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Sudan Kidnappings — Sharon Commins and Hilda Kawuki. Was Money Paid?

Some peculiar assertions are starting to appear in the papers about the release of the two female aid workers in Sudan, Sharon Commins and Hilda Kawuki.  Musa Hilal, adviser to the minister for federal affairs,  and the man behind the notorious Janjaweed militias who have been terrorising Darfur, has claimed, according to the Irish Times, that a ransom of €150,000 was paid to the kidnappers.

Now,  this is a strange statement from Hilal.   President Omar al-Bashir is reported to have vetoed payment of a ransom and it seems extraordinary that Musa, who was recently appointed by Bashir to a senior adviser position in Khartoum, would publicly contradict him.

The statement exposes the dilemma that all States  face when dealing with abductions of their citizens: paying a ransom will secure the release of the hostages, but will also encourage more kidnapping.  Therefore, if money is handed over, it must be in secret and deniable.

The Irish, Ugandan and Sudanese governments deny that a ransom was handed over.  Interestingly, the statement from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs while saying that no ransom was paid, doesn’t explicitly rule out money having been paid in some other way, whether to meet the “expenses” of the kidnappers or in the form of a commitment to carry out infrastructural works in the region to the benefit of tribal leaders.

It would be interesting to know if games are being played, using aid workers as pawns.   On the face of things, it would be very foolish of Musa Hilal to anger  Bashir, who’s currently trying to win over the United States with a charm offensive.

It’s unlikely that either Musa or Bashir had anything to do with the abductions.  It seems certain that the people guarding the two women spent the entire time in fear of their lives, but it also seems that the kidnapping was an opportunist action, probably arising from the new political climate in Sudan.  These are desperately poor people, who gained nothing from the war, which is now over, and took a chance to earn some money.

Some of those involved in the kidnapping will probably benefit very little, if indeed any cash has changed hands.  As part of a tribal structure, they would probably have been subject to strict control by the gang leaders or ‘masterminds’ who in all likelihood, would pocket most of the  profits, if there were any.

In a society like Darfur, the other intangible factor has to be the matter of honour.  It would be vital for the hostages’ safety to ensure that there was no loss of face.  Everyone has to look like a winner in the endgame, and it is conceivable that the statement about a ransom was designed to make the tribal elders look strong.

In a country where the average GDP per capita is about €1,000, a figure like €150,000 might seem a staggering amount, but this has to be set against the wide disparities between different regions.  Say for argument’s sake that   20 or 30 people carried out the kidnapping, and assume the money was divided out equally.  Each kidnapper might get €5,000.  This is huge money for a Darfur tribesman, incomprehensible in its magnitude, but it wouldn’t be a life-changing sum to a citizen of Khartoum, or to a tribal leader for that matter.

It’s highly unlikely that Uganda contributed anything, so the question has to be asked: given Bashir’s explicit veto on paying a ransom, did the Irish government hand over cash, either directly or through an intermediary, or were some other commitments given in order to secure the release of the two women?

If so, then the second part of the dilemma comes into play, where kidnapping becomes a paying proposition for gang leaders, and this might have something to do with the abduction of an ICRC staff member, Gauthier Lefevre, in West Darfur on the 22nd October, just a few days after the release of the two women.  If the Irish government, and their proxy, the GOAL charity, conceded to the kidnappers, have they facilitated a chain of fresh kidnappings?