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Intelligence-led investigations can curb Ethiopia’s kidnappings

To unmask the actors and networks involved, the problem must be approached through an organised crime lens.

Kidnapping and extortion are on the rise in Ethiopia, with cases even reported beyond the country’s borders. Ethiopian Electric Power announced in October last year that six of its employees had been abducted and held ransom at an undisclosed location in the Oromia region. The kidnappers demanded 10 million Ethiopian birr (ETB) (about US$1 million) in cash for the safe release of each victim – about 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 that saw Ethiopian gunmen crossing into Sudan in 2021. They abducted three merchants and demanded approximately US$9 000 for their release.

But not all kidnappings are motivated by ransom. The recurring abductions of children in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region by armed groups from South Sudan are worrying – more than 275 children have been kidnapped in five years.

Following Ethiopia’s 2018 transition, armed dissidents previously based in Eritrea established themselves in Ethiopia. While armed groups like the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA or OLF-Shene) are often blamed for these incidents, a lack of thorough investigation means reliable information is lacking. So, despite significant public concern, attention from law enforcement agencies remains limited.

Armed groups are blamed for kidnappings, but a lack of thorough investigation means information is lacking

Kidnapping is a complex problem involving diverse actors with different goals and modus operandi. While financial gain drives some, others seek to further a political agenda, such as fuelling instability or showcasing 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 South Sudanese border, 21 university students were abducted. To date, 12 are still captive, and those who were rescued could provide no real information on their attackers. The whereabouts of the abducted students are unknown, as are the kidnappers’ motives. They were allegedly OLA members, but didn’t ask for ransom money.

In May 2021, the Ethiopian government designated the OLA a terrorist organisation, so their crimes are generally considered acts of terrorism. The Attorney-General’s Office has prosecuted intermediaries and accomplices to kidnapping for acts of terrorism under the country’s anti-terrorism legislation.

‘As long as alleged kidnappers are OLA members, we usually invoke the anti-terrorism proclamation to prosecute them, even if this is an in absentia trial,’ said a senior prosecutor at the Oromia Regional State Justice Bureau, on condition of anonymity. The OLA has continuously denied involvement in kidnapping for ransom, suggesting that other individuals or groups might be posing as the OLA.

Victims lack trust in law enforcement as they suspect police could be collaborating with kidnappers

In another case, public officials were abducted and assassinated by armed groups in various parts of the country. In the Oromia region, 50 employees of the Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote’s cement factory were kidnapped for ransom, which the company paid in cash. Earlier abductions in this area resulted in killings without asking for ransom. Some attackers kill their victims after demanding or receiving ransom, as happened to six children in the Amhara region in December 2019.

Some cases where kidnappers have claimed ransom were easier to prosecute, said an Oromia Regional State senior prosecutor. He said Article 590 of the Criminal Code was often invoked for such cases. The provision requires merely proving that the defendant demanded or received ransom after a kidnapping.

The justice system is reactive, and its effectiveness is evaluated based on the number of cases prosecuted, not the nature of the crimes, said another senior prosecutor at the Attorney-General’s office. ‘Admittedly, we did not go beyond [treating the situation as an act of isolated banditry],’ the Oromia Regional State prosecutor said.

These limited investigative and prosecutorial actions have not deterred kidnappings. The Federal Attorney-General is now contemplating federal investigations and prosecutions. ‘Initially, we thought this problem was something that could be contained by our counterparts in regional states,’ said a senior prosecutor at the Directorate-General for the Prosecution of Transnational Organised Crimes, a division of the Attorney-General’s Office.

The alleged involvement of financial institutions extends beyond disclosing victims’ account details

To unmask the actors and networks involved, it’s important to approach the problem through an organised crime lens. Worrying allegations suggest that financial institutions may be revealing individuals’ account balances to kidnappers before or during abductions – making the banks complicit. This was confirmed by multiple law enforcement sources who spoke to the ENACT organised crime project on condition of anonymity.

The involvement of financial institutions extends beyond the disclosure of victims’ account details. A journalist who requested anonymity told ENACT that cash collected as ransom found its way back into financial institutions in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries like Kenya and South Sudan, where it was processed as legitimate transactions.

These funds, collected from victims, their families and friends, are suspected of fuelling conflicts and facilitating transnational organised crimes such as arms trafficking and financial offences, said a police officer. Yet these links have not been verified through investigations. This is made more difficult as victims often fear reporting incidents because they suspect police officers of collaborating with kidnappers, prosecutors said.

Regardless of whether kidnappings are acts of banditry, terrorism or organised crime though, Ethiopia must conduct thorough intelligence-driven investigations and formulate a focused strategy to tackle these crimes.

This article was first published by ENACT.

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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. The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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