A history of kidnapping in Nigeria, Part 1
When she set out that weekend on a trip to visit some friends in Ikorodu, a suburb in Lagos, she would have least expected what followed on the road. Driving, and with two children, a pregnant relative and her husband, she steered the car in the bustling Lagos traffic, likely thinking less of the motive of any stranger walking past or by the car. It would make sense that she tried, instead, to focus and keep ever-intruding Lagos drivers at bay who at the slightest opening dove their cars in front of others. Unbeknownst to the five, a gang was stealthily stalking them and others in the same traffic. Divided into units of three, some were in front and others were in the middle and behind. As the leader of the gang, American, rather weirdly named, gave instructions to move on their targets, shooting began. In the haze that followed, the relative’s husband grabbed one of the children and made out of the car. Instinctively, she tried to move the car into the hostile bandits and could have scared American who didn’t hesitate to let his gun run. She was hit; her second child and pregnant relative kidnapped.
When news filtered to the public, it struck a lot of people quite badly. Aisha Ali-Balogun, a 28-year-old aspiring presenter, relatively well-known in Nollywood circles died that day. Negotiations soon began to secure the release of her 2-year-old kid and the accompanying pregnant relative. Though the family claimed no ransom was paid, it soon emerged after the capture of the killer squad that they indeed parted with a significant amount before the release of the victims.
As frightening and sad as this story may seem, it would have elicited no more than a shrug from a handful of Lagos residents. While many mourn this growing menace, it is quite a fact that kidnapping has become almost commonplace in this city of nearly 20 million people for a while now. The cancer widens, biting intensely near and far, silently revealing the emergence of a new vice among the immiserated population in the country. Comparing rather favourably with illegal bunkering, cyberfraud, bombing and others, kidnapping is gradually becoming a leading social crime in Nigeria. However, things were once miles far from this degradation.
The genesis of kidnapping in Nigeria has its roots in the gruesome killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the leader of the Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), and 8 other Ogoni activists, who, it is believed, protested peacefully the perceived neglect of the Ogoni communities by oil corporations, especially Shell, who drilled there. The supposedly farce trial which condemned them to their deaths for the murder of four Ogoni chiefs, a crime they were probably not complicit in, gave no real room for an appeal as it appeared Nigeria’s maximum dictator, General Sani Abacha, sought to make an example of elements who strained the oil wheel driving the nation. Unlike other killings ultimately orchestrated by Nigeria’s ruler, Saro-Wiwa’s death met with intense rebuke around the world. Perhaps because it was thought, or could have been easily thought, to pave the way for Shell’s continual exploitation of a hapless community’s resources, his death rang alarms and elicited reactions far and wide.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a poet, writer and activist. Following a string of private activities in journalism and politics, he began devoting himself, from 1990, to protesting the savage treatment of the Ogoni people by multi-national agencies working there. It wasn’t that the Niger Delta did not suffer neglect or devastating spills before Saro-Wiwa’s efforts; there was just lacking concentrated dissent directed towards government for the purpose of change. As an activist, Saro-Wiwa crossed that barrier. He succeeded in organizing the Ogoni group into a potent thorn in the Nigerian fabric and shined international attention to the damages going on in the region. Unfortunately, he paid with his life.
Before his death there had always been pockets of displeasure against the activities of oil majors drilling in the expansive oil fields in the country, the most significant of which was the protest at Shell’s Umuechem facility, east of Port Harcourt, in 1990 which led to the death of about 80 unarmed demonstrators after the police opened fire. However, shortly after his execution, the range of violent and rebellious activities in the Niger Delta took a turn for worse. A handful other social vices took center stage. Most of these, at that time, arguably carried a political stamp, or at least followed from some political awakening. Without doubt, complicit in the criminal degradation of the Niger-Delta is the Nigerian government, which with the subtle encouragement of the oil companies, repeatedly resorted to the use of intimidation in suppressing demonstrations against exploitative oil production. The same intimidation was clearly visible in the trial and summary execution of Saro-Wiwa. As a form of rebellion against the government’s own autocratic response, the initial demonstrations, hostage taking and facility occupations of the mid-90s metamorphosed into a range of vices, which included kidnapping. Starting in the early 90s with limited cases in some areas of the Delta and carried out by unorganized groups, kidnapping soon matured into violent forms accompanied by shootings and bombings orchestrated by established structures such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) by the next decade. Soon though, by that same decade, the vice leapt from political or suggestions of political kidnapping or political kidnapping as a form of protest to a coterie of several kinds of kidnapping, ranging from predatory kidnapping of minors to staged kidnapping of adults.
Yet, strangely, the first high profile kidnap case relating to Nigeria was conducted by the Federal Military Government of Muhammadu Buhari. In 1984, the government planned to return a member of the previous civilian administration from the UK to Nigeria on charges of corruption. Umaru Dikko, who acted as the Minister of Transport during the Shagari administration, was fingered by the Buhari regime as responsible for a host of corrupt activities while he was in charge. The kidnapping attempt, led by hired Isreali hands who already had Dikko in a diplomatic crate enroute to Nigeria, was subsequently foiled by vigilant airport staff.
One of the first recorded cases in the Niger Delta was the kidnap of eight Chevron-Texaco oil workers nabbed by militant youths in November of 1998. As reported by the BBC, among them were an American, a Briton and a South African. The kidnappers reiterated the line which, by then, had become synonymous with the struggle in the Niger Delta: they wanted the oil companies operating in the area to provide electricity and jobs for the neighboring communities. Later, all the captives were released unharmed. The following February a British worker for Shell, the head teacher of the Shell school in Warri, was kidnapped along with his 2-year-old son in Warri by armed youths in 1999, 4 years after the death of Saro-Wiwa. He was the second Briton to be taken hostage in a week. He and his son were released unharmed few days later. Days earlier, another oil British worker, along with an Italian and a Nigerian, had been taken hostage in the same town of Warri. The Briton was held for seven days, but was also released unharmed; perhaps, with ransom paid. A flurry of kidnapping activities followed in and around Warri, extending in no time to the other areas of the Niger Delta. These kidnapping activities were conducted by relatively disorganized groups who, in addition to extracting promises from the oil firms, demanded ransom most times; they would usually release kidnap victims after only a few days. This unorganized resistance lasted until the emergence of MEND in 2006.