LAGOS, Nigeria — Police searched Monday for the kidnapped mother of Nigeria's powerful finance minister, after an abduction that shows no one is out of reach of criminal gangs in the West African nation's oil-rich southern delta.
Kamene Okonjo, the 83-year-old mother of Nigeria's Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was kidnapped Sunday afternoon in her hometown of Ogwashi-Uku in Delta State. Okonjo-Iweala, a respected economist, became a finance minister with extensive powers last year. She was also a possible candidate to head the World Bank before losing the position to U.S. nominee Jim Yong Kim.
Police have started a "comprehensive investigation" in the kidnapping, Nigeria police spokesman Frank Mba said Monday. He declined to say if the kidnappers had asked for a ransom.
The finance minister had received threats prior to Sunday's attacks, her spokesman Paul Nwabuikwu said in a statement Sunday. He said it was not clear if the authors of those threats were behind the kidnapping. Okonjo-Iweala was instrumental in pushing through a government policy to end subsidies for gasoline in January, a decision that sparked a nationwide strike and widespread protests in Africa's most populous nation. President Goodluck Jonathan later reinstated a partial subsidy, though many in the nation blamed Okonjo-Iweala for the unpopular decision. She has since said the subsidy must be entirely removed because the country cannot afford it.
"This is obviously a very difficult time for the entire Okonjo family. But the family is hopeful of a positive outcome as it fervently prays for the quick and safe return of the matriarch," the statement read.
In 2006, militants who said Nigeria's oil-producing region was not getting its fair share of the oil wealth started kidnapping foreign oil workers and launching other attacks aimed at crippling Nigeria's oil industry. That violence waned in 2009 with a government-sponsored amnesty program. But it gave way to a new wave of kidnappings that couldn't claim to champion a cause. The average initial ransom demand in 2012 has been $490,000 with settlements averaging $50,000, Houston-based security firm ASI Global said in a recent report, noting that ransom figures are rarely reported and that these averages may be conservative.
The Okonjo kidnapping occurred in an oil-rich Nigerian state considered to be a kidnapping hotspot. Kidnappings in the area once targeted expatriate oil workers, but the focus has increasingly shifted to middle- and upper-class Nigerians.
"There's been a transition in targets from large international companies to wealthy families," said Pete Sharwood-Smith, West Africa manager for United Kingdom-based risk management consultants Drum-Cussac. "It's easier to extort ransom from a family, who is emotionally involved, than a large company that can get trained negotiators to take over the resolution process."
Families and authorities rarely admit to paying ransoms. Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel saw his father freed by authorities in Nigeria last year after being abducted in the central city of Jos, which had not been previously known for kidnappings. Authorities declined to say how the victim was found. The father of Chukwuma Soludo, Nigeria's flamboyant former central bank chief, was seized in 2009 in another kidnapping-prone southern state and freed days later. Authorities denied a ransom had been paid.
Poverty, high unemployment and easy access to arms have created an opportunity for criminal gang to flourish. Corruption has worsened the crisis. Authorities recently accused a top police official in Delta state of helping criminal gangs to kidnap citizens before releasing him.
A lack of faith in authorities' ability to rescue loved ones and fears that they may be bought have led people who can afford it to relocate their families.
Kelechi Ijomah, who lives in Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, said she and her siblings had to move their parents two years ago from southern Nigeria's Abia state, which has also seen a spate of kidnappings. Ijomah said it was a difficult adjustment to make for her 87-year-old father, who had an orchard, and her 80-year-old mother, who ran a school.
"You know why you came out here dad," Ijomah said she would remind her nostalgic father. "Nobody will kidnap you here."