Episode 607: Captive Market : Planet Money Kidnapping is big business in Nigeria. One man analyzed the industry, to find its weak points and better protect the people he loved.
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Episode 607: Captive Market

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Episode 607: Captive Market

Episode 607: Captive Market

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GREGORY WARNER: Hey, NPR recommends Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. Every week, Jesse talks with musicians, writers, filmmakers, and comedians about their work and lives. There was recently a really good episode where he talked with Ricky Jay, the magician and scholar. You can find Bullseye at iTunes or on Stitcher or however you get your podcasts.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

When there's something scary out there in the world, something you can't control, you really have two choices, right? You can either kind of ignore it, say listen, this is not something I can do anything about and so I'm going to hope for the best. Or you can face that scary thing head on. You can try to understand it and maybe, maybe by understanding it get a little bit of control over the world.

WARNER: Robert, I have a story for you about a guy who tried that second way of being. He tried to understand something very scary for him. And that scary thing is kidnapping for ransom. Now this guy's name is Yaw, he lives in Nigeria where kidnapping is not an inappropriate fear. It actually happens every day. Someone gets a bag put over their head in the street or their car hijacked. They're whisked away to some hide out and their family gets a call. They want ransom money.

SMITH: Sometimes a lot of money because kidnapping, at least some of it in Nigeria, is an actual business. There are people who do this as their job every day. They have employees - hundreds of people, estimates may be thousands of people are involved in the kidnapping industry. And potentially a lot of money is on the line.

WARNER: And this - this is where Yaw, the guy I met in Nigeria, felt that he had an edge because Yaw is in his day job - a business consultant. His job is to walk into boardrooms, tell CEOs how to be better business people in Africa. He analyzes industries in Africa. So he thought what if he could apply those same tools to understanding the kidnapping industry to protect his loved ones and outwit the kidnappers at their own game?

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. And with us today is Gregory Warner, East Africa correspondent for NPR who has brought us this story.

WARNER: It's the story of one man's journey into a criminal world, a journey taking not with guns in dark alleys, but with spreadsheets and data. It's a story about what economic analysis can reveal about criminals and why a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYLVAN ESSO SONG, "PLAY IT RIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for PLANET MONEY comes from HarperCollins, publisher of "The Opposite Of Spoiled" by New York Times columnist Ron Lieber, the new guidebook for parents to raise kids who are grounded, generous and smart about money. From the tooth fairy to allowance, chores to charity, part-time jobs to college tuition, Lieber covers the basics and identifies ways to talk about money and the traits and virtues like patience, modesty and generosity that parents hope their children will carry with them into adulthood. "The Opposite Of Spoiled," wherever books are sold.

WARNER: The story we're going to tell you today is not a thriller. And no one gets kidnapped. There's no shootout, there's no ransom call and no rescue. But this story is at core a love story between Yaw and Emily.

EMILY: So I have you on speaker.

YAW: Can you hear us both?

WARNER: Yaw and Emily grew up 8,000 miles apart and - by the way, we're only using their first names at their request because they still live in Nigeria and we're going to be talking a lot about what they know about criminals. Emily grew up in a suburb of Orange County, California and Yaw in a village in Ghana in West Africa, never having seen the inside of an airplane until the one that took him to Wesleyan where he'd gotten a scholarship. By the way, he assumed that that airplane ride would be really bumpy with all the wind up there in the sky.

YAW: But I was fascinated by how smooth it was and just - it feels like it's standing still. But anyway...

WARNER: Anyway, after college they both got jobs with the same international business consulting firm. And on the first morning of the first day of an annual job training...

EMILY: I think we got paired up somehow. And we had to do this exercise together for like a couple of hours. And then we had to present to the whole group.

YAW: Let me tell that part and then you continue it. All right, we didn't get paired up. We - they said, you know, find somebody and do this little exercise with where we had to like interpret something and come up with some sort of analysis and recommendations or something. And I immediately just was like before anybody gets to that table I'm there because I need to talk to that woman somehow 'cause who knows? There might not be another chance.

WARNER: The way they tell the story of this encounter tells you a lot about their relationship. Emily believes in serendipity and fate. Yaw fell in love with how she could trash talk in a foosball game having never played foosball ever. But if she's the optimist, than Yaw is more of an optimizer. He'll analyze probabilities and make them work for him.

