Tackling Kidnapping in Nigeria: Enhancing Security in Movement, Communications and Cash
While conventional reportage focuses on the jihadist insurgency in Nigeria's North-East, it is pertinent to note that all six geopolitical zones are embroiled in some form of conflict. The North East continues to experience terrorism, with ISWAP and Boko Haram being the main perpetrators. The North-West is overrun by roving gangs of criminal-style bandits, while the North-Central is under threat from farmer-herder conflicts, as well as ethnic and religious tensions. The conflict over resources has spread to the South-West, once famed for its relative peace. Cultism is a prevailing concern in both the South-West and South-South, which also deals with rising piracy and oil bunkering. The South-East continues to combat secessionist agitations and their impact on the economy and security in the zone. These security concerns are often discussed as residing specifically in one zone. However, the reality suggests that despite distinct socio-political considerations, the nature of these conflicts goes beyond geopolitical boundaries, and some issues are truly national in scope.
Kidnapping is one of the most prominent examples of national security concerns in Nigeria. It has quickly become a common strategy used by conflict actors across the nation to gain attention and address their needs and goals. While some of these groups deploy kidnapping efforts to grow their numbers, others use it for financial gain. Those using the tactic for financial gain either seek to take the material items of the victims, including cars, cattle, and money or through the receipt of ransoms paid by families and communities associated with the kidnapped victims. Kidnapping is now just as big of a security concern across Nigeria as oil theft has been for decades because of the financial implications. These approaches are used to finance criminal networks, allowing them to become more sophisticated and hydra-headed. As a result, individuals and communities continue to pay billions of Naira in ransom to secure the release of their loved ones.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Events Data Project (ACLED), Nigeria accounts for more than half of all abductions in West Africa, with 52% of the 4,074 abductions from organised political violence between 2019 and 2023. The country experienced a peak of abductions in 2023, accounting for 58% of the total in West Africa and the highest in the previous five years. Between 2019 and 2023, the North West region of Nigeria had the highest rate of abduction (28%), with Kaduna and Katsina being the most affected. The North Central region ranked second with a 4% lower abduction rate, accounting for 24% of the country's total.
The story that the Federal Capital Territory has been safe from abduction is not supported by data, as it is the second most affected state in the North-Central region accounting for 22% and trailing only Niger with 25% from 2019 to 2023. Worse still, between 2019 and 2023, kidnappings in Abuja increased by 20%. Furthermore, Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, ranks fifth in the nation for kidnappings. Interestingly, the state with the highest cases of kidnapping, with at least 187 cases in five years, is Kaduna, which shares a border with Abuja, indicating that the trend may worsen. Abduction data from ACLED's organised political violence tracking appears to be mild in comparison to other databases, such as Nextier, Beacon Consulting, SBM Intelligence and the Nigerian Security Tracker which lists over 4,000 abductions in Nigeria each year.
Many solutions have been proposed to address the challenge of kidnapping in Nigeria, particularly justice sector reforms to ensure strict punishment and prompt justice. It has also been suggested that the country's economic situation be improved to address the conditions of poverty, which serve as both an easy recruiting ground for people to commit violent crimes and a justification for the actions of these groups. While the economic factors often attributed to the rise in kidnappings are undoubtedly in need of an overhaul, fixing the economy without addressing additional factors contributing to the rise in kidnappings would be a mistake. This article proposes practical solutions to improve national security by improving movement, communication, and cash security (MCC).
Security of Movement: The Battle on Two Wheels
Many criminal activities in Nigeria are linked to poor transportation networks. Militancy persisted in the Niger Delta for decades because many of the communities are linked by water, and the development of maritime transportation and security is far from ideal. In the North-West and North-Central zones, the most commonly reported method of transportation is motorcycles because of their ability to travel through rugged terrain. Criminal networks are confined to the same transportation methods as the general population, resulting in a high number of kidnappings being conducted by those on motorcycles in these zones.
