from Africa in Transition

Kamene Okonjo Held for Ransom

December 13, 2012

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The elderly mother of Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is still in the hands of those who kidnapped her on December 9, 2012. According to the Nigerian media, the kidnappers are demanding a ransom of N200 million (U.S. $1.27 million.) This was reduced from their original demand of N1 billion (U.S. $ 6.34 million) when the family made it clear that it could not pay. The episode still looks criminal rather than political, despite the kidnappers’ rhetoric about Delta grievances and initial demands that negotiations be with the Minister herself rather than with her brother. Two police and two domestic staff have been arrested. While the authorities are tight-lipped, presumably they will be charged with dereliction of duty during the kidnapping. The state commissioner of police says that his command has “deployed personnel to the nooks and crannies of the state in search for the kidnappers.”

On December 13, the New York Times ran a story on how kidnapping of foreigners, particularly Europeans, is funding Islamist extremists in Mali. There is no relationship between jihadist, terrorist kidnappings in the Sahel and the kidnapping of the Finance Minister’s mother for mercenary purposes. There is also no evidence of cooperation between Sahel jihadists and the Nigerian kidnappers in the Delta.

Initially, according to the Nigerian media, the kidnappers of the Mrs. Okonjo demanded a ransom similar in size to that normally demanded by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) The Times, quoting a U.S. treasury official, reports that “in 2010 the average ransom payment per hostage to AQIM was U.S. $4.5 million; in 2011, that figure was U.S. $5.4 million.” As the Times observers, the U.S. and the U.K. refuse to pay ransom; it is commonly assumed that other Western governments do pay ransom–and ransoms are so high because governments can afford to pay.

During the 2005-2009 insurrection in the Niger delta, militants often resorted to kidnapping for ransom. The Nigerian government’s policy was not to pay, but it was widely suspected that ransoms were paid, especially by state governments. Since then, kidnapping has continued, but usually of Nigerians who can pay, rather than expatriates.

Meanwhile, the hope must be for the early release of the Finance Minister’s elderly mother from captivity.