Kidnapping and extortion are on the rise in Ethiopia, and cases have been reported even beyond the country’s borders. Ethiopian Electric Power announced in October last year that six of its employees had been kidnapped and held for ransom at an undisclosed location in the Oromia region. The kidnappers demanded 10 million Ethiopian birr (ETB) (about $1 million) in cash for the safe release of each victim, approximately 10 times more than previous ransom amounts.
Cross-border kidnappings have been reported in several parts of the country. Some incidents involve ransom demands, such as the Ethiopian Electric Power case and another in which Ethiopian gunmen crossed into Sudan in 2021. They kidnapped three traders and demanded approximately $9,000 for their release.
However, not all kidnappings are motivated by ransom. The recurring abductions of children in the Gambella region of Ethiopia by South Sudanese armed groups are worrying: more than 275 children have been abducted in five years.
Following Ethiopia’s transition in 2018, armed dissidents previously based in Eritrea settled in Ethiopia. While armed groups such as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA or OLF-Shene) are often blamed for these incidents, the lack of a thorough investigation means that reliable information is lacking. Thus, despite significant public concern, law enforcement attention remains limited.
Kidnapping is a complex problem that involves various actors with different objectives and modus operandi. While financial gains drive some, others seek to promote a political agenda, such as fueling instability or showing their presence in a specific area of the country. Even within armed groups suspected of multiple kidnappings, motives and tactics have varied depending on their factions or affiliates at the time.
In 2019, in Dembi Dolo, an Ethiopian town near the border with South Sudan, 21 university students were kidnapped. To date, 12 remain captive and those rescued were unable to provide real information about their attackers. The whereabouts of the kidnapped students and the motives of the kidnappers are unknown. They were supposedly members of OLA but did not ask for ransom money.
In May 2021, the Ethiopian government designated the OLA as a terrorist organization, so its crimes are generally considered acts of terrorism. The Attorney General’s Office has prosecuted kidnapping intermediaries and accomplices for acts of terrorism under the country’s anti-terrorism legislation.
“As long as the alleged kidnappers are members of OLA, we normally invoke the anti-terrorism proclamation to prosecute them, even if it is an in absentia trial,” said a senior prosecutor at the Oromia State Regional Justice Office, on condition of anonymity. The OLA has continually denied involvement in kidnappings for ransom, suggesting that other individuals or groups could be impersonating the OLA.
In another case, public officials were kidnapped and murdered by armed groups in various parts of the country. In the Oromia region, 50 employees of Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote’s cement factory were kidnapped for ransom, which the company paid in cash. Previous kidnappings in this area resulted in murders without demand for ransom. Some attackers kill their victims after demanding or receiving a ransom, as happened to six children in the Amhara region in December 2019.
Some cases where kidnappers demanded ransom were easier to prosecute, a senior prosecutor in Oromia regional state said. He said Article 590 of the Penal Code was often invoked in such cases. The provision simply requires proving that the defendant demanded or received a ransom after a kidnapping.
The justice system is reactive and its effectiveness is evaluated based on the number of cases processed, not the nature of the crimes, said another prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Office. “It is true that we did not go further [treating the situation as an act of isolated banditry]”said the Oromia regional state prosecutor.
These limited investigative and prosecutorial efforts have not deterred kidnappings. The Federal Attorney General is now contemplating federal investigations and prosecutions. “At first, we thought this problem was something our counterparts in regional states could contain,” said a senior prosecutor at the General Directorate for the Prosecution of Transnational Organized Crimes, a division of the Attorney General’s Office.
To unmask the actors and networks involved, it is important to address the problem from the perspective of organized crime. Disturbing allegations suggest that financial institutions may be disclosing people’s account balances to kidnappers before or during kidnappings, making banks complicit. This was confirmed by multiple law enforcement sources who spoke to the ENACT anti-organized crime project on condition of anonymity.
The involvement of financial institutions goes beyond the disclosure of victims’ account details. A journalist who requested anonymity told ENACT that the money collected as ransom returned to financial institutions in Ethiopia and neighboring countries such as Kenya and South Sudan, where it was processed as legitimate transactions.
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These funds, collected from victims, their families and friends, are suspected of fueling conflicts and facilitating transnational organized crimes such as arms trafficking and financial crimes, a police officer said. However, these links have not been verified by research. This is made more difficult because victims are often afraid to report incidents because they suspect police officers of collaborating with kidnappers, prosecutors said.
However, regardless of whether the kidnappings are acts of banditry, terrorism or organized crime, Ethiopia must conduct thorough intelligence-based investigations and formulate a focused strategy to address these crimes.
Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher at ENACT Horn of Africa, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Addis Ababa and Messay Asgedom Gobena, Assistant Professor, Ethiopian Police University
ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.
(This article was first published by ISS Today, a Premium Times distribution partner. We have their permission to republish it.)