Nigerian lawmakers have taken steps to bar the payment of ransoms to kidnappers at a time when thousands are in captivity, including passengers kidnapped during a train attack in late March near the nation's capital.
Nigeria’s Senate has passed a bill amending the country’s Terrorism Prevention Act to bar the ransom payments. It said the amendment will “prevent terrorist groups from laundering money.”
However, the legislation could cause more harm to kidnap victims and their families if the bill is signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari, activists and Amnesty International’s Nigeria office told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The West African nation has struggled to stem the rise of armed violence in its troubled northwest, and central regions where remote communities are often targeted by armed groups.
Thousands have been killed in the violence, data from the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations shows, while travelers are often abducted and kept in detention for weeks usually in forest reserves until ransoms are paid for their release.
The kidnap-for-ransom business is a lucrative enterprise with over $18 million paid to kidnappers between 2011 and 2020, according to Lagos-based SBM intelligence research firm.
Nigeria's federal authorities have been trying to target the practice for some time. Earlier this month, federal authorities barred calls from more than 70 million unregistered lines in an attempt to target kidnappers and make it difficult for them to contact the families of those held.
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When the bill passed on Wednesday becomes a law, it can “turn around not only the security situation in Nigeria but even the economic fortunes of our country,” said Nigeria Senate President Ahmad Lawan.
“We have done so much as a government in terms of infrastructural development in all parts of this country, but because the security situation is not the kind of situation that we all want, this tends to overshadow most of these tremendous and remarkable developments in our country,” said Lawan.
However, activists say the proposed law does not address “the root cause” of Nigeria’s security problems and endangers the lives of those kidnapped.
“If you cannot protect people, why then are you punishing them for finding a way to protect themselves?” asked Festus Ogun, a Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist.
The bill also creates “more opportunities for further violations of people’s rights,” Osai Ojigho, Nigeria director of Amnesty International told AP. She identified the “lack of resources” for security forces to investigate and prosecute crimes as a big challenge in Nigeria’s quest for peace.
Authorities should instead focus on “the root cause” of the kidnappings rather than “criminalizing family members who are distressed” by the abduction of their loved ones,” Ojigho said.