Kidnappers seized the mother of the Nigerian finance minister on Sunday from her home in Delta state, an unusually prominent victim of a crime that has plagued the oil-rich region.
Nigerian police said they were actively searching for Kamene Okonjo, a retired professor and mother of Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Harvard-educated economist who was recently a candidate to lead the World Bank.
It was unclear Monday why Okonjo had been kidnapped. Nigerian media quoted witnesses who said as many as 10 attackers seized Okonjo at the gates of her home as she offered drinks to some workers. Her husband was reportedly out of town.
"At this point, it is difficult to say whether those behind this action are the same people who have made threats against the coordinating minister in the recent past or other elements with hostile motives,” Paul Nwabuikwu, an advisor to the finance minister, said in a statement Sunday. “No possibility can be ruled out at this point.”
Kidnappings are frequent in the region, where wealthy Nigerians – doctors, professors, business people or local politicians -- are at risk of being seized for ransom, said Taryn Evans, a risk consultant with AKE Intelligence. Criminals typically reap $50,000 for Nigerian nationals, she said, though kidnappers often seek higher ransoms for more prominent victims such as Okonjo.
However, “a lot of this type of crime is perpetrated in a sort of shotgun manner – you go, take whoever you can, and hope you can get some money for them,” Evans said. The abduction of a high-profile target “could just as well have been a mistake,” drawing unwelcome attention.
The persistence of kidnappings in Nigeria has fueled suspicion that police forces are either involved or complicit in such crimes and complaints that the government has done too little to stop it.
The head of an anti-kidnapping task force was arrested this year along with several other police officials on allegations of abetting kidnappings. Several accused officers were later released, spurring the Delta governor to complain publicly that “their release coincided with the recent upsurge in kidnap cases.”
The rampant kidnappings are "an embarrassment to any government that is worth its onions," former Education Minister Olorogun Kenneth Gbagi told the Vanguard newspaper after Okonjo was seized. “In Delta state, there are more soldiers and policemen than any other place and sometimes, you begin to wonder what they are doing with all these brazen crimes."
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