Earlier this month 121 students were kidnapped from the Bethel Baptist High School in northern Nigeria. The children were in school to do sitting exams and were sleeping in their dorm when they were kidnapped by armed men. The armed men asked for food and a ransom in exchange for releasing the students. Now 28 of the pupils have been released. Previously five of the students managed to escape and one was released due to health issues. According to Reuters, this was the 10th mass school kidnapping since December in northwest Nigeria.
The kidnapping of students for ransom in northwest Nigeria has become a form of industry. Kidnapping is not new in Nigeria: it started to become more frequent in the ’90s, but the trend to focus on boarding schools was started by the armed group Boko Haram in 2014 when they abducted 270 girls from a boarding school. Armed groups and criminal gangs have taken approximately 1,000 people from schools since December 2020. But it is not just schools that have been attacked: roads, private homes, and hospitals have been targeted as well. Kidnapping for ransom as a global industry is estimated to be worth around $500 million each year.
The Nigerian government’s attempts to stop the kidnappers have largely been unsuccessful. Some argue that the states’ tendency to pay the ransom is making the situation worse. President Muhammadu Buhari has previously asked state governments to reconsider their “policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles.” The national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, has said that, “We have decided to apply the full weight of the law. We will come down on them wherever we locate them and take them out.” What that exactly means is unclear.
While ‘commercial hostage-taking’ has been a tool of extremist groups in the area, Freedom Chukwudi Onuoha and James Okolie-Osemene point out that now there are also criminal groups who specialize in kidnapping for ransom. According to them, “The mismanagement of the Nigerian economy, which has deepened poverty, unemployment, and inequality, is the main factor responsible for the rising incidence of kidnapping in the country.” Nigeria has one of the world’s biggest economies yet is also one of the poorest countries.
According to The Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics, around 40% of Nigerians lived in poverty in 2020. While there are signs that Nigeria’s economy is picking up, the food prices are increasing too. An average Nigerian spends approximately 56% of their income on food (which is the highest in the world) which means that even small price increases can have big effects. The researchers, Yusuf Kamaluddeen Ibrahim and Abdullahi Ayoade Ahmad, argue the government has failed to address the root causes, which include youth unemployment, quick-money syndrome, and hard-drug influence. Similarly, Bello Ibrahim and Jamilu Ibrahim Mukhtar point out that in order for the kidnapping to end, poverty in the region must be addressed. They mean that youths are using kidnapping to get money as a form of survival strategy. Nigeria has an unemployment rate of 32.5% and youths make up a big part of the unemployed. In the context of this, it is hard to imagine that the government’s “take them out” approach will indeed stop the kidnappings.
The increase in kidnapping for ransom that is taking place in northern Nigeria is troubling and indicates that an industry has developed. While 28 of the pupils that were previously kidnaped from the Bethel Baptist High School have been released, many are stilled held captive. While paying ransoms might bring students home, it does little to stop future kidnappings from happening. Several experts and researchers suggest that the root causes of the kidnappings are poverty, youth unemployment, and inequality. Government policies that aim to address these issues are more likely to stop the kidnappings long-term than a military solution is. Unfortunately, the government seems to be aiming for a quick solution rather than an effective one.
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