EMILY: Sometimes he says, do you want me to be your boyfriend or do you want me to be a consultant right now? And most of the time the answer is I want you to be my boyfriend.

WARNER: Flash forward a few years, Yaw gets a post in Lagos, Nigeria, and the boyfriend part of him is telling her hey, Emily, come with me. But the consultant part of him is wrestling with this small but legitimate risk of her being a target.

YAW: This is one of the situations where, you know, being white is not particularly an advantage. The presumption is going to be, listen, there's only one reason you are in this country. Either - the Peace Corps is not in Nigeria so you're not working for the Peace Corps. You are working for a multinational agency or you're working for an oil company or you're working for a fancy Nigerian bank or big business. And so these things just get me scared about Emily.

WARNER: Emily does decide though to move to Nigeria and she loves it. She loves the life there, the pace of things. But Yaw is still worried. And though they do take precautions, he can't help thinking what if the worst happens?

YAW: I mean, she's here working. She's here on her own accord, but obviously she's here because I'm here. So I would feel - so I do feel responsible in that way on an ongoing basis.

WARNER: But when Yaw thinks about what his plan is, at this point, it's just a kind of vague idea to call the U.S. Embassy and then some other random tips he's kept from Hollywood movies.

YAW: What was the movie with the CIA guy whose daughter gets kidnapped?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAKEN")

LIAM NEESON: (As Mills) I have to find her.

YAW: "Taken" - taken 1 and 2.

WARNER: Yaw realized he needed a plan, and the one he came up with was one that maybe only a business consultant could conceive. He decided to give himself a crash course in kidnapping, much as he might bone up on the African mining industry or African telecom. And he began with interviews.

YAW: Let's start with who does the kidnapping. If you're in jail, we go to the prisons. Let's go to victims who have survived.

WARNER: He sets of dozens of interviews.

YAW: Private security services who protect rich people.

WARNER: And then after this information gathering comes the thought experiment.

YAW: I sort of have to think of myself as if I was the ringleader.

WARNER: What if I were a kidnapper?

YAW: Where in the bushes you going to keep people?

WARNER: Like how do you run a kidnapping business?

YAW: The real, everyday job.

WARNER: And when he listened to these real, everyday stories of kidnapping and what it means to be a kidnapper, he realized that mostly these stories followed a kind of set of best practices. And the first one was really heartening. It was that most victims are treated relatively well. That is after they're abducted and dragged to a hideout in the jungle, the kidnappers will turn to them and say hey.

YAW: They ask - say, want anything to eat? And the guy said, I'm not hungry. Drink? Yeah, can I have some water? No, drink alcohol too? If you want a beer, they offer beers.

WARNER: In Nigeria, kidnapping is just part of the texture of life. It's part of the equation of doing business. It's not a crime that's often reported and it's rarely prosecuted. And international companies even have K &R insurance - kidnapping and ransom insurance - so that this crime can just become one of the fixed costs. And Yaw theorizes that if kidnappers were suddenly to start torturing everyone and becoming a lot more violent, that changes the dynamic.

YAW: If you kill them, it's no longer an economic crime.

WARNER: And it's not something anymore that international companies can simply write off. Too much violence might be a threat to the revenue stream.

YAW: It's also harder to then have, you know, accomplices in high places, because nobody wants to be associated with that.

WARNER: Kidnappers depend on those accomplices in the police force and the government to keep them out of jail and keep their business going. The accomplices want kidnappers as much as possible to be discreet. And that led Yaw to what you might call the second business principle that these kidnappers seem to be adhering to. And that is keep the inventory moving because if you're going to treat people well, you can pack them all into a store room. You generally have one hostage per hideout.

YAW: Because you need to pick up the phone and give them the phone and have them talk to their family and have a conversation and go pee and get off their blindfold, you don't bring multiple victims. So you're really limited as a space constraint. And so you might go get more space, but you have to remember in this line of business, in crime, you know, you want to be discreet. And so you can't have many different sites. And then that becomes a whole production of keeping all these sites active and monitored and safe and secure and healthy and food and all that. So you usually will have what we found is that typically two or three hideouts that they had and they rotate, but that's it. And so for fixed amount of space for your units.

