Mass Abductions Of Children In Nigeria Persist

On May 30, approximately 100 schoolchildren in Nigeria were abducted at an Islamic school. The perpetrators have been labelled “bandits” by the Nigerian government.

This event, however, is not an anomaly. Nigeria has been experiencing a kidnapping-for-ransom crisis for years, according to the BBC. Schools in the Northwestern region closed in March 2021 following the kidnapping of over 800 students within three months. According to CNN, education was subsequently suspended for millions of students in Africa’s most populous country.

Despite pushes from the federal government and international donors hoping to increase security, the recent mass-abduction shows that the problem persists. Military and police forces in the region are already outstretched in their efforts to deal with Boko Haram. The terrorist group takes advantage of the chaos to further their aims. However, according to ICG, the conflict between farmers and herders in the Northwestern region has claimed more lives and caused more displacement than the jihadist organization.

Although the herder-farmer conflict is primarily an issue of land use, the conflicts between the two groups also have ethnic and religious roots. According to USIP, the majority of Fulani herders are Muslim while the Hausa farmers are primarily Christian. The resulting food and resource insecurity has prompted the groups to take the criminal route, involving village raids and kidnapping children for ransom. 

The children are generally released after families or local officials pay the ransom amounts demanded by the gunmen. However, the negotiations that take place encourage the gunmen to pursue their violent activities. In response, the recently elected President Muhammadu Buhari has called upon state governors to stop paying the ransoms. Such officials deny paying the ransoms, although the ICG reports that students and criminals dispute this.

However, the pardoning of these violent actors also encounters an institutional dimension. The orchestrator of an operation that arranged the kidnapping of 300 students in December 2020 was pardoned after he handed over his weapons. He was subsequently promised accommodation and resources by Governor Matawalle. In July, according to the BBC, Matawalle also offered two cows for every AK-47.

Accordingly, as reported by the USIP,  Nigerian civil rights groups have also called upon President Buhariand to prohibit officials from paying the ransoms and bolster the capacity of the police force. Additionally, the BBC reports calls for action from international actors such as the United States and the European Union. Buhariand attempted reforms to Nigeria’s military command by replacing officials, although the May 30 kidnapping reconfirmed the structural nature of Nigeria’s problem.

The most obvious hindrances are the negotiations that take place between the so-called bandits and state officials. Although Governor Matawalle offered his bargains before President Buhari asserted his objections, state officials are often still secretly negotiating with the kidnappers. When such ransoms are fulfilled, the abduction business proves to be profitable. Abducting children, instead of travellers, adds more urgency to pay the ransom and renders children the primary source of resources.

In response, schools have been shut down. However, the suspension of school services fulfils Boko Haram’s goals of disrupting the Western education system adopted by Nigeria. 

Another issue at hand is the possession of arms that allow the bandits to intimidate and kidnap victims. Nigeria shares a border with Niger – a country also at war with Boko Haram. Africa’s conflicts often possess a cross-national nature: low-level national security allows groups to travel between countries and lie within the peripheries of countries. Resultingly, Niger has served as a key route for weapon trafficking. As the hecticity grows, Boko Haram is able to add fuel to the fire. 

What cannot be overlooked is the root causes that have moved herders and farmers to take up arms and resort to violent actions to secure their livelihoods. Of course, the methods are ones that cause great distress. However, the kidnapping of children often serves a personal purpose rather than a larger political agenda. The innately arid land has only grown drier as climate change progresses and slows rainfall in the arid region. As a result, arable land is more difficult to find and both herders and farmers struggle and compete for the land.

In 1999, the Nigerian government allocated more land to farmers than herders. This pattern finds itself at the crux of actions such as giving cows in exchange for arms they acquired through trafficking. The Hausa’s Muslim roots also allow them to coordinate with Boko Haram, although most so-called bandits aren’t religiously or politically motivated. 

Further, local politicians have not only negotiated with the bandits but also allied themselves with vigilante groups. Nigeria’s government is composed of ethnic groups, and some government officials tend to side with their ethnic group by ordering extrajudicial killings or providing intelligence. This is to benefit non-state militia groups and works to advance their ethnic communities’ aims. Simply put, ethnic unity is taking precedence over national unity. 

The potential solution is a multi-pronged approach. While the international community has turned some attention to the kidnappings such as launching the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that focused on the return of kidnapped schoolgirls, the campaign failed to look at the systemic issues that cause these kidnappings. Further, condemnation from the international community may have placed pressure on the government to handle these events. but they don’t acknowledge the possibility of governmental complicity.

