Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hostages as commodities: It's not just Somalia to be concerned about

There was a lengthy item by Nicholas Schmidle of The New York Times posted a week and a half ago, entitled "The Hostage Business", that's well worth a read. It's about the situation facing those seized by criminals in Nigeria and in it Schmidle quotes the now former inspector-general of the Nigerian National Police, Mike Okiro, as figuring that, "[T]he total amount of ransoms paid in Nigeria between 2006 and 2008 exceeded $100 million."

Assuming Okiro means a two-year period, that's about $50 million annually that has been paid to free hostages. By comparison, most analysts figure Somali gangs gain somewhere in the region of $80 million a year from ransoms (though the Kenyan foreign minister said, a year ago, that the figure could be as high as $150 million).

But even if both the Nigerian and Somalian figures are inflated - which is not unlikely - the point is that while everyone's been worrying about the money being garnered by pirates off the Horn of Africa, their west African brethren having been making similarly massive amounts from the taking of hostages.

Of note in Schmidle's article is the seemingly tempered view that the captors may be taking to their prisoners. Nigerian pirates - and land-based criminals - have had a reputation for ruthlessness and violence that Somali criminals have avoided. The former have been known to main and injure in the past, such as cutting off the ears of mariners. But with the bounties now being paid by firms, these west African criminals appear to have realized what the Somali pirates have long known: A live hostage is far more valuable than a dead one.

And, as the article explains, the money made from ransoms is fueling a mini-economic boom, of sorts, as criminals build homes and buy SUVs. Kind of like in Somalia.

Though many of the kidnappings being discussed in the article occur ashore, the threat that is posed to mariners working in the region is still serious. And unless addressed, we could be looking at two fronts in the battle to combat piracy: East and West Africa.

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