When talking to Nigerians about insecurity, especially those that live in the Lagos-Ibadan corridor, Abuja, and Port Harcourt—some of the most developed parts of the country—the first thing they often raise is their fear of kidnapping specifically and crime more generally. For them, kidnapping is far more immediate than the carnage of Boko Haram, far away in the northeast, or the carnage in the middle belt over land and water use between “farmers” and “herders.” In the oil patch and Port Harcourt, kidnapping is often seen as a manifestation of the ongoing, low-level insurrection over how oil revenue is distributed.
In the past, kidnapping victims tended to be the wealthy and the prominent, and so kidnappers had every interest in keeping their victims alive to extract the maximum ransom possible. In March 2020, for example, two Nigerian footballers were kidnapped and released soon after, though it is not clear if a ransom was paid. Further, hours before a world cup match in 2018, the captain of Nigeria’s national football team learned that his father had been kidnapped.
But a new report [PDF] from SB Morgen, a Nigerian consulting firm, using data gathered from a variety of open sources, including the Council’s Nigeria Security Tracker, shows that, over time, the pool of potential victims has greatly expanded. Now, victims are often poor villagers, sometimes kidnapped indiscriminately, a departure from the targeted kidnapping of wealthy people. They struggle to pay ransoms quickly because of their relative poverty, and victims are much more likely to be killed. The report also presents a valuable attempt to quantify the costs of kidnapping and to map its spread. Between 2011 and 2020, it concludes that over $18 million had been paid in ransom. The amount of ransom accelerated in the latter portion of that period: between 2016 and 2020, around $11 million was paid out. It shows that kidnapping has spread from the oil patch to the entire country and that that the army is now stationed is almost every Nigerian state, essentially to keep order. (The exceptions are Kebbi state and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja.)
In many parts of the country, kidnapping appears to have become a business, especially for otherwise unemployed youth. SB Morgen expresses concern that kidnapping will increase as Nigeria falls into recession driven by the coronavirus and the fall in oil prices, putting more people out of work.
Perhaps a surprise is that the total spent on ransoms—$18 million over nine years—is so low, especially compared to ransoms Sahelian kidnappers extract from European states to free their kidnaped nationals, which can reach millions of dollars per victim. It may be that current Nigerian victims are so poor that ransoms are low. The report cites an estimate that ransoms can range from $1,000 to $150,000, depending on the economic situation of the victim and their family.
The SB Morgen report shows that Nigerian anxiety about kidnapping is well placed. Wealthy Nigerians and expatriates are subject to much larger ransoms than poor farmers. They live mostly in Lagos and Abuja. Though they have tight security, they are not immune from the general crime wave, of which kidnapping is just one part. In December 2019, for example, attackers attempted to extort and murder the manager of the shipping giant Maersk in Nigeria in his home. He survived his injuries, but his wife did not.