delta, it spreads to the South Eastern states and from where it gradually spread to other parts of the country to become a national phenomenon. As a result, kidnapping is now generally regarded as a national emergency and no longer restricted to a particular region any more. For instance, Boko Haram insurgency in the North Eastern part of the country has come to aggravate the situation as Boko Haram insurgents also added kidnapping to their repertoire of violence and campaign of terror against the Nigerian State.

Kidnapping is now a national cancer.
Today in Nigeria, kidnapping has hypnotically dragged the very flower of the society into its cauldron. Youths are now happily and foolhardily involved and engaged in it. Students of tertiary institutions have gotten roped into the network through their various cult groups and criminal gangs. Teeming jobless youths outside the tertiary institutions have been drawn into it through illegal media channels, through association with students from the tertiary institutions.

In the Niger Delta, there are numerous ethnic militia groups who used kidnapping of expatriate oil workers, as bargaining chips/weapon of drawing attention to the awful conditions of oil exploitation, production, environmental degradation, dislocations and oppressions in the Niger Delta. There are those militants who were dislodged from their Niger Delta bases in the creeks and passed over by the Amnesty programme who later resorted to kidnapping as a mean of survival in the new changed social environment. There are also those who see kidnapping as a faster, lucrative business and less risky than armed robbery because of the political aura associated with kidnapping. This group has spread all over the country.

Young girls are now being kidnapped for marriage and conversion from one religion to the other. The celebrated case of Ese Oruru, 14-year old, kidnapped from Yenagoa by an Hausa young man, whisked off to Kano, forcefully married to him, impregnated, and had her converted from Christianity to Islam is an examples of numerous other cases exposed and reported adequately in the media this years alone.

On April 14-15, 2014, about three hundred young secondary school girls were kidnapped from their school premises in Chibok, near Maiduguri, Borno State at the height of Boko Haram insurgency in the state and had them whisked off to unknown destination. Few escaped on their night journey to their unknown destination mostly rumored to be Sambisa Forest where Boko Haram had its operational headquarters at the boundary between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Till date, the fate of the remaining 276 young girls or thereabout remain unknown as the security forces are yet to rescue them.

Notable and innocent government and public officials are randomly kidnapped for ransoms and have them released after such payment of ransoms and spending varied numbers of days in captivity.

Many famous and rich men and women have been victims of kidnapping in the country. Among them are popular Nigerian actor, Pete Edochie, who was abducted at Afor-Nkpor in Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State in 2009; first runner-up of Mr Nigeria pageant and Nollywood actor, Kenneth, was kidnapped in 2012 in Owerri, Imo State, with the kidnappers demanding N100 million. Another Nollywood actress, Nkiru Sylvanus, also tasted the bitter pill of kidnapping. A traditional ruler in Delta State had become a victim of kidnapping. He was eventually found dead after many days of captivity. The aged mother of the former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Professor Mrs. Okonjo, was kidnapped in Asaba, held captive for several weeks before she was released by the kidnappers after payment of undisclosed amount of ransom. The father of the former Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, Pa Soludo, was kindnapped in Anambra State, held in captivity for several weeks before he was released, again, after payment of undisclosed amount of money. Even former President Goodluck Jonathan was not spared, as his foster father was abducted from his Otueke-home in Bayelsa State. Shettima Ali Monguno was kidnapped in Borno State, spent several weeks in captivity before he was released after payment of undisclosed sum of ransom.

Three girls from the Babington Junior Seminary in Ikorodu, Lagos, were kidnapped, later found and rescued by a combined team of police, Department of Security Services agents) and the Army. Around mid-January 2017, kidnappers stormed the Nigerian Turkish International College, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Ogun State, and whisked away five pupils into captivity.

Perhaps, the first major kid¬nap story celebrated across the country was the botched kid¬nap attempt of the late Alhaji Umaru Dikko, former Minister of Transport under Shehu Shagari administration. The kidnap attempt took place in London, United Kingdom, by the agents of the Muhammadu Buhari-led military junta that overthrew the Second Republic. Dikko was abducted from his London home, drugged and diplomatically crated for on¬ward transportation to Nigeria. But the attempt was thwarted at the London Heathrow Airport and led to diplomatic row between Nigeria and the United Kingdom then.

