Can Nigeria Ever End Its Kidnap-for-Ransom Industry?
New legislation seeks to tackle a stubborn security threat, but members of the government are undermining their own policy.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Guinea’s junta plays for time, Ethiopia’s Tigrayan U.N. peacekeepers seek asylum abroad, and Africa’s list of millionaires grows.
If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
Nigerian Senate Passes Bill Banning Ransoms
Nigeria’s Senate passed a bill on Wednesday imposing jail terms of at least 15 years for anyone paying a ransom to free someone who has been kidnapped. The bill also made abducting an individual punishable by death in cases where the victims die.
For more than a decade, militants and armed gangs operating in Nigeria’s northern region have terrorized civilians. Abductions for ransom have become increasingly common across the country. Armed gangs killed more than 2,600 civilians in 2021, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
The Senate’s bill will now be debated in the lower House of Representatives before being sent to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to sign. Yet, it could end up like so many other laws—such as a recent one barring outgoing calls from 75 million unregistered cellphone lines—that fail on implementation.
Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, chairman of the Senate’s judiciary, human rights, and legal committee, told the Senate that making ransom payments punishable with jail time would “discourage the rising spate of kidnapping and abduction for ransom in Nigeria, which is fast spreading across the country.” But the largest ransom payments are often arranged by those in public office.
This month, the managing director of Nigeria’s Bank of Agriculture, Alwan Ali-Hassan, was freed after being abducted during the Kaduna train attack, after his family paid an undisclosed amount as ransom (reportedly 100 million naira or $242,000), according to bank sources.
“Most ransom payments are done with the aid of the police. The military has also paid ransoms for some of its abducted officers,” Cheta Nwanze, a partner at SB Morgen Intelligence (SBM), a Lagos-based consultancy, wrote to Foreign Policy via email. “Payment of ransom is a policy that cannot be exterminated as state agents that are supposed to implement the law are actively engaging in it.”
According to a report by SBM, more than $18.3 million in ransom money was paid to Nigerian kidnappers between 2011 and 2020. Relatives of kidnap victims in Nigeria fear the bill will make it difficult to free family members. Last August, around 136 schoolchildren who were abducted at gunpoint at a school in Tegina, Niger State, were released after their parents paid a ransom and bought motorbikes for the kidnappers.
Poverty and inequality are one explanation for the crisis. Since the oil boom of the 1970s, the gap between Nigeria’s extremely poor and the superrich has continued to widen. Environmental violations and exploitation by international oil companies in the Niger Delta emboldened militants there toward the end of the 1990s, Nwanze explained. “The militants found the kidnap of foreign staff to be a useful tactic to bargain with the government and bring the attention of the international community to their demands.”
But this soon extended to Nigerian oil workers and began spreading to neighboring states in southeastern Nigeria and farther north. “The militants didn’t invent kidnap for ransom. It was a security problem before they incorporated it as a tool in their struggle and commercialized it,” Nwanze wrote.
The Centre for Democracy and Development, a think tank in the region, drew a link between entrenched elite corruption and the country’s security woes. “The normalisation of security sector corruption means that military and police leaders failures’ offer them new opportunities to racketeer and profiteer, as well as embezzle from increased emergency security spending,” the organization’s June 2021 report said. It found that “for Nigeria’s top brass, peace is much less lucrative than perpetual low-intensity conflict.”
Nigeria’s federal leadership has often been concerned with securing elites and its own political future while leaving small parts of the country ungovernable. For a number of years, it has been largely absent in funding key drivers of a robust economy. Spending on health was just 3 percent of Nigeria’s GDP, according to the latest figures from the World Bank, compared to 9 percent in South Africa.
In the past five years, Nigeria allocated between 6 to 8 percent of public expenditures to education, below UNESCO’s recommended 15 to 20 percent. Inflation, unemployment, and food costs are soaring. “The declining availability of jobs will drive more people into crime,” Nwanze wrote.
This month marked eight years since the kidnapping of 276 girls from the northern Nigerian town of Chibok, of which around 100 girls remain in captivity with Boko Haram. More than 1,500 schoolchildren have been abducted in northern Nigeria since, yet Nigeria’s federal government still seems unable to find concrete solutions.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, May 4, to Friday, May 6: Parliamentary legislators from Malawi meet their counterparts in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, on a four-day visit that started on Tuesday.
Wednesday, May 4, to Saturday, May 7: Heads of anti-corruption agencies in 19 Commonwealth Africa member states convene in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, for a conference aimed at stepping up the fight against regional corruption.
Thursday, May 5: The OPEC and non-OPEC Ministerial Meeting is held via videoconference.
Tuesday, May 17: Former South African President Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial continues.
What We’re Watching
Extension for Guinea’s junta. Guinea’s coup leaders, who took power last September, suggested on Saturday that a transition back to democratic rule will take around three years, a decision likely to frustrate the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which demanded a timely transition to civilian rule.
Col. Mamady Doumbouya, the head of Guinea’s junta, said on state television that after political consultations, which were boycotted by opposition groups, he was considering a transition of 39 months. ECOWAS has imposed targeted sanctions on Guinea’s military leaders but has so far held back on imposing the statewide sanctions levied on Mali, largely because that policy has failed to pressure Malian coup leaders to change course.
