In Nigeria’s delta region, where large oil and gas resources are located, there are various armed groups threatening stability. These groups range from youth gangs to more organized militias to vigilantes. While these armed groups have been involved in kidnapping expatriate energy workers, in recent weeks some of these groups have begun to target children—both Nigerian and foreign—in kidnap-for-ransom schemes. As a result, a new and alarming dimension has been introduced to the siege on the Niger Delta.
On June 26, four armed men, wielding AK-47 assault rifles and explosives, traveling in a gold-colored Mazda 626 vehicle with no registration plate number, invaded Tantua International Group of Schools—a high profile private school located in Port Harcourt, the turbulent capital of Rivers State. The gunmen seized Master Michael Steward, the three-year-old son of Linda Steward, a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly. According to multiple well-placed sources, the captors released Michael in return for 25 million naira ($197,000) in ransom (Human Rights News [Eleme], May-June 2007).
On July 5, a three-year-old Briton, Margaret Hill, was taken at gunpoint along Location Road, Mgbuoba in Port Harcourt. She was being convoyed in an Isuzu jeep to Edu Care International School, located on Woji Road in the city. Hill was taken to an unknown destination (This Day [Lagos], July 6). On July 8, she was abandoned unhurt near Port Harcourt. The State Security Services denied that any ransom was paid, although local analysts suspect that money exchanged hands.
In another incident in the early hours of July 12, four gunmen kidnapped the three-year-old son of Chief Francis Amadi, the ruler of Iriebe Community in the Oyibo Local Government Area of Rivers State. Armed elements used a brown Volvo to intercept the vehicle transporting Samual Amadi. His captors took him from the vehicle and escaped through Choba Road along the University of Port Harcourt. The kidnappers later contacted Samuel’s father, Chief Amadi, on his cell phone demanding a ransom of N50 million ($394,000) (The Guardian, July 12). They demanded that he deposit the ransom into account number 301450821801 at First Inland Bank (Vanguard [Port Harcourt], July 13).
In the case of Briton Margaret Hill and Nigerian Samuel Amadi, the kidnappers were apparently from Ogbakiri, a rural area in Rivers State. The Ogbakiri enclave is administratively located in the Emuoha Local Government Area. The community is the headquarters of the Deebam cult group, and it is riddled with communal and cult violence. The area harbors kidnappers and has also hosted several hostages kidnapped by gangsters inhabiting the area. In March, for example, a 100-strong team of soldiers and other members of the security services raided the village looking for criminals behind a spate of kidnappings (Reuters, March 17). The Deebam cultists in Ogbakiri have been accused as the masterminds behind the kidnapping of Hill (The Verite [Port Harcourt], July 12-18). It is not only Deebam, however, that is involved in the kidnap-for-ransom business; there are other secret armed gangs involved such as the Icelanders, Deewell, Greenlanders and the Niger Delta Strike Force.
Kidnap-for-ransom has become a widespread business, involving both gang members and government officials. When an individual is kidnapped, the kidnappers either send out emails or make phone calls to local newspaper houses, security officials and politicians; the aim is to let them know that they are holding a hostage and that ransom must be paid. Numerous politicians and security officials have abetted kidnappings because of the profits involved. When the government releases a certain amount of money earmarked for ransom payments, for example, the hostage negotiators keep a portion of the profit for themselves. In most cases, the kidnappers also give the negotiators some of the reward since this helps to entrench the practice. During one negotiation, for example, popular actress and Rivers State Government official Hilda Dokubo, who has been involved in hostage negotiation, took a cut of N20 million ($157,000) from the hostage deal. Some of the kidnappers felt short-changed and attacked her, taking her N20 million and disappearing (National Point [Port Harcourt], July 23). It is estimated that the kidnapping gang received approximately N75 million ($591,000) in the deal.
Overall, the new tactic of kidnapping children—and also family members of high-profile Nigerians—is symptomatic of the corrupt nature in which the government and security services deal with kidnapping gangs. During kidnap-for-ransom schemes, both members of the government and the kidnapping gangs receive a chunk of money, further encouraging the criminal activity. In order to prevent this new tactic from escalating, the government or relevant agencies should reconsider the practice of paying ransoms, and those who are directly or indirectly involved in the crimes should be appropriately punished.