It was a shocking attack; two young Canadian women grabbed as they stepped from a taxi outside a golf club in Ghana – and still missing one week later.
But the abductions have also shed light on other attacks in a country popular with tourists, raised fears of copycat Nigeria-style abductions, and sparked warnings of rising crime if security forces don’t crackdown on the gangs responsible.
“Ghana had long had an enviable reputation as the safest country in West Africa, avoiding the violence that has plagued most of its neighbours,” said Nnamdi Obasi, an analyst from the International Crisis Group (ICG).
“The rise of kidnapping for ransom could dent that hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. It could also harm tourism, an important industry for the country.”
The Canadians, charity volunteers aged 19 and 20, were abducted last Tuesday, 4 June, in Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) northwest of the capital Accra.
The police, who have not released the names of the women, are working with Canadian authorities to find them.
“The combined efforts to trace the ladies is still going on,” assistant commissioner of police David Eklu told AFP on Tuesday.
Ghana, better known for its palm-fringed beaches, hosts over 1.3 million tourists a year. Many visitors, especially from North America, also come to see the grim reminders of the slave trade.
Tourism plays a big role in Ghana’s economy, making up some five percent of GDP.
So the kidnaps are a big worry.
“Who wants to visit a country that is not safe to visit?” said Adam Bonaa, who heads Security Warehouse Limited, a Ghanaian company fitting electronic alarm and security systems.
“We want to be in a country you can walk around without looking on your shoulder, and the latest wave of kidnapping makes things dangerous.”
Businesses relying on tourism are fearful.
“We are concerned because it could affect our business,” said Samuel Owusu Oppong, who runs a backpacker hostel in Accra. “Seeing such things will make people stay home.”
Violent crime towards foreigners is rare, but analysts point to a rising number of kidnappings for cash.
Last year, three Ghanaian women were kidnapped in the southern port of Takoradi.
In April, an Indian man was reportedly abducted, also in Kumasi, by an armed gang demanding a cash ransom. He was swiftly rescued by police.
The Estonian consul was also briefly abducted in April, but released soon after.
“Everyone is a target – but foreigners are becoming the main focus because they get more attention,” said Vladimir Antwi-Danso, from the Kofi Annan International Peace Keeping Training Centre, in Accra.
“If it’s about ransom, it means the kidnappers can ask for huge sums of money for themselves.”
Some fear that the example of nearby Nigeria, where abductions take place nearly daily, has inspired criminals.
“The surge of kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria could be having an unhealthy demonstration effect on criminal groups in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa,” Obasi said.
“It is important to track down and punish the perpetrators of these crimes, in order to prevent a climate of impunity that could embolden other criminals,” he added.
Earlier this year, local media quoted President Nana Akufo-Addo as warning that kidnapping must not become commonplace in Ghana.
“Our brothers and sisters in Nigeria have known it,” Akufo-Addo said, according to Ghanaian newspapers.
“But we have not known it in this country, and we need to do something about it, to make sure that it doesn’t become a feature of our society.”
The vast majority of visits are safe, but foreign embassies err on the side of caution when they issue travel advice.
Canada’s High Commission warns citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution due to petty crime” in Ghana – as it does for France or Britain.
“Violent crimes, including armed robbery and kidnapping, may occur,” the Canadian government travel advisory warns.
Bulwark of stability
Ghana is a country of some 30 million people, where more than two-thirds of people follow Christianity and the rest Islam and other religions.
It has long been seen as a bulwark of stability in a region struggling to contain multiple groups of Islamist fighters.
“Ghanaian security sources say previous kidnappings had been for ransom – and that they do not think the most recent incident is terrorism-related,” Obasi added.
“However, there have also been terrorism-related kidnaps in Burkina Faso, just north of Ghana, and elsewhere in West Africa, so there is always that possibility, however remotely.”
But visitors to Ghana say they still feel safe.
“It makes me sad,” said Judith Simpson, a 27-year-old US backpacker in the Accra, urging people to take precautions, but not to be scared.
“This is not a reflection of what is happening in the country as a whole.”