WARNER: Units, just to remind you, are people. They're somebody's mom, somebody's kid. Yaw is now so deep into his analysis, he's now thinking of them as inventory.

YAW: And so your inventory holding is the real problem. And you need to have high turnover - throughput. People need to come in and leave in two days - one day even better, half a day best.

WARNER: And it's here that Yaw tells me about one of the most successful kidnappers in Nigerian history - Osisi Ka Nkwu was his name - The Kidnapping Lord of Abia State - who solved the inventory storage problem in a very innovative way. Instead of kidnapping you first and then calling your loved one, as it's usually done, he'd call you while you were still in your home and say pay up or else sometime soon you'll go missing.

YAW: Yes, he would call up the victim - potential victim - and give a threat and say, you know, you're a target. And as a victim, either you move out of town with your family and hope you can do soon enough or you just get money and pull money together 'cause you really have no other source of recourse.

WARNER: In this terrifying story, Yaw found the highest expression of an economic principle. Never mind that the real Osisi Ka Nkwu eventually pissed off some powerful people in died in a hail of police bullets, more important to Yaw was what he could learn from Osisi's success. And the big thing he learned at the heart of the kidnapping model, and we might call this principle number three, was adjustable pricing. Kidnappers, of course, want to charge you as much ransom as you can pay because more than that, they're stuck with the inventory, less than that, the higher-ups won't be happy. So Yaw reasoned if you want to negotiate successfully with kidnappers, you have to somehow convince them that you are doing your best to pay them all you can.

YAW: If you are able to wait it out a bit in terms of your family members dragging on and saying, listen, we're still struggling to find the money. We need another few days. The ransom came down significantly.

WARNER: Essentially, not that different from the bargaining techniques you might use when buying a rug at a market, except just a lot higher stakes. And so you might stall, you could say oh no, this price is too high. And as Yaw is trying to explain this theory, his girlfriend's father, Richard, is listening in on the phone from California. And at this point, he just cannot help but jump in.

RICHARD: But that won't be our strategy if Emily's kidnapped.

WARNER: But that won't be our strategy if Emily is kidnapped, he says. Now Richard had been following all of Yaw's research. He'd even gone on some of Yaw's interviews. But his conclusion was the opposite. Don't negotiate.

RICHARD: Give them what they want. That's my strategy. Don't mess around with her life.

WARNER: On that phone call, Yaw said that his strategy was the same. But when I called him back without Richard on the line, he admitted that his strategy was not necessarily to just give the kidnappers everything they asked for.

YAW: No. But my strategy is to get Emily out as quickly as possible.

WARNER: For him, he says it's not about trying to save money or pay a cheaper ransom. It's just that learning everything he's learned in the past months about kidnappers and their incentives, he thought he could protect Emily, to get her out sooner by driving a harder bargain. At least, that was his plan. He's never had to execute it. So when I hung up with Yaw, I wanted to run some of these conclusions and Richard's concerns by someone who has experience, who does these negotiations for a living. And it turns out there are a very limited number of those someone's.

MARK COURTNEY: If I had to be truly honest with myself, I dare say I'd go down to about 30 people worldwide who could do this job really well.

WARNER: Mark Courtney, who I reached at his office in South Africa, is not only a professional kidnap negotiator, he's part of an even smaller subset that exclusively negotiates kidnappings in Africa. And he's worked with a number of security agencies. Now he's independent. So I asked him who's right. Yaw, who wants to negotiate, drive a hard bargain or Richard who says give them everything they want.

COURTNEY: The dad is wrong. The father is wrong. You don't just give them what they want up front 'cause you're never going to get your hostage back; certainly not in the timeframe you were thinking. The young guy, the boyfriend - he is essentially correct in that time does come into it.

WARNER: Courtney agreed that kidnapping ransoms are adjustably priced based on how much the kidnappers figure you can pay and how much time they're wasting talking to you.

COURTNEY: If you agree to pay the ransom too quickly, they will believe that you must have access to more money.

WARNER: And then the asking price will go up and up and up.

COURTNEY: Correct.

WARNER: But on the other hand, he says, you don't want to lowball the ransom offer in case kidnappers have done research into your finances, know you're cheating them and take it out on the hostage. Now you might be wondering what does Emily think about all this. Would she want to be bargained over? Would she want the ransom paid up front? Either way, it's a terrifying question. And Emily, early on in Yaw's research process decided that she did not want to learn the rules of the kidnapping game. She did not want to put herself in the mind of a kidnapper like her boyfriend and her father seem to want to.

