Not much was heard about the kidnapping-for-ransom business in Nigeria until the abduction of an American missionary was reported last Monday.
According to the local police commissioner, Adeyemi Ogunjemilusi, five “hoodlums,” some of them masked, jumped the missionary school’s wall around 10:30 a.m. They shot guns in the air to frighten away would-be rescuers. Rev. Phyllis Sortor, a Washington state native, had just returned from a trip to Emiworo town and was standing inside the compound of Hope Academy with two female students. The kidnappers grabbed her, scaled the wall and fled into the surrounding bush. The area is mountainous and full of potential hideouts.
Authorities have since deployed a team of police officers and soldiers to secure Sortor’s release, with local vigilantes joining in the search. But with very little to show for their efforts authorities in Kogi state, where the abduction occurred, authorities may yet succumb to the demands of her captors.
Nigerian officials say the kidnapping of Sortor was probably not the work of Boko Haram. Ogunjemilusi, the Kogi state police commissioner, said a ransom of around $300,000 had been demanded by Tuesday afternoon, barely 24 hours after the kidnapping, which is not typical for Boko Haram.
“Kidnapping is big business here in Kogi. Most of the times, ransom are paid to secure the release of abductees,” says Ahmed, a local journalist. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a ransom is paid to secure Ms. Sortor’s release.”
Nigeria is one of the worst countries in the world for kidnappings, a lucrative criminal enterprise worth millions of dollars a year. On the same day as Sortor’s kidnapping, a Chinese construction worker was abducted from his work site by armed men. Abductions are most rife in the oil states, but all of southern Nigeria is prone to kidnappings, and public officials, their relatives, and foreign workers are regularly abducted for ransom. An estimated 1,500 kidnapping cases are reported each year in Africa’s most populous country. And Kogi state, where Sortor was taken, no doubt accounts for much of that number.
Kogi state may not be in the public eye as much as states like Borno, where the deadly Islamist militant group Boko Haram has killed over 10,000 people, abducted hundreds of women and children, and forced over a million people out of their homes. But the north-central Nigeria state, located south of the country’s capital, Abuja, is known for its huge cultural and religious diversity. It attracts hundreds of tourists and missionaries every year, and is known as the “Confluence State.” But recently, it has been hit by ethnic tension and communal clashes resulting in the loss of lives and property, and hundreds forced to flee their homes. Its biggest challenge, though, is how to solve the kidnappings that have become rampant, with targets often being high-profile politicians and foreign nationals.
About a year ago, two children of Momoh-Jimoh Lawal, the state’s head of legislature, were kidnapped by gunmen at his residence. Before then, two council bosses in the state were abducted during a meeting of Local Government Council heads. And last month, a top council official was abducted from his home by gunmen who used the same method, scaling a wall, which was used in the kidnapping of Sortor. (All of the hostages have since been released.)
With national elections just around the corner, cases of abduction might just be on the rise, with politicians looking to undo their opponents, and hoodlums eager to profit financially from the lucrative kidnapping business.
Officials in Nigeria are known to play down the influence of Boko Haram beyond the troubled north-east region. When Commissioner Ogunjemilusi gave details of the abduction of Sortor, he maintained that the sect was not active in Kogi.
But only last November, Boko Haram attacked the Koton-Karfi Prison in the state, blowing up its iron bars with an improvised explosive device, and freeing about 145 prisoners. Before then it had attacked a church in the central Kogi town of Okene, killing 17 worshipers. In a state where the Islamist sect has carried out a couple of attacks in the past, no one is ruling anything out.
“We have seen Boko Haram attack us a couple of times. Even though no case of abduction in Kogi in the past has been linked to Boko Haram, the group have kidnapped for ransom in other places,” says Emem, a social worker based in Lokoja, the Kogi State capital.
“I’m not ruling out anyone. Boko Haram could yet be responsible for Ms. Sortor’s abduction.”