Five more students abducted from their schools by gunmen in Nigeria have been released, reported a correspondent at Reuters early on Saturday morning. Since December of last year, upward of 1000 students have been kidnapped in northwest and central Nigeria. Many are still being held in captivity, including 136 children kidnapped this June from an Islamic seminary in Tegina, a town in Niger State. Four of these victims have died since their capture.
The kidnappings are part of a fresh tactic devised by armed local gangs, known as “bandits,” infamous in the area for robbery and abduction. Recently, the kidnappings have increased in scale: the five reported released yesterday were part of a kidnapping of more than 120 students taken from Bethel Baptist High School in Kaduna State in early July. Speaking to Reuters in August, the school’s administrator Reverend John Hayab disclosed that the kidnappers were demanding 1 million naira, the equivalent of $2430, for the release of a single hostage.
Kidnappings in Nigeria are hardly a new phenomenon. During the early 2000s, the Niger Delta, the country’s crude oil capital, became an abduction hotspot. Bandits started capturing oil workers, many of them foreigners to Nigeria, with the expectation of drawing in large sums from families and governments. “There was just a sense that somebody would pay…The embassy would pay, the families would pay,” states Yemi Adamolekun, executive director of ‘Enough is Enough Nigeria.’ By the turn of the decade, kidnappings were becoming a major issue in Nigeria’s northern regions, where the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram kidnapped girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, in 2014. The Chibok kidnappings generated a brief global outcry, with grassroots campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls garnering a vast following on social media. Yet, today over 100 of those girls are still missing. Worse still, these girls only represent a very small percentage of the total number of people Boko Haram has abducted.
Now, the threat is expanding rapidly into north-western and central states. Roughly every three weeks since December, a school has been targeted by bandits. What started with Boko Haram in the north has become a more broadly occurring phenomenon. No longer politically motivated, many of today’s kidnappers are simply opportunists. Kidnapping has become one of the country’s most lucrative businesses. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Katsina State government paid around $76,000 to recover schoolboys abducted just last year. The problem is obvious: the more the ransom requests are met, the more incentive kidnappers have to continue.
The kidnappings are just one symptom of problems far more deeply rooted in the country’s socio-economic fabric. Horrific situations like these are intertwined with widespread unemployment and corruption that poisons even the justice system. Yusuf Imam, the father of one missing student, refers to the issue in Nigeria as “systemic.” “The security system has collapsed,” he told reporters from Al Jazeera, “and we are losing hope in the government”.
One long-term, top-down solution to these problems lies in tackling unemployment. The gravity of the situation in Nigeria has left skilled graduates unable to get jobs. They are driven to kidnapping as a form of survival. Both the legal and justice systems need serious reform. More fast-acting, short-term solutions are also on the table. Stricter border controls would stem the illegal influx of small and light arms into the country. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Social Sciences has suggested that phone service providers should ensure all lines are registered before operation. Since perpetrators use a phone-based operation to negotiate ransom, such registration tactics might enable the interception of calls that could reveal kidnappers’ locations.