Although it is imperative that the government no longer negotiates with the criminals, as posited by President Buhari, pointing fingers creates a vacuum that the bandits can take advantage of. In other words, the government makes it clear that the officials aren’t being transparent or working in collaboration with one another. There is a disjointed relationship between federal and local officials: federal officials condemn the official pardoning or secret negotiations of and with vigilantes, while local officials continue to do so either out of panic or in hopes of demobilizing other militia groups.

Further, local governments also collaborate with non-state militia groups to slow crime rates. The two levels of government, along with militias, must coordinate with one another to work together and create a clear plan that will benefit everyone involved. 

So what could this plan be? Members of the international community such as the United States can provide funding (with oversight) that helps the Nigerian government figure out the best way to improve communications between the levels of government and non-state militias. If the United States isn’t swayed by the kidnapping of children, they must not fail to acknowledge the way that this benefits Boko Haram.

The U.S. did deploy troops after Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. However, they only offered strict military support that isn’t stationed in the areas in which kidnappings are happening. While this has lessened Boko Haram’s attacks on civilians, it hasn’t slowed arms trafficking and mass abductions. The U.S. must acknowledge that explicitly fighting Boko Haram with military troops isn’t enough.

The U.S., and elsewhere, must also look towards providing Nigerian security forces with the tools to effectively communicate. This would help to accumulate intelligence and provide surveillance around the borders, many of which may tamper with the criminals’ ability to retrieve firearms. This way, security forces would be able to apprehend bandits.

Yet, ethnic alliances must not be overlooked within local governments. In effect, the federal government should look towards adding documented safeguards that penalize local officials for coordinating with the bandits. Although this is a gamble, considering the disjointment between the government levels is an issue, local officials will not want to lose their power. Locals are already quick to report when secret negotiations occur, which would make holding the negotiators accountable more possible. 

Even with an increase in the capacity of police and military forces to properly demobilize the kidnappers, the government must still address the issues of land use. If groups are allocated enough land that doesn’t privilege one group over the over, ethnic groups will be less inclined to participate in criminal activities and will not engage in fierce competition with eachother.

As mentioned, the farmers were allocated more land because the Democratic government elected in 1999 favoured them. By installing safeguards that penalize officials for secret negotiations and favouring ethnic groups, the enforcement of equitable land allocation becomes more possible. 

But land is finite, and the arid conditions have only lessened the amount of land available. What international institutions haven’t acknowledged adequately the possibility of offering financial assistance that focuses on irrigated land to help reverse desertification. Only 1% of Nigeria is irrigated, meaning the window for farmers to cultivate and the amount of clean drinking water for livestock is small. Nigeria suffers from under-investment in agriculture, primarily due to a large allocation of its budget going towards security purposes.

While such budgeting is valid, the United States should look to contributing funds towards agricultural investments. The International Food Policy Research agency estimates that a new irrigation system could bring more than $600 million in income to farmers by increasing both the agricultural output in the rainy seasons and allowing more land to be available during the dry seasons. Irrigation would allow more land to be salvaged, but there could also be a sharing window in which some farmers or herders operate on the land in rainy seasons and others in the dry seasons. Essentially, the irrigation systems could lessen the burden of resource competition and therefore reduce the impetus for damaging activities.

In summary, the following can be implemented to reduce kidnapping issues: 

  • Invest in irrigation programs to increase agricultural output, thus rendering the tactics of kidnapping to receive income no longer necessary. 
  • Hold local officials accountable by penalizing those who don’t cooperate with the federal government’s non-negotiation plan and favour ethnic groups. 
  • Continue to provide military surveillance in areas where arms trafficking is common as well as contribute funds to increase the communication capacity between the military and the federal and local governments.

Although international donors have provided funds to bring back the kidnapped children, the problem will persist if the underlying causes of the issue aren’t acknowledged. If the U.S. provides financial assistance, there will be increased communication and policing in affected areas. Resultingly, the bandits will have more difficulty in attaining the means to commit the abductions.

Further, the penalization of officials that continue to negotiate with criminals would deter them from doing so. However, these potential resolutions don’t address the issue of resource competition. The investment in irrigation systems, with the help of international donors such as the U.S., would help alleviate the effects that desertification has had on the community. Moreover, it may ease the conflict between herders and farmers. Policing measures are necessary, but the kidnappings will not subside without agricultural land reform.

Rachel Simpson


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