Kidnap-for-ransom enterprise threatens security in Nigeria. An armed gang known locally as bandits had just raided a dormitory at the Government Science College in Kagara, Nigeria’s Niger state, and kidnapped his 18-year-old son, Nurudeen.
Twenty-six other students were kidnapped, three staff members and 12 of their families, and one boy was killed in the raid.
For Kagada, a father of 12, the days that followed were agonizing. He expressed his sadness by saying, “I feel very sad.” “I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep… We just prayed because I couldn’t eat well.”
The authorities announced on February 27 that all 42 abductees had been released from their 10-day captivity after days of tense talks with the bandits.
In at least five separate events since December 2020, gangs of bandits have abducted a total of 769 students from their boarding schools and other educational facilities across northern Nigeria in search of a lucrative ransom.
The region has long been plagued by crime, fueled by conflicts over land and resources, among other things. Due to a lack of effective policing, criminal gangs have launched attacks, pillaging villages, stealing cattle, and spreading fear.
However, as climate change affects livestock in the arid north and herdsmen migrate south in search of pasture and water, these groups – thought to be mostly Fulani pastoralists working with other nomadic tribes – have recently turned to mass abductions for financial gain.
Authorities in the Kagara case did not say whether a ransom was paid for the abductees’ release. Experts agree, however, that the rising number of mass kidnappings of boys and girls in the region is an outgrowth of a thriving kidnapping-for-ransom criminal enterprise that has become one of Nigeria’s most serious security issues.
According to a SB Morgen (SBM) report, a Lagos-based political risk analysis company, at least $18.34 million was paid to kidnappers as ransom – mainly by families and the government between June 2011 and March 2020.
SBM’s head of research, Ikemesit Effiong, told Al Jazeera that these groups’ motivation appears purely economic. “They don’t appear to be political. Because of the high rate of poverty in this country, many people have turned to criminal activities to make ends meet.”
‘Schools are soft targets.’
Kidnappings for ransom in Nigeria began in the early 2000s in the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta region, primarily targeting expatriates. It then spread across Nigeria, where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, making it Africa’s most populous country.
According to police, abductors have traditionally targeted the country’s middle and upper classes, demanding ransoms ranging from $1,000 to $150,000, depending on their victims’ net worth and ability to pay.
In some cases, however, the sums are significantly higher.
Authorities announced Chukwudi Onuamadike, also known as Evans, and dubbed Nigeria’s “richest and most infamous kidnapper,” was arrested in 2017. According to police, he was paid “millions of dollars” in ransom money, with some victims being held for up to seven months “until the last penny is paid.”
A prominent figure Nigerians have been a target for a long time. In 2018, Nigerian men’s national football team captain John Obi Mikel learned of his father’s kidnapping just hours before a pivotal World Cup match against Argentina. Following a shoot-out with the kidnappers in a forest in southeastern Nigeria, police rescued his father.
Following his kidnapping on a highway in southeastern Nigeria in 2015, James Adichie’s family – a distinguished professor of statistics and father of award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – paid an undisclosed ransom for his release.
Kidnappers have long used such major thoroughfares, particularly the notorious Kaduna-Abuja highway. However, as the industry grew in popularity in northern Nigeria and the number of deaths associated with it increased, the bandits shifted their focus to educational institutions outside of cities and towns, where security is often lacking.
“Schools are easy targets,” Ikemesit said. “They target both schoolchildren and women because the rewards for securing their release are much greater. Also, men are still thought to be in a better financial position to secure the release of their wives and children.”
Thirty-nine college students are still being held hostage by bandits after being kidnapped from hostels on March 11 outside Kaduna, Nigeria’s northwest city.
The latest wave of kidnappings began in December with the abduction of more than 300 boys from their boarding school in Kankara, Katsina state’s northwestern town.
The incident brought back memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok, which sparked international outrage. More than a hundred of the girls kidnapped by the armed group whose name translates as “Western education is forbidden” are still missing. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the December 11 kidnapping in Kankara, but that claim was later proven false. The boys were released six days later, but the government denied that a ransom was paid.
While no link has been established between the groups, the increasing threat of abductions has frightened parents and forced authorities to close schools temporarily.
“These [abductions] will have an impact on school enrollment in the coming months,” said Henry Anumudu, founder of Sharing Life Africa, a nonprofit that promotes quality education and women’s empowerment in low-income communities, describing school kidnappings as an attack on the country’s fragile education system in the north.
Nigeria has 10.5 million unschooled children, accounting for one in every five of the world’s uneducated children. According to the United Nations, the majority of them are in northern Nigeria.
“There will be a big problem if we don’t solve the problem of insecurity and safety, ensuring that children will go to school and get back home,” Anumudu told Al Jazeera. “Right now, security is the most important thing.”
‘Criminality must be eliminated.’
Previously, the government has conducted military operations involving the bombing of suspected hideouts to combat banditry and rescue victims of kidnappers.
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However, no arrests or prosecutions have occurred since the spike in kidnappings in December. According to analysts, this lack of accountability, combined with the authorities’ inability to step up security and intelligence activities, adds to a deep sense of mistrust among vulnerable people, putting them at odds with the government.
Many have also criticized state authorities in Katsina and Zamfara for negotiating with bandits and implementing amnesty schemes, arguing that they should instead focus on protecting people first and foremost. Negotiations and impunity, critics argue, end up fostering criminal activity because criminals know they will be able to negotiate safe conditions or even be paid large ransoms.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in 2015 on pledges to combat insecurity, has also blamed local and state governments for the rise in mass abductions. In a tweet last month, he said they needed to increase school security and warned that the policy of “rewarding bandits with money and cars” could “backfire with catastrophic consequences.”
His federal government, on the other hand, has come under fire. According to experts, members of the country’s security agencies are overworked, underpaid, and underequipped, while the police forces are largely centralized and incapable of dealing with internal security issues. Others have criticized the government for praising “repentant bandits” for their role in the recent release of Kankara schoolboys.
“Criminality must be eliminated, not mitigated,” said international security expert Dickson Osajie. “Unfortunately, the government in Nigeria lacks the political will power to achieve that,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Bargaining with the enemy [the bandits] is a sign of weakness,” added Osajie. “Even if you want to bargain, do so from a position of strength by conducting a risk analysis of what is going on, and then you prioritize the risk by attending to each security threat as it arises.” Anumudu agreed.
“We just have to invest in the security of schoolchildren by setting up checkpoints and deploying military personnel across the affected regions,” he said.