At a private school in Lagos, Nigeria, armed security guards escort parents dropping off their children, who are prime targets for the country’s kidnappers.
The schoolchildren are the sons and daughters of politicians, business tycoons, foreign diplomats and senior oil and gas bosses. With kidnapping for ransom on the rise — many parents drive cars with blacked-out windows and obscured licence plates.
“I’m afraid of anything bad happening to my kids,” says Lara, a resident of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. “I worry a lot about armed robbers and also abductions.”
Lara — not her real name — is from a prominent Nigerian family and always has security on her mind.
“I’m very conscious of it,” she says. “We have armed guards at the front gate and every member of staff is subject to a rigorous background check before they are hired in my home or office.”
Earlier this month, two Canadians and two Americans were seized in the northern state of Kaduna and later released.
But 95 per cent of the victims of kidnapping in Nigeria are Nigerian, says a spokesperson for Control Risks, a specialist global risk consultancy. In most cases, a ransom is paid, ending the ordeal.
Kidnappings everywhere in Nigeria
Kidnapping for ransom has long been a problem in Nigeria’s south, where widespread poverty — despite Nigeria’s oil wealth — has pushed the desperate into criminality.
There are no official estimates of the numbers of kidnappings, and many are never reported. But the problem has now spread countrywide, exacerbated by a months-long recession caused by the global slump in oil prices.
When she goes out in Lagos, Lara makes a point of knowing where the police security checkpoints are — even during the day.
Such precautions have become a necessary part of daily life, including on the school run,.
“Most people have extra security measures in place now, from alarm systems to sophisticated CCTVs that you can monitor over the internet,” Lara says.
Stories shared on WhatsApp groups from other moms, friends and family frequently warn about the need for extra security, and vigilance at school, home or work.
Control Risks says 10 per cent of all kidnappings it recorded last year were in Kaduna — the place where two unidentified Canadian and two American investors were taken after a gunfight in which their security escorts were killed.
‘Most of these guys are on drugs. You can lose your life if things are not carefully planned’
– Taiwo, security consultant who does ‘extractions’
The southern Niger Delta is still the “epicentre” of the kidnapping threat but Control Risks says there’s been a “sharp increase” in kidnappings reported in the country’s central states.
Even the more robust security measures typically taken by most foreigners are no guarantee of total safety.
When the worst happens, firms turn to people like Taiwo, an independent security consultant who has been involved in a number of “extractions,” where victims are rescued from their kidnappers.
Taiwo — who asked for his real name not to be used — describes those carrying out the kidnappings as “common criminals,” but says it’s necessary to negotiate with them in their own language.
Expert on getting people back safely
“I normally come in as the third party,” he explains. “It’s after the negotiations are complete. I am employed to do the proof of life, pay the ransom and get the people back safely.”
He admits the situation can be very dangerous.
“Most of these guys are on drugs,” he says. “You can lose your life if things are not carefully planned.”
In Nigeria, only a tiny minority have benefited from the billions of dollars generated over the years from oil, leaving the majority to struggle, even before the global oil price slump, Taiwo says.
“It is because the economy of the country is bad. Lots of people can’t send their children to schools and there are no jobs for those out of schools,” he says, adding many live on less than $1 a day.
Ransoms vary depending on the prominence of the individual and the wealth of his family or company.
Taiwo says he’s been involved in one case which saw a firm hand over tens of millions of naira — the equivalent of nearly $200,000 US.
Profit for criminals
“It’s very profitable for criminals,” he added.
Last year, Lagos police arrested a man they said was a kidnapping “kingpin” who had effectively made a business out of holding people for ransom.
Officially, Nigeria exited recession last year and the economy is slowly recovering on paper, as global oil prices improve.
But Lara says another economic downturn will see the situation get worse again, making it necessary never to drop her guard.
Nigeria is no longer the country she knew as a child, she said.
“My sister and I would go and get our hair plaited for about two to three hours, buy some mangoes and then come home.
“My mum was comfortable with that. I guess she trusted the woman who sold the mangoes. I wouldn’t let my kids roam the neighbourhood for two to three hours unsupervised, I hear far too many stories that make me view the world differently — not only in Nigeria.
“I’d rather be safe than sorry.”