This reality opens up an opportunity for the government to track possible criminal activity by implementing an effective system to secure the movement of motorcycles by creating a comprehensive motorbike identification and tracking system. Previous attempts have shown that completely banning motorcycles appears impossible and is economically detrimental because locals rely on them extensively as a means of transportation due to the poor transportation system. If such a system is implemented, the government could require an annual renewal of the unique marking system for all motorcycles in the country, allowing security agencies to easily trace them.
Similarly, since kidnappers rely heavily on petrol to run their operations, the government should closely monitor petrol sales in areas prone to kidnapping to disrupt criminal operations. Implementing systems to track and regulate large petrol sales to unidentified groups can significantly impede their mobility and hinder their ability to carry out kidnappings efficiently. During the period of fuel scarcity, ACLED data shows a nearly 50% decrease in abduction events in Nigeria between October 2022 and March 2023, with a 69% reduction in abduction events in the country's North-West region.
Security of Communications: Nipping Criminal Plots in the Bud
Before the digital revolution, which gave rise to phones, kidnapping for ransom was more difficult in Nigeria. Communication, like any other development, has both positive and negative consequences. In the carrying out of kidnappings, criminals use either their own or their victims' phones to negotiate ransoms and coordinate their operations.
The Nigerian government has already taken a step in the right direction by connecting the national identification number (NIN) with phone numbers. However, it is critical to improve this policy's effectiveness to increase security. Network providers make multiple requests to link NINs with phone numbers, giving the impression that there is no coordinated database. To maximise effectiveness, the government should invest in technological infrastructure that connects NINs to phone numbers seamlessly. This would allow law enforcement agencies to locate and apprehend kidnappers quickly, ensuring they face the consequences of their actions. This is a low-cost form of intelligence gathering that has been vastly underutilised. In cases where the phones of victims are used, the government should prioritise using advanced technology for location tracking.
Security of Cash: Choking the Lifeline of Kidnappers
Before the elections, Nigeria implemented a contentious Naira redesign policy that had numerous negative consequences. The former Central Bank governor and initiator, Godwin Emefiele, is currently on trial for the policy and other charges. Despite the controversial policy's negative impact, which coincided with Nigeria's fuel scarcity, kidnapping fell by 50% during the implementation period of October 2022 and March 2023, according to ACLED data. While it is not possible to say whether fuel scarcity or cash scarcity was the primary driver of this decline, it is likely that the lack of cash was significantly limiting kidnappers' efforts, given that kidnapping thrives in a cash-based economy where transactions are hard to track. As the world shifts towards digital banking, Nigeria must accelerate its transition to a cashless society to disrupt the financial aspects of kidnapping.
One of the most effective ways to combat kidnapping is to develop digital banking infrastructure. Encouraging citizens to use electronic transactions improves convenience and leaves a paper trail that law enforcement agencies can follow. The government should promote digital literacy and encourage businesses and individuals to use digital payment methods, thereby reducing reliance on physical cash. They must improve the necessary infrastructure to instil confidence in the digital banking system while encouraging and enabling the vast majority of Nigerians without bank accounts to reconsider their current approaches to financial needs.
Furthermore, the government must strengthen anti-money laundering (AML) regulations while promoting digital banking. This will encourage banks to strictly adhere to the Know Your Customer (KYC) principle, which involves first verifying a customer's identity through documents such as government-issued identity cards and then confirming their address. Second, that principle involves checking the customer's accounts for suspicious or illegal activity or changes in risk levels. Adhering to this principle is especially significant in combating kidnappings because a security intelligence company revealed that in many of the kidnapping cases they tracked, ransom was paid through banks.
Addressing Nigeria's kidnapping epidemic requires a multifaceted strategy that includes movement, communication, and financial security. The government can significantly reduce criminal kidnapping, gangs' incentives, and capabilities by implementing a motorcycle identification system, strengthening the NIN policy, and moving towards a cashless economy. Nigeria must embrace technological advancements, improve collaboration among various stakeholders, and work tirelessly to create a safer and more secure nation
Dengiyefa Angalapu is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development.