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Article November 27, 2017

Kidnap Capital: the beginning of the end for kidnap and ransom in Nigeria?

The arrest of one of Nigeria’s most notorious kidnap kingpins, Chukwudubem Onwuamadike, has been hailed as a potential turning point in the battle against criminally-motivated kidnappings in the country. Yet, the case has also exposed the sophistication of kidnap gangs in Nigeria and why perpetrators continue to elude law enforcement, argues Reinet Loubser from S-RM.

The reign of the notorious kidnap kingpin, Chukwudubem Onwuamadike – “Evans” – ended following his arrest in June 2017. Evans has since admitted to masterminding the kidnap of at least 19 prominent individuals since 2012 and his arrest is a major coup for security forces. However, a closer look at Evans’ testimony reveals the level of sophistication among kidnap gangs in Nigeria and the limitations of counterkidnapping initiatives in combatting them. Kidnappers continue to have an advantage over law enforcement and there are several factors facilitating their success.

With meticulous planning and sophisticated technology, Evans’ network made millions between 2012 and 2017, while successfully evading authorities. For at least the last five years, the ‘King of Kidnap’ deployed small groups of criminals across the country to kidnap wealthy targets. The victims were held for up to seven months until ransoms – often amounting to USD 1 million – were paid.

A lack of coordination and resources on the part of the security forces has left them unable to counter kidnapping networks. In May 2016, the Senate adopted new measures to counter the kidnapping scourge, including increased funding and training of security personnel, informationsharing and harsher sentencing. Yet, centralised efforts to implement these measures are sorely needed. Nigeria lacks a database of DNA, fingerprint and facial recognition that would assist in the arrest and prosecution of offenders, and security forces lack the requisite equipment to adequately monitor tech-savvy kidnap networks. To this effect, authorities are unable to compete with criminals’ use of technology, a likely explanation of how Evans evaded police for years. Without the means to identify and locate kidnappers, harsher sentencing alone will unlikely deter perpetrators from this lucrative crime.

In contrast, Evans’ gang possessed mobile phones with costly anti-tracking features and leveraged complicit support networks in the p rivate s ector. E vans’ g ang h ad 1 26 p reregistered SIM cards in its possession. Despite the imposition of fines, telecommunications firms are reportedly still allowing individuals to sell SIM cards in bulk, making it difficult to monitor criminals and defeating the purpose of registration. It has also emerged that bank officials regularly met with Evans at his home, raising questions over how victims were selected and how ransom money – often paid in US dollars – was moved. Evans also relied on informants to supply information regarding prospective targets. It is likely that bank employees were among them.

The ultimate capture of Evans and his crew was largely due to the escape of their last victim, who assisted police in tracking them down, rather than a tactical victory on the part of security forces. Nevertheless, Evans’ arrest is one of Nigeria’s greatest successes in countering the countrywide kidnap epidemic. Yet, the absence of centralised efforts to curb public and private corruption, adequately equip and train security forces, and create opportunities for socioeconomic advancement, means it is too soon to celebrate a pending demise of kidnapping in Africa’s kidnap capital.