In the second part to his story on how the neglect of affordable technologies incapacitates the fight against insecurity, TUNDE AJAJA examines how the failure to adequately deploy telecommunications technology has turned kidnapping to a booming business in Nigeria
The event of the past few days fittingly qualifies as the most traumatic moment in the otherwise fruitful life of Aminat Taiwo. Days after her horrific abduction and eventual release on ransom by not less than 30 ruthless, armed kidnappers, the 22-year-old has remained a broken woman.
Saved by sheer luck and the N2m hurriedly sourced by her father to appease the brutish kidnappers, she said previous abductees whose family members could not raise ransom were gruesomely killed as their decomposing bodies littered the forest, with blood-bloated maggots oozing out of the bodies.
Haunted by the horror, with her voice still noticeably shaky during a telephone interview with Sunday PUNCH, Taiwo said she and her friend, Tobi Orekoya, were returning from an event when their vehicle was ambushed and they – alongside several others – were abducted near the Sat Guru Maharaji Garden on the ever-busy Lagos–Ibadan Expressway.
“We walked barefoot inside a deep forest for over six hours without water or food and we had to lick droplets of water on leaves to survive,” she said. “They were dressed in military and police uniforms and were armed to the teeth; bearing guns, knives and all kinds of weapons.”
Now a commonplace in Nigeria, the kidnappers brazenly contact families via the phone and put prices on the lives of their abductees, admittedly daring the institutions of state that could leverage ICT to track them to their den. Sadly, they mostly go untracked and unpunished even.
“When I was at Toll Gate (Ibadan), they asked me to collect the money (N1.5m) the mother of my daughter’s friend was bringing and they warned me to come alone,” explained Taiwo’s father, Kayode, who said he ran to family members and friends for help before he could raise the N2m.
Apart from the physical and emotional torture they subjected their victims to, including flogging and constant exposure to harsh weather, same fate – including snakebites – that the 43 abducted train passengers in the Abuja-Kaduna train attack in March 2022 endured for a maximum of eight months, the kidnappers of Taiwo and others made tens of millions from the victims.
While Taiwo, her friend, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Prof Adigun Agbaje, whose family was asked to raise N50m; and others were in torment and their families tasked with raising the ransom timeously, another set of kidnappers, on the same Friday, abducted four travellers en route to Ibadan, Oyo State, from Ekiti. They were freed only when their family members paid the negotiated N4m ransom.
Two days after, terrorists in the Faskari Local Government Area of Katsina State raided a farm and abducted about 40 children labourers. They later contacted the families via the telephone to demand N30m ransom.
Kidnapping, lucrative venture
Disturbingly, in every part of the country, kidnapping for ransom has become a daily occurrence and an extremely lucrative venture, with kidnappers, mostly jobless youths, raking in billions of naira from ransom payments.
To show they have made a career of the criminality, few hours after the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), launched the redesigned N1,000, N500 and N200 notes on Wednesday, some kidnappers abducted four persons in Kolo village of Zamfara State and insisted that the N5m ransom they demanded must be paid in new notes.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State noted some months ago that the money bandits and other criminals were making from kidnapping was huge enough to disrupt the Nigerian economy.
From the tens of thousands of persons kidnapped in the last 11 years, calculations by The PUNCH indicated that not less than N13.66bn was paid as ransom between June 2011 and July 2022.
In five mass kidnappings of pupils – seen as soft targets – by bandits in the North-West in November, 2020, the National Security Summit Report by the House of Representatives revealed that not less than $2.4m was paid to secure the release of the schoolchildren.
These figures only captured the few instances where the ransom was disclosed to the public. In some cases, the amount paid was not disclosed while many victims also refused to disclose whether or not they paid ransom. The list is endless, sadly.
In April 2021, the Zamfara State Commissioner for Information, Ibrahim Dosara, said kidnappers collected N970m ransom from victims’ families between 2011 and 2019, while the families of eight out of the 43 train passengers kidnapped along Abuja-Kaduna corridor in March 2022 paid about N800m. Overall, findings indicate that the train attackers made over N5bn – including some collected in United States dollars.
