from Africa in Transition

Release of the Finance Minister’s Mother: Good News From Nigeria

December 14, 2012

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Kamene Okonjo was released early on Friday, December 14. Eighty-two years of age, she is the mother of Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Few details are available concerning the exact chain of events.  Following her December 9 kidnapping, her captors demanded a substantial ransom. The Nigerian authorities do not discuss whether or not ransoms are paid in kidnapping cases.  However, Delta Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan said there had been no negotiations, no ransom was paid, and that he thought the kidnappers released her because they were being pressured by the security services who conducted the pervasive search for Mrs. Okonjo. The Nigerian press quotes the army as saying it arrested sixty-three people in conjunction with the kidnapping.

The kidnapping has riveted Nigeria this week.  Its larger meaning may be that virtually nobody is immune from the threat of kidnapping in the oil-rich Niger delta.  The kidnapping of Kamene Okonjo also highlights that kidnappers have shifted their targets from expatriate oil company employees to wealthy Nigerians. Nigerian expatriates in the U.S. have expressed anxiety to me about travelling in the Delta because of fear of kidnapping. The army led the search and resolution of the kidnapping, not  the police, an illustration that the former commands more confidence than the latter.

During the week there was speculation in the Nigerian press that the kidnapping had a political dimension; the Finance Minister is unpopular in many domestic circles, not least because of her support for the abolition of a popular fuel subsidy.  According to her office, she has received threats recently. I continue to think, however, that the kidnapping best fits the pattern of mercenary kidnapping for ransom rather than having a political motivation.

There have been no reports of any deaths connected to this episode. Mrs. Okonjo’s release ends a nightmare for the finance minister, her family, and friends.