Kidnapping is an ancient crime dating back to 17th century Britain when infant children of rich families would be “napped” (caught in their sleep) and taken away for ransom. The first major case of kidnapping reported in the US was that of four-year old Charley Brewster who was lured away in Pennsylvania in 1874 by two strange men with the promise of candy and fireworks. The men later sent ransom notes to the boy’s father through the post office. His father didn’t pay, the boy was never found.
Kidnapping has since evolved. Today it’s a well organised and highly sophisticated crime which occurs in many parts of the world.
In Nigeria it has become quite common, competing with crimes such as armed robbery, piracy and cattle rustling in frequency and in violence. It has grown rapidly over the years and is now entrenched as a dominant form of organised crime in the country.
The benefits of kidnapping far outweigh its costs in the country. The legal frameworks of criminal justice aren’t efficient enough to sanction crime and ensure proper deterrence. Opportunistic Nigerians rationalise that the benefits outweigh the risks. This probably explains the high incidence and apparent intractability of kidnapping in the country.
The recent arrest of Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike (a.k.a Evans), who has become the poster boy for kidnapping in Nigeria, has once again raised questions about what lies behind the rise in cases in the country. And what can be done about it.
History of kidnapping
Early cases of kidnappings in Nigeria were abductions mainly for ritual killing, slavery and forced marriage. There were also cases where individuals were abducted during communal wars and held as bait for strategic trade-offs. These types of kidnapping have been ongoing in various places in the country for years.
The rise of mercantilist kidnapping – or kidnap for ransom in Nigeria – is a recent development. It began in the 1990s with the activities of Niger Delta militants who engaged in hostage taking to press their demands for fiscal federalism, resource control and environmental rights for their communities polluted by decades of oil exploration.
The militants, who assumed the status of activists and agitators for their region, wanted to attract attention to the plight of the region and to compel the government and oil multinationals to clean up their environment, pay compensation for years of exploitation and bring investment and development. They targeted expatriate workers of the oil firms as well as principal government functionaries for hostage taking.
There was a significant drop in the incidence of kidnapping in the region following the deescalation of the Niger Delta crisis at the turn of the century. By this time though, the crime was already becoming a booming franchise in nearby South-eastern Nigeria, with Abia and Anambra States as critical flash points. These states, and others in the region, became hotbeds for kidnappers who often targeted the rich and the influential for criminal economic benefit.
In the years that followed, kidnapping for ransom quickly spread to different parts of the country, including states like Edo, Lagos, Ogun, and some northern states of Nigeria.
So why is kidnapping thriving in Nigeria? There seem to be three factors driving the crime today.
The first is the quest for material accumulation. The second is tough socio-economic conditions. And the third is a sense of fearlessness and impunity on the part of perpetrators who feel that they will get away with the crime.
Kidnapping typifies a tendency towards criminal economic accumulation and social advancement which thrives in societies that have the following characteristics:
- People struggle to survive because of high levels of poverty,
- Growing social inequality and deprivation
- The prevalence of impunity
- A lax and inefficient criminal code
- Weak law enforcement procedures and capabilities, and
- An ineffective criminal justice system.
The fall of a kidnap kingpin
The media and law enforcement agencies in Nigeria refer to Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike (a.k.a Evans) as the kidnap kingpin.
His capture has some critical implications. First, it has exposed the level of sophistication that kidnapping has reached in the country. Second, it has revealed that kidnapping syndicates, no matter how sophisticated, are not invincible. Third, it has buttressed the argument that, armed with an effective strategy, the police can control the incidence of kidnapping in the country.
And lastly, it’s shown that a lot needs to be done to control crime in Nigeria.
The arrest of Evans doesn’t signify the end of the crime. Far from it. Rather it marks the dawn of a new era in Nigeria’s anti-kidnapping crusade. This is an opportunity – which if properly exploited – can reduce the attraction of kidnapping, and help the country move towards making the crime history.
The way forward
Nigeria must strengthen its laws for combating crime if it truly wants to fight and reduce kidnapping. Efforts must be made to ensure greater efficiency in the operations of the law to achieve greater impact.
I believe, like the American Economist Bryan Douglas Caplan that “the kidnapping problem is not hard to solve” and that
kidnappers kidnap because the benefits exceed costs. The obvious solution is to raise the costs by imposing harsher, surer punishments.
To arrest the rising spate of kidnapping, Nigeria must entrench stiffer penalties. Some states have instituted the death penalty as a punishment for the crime. I believe that the death penalty can serve as a great deterrence.
But first efforts must be made to tackle socio-economic conditions that make kidnapping attractive such as poverty, unemployment, deprivation, inequality. After all, sustainable criminal deterrence is scarcely possible under the atmosphere of material insecurity.