With kidnapping now seen as a gold mine by criminals, some persons have been arrested for faking their kidnap as a means to extort money from wealthy relatives. Sometimes, the kidnappers even demand motorcycles, food items, drinks and cigarettes in addition to the cash.
Many Nigerians have consistently expressed shock with the daring manner the kidnappers freely negotiate with abductees’ families on the phone.
When some gunmen kidnapped four commuters on the Oke Ako–Irele Road in the Ikole Local Government Area of Ekiti State in July 2022, some family members confirmed to The PUNCH that the kidnappers “had been calling to request N20m as ransom”.
As widespread as this is, however, only a few arrests have been made, the most popular being that of a kidnap kingpin, Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike, aka Evans, who, in 2006, dumped armed robbery for the more ‘lucrative’ kidnapping business.
Evans, during interrogation, admitted, “We did our operations through the phone and we once collected as ransom $1m.”
The then Force Public Relations Officer, Jimoh Moshood, had boasted, “The arrest of Evans and his gang members is the beginning of the end of kidnapping and other violent crimes in the country.”
But since then, kidnapping has increasingly got worse, with very few arrests made.
SIM card registration, a wasting solution
Troubled by the rate at which Niger Delta militants in 2006 kidnapped expatriates for ransom and Boko Haram terrorists, subsequently, used similar tactics to raise funds for their activities in addition to the pockets of kidnapping in other parts of the country, the then Inspector-General of Police, Mike Okiro, said in May 2009 that unless SIM card registration was encouraged, it would be difficult to end kidnapping in Nigeria.
The Federal Government swiftly introduced the mandatory SIM card registration in 2009 to capture subscribers’ personal data, fingerprints, facial photographs and hand geometry, all for identity and security management.
“Kidnappers who request for ransom to free their victims use mobile phones to communicate with others; if the telephone service providers could register the SIM cards of their clients, police would find it easier to clampdown on kidnappings,” Okiro stated emphatically.
The then Minister of Information, the late Prof Dora Akunyili, also stressed, “As we are aware, SIM card registration will go a long way to significantly reduce incidents of fraud, kidnapping, threats and intimidation, which have plagued our society for so long.”
By June 30, 2013, the Nigerian Communications Commission, the telecoms industry regulator, affirmed that all old SIM cards had been registered and new SIM cards could only be used after registration.
In fact, to show its commitment to the exercise, the Federal Government in 2015 fined MTN, a major telecoms network provider, $5.2bn for violating its directive to deactivate its 5.1 million unregistered SIM cards.
By April 2022, the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria affirmed that all active lines in the country, about 147.45 million at the time, were registered and that the operators had the data on each SIM card. The NCC also maintained that “all improperly registered SIM cards across mobile network operators had been completely.
But ironically, despite the success of the exercise, the spate of kidnapping in the country is frightening and has continued to get worse, growing steadily year after year and making a mockery of the exercise that cost billions of taxpayers’ money.
A former US ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, said of kidnapping in Nigeria, “In the past, kidnap victims tended to be the wealthy and the prominent, and so kidnappers had every interest in keeping their victims alive to extract the maximum ransom possible. Now, victims are often poor villagers, sometimes kidnapped indiscriminately, a departure from the targeted kidnapping of wealthy people.”
A professor of African History, Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Ibadan, Albert Isaac, told our correspondent in an interview that government’s failure to take full advantage of SIM registration had made kidnapping a ‘profitable’ career for many.
In recent months and years, there is hardly a day that there are no multiple cases of kidnapping for ransom.
Between January 1 and November 23, 2022 alone, data obtained from the Nigeria Security Incidents Tracker, published by Beacon Consulting, a popular enterprise security risk management and intelligence consulting company, indicated that there have been no fewer than 5,532 abductions, while in 2021, there were 5,018 abductions.
