DRIVING home through the darkness on September 6th towards Nigeria’s main oil city, Port Harcourt, Archbishop Ignatius Kattey and his wife had no idea that an armed gang was about to nab them. Yet it was not an extraordinary event. The kidnap of Nigeria’s second-ranking Anglican cleric, whose wife has since been freed, was just another instance, albeit at a higher level than usual, of a crime that residents of the swampy Niger Delta have become grimly accustomed to.
Kidnapping in the oil region is invariably for ransom. Foreign oilmen used to be the usual targets, but rich Nigerian businessmen, prominent academics and even footballers have become increasingly vulnerable. The kidnap menace has also got a lot worse this year in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and its economic hub.
There are so many abductions across the country nowadays that they rarely get into the news. During the first half of 2013, Nigeria had the most kidnap attempts in the world, accounting for 26% of all such recorded incidents. Mexico was second with 10%, and Pakistan third with 7%, reckons NYA International, a London-based firm that gathers intelligence on crime.
This year’s tally of kidnaps is expected to be higher in Nigeria than in 2012 and 2011, when 500 and 475 were recorded respectively, says a security expert. But the true figures may be still higher. “Half of all cases are not reported, with some people preferring to handle matters privately,” he explains. Because people have little faith in the police’s ability to arrest the perpetrators or negotiate with them, the victim’s family invariably resorts to settling quickly with the criminals.
In some of Nigeria’s 36 states there has been progress in tackling the kidnappers. But beefed-up security in some south-eastern states, such as Akwa Ibom and Abia, may have merely pushed the gangs westward to cities such as Lagos, where burgeoning middle-class districts are being increasingly targeted. A flashy car and swanky suit can be enough to catch a villain’s eye. In “express kidnappings”, as they are dubbed, victims are rarely kept for more than a fortnight; most of them are freed, after the cash has been handed over, in three or four days. “It’s a new way of making money in Lagos,” says the security expert. “But now it’s all too easy.”
When Lagos police arrested a gang of ten kidnappers in July, one of them explained that he held his Chinese boss for three days because he felt unfairly treated. He devised a plan with his driver to abduct the boss; they extorted $51,000 from the company. Another man said he kidnapped a friend out of jealousy, keeping him for two days before freeing him for $3,000.
It is against Nigerian law to pay ransoms, but most people and companies cough up, though many deny doing so. Captors usually start with huge demands before being haggled down. Settlements of $12,000-30,000 are standard, though there have been instances of people getting away with as little as $600. The kidnappers who snatched Mike Ozekhome, a human-rights lawyer, in August initially asked for the Nigerian equivalent of $915,000; as The Economist went to press, he and the archbishop were still being held. Until policing improves and people refuse to pay, the scourge of kidnapping will persist—and the best of lawyers and churchmen will be vulnerable.