EMILY: It's not going to make my life better to do that, right, to be thinking like a criminal. And yes, there's probably some amount of myself that's protecting my own consciousness from some of the realities that they've had to deal with.

WARNER: So she outsourced the worry to someone else. And Mark Courtney, the professional negotiator, says that is the best strategy of all.

COURTNEY: I'm with her.

WARNER: He says it's very dangerous for a family member to attempt to outwit kidnappers in a negotiation, however much they've learned about the rules of the game.

COURTNEY: It's not very dangerous, it's lethally dangerous.

WARNER: And it's dangerous for the one really important way that kidnapping is not like a normal business - because you can't walk away from the negotiation. You can't - as when you're say buying a rug - say, you know, this price is just too high and leave.

COURTNEY: You are completely helpless.

WARNER: But as a consultant of any sort, one of your key advantages is distance. You parachute into a company unbiased by prior relationships or fears of the future. You make the clear-eyed assessments, and then you leave. The terrifyingly profitable thing about kidnapping is that with one phone call, all that rational distance is gone.

COURTNEY: The girlfriend gets kidnapped. The boyfriend says he thinks he can toughen himself up and he can deal with it. Let me tell you, he is so wrong. He is so, so wrong.

WARNER: Now I had actually brought this up with Yaw during our interview that, you know, given how much he loves Emily, could he really negotiate on her behalf. And he admitted, you know, he wasn't really sure.

YAW: I hate to quote Mike Tyson 'cause he's not the kind of guy I like to quote, but he says everybody's got a plan until you get punched in the face.

WARNER: And Emily agrees. She does not think that Yaw would try to tough it out or do anything foolish. At the right time, she says he'd cave.

EMILY: My guess is that at a certain point, he would break. He would get impatient. That's what I'm trusting. He's nodding so that's a good thing.

WARNER: Emily had been sitting next to Yaw for this entire interview, but it was only at the very end of our conversation that she admitted she had never heard the full story of why Yaw did the research. She didn't know that he was scared of having an American girlfriend in Nigeria. She didn't know he was scared of her being abducted and him not having the money or knowing what to do. The boyfriend fears he kept hidden. It was the consultant stuff he shared with her. So he told her that he and her dad wanted to write an article about kidnapping.

EMILY: So I guess that was surprising to me that there was any - that regard for my personal safety played any role in it.

WARNER: And so how do you - how does it make you feel that concern?

EMILY: Uh - it makes me feel - um - I suppose well cared for and special and, like - yeah, I guess that's what I can say is it makes me feel loved.

WARNER: Yaw went into this project to ease his fear. And he came out successful with a strategy, a set of principles that he'll probably hopefully never have to use but that makes him feel more in control. And sometimes that is all that a backup plan is supposed to do.

SMITH: Let us know what you thought of today's show. You can email us, planetmoney@npr.org. Or you can reach us on Twitter. We're @planetmoney. And I wanted to thank especially NPR's international desk, as always, for lending us Gregory Warner and his editors, Dia Skenky (ph) and Edith Chapin.

WARNER: I want to thank Julia Simon, the radio producer who introduced me to Yaw and Emily and helped us with some of the recording. If you have not heard her recent piece on PLANET MONEY about the surprisingly un-secret trade in Nigerian stolen oil, you have to listen to it. It's incredible. Thanks also to Yaw and Richard who have co-authored that article they were writing based on their kidnapping interviews. It includes first-hand quotes with kidnappers and survivors and security folks. And it's fascinating stuff. It's got lots of details we couldn't fit on the radio. They are actually looking for a publisher for this article. So if you think you're that publisher, tweet or email PLANET MONEY. We'll hook you up.

SMITH: When you're done listening to us, you should check out NPR's Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. He is your guide to what's good in pop-culture. Every week, he talks with musicians, writers, filmmakers and especially comedians. The dude loves comedians. You can find Bullseye now at iTunes, on Stitcher or however you listen to podcasts. I'm Robert Smith. Our producer is Phia Bennin.

WARNER: And I'm Gregory Warner. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAY IT RIGHT")

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right. Play it right.

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