Enact Africa, an organisation that is into building skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational crime, quoted the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that there were 277 kidnappings in 2007, and it maintained a steady rise to 309 in 2008; 703 in 2009; 738 in 2010 but dropped to 600 in 2012 and 574 in 2013 – the year registration of old SIM cards was concluded and a gradual turnaround expected.
The kidnapping continued in 2014 with hundreds of persons kidnapped, including the 276 Chibok girls. It jumped to 886 in 2015, 987 in 2018, 1,386 in 2019 and 2, 860 in 2020, respectively.
This further highlights the failure of the SIM registration to track the perpetrators and more importantly, curb the menace.
These imply that about 20,146 persons – Nigerians and expatriates – have been kidnapped between 2007 and November 23, 2022, and a whopping 84 per cent of this took place after the SIM card registration was concluded. Sadly, some abductees were killed even after ransom was paid.
As of November 14, 2022, kidnappers in Kaduna State demanded N10m before releasing the corpse of one of their victims, Obadiah Ibrahim, who died in their custody after N3m ransom had been paid by his family.
“We were told that registration of our SIM cards would enable the Federal Government to identify the location of these kidnappers and consequently use that knowledge to apprehend those responsible for it, but we have cases all over the country where these people negotiate the ransoms they want to collect using phones,” Isaac, the pioneer Director of the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies, University of Ibadan, Oyo State, said.
He added, “Whether the kidnappers use their phones or their abductees’ phones does not matter; what matters is that wherever the phone signal is coming from, it is expected to have been tracked by our communication system. But these kidnappers carry out their negotiations peacefully. It’s very shameful.”
The ALTON Chairman, Mr Gbenga Adebayo, who noted that all lines had been registered, explained that whether the kidnappers use their phones or those of their victims as they are wont to do, “telecoms operators can trace the geolocation of the phone from where calls are made and provide the information to security agents.”
He stressed, “There is no SIM card that is registered with the network of any telecom service provider that cannot be traced to the user and owner.”
Also, an expert in Communications and Information Systems Engineering, Professor Elizabeth Onwuka, affirmed that there is available technology to track calls and movement of the holder of such phones. “The technology is there, provided there is authorisation from the appropriate authorities,” she added.
In an interview with our correspondent, Onwuka said, “Even if the kidnappers change locations, you could see the thread. Anywhere you go, the network follows you because network is mobility compliant. So, it is possible to track the kidnappers.”
Also, a professor of communication engineering at the Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, Francis Idachaba, affirmed that phone calls could be tracked because “a phone, by design, reports itself to the operator”.
Idachaba, whose research interest is on 5G, Internet of things and Smart Cities, added, “The way the phone is designed, at any given point, it connects to a base station. If the security agencies work with the operators, they can know where a phone is per time, using GPS.”
The botched exercise
The position of these industry operators, security and telecommunication experts triggered the question about why the police and other security agencies have been unable to arrest the situation.
On very few occasions, the police tracked some kidnappers and were able to rescue the victims, but it’s only a drop in the ocean.
Investigation by our correspondent revealed that not all the few tracking systems used by the police have the capacity to give the exact location of where a phone call originated from. Apart from the inadequate number of the trackers, some security agents believe “based on field experience” that some mobile lines are either not registered or the kidnappers found ways of bypassing the system.
Kayode said when he reported his daughter’s kidnap to the police in Ogun State, her phone, which the kidnappers used to call, was tracked and it showed Owode as their location, whereas the kidnappers were in a forest on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway”.
“When I went to drop the ransom, the leader of the kidnappers gave me his phone to direct a man who was bringing N8m ransom to secure the release of his family member that was also abducted. He told me nobody could track his phone number,” he noted.
Investigations further revealed that the police have largely been unable to accurately track the kidnappers because only the ‘zero coordinates tracking system’ has the capacity, but it is not adequate across the country.
