More than 500 people have been kidnapped in Nigeria so far this year, up nearly 70 % from all of last year, as militants and criminals expand targets to include religious figures and children, a federal minister said.
Hundreds of foreign workers have been kidnapped over the past three years, prompting companies in sectors ranging from energy to telecoms to construction to withdraw most non-essential staff.
Gangs have filled the void by kidnapping Nigerian politicians, children and religious figures.
“The action which started from the kidnapping of oil expatriates has moved to men of God and children,” said Yakubu Lame, minister of police affairs, at a political event this week.
A transcript of the speech was obtained by Reuters yesterday.
A total of 512 kidnappings have been reported so far this year, up from 353 for all of 2008, he said.
Virtually all of the kidnappings this year occurred in the southeast and Niger Delta regions, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.
Most of the hostages are released unharmed after a ransom payment.
South eastern Abia state had the most incidents with 110 people taken hostage, Lame said. All of them have been released, while police have arrested 70 suspects for the kidnappings.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the country’s main militant group, started kidnapping foreign oil workers three years ago as part of its fight to gain a share of the region’s wealth.
Since then, criminal gangs have taken advantage of the breakdown in law and order, targeting any high-profile expatriate or Nigerian that could provide them with a large ransom.
Security experts say many armed gangs have made ransom payments their main source of income as the military has clamped down on crude oil theft in the Niger Delta.