The attempt to secretively bring back Umaru Dikko was politically-motivated by the Nigerian military Junkers then viz: to bring Umaru Dikko home to answer the charges of corruption leveled against him by the military Junkers. This showed clearly that kidnapping could not only be politically motivated but indeed it has its root in political objectives in Nigeria.

The devolution or degeneration of the Niger Delta “crisis” from the era of Abacha-led military junta (1993-1998), through the brief intermission of Abubukar Abdulsalam-Okhai Akhigbe military colossi (June 1998-May 1999) and during the two terms of Olusegun Obasanjo administration (May 1999-May 2007) into militancy and agitation for resource control introduced a new genre into kidnap¬ping enterprise in Nigeria in the 1990s and early 2000s. It became an armed instrumentality used by the Niger Delta militias and constabulary forces to draw attention to the degrading environmental conditions existing in the region and the clarion call for redress from the Nigerian State and the multinational oil corporations operating in the region and to gain a fair share of the wealth generated by oil productions in the region.

Again, the above scenario shows clearly that kidnapping is historically tied with the politics of the nation and oil politics in this case.

The emergence of Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) led by the notorious Henry Okah, a splinter group from the Niger Delta People Volunteers Forces (NDPVF) led by the now famous Asari Dokubo in late 2005 brought kidnapping in the Niger Delta into full focus as a national criminal phenomenon. Other militant groups soon joined the fray of kidnapping at random and for ransoms. Kidnapping helped in no small measure to stigmatize, criminalize and delegitimize the Niger Delta militancy over the arch of time and space. What became a logical thesis, a new leit motif, of the Niger Delta became its anti-thesis.

The hitherto held legitimate ideological struggle and demand for resource control and a renegotiation of the Nigerian State became mired in unacceptable sundry criminal activity. Kidnapping for and taking of ransom led to the emergence of nihilistic nouveaux riche overnight, creating and sustaining a new conveyor belt for money laundering activities through the commercial banks in the country, corrupting the financial system in the process. Over $100 million have been estimated to have been paid in ransom to kidnappers between 2006 and 2008 alone.

Militancy partly morphed into large-scale criminal enterprise of kidnapping, hostage taking and ransom collection revealing the soft underbellies of militant movements in the region. It became a genie that could not be put back into the hellish bottle of politics and Mafia individualism where it came from.


The widespread poverty and the corollary high rate of unemployment in the country have been generally accepted as the major causes or drivers of kidnapping. Kidnappers are mostly educated young men of school and employment age who have become hopeless in finding gainful and sustainable employment opportunities with the failure of job-creation schemes by the government at federal, state and local levels.

What was hitherto a drop in the ocean becomes a tidal oceanic wave threatening to overwhelm the entire society. Kidnapping became a free-ticket to sudden riches through the porous security environment in which most people live in Nigeria.

Endemic corruption that has eaten into the fabric of socioeconomic system over the years especially as revealed since the beginning of the Fourth Republic has also been identified as one of the causes of kidnapping. Corruption activated the get-rich-at-all-cost syndrome and the corollary rat-race to achieve this end that has gained traction among Nigerians, especially the youths. Nothing is held sacred any longer. Any mean of achieving wealth and fame is legitimate. Kidnapping is thus regarded as a legitimate business as a way of bridging the gap between the rich and the poor where the political leadership in the country lacked the moral suasion to discourage itself from looting the national patrimony.

The poor state of infrastructures all over the country especially in the oil producing communities contributes to the aggravation of criminal tendencies such as kidnapping. The poor state of infrastructures correlates with the poor standards of living and serves as dynamic for criminal proclivity to escape from poverty created by dysfunctioning socioeconomic system.

The proliferation of small and medium-scale weapons enable kidnappers to engage in their criminal activities with boldness especially against the background of inefficiencies of the law enforcement agencies. Kidnappers procure their weapons from various sources including the law enforcement agencies/agents themselves. Political actors also act as godfathers to kidnapping gangs and share the ransoms with them. Kidnappers access weapons from the politicians during election campaign periods in which they act as thugs or shock troops to the politicians against their rivals. These weapons are not often return back to base from where they were secured and thus become the main weapons for kidnapping purposes later.