A very senior police officer told our correspondent, “The police are faced with various challenges in successfully tracking kidnappers and rescuing victims and it starts with the tracker we use. Mostly, our tracking system can only give a broad description of where the call was made from; it can’t trace the kidnappers to the exact location.
“For instance, if a kidnapper makes a call to demand ransom at a spot close to where there is network and goes back into the forest where there is no network, our tracker will only show the area. The kidnappers know this, which is why they change locations frequently. So, oftentimes, we go to the spot and search for hours without success.”
He added, “However, there is a tracking device we call ‘zero coordinates’. It can trace kidnappers to their exact location through the mobile phone. The Department of State Services has it but they mostly use it in-house to monitor their personnel during sensitive operations or for incidents that have national implications. The absence of the right equipment is a problem, coupled with the poor motivation in the police.”
Again, the Federal Government introduced the National Identity Number, which includes individual’s unique numbers, demographic data, capture of the 10 fingerprints, head-to-shoulder facial picture and digital signature, to harmonise all the records about every Nigerian in the database. But it has yet to solve the problem. Even after the NIN-SIM linkage became mandatory, kidnapping in the country only became more widespread.
When asked why this initiative has not helped, the officer noted that the NIN-SIM linkage would have been helpful in combating kidnapping but for the dearth of the right equipment and resources.
Interestingly, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, claimed in September that the NIN-SIM linkage had helped to reduce the prevalence of kidnapper calling to demand ransom, but available statistics show the claim to be untrue. In 2021 when the exercise had fully taken off, there were not less than 5,018 abductions while the figure has even increased with 5,532 abductions till date.
In 2021 when over 2,900 persons had been kidnapped in the first half of the year, investigations by Sunday PUNCH in July revealed that the main tracker used by the designated unit in the police was in bad condition, due to non-subscription and refusal to engage the appropriate firm to carry out a system upgrade.
A commissioner of police privy to the situation said at the time, “Subscription fees are meant to be paid yearly but the police did not pay since 2015. Initially, the company gave us a grace period but they have now cut off the police completely. We now rely solely on the DSS and Office of the National Security Adviser. It’s a terrible situation and it has worsened the insecurity in the country. The Police Trust Fund promised to help but we have not seen any action yet.”
While this snag continued, many people were kidnapped and some even died. A resident of Zamfara State, Alhaji Sani Gyare, told Sunday PUNCH at the time that when his seven children were kidnapped and he was contacted to pay N50m, he gave their phone number to the police but “unfortunately, nothing happened.”
At the moment, our correspondent gathered that the faulty tracker has been fixed and upgraded, but the rising daily kidnappings show that not much has changed.
Meanwhile, Isaac noted that the police could only work with the equipment and resources available to them. “When our policemen go abroad for peacekeeping operations, they always come back with laurels, so there is something in Nigeria that is destroying their capacity to protect us. In all, it is the common man that suffers,” he said.
Indications also emerged that some of the criminals may be bypassing the system. Multiple police sources said contrary to what people believe and the NCC’s position, not all SIM cards in the country are registered. This, they said, aided the kidnappers.
A senior police officer, who spoke to Sunday PUNCH on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, said, “It’s not every SIM card in use in Nigeria today that is registered with the network providers and not all have been linked with NIN, and these SIM cards are active. People cut SIM cards and generate numbers, I am very sure of this.
“That is why you see some fraudulent persons in Nigeria calling with a foreign number, and they are here. How did that happen? There is more to this kidnapping business, but it’s easy to blame the police. Some bypass the system, and so you won’t find such numbers on any system.
“You may want to ask why those who use registered SIM cards have not been arrested. Some of them have been arrested, but people are kidnapped almost every day now, and it is clearly impossible for the police to track all of them, and the trackers are not even enough. If we did the right thing years ago, it would have deterred many from joining the trade, but now it’s a lucrative venture.”
