Ransoms Fuel Surge in Nigeria Kidnapping


Ransoms Fuel Surge in Nigeria Kidnapping
July 11, 2007 1:19 PM EDT

LAGOS, Nigeria - Foreign oil workers are known in Nigeria's oil-rich south as "white gold" among the gangs that kidnap them.

They have seized more than 150 foreigners this year, including a just freed 3-year-old British girl. That's nearly as many abductions as all of 2006, a kidnapping epidemic that has helped cut output in Africa's largest oil nation by a quarter, driving up prices worldwide.

"Ah, the whites are coming," one young gang member - sipping beer in a ramshackle, roadside bar - told a reporter with a chuckle as a heavily guarded oil company convoy sped through the oil city of Port Harcourt, sirens blaring. "It's like the vans for ice creams in your country."

ASI Global Response now rates Nigeria as second only to Iraq as the country with the greatest risk of kidnapping for foreign workers.

The desire for ransom fuels the kidnappings, gang members and oil industry officials say. They claim a cut goes to the government officials who shuttle between the charm-bedecked, rifle-toting gunmen in the swamps and professional negotiators flown in from Paris or London.

"Absolutely not true," Rivers state government spokesman Emmanuel Okah said this week.

But an official with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a militant group behind a number of high-profile kidnappings, said all sides pocket a portion of ransoms.

"Practically everyone involved in hostage negotiations has had his hands soiled," the militant said by e-mail. "Officials merely up the demands of the abductors and keep the rest to themselves, most times unknown to the abductors."

One oil worker told The Associated Press how his captors and visiting officials argued over his ransom: The kidnappers insisted they asked for more than twice the offered amount; the officials said it had been stolen when they left the cash unattended. He said he remained in captivity while they were sent back for more.

In another case, Nigerian security forces threatened to kill a hostage if he revealed the discrepancy between what his company paid and what his kidnappers received, a security expert said.

"In many cases, the proportion of released funds that ends up in the hands of the kidnappers is unknown," another security professional said. "State or local government officials are keen to act as the intermediaries in kidnap negotiations."

It's a delicate subject. Company officials refuse to discuss ransoms for fear of alienating powerful local interests or becoming targets themselves. Released hostages fear retribution from former captors or losing their job if they talk to the journalists.

Even gang members fear their collaborators in the government, even though they often serve as hired muscle during elections and frequently engage in violent clashes between themselves.

Because of the those worries, the former hostage, the security professionals and the gang member asked that no further details be published to protect their identities. Most of those who talked to the AP about government collusion in kidnappings asked for anonymity for similar reasons.

Few companies have a direct line to the kidnappers. When four employees of the Italian oil company Agip were kidnapped late last year, the militant group holding them announced the company had spent $1.5 million trying to secure their release through various middlemen.

"Agip has so far lost more than 200 million naira ($1.5 million) to various con artists," the militants said in an e-mail before announcing that the ransom - allegedly unsolicited - had been "confiscated."

Agip's parent company, Eni SpA, denied paying any ransom, and no oil company has ever publicly admitted doing so.

The militants, who claim to kidnap as part of a campaign to coerce the government into making political concessions and funneling more oil revenue to the poverty-stricken south, appeared to be trying to distance themselves from criminal gangs that kidnap for money.

Yet the web of connections among militants, criminals and government is more tangled than the roots of the steamy mangrove swamps where the hostages are held.

The militant group balked when pressed for more details on government involvement in ransom payments. "I never wish to seem like a snitch," said a spokesman, who denied soliciting ransoms.

But one state official admitted to AP that he took cash during the Agip kidnapping. He also insisted on not being quoted by name.

Other government officials indignantly denied the accusation.

Okah, the Rivers state spokesman, said no ransom was paid to secure the freedom Sunday of Margaret Hill, a 3-year-old British citizen who was the first foreign child snatched in the region.

Okah also said the state government no longer doles out cash from shadowy slush funds following a federal order last year prohibiting ransom payments.
In 2006, the Rivers state government allocated nearly $40 million as a "security vote," up from $27 million the year before. No records are available on how the money has been spent or how much has been allocated this year.

"In the early stage, the state government facilitated releases," Okah acknowledged. "Now, it's individuals" who pay ransoms.

Kidnappings are escalating. Two foreigners were grabbed Sunday, five were seized July 4 and held for a week, and an abduction attempt was repulsed Tuesday, police reported Wednesday.
Foreign oil workers aren't the only targets, though. Two senior Nigerian employees of Royal Dutch Shell PLC were abducted Saturday and released Wednesday, colleagues said, and two Nigerian toddlers were taken captive in the past six weeks.

The root causes behind the kidnappings - poverty, corruption and lawlessness - must be tackled before the region degenerates into a Colombia-style situation in which any wealthy person is a potential victim, regardless of employer or nationality, said Dimieari von Kemedi, a human rights lawyer working in the Niger Delta.

"A time may come when anyone wearing a tie is a target," he warned.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

I know. Long as fuck but I thought it was interesting.