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The Threat of Kidnapping in Nigeria

06/29/2007 -Can you guess what a white Westerner's nickname is to rebels in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria? "ATMs."

It's because of "their high value on the market," said Frederic Ngoga-Gateretse, the Africa regional manager for iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, who presented that little tidbit in a webinar Wednesday about the dangers foreigners and expats face in Nigeria.

And that makes Westerners an alluring target for Nigerian rebels, who kidnap them to provide a quick and lucrative source of funds.

According to Ngoga-Gateretse, the average ransom price for a hostage hovers around $250,000 USD.

But rebels get more than money for their efforts. They also get press. International media coverage of kidnapped Westerners spotlights the plight of Nigeria's ethnic minorities. Minority rebel groups have battled their government, with increasing violence, since the state claimed ownership of all oil resources in 1969, and later, all land in 1978. The Niger Delta region, where the rebels reside, is extremely rich in petroleum. Rebels want increased political autonomy and economic independence--a share of the wealth.

Human Rights Watch's2006 country briefing sketches an unpleasant picture of the Niger Delta region as in need of international attention:

The Niger Delta region is awash with arms, many of which are in the hands of criminal gangs and militant groups that claim to be fighting for greater local control of the region’s oil wealth. Government security operations aimed at flushing out the militants resulted in numerous arbitrary arrests and other abuses.

Much of the insecurity that plagues the Delta is directly related to disastrous failures of governance at all levels. Despite massive budget increases due to rising oil prices, government at the federal, state, and local level has made little effort to combat the poverty and environmental degradation that lie at the heart of political discontent in the region. Far from seeking to defuse violence where it occurs, many regional political figures have been directly implicated in sponsoring it.

The impunity attached to such violence is starkly illustrated by the case of the chairman of Etche local government in Rivers state, who has faced no formal sanction since allegedly shooting three of his constituents during a protest in 2006, killing one young man and seriously wounding another.

But there is one solace to take if you or a loved one is kidnapped in Nigeria: Once the ransom is paid, the hostages are typically released.

"So far there has been only one incident where the foreigner was killed and it was actually an accident," said Ngoga-Gateretse. "They did not mean to kill him. He got caught in the crossfire.... The goal of these militants is not to kill the hostages, they want to exchange them for money."

For more on the Niger Delta region's troubles and how companies can protect themselves see theJune issueof Security Management.