Another senior police officer told our correspondent that he also doubts if all mobile lines in the country are registered.
“This is not a sort of thing you say publicly because it’s a matter of national security, but there are lines operating outside the system. If government must address this problem, it has to start from there; ensure all lines are registered and equip the police with all necessary gadgets and equipment and this problem will be solved.”
Meanwhile, in 2021 when the NCC, on the request of four governors, suspended mobile telecommunications network in their states for a few months, as part of measures to curtail the raging banditry in the North-West, the bandits, according to verified sources, including government officials, simply switched to Thuraya, while some used mobile networks from neighbouring Niger Republic. With such options available, the bandits continued their criminal activities.
Hope not lost
However, an intelligence expert, who did not want to be named, affirmed that some criminals could be using the networks of neighbouring countries and that it is not impossible to build a private network.
“There was a case in Mexico where a drug cartel built its private cellular network and it covered states and thousands of miles. So, some criminals could have their private cellular network,” the expert said.
Asked if a private network, Thuraya or neighbouring countries’ network could be tracked, he said everything that uses signals could be tracked, even if more complex.
He added, “There is signal intelligence which entails using signal communication to collect intelligence. The criminals communicate, even from their hideouts. It could be with their gang members, victims’ families or people who get them supplies. Whatever signal they use can be tracked. Even when the kidnappers turn off their victims’ phones so as not to communicate with external devices, it could still be tracked.”
He noted, “The level of kidnapping in Nigeria involves low to medium technology, so these kidnappers can be tracked. Phones are connected to the nearest masts, so by their activities, they create abnormal activities that can be captured, even by flying a drone around that area.”
Our correspondent had in the first part of this report, published on April 9, 2022, detailed how government’s failure to adequately deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, and other technologies had enabled kidnappers and other criminals to continue their trade.
Idachaba also said, “We have triangulation, so a phone links up with three different base stations and connects with the strongest signal. The operators should be able to check their data and run some algorithm to know where a phone is. It is possible to track that.”
Interrogating possible shortcomings
There are also indications that incomplete or defective registration might be contributing to the inability to successfully track some lines.
During his ministerial screening at the Senate in July 2019, an Executive Commissioner with the NCC then, Sunday Dare, said after the network operators collect subscribers’ information and send to the NCC for verification, “very often we have found that biometrics is not done properly, the information in certain fields is missing and in most cases we found out that pictures used are not clear.” The NCC Executive Chairman, Prof Umar Danbatta, later said such improperly registered lines had been deactivated.
He added, “Every SIM card is connected to the network, so yes, it is possible to trace the kidnappers but until kidnapping occurs and until that phone call is made, there is no real time surveillance. There is no software to be able to monitor 172 million lines round the clock.”
But, commenting on the need to take full advantage of technology to tackle the menace, a seasoned fiscal policy expert, Taiwo Oyedele, said, “There are countries where words have been made into algorithms. So, you make a call and you mention that word, it flags your line and the authorities start monitoring all that you are doing.”
Oyedele, who is the Africa Tax Leader and Fiscal Policy Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said instead of shutting down base stations, like the government did in 2021, to prevent criminals from making phone calls, they should be allowed to make calls and be tracked while the motorcycles some of them requested for should have had trackers and recorders planted on them to aid intelligence gathering.
Isaac also warned that kidnapping having become a profitable career nationwide, it might be difficult to stop.
He added, “There should be monitoring centres and once a SIM card is registered, the information should automatically be sent there. With signal intelligence, there are certain words you would use during a call that would trigger the alarm and the system would start listening to your conversation. This is global practice and that is what we should do.”
Force PRO, Muyiwa Adejobi, said the police were doing what was necessary to curb the menace, but some senior police officers who spoke to our correspondent said with the prevalence of kidnapping, the police needed as many tracking devices as possible, coupled with increased welfare packages. “Modern, sophisticated devices do not cost a fortune, so why can’t we have them across commands and zones to tackle this crime that has become endemic.”