In the Niger Delta for instance, these weapons were sophisticated enough which enable a gang of kidnappers to invade an oil facility and overwhelm a group of 40 soldiers and took them as hostages before they were later released. Some of the law enforcement agents have also lost their lives to the superior firepower of these criminal gangs including kidnappers.

Mobile communication aided the evolution of kidnapping and shaped it as it facilitates easy contact with the families or employers of the victims via mobile telephone communications. Negotiation for payment of ransoms follows quickly with or without the intervention of the law enforcement authorities. Negotiation can drag for several days, weeks or even months before agreements are finally reached between the kidnappers, the victims, their families and/or go-betweens. In most cases, victims are kept out of the negotiation loops as their involvements are considered detrimental to the final settlements. Mobile telephone even makes it possible for both parties not to meet physically as their negotiations can be carried out on phone.

The leap in communication system and emergence of social media helped to sustain network of criminal tendencies and perpetrations. For instance, a young university girl was lured all the way from Kano, through Facebook, to Lagos where she was gang-raped and murdered in a hotel room. The global system of mobile communication (GSM) provides the avenue through which kidnappers reach out and negotiate with relatives of the victims on ransom amount and mode of payment.

The politics of do-or-die which has created Manichean political ambitions and instability in the country serves as a secret driver of kidnapping. Political opponents are kidnapped and/or assassinated.

Illiteracy also falls into the loom especially in connected with Boko Haram insurgency and terrorism in the Northern part of the country. Boko Haram roughly translates to “western education is a sin”. The import of this on the moral psyche and cultural template in the North is decisive because it blurs the boundary between what is moral and immoral as regard other people with different belief system or orientation.


Kidnapping has become an albatross to the nation. It must be tackled headlong. It must be regarded as clear and present danger to national security, security of lives and properties.

First, government should place kidnapping on the same category as Boko Haram insurgency and terrorism, Niger Delta militancy and general armed robbery in the country. It must be treated as an emergency situation wherever it occurs.

The security and welfare of the citizens is the primary purpose of government and governance. Without the security of lives and properties, of contractual agreements between various individuals, society cannot exist, neither can government.

The function of modern society and government is the protection of the constitutional rights of the citizens, security of lives and properties and full enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Kidnapping is direct threat to the constitutional right to live and freedom of movement of the people. Thus the government has the ultimate responsibility for reducing or eradicating conditions that generate or facilitate kidnapping and other criminal activities associated with it. This means that governance must be geared towards eradication of poverty, which had become endemic, through welfare-oriented policies and programmes that create employment opportunities for the youths and other categories of job-seekers.

Job creation and wealth creation become one in the same net. This will raise the standards of living and bridge the yawning gap between the rich and the poor.

If corruption is reduced through adequate punishment for the guilty, it will serve as deterrent to many would-be criminals. But oftentimes corrupt politicians are seen as demi-gods, above the laws of the land who get away scot-free with their acts of impunities.

The political system should be further democratized to involve the active participation of the youths not as thugs or sacrificial lambs but as youth leaders at various levels. Politicians should come out with proactive public policy towards socioeconomic development that is youth-centred or people-friendly. This will help to drastically reduce the challenges of kidnapping among the youths.

There is also the need to reform the legal and judicial system to ensure strict compliance with the relevant laws relating to kidnapping and related offences. The law must be seen to adequate, effective and has the power to sanction and/or punish without fear or favour without let or hindrance. Trial cases involving kidnapping should be expedited and publicized adequately. No secret trial involving kidnapping cases. The scourge must be exposed as an evil. But whether capital punishment is the ultimate goal of the penal system here or not, the important thing is that the guilty must be punished in accordance with the principles of supremacy and rules of law.

Provision must be made to the effect that property of anyone found guilty of kidnapping will be confisticated and/or destroyed – as a form of social punishment.

Security forces, especially the police, must continually be given ad¬equate training and equipment to combat this scourge. They must be vast in intelligence gathering, to nip in the bud any attempt to kidnap before it takes place.

Public and/or civic education is equally important in this regard. The society must clean itself up. All social vices and hypocrisy that foster criminal tendencies must be combated.

Provision of social infrastructure such as good road networks, potable water, stable power supply, free education at primary school level and comprehensive healthcare delivery should also be provided for the citizenry. These will go a long way in curbing the menace and reducing it to the barest minimum.