Having paid a ransom three times to secure the freedom of his loved ones, Nigerian businessman Lawal Ado is not impressed by moves to outlaw payments to kidnappers.
A controversial bill to criminalize ransom payments is the latest attempt to curb the country’s spiralling and lucrative kidnapping industry.
It proposes a jail sentence of up to 15 years for anyone who pays a ransom.
Ado said his two daughters were travelling in a police convoy along the Buruku road in Kaduna state, a notorious flashpoint for the criminal gangs, when they were abducted in December.
They were held for 15 weeks, and only freed after he paid a ransom of 10 million naira ($24,000 USD) in cash, he told the BBC.
A few years ago, his wife was kidnapped from their home in Kaduna city, and she was released after he paid 700,000 naira.
His mother, seized while travelling to her home village, also in Kaduna state, was freed after he paid 300,000 naira.
Ado said that when confronted by the reality of armed men threatening the lives of those closest to you, you have no choice but to come up with the cash.
Lawmakers were opposed to ransom payments only because “they have not had a family member kidnapped,” he added.
But the lawmakers argue that such payments fuel the kidnapping industry, where criminal gangs randomly seize people and demand anything from $50 to $1 million.
Since 2011, kidnappers in Nigeria have collected at least $18 million, with more than half of it between 2016 and 2020, says SBM Intelligence, a think-tank based in Lagos.
Detective superintendent Eguaoje Funmilayo of the Federal Criminal Investigations Department (FCID) said families were normally hesitant to involve police, and instead pay ransoms – something that police discourage.
In a rare success, police earlier this month announced the arrest of two alleged masterminds of the abduction of a group of university students whose parents reportedly paid 200 million naira for their release.
Senator Ezenwa Onyewuchi, who proposed the bill, which has been approved by the upper chamber and will now go to the lower house, said kidnapping had become “the most virulent form of banditry in Nigeria, and the most pervasive and intractable violent crime in the country.”
No place is out of reach for kidnapping gangs, but they are especially prevalent in northern Nigeria. Airports, railways, military barracks, and religious places have all been targeted over the years.
Families of kidnap victims often sell their property, take loans from banks, and crowdfund to raise the ransom.
When ransom is not paid, kidnapping victims are sometimes killed. There have been reported cases of kidnappers removing organs from victims to sell.
Usman Mbaekwe, who spent five days in a forest in southern Nigeria after a bus he was travelling in was attacked, said the security forces made no attempt to rescue him. He was freed after his wife raised 1 million naira.
In something that could be taken straight from the script of one of Nigeria’s famous Nollywood movies, the people delivering the cash were taken on a winding route from Lagos to Sapele, hundreds of kilometres away in the Niger Delta, where they were ordered to drop the money along the road, he said.
Globally, countries including the U.S. and U.K. rule out ransom payments to kidnappers, arguing that the best way to stop abductions is to remove the incentive.
But countries such as France, Germany, Spain, and Italy have reportedly paid millions of dollars to free their citizens held hostage by armed gangs in Africa, and elsewhere.
Even the Nigerian federal government is said to have paid huge sums to kidnappers in the past – including to Boko Haram militants to secure the release of some of the Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped in 2014, while the Katsina state government reportedly paid for the release of schoolboys seized by armed men in 2020.
More recently, a brazen attack took place on a passenger train travelling between Abuja and Kaduna, in March. At least eight people were killed, and more than 60 are thought to be still held by the gunmen.
The abductors have not asked for a ransom but are making other demands of the government, supporting the argument that outlawing payments will not solve the kidnap crisis.
“Payments of ransom is not the problem here; kidnapping is,” said Imran Rufai, whose brother is being held by the train attackers.
Zara Aliyu, whose brother was also abducted from the train, agrees.
“You can only pass such bills where there is adequate security,” Aliyu said.
Although it is unclear whether President Muhammadu Buhari supports the bill, he expressed opposition to ransom payments last year.
He said state governments should review their policy of “rewarding bandits with money and vehicles,” and called for patience in tackling the crisis.
“We have the capacity to deploy massive force against the bandits in the villages where they operate, but our limitation is the fear of heavy casualties of innocent villagers and hostages,” Buhari said.