U.N. Libya mission. The U.N. Security Council unanimously voted on Friday to extend its political mission in Libya for three months. The United States and the United Kingdom had pushed for a one-year mandate; Russia insisted on a three-month extension to ensure a new special representative was appointed.
According to Egyptian media, Cairo is lobbying for an African-nominated candidate, following tensions with U.S diplomat Stephanie Williams, who is acting as advisor to the U.N. secretary-general on Libya. Egypt considers its national security as intertwined with the crisis in neighboring Libya.
Tigrayan peacekeepers. The Ethiopian military blamed the defection of some Tigrayan United Nations troops on misinformation spread by supporters of the rebel group Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Around 500 Ethiopian troops of Tigrayan descent have refused to return home after serving as peacekeepers in the disputed Abyei region on the border between Sudan and South Sudan.
In a statement, the Ethiopian federal army blamed “false narratives spewed by the lobbyists” of the TPLF. Tigrayan peacekeepers serving in U.N. missions in Darfur in western Sudan have previously requested international protection in South Sudan, refusing to board flights back to their country.
South Africa report. The latest report into state capture and widespread corruption in South Africa alleges that Zuma put the business interests of his allies ahead of the state’s during his nine years in power. According to the scathing report released Friday, Zuma “would do anything” that the Indian-born Gupta family of wealthy businessmen “wanted him to do for them,” investigators concluded.
“Central to the Guptas’ scheme of state capture was President Zuma, who the Guptas must have identified at a very early stage as somebody whose character was such that they could use him against the people of South Africa, his own country and his own government to advance their own business interests,” the report said.
It also confirmed what many South Africans had long suspected: that Zuma hired and fired government ministers central to the country’s economy at the behest of the Gupta family. A final report is due in June.
This Week in Culture
Africa’s growing superrich class. South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, and Kenya hold the continent’s greatest combined wealth, accounting for 50 percent of Africa’s total private wealth, according to the latest Africa Wealth Report by Henley & Partners. Private wealth held in Africa, which refers to individual assets, is expected to climb 38 percent, from $2.1 trillion in 2021 to $3 trillion over the next decade, partly fueled by tech sector growth.
Having deliberately positioned itself as an investment destination, Mauritius is forecast to increase nonstate wealth at the fastest rate, by around 80 percent during the period. Prime real estate in the country now goes for as high as $5,000 per square meter. Rwanda and Uganda’s private wealth is predicted to grow by at least 60 percent, driven in Rwanda by the technology and professional services sectors.
Uganda’s nonstate wealth growth will come from tourism, real estate, and financial services. The country has also continued to invest in oil despite a global push for investments in greener energy. In February, Uganda signed an investment deal with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and France’s TotalEnergies to develop the country’s oil and gas industry.
Cairo, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Lagos are the richest cities—creating increasingly unequal societies.
Johannesburg’s private wealth of $239 billion is concentrated in the northern suburbs of Sandton, home to Africa’s largest stock market and the headquarters of most of Africa’s largest banks and corporations. Cairo has the most billionaires in Africa. Lagos—rich in oil, real estate, and fintech—is in fourth position, with $97 billion in privately held wealth distributed among four billionaires and around 10,000 millionaires in a country with the highest number of people living below the poverty line on the continent.
Chart of the Week
There are 136,000 high net worth individuals with private wealth of more than $1 million living in Africa, concentrated in South Africa and Egypt.
But for the past five years, Mauritius has had the highest average wealth per person, having positioned itself as a low tax haven and, therefore, an attractive destination for wealthy retirees. By 2031, the number of high net worth people living in Mauritius is expected to reach over 8,000.
What We’re Reading
Tunisia’s hidden economy. Tunisian outlet Inkyfada uncovers the smuggling trade from Libya into the coastal city of Ben Guerdane in southeastern Tunisia. Although risky, it is a cross-border economy that the city depends on. Many people cross the border to get fuel in Libya, where it is cheaper, and then sell it in Tunisia. The Libyan civil war has made this shadow economy harder to maintain, yet many shops located near the border feel they have little choice but to continue risking their lives.
Attacks by the Islamic State on Ben Guerdane in 2016 prompted the state to tighten measures. In addition to physical barriers, the border is now equipped with an electronic surveillance system set up in cooperation with the United States, and several smugglers have been shot to death by the Tunisian armed forces.
Side-hustling in Ethiopia. The Reporter Ethiopia examines a growing “side-hustle” culture among young people living in big cities, such as the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Those entering the workforce nowadays seek stability rather than relying on one fixed income. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a move to working from home have allowed some to take up outsourced long-distance assignments that let them work for employers in different time zones, resulting in multiple jobs and longer hours.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
More from Foreign Policy
Russians Are Unraveling Before Our Eyes
A wave of fresh humiliations has the Kremlin struggling to control the narrative.
A BRICS Currency Could Shake the Dollar’s Dominance
De-dollarization’s moment might finally be here.
Is Netflix’s ‘The Diplomat’ Factual or Farcical?
A former U.S. ambassador, an Iran expert, a Libya expert, and a former U.K. Conservative Party advisor weigh in.
The Battle for Eurasia
China, Russia, and their autocratic friends are leading another epic clash over the world’s largest landmass.
Join the Conversation
Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.
Already a subscriber?.
Join the Conversation
Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.
Not your account?
Join the Conversation
Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.