The Business Of Kidnapping In Nigeria

It has been almost seven years since the well-publicized abduction of 276 schoolgirls from their dormitories in the town of Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. Following reports that a number of the girls who were still missing have managed to escape, we are reminded of a tragedy that, in a country plagued by insecurity, does not stand alone; kidnapping in Nigeria has become a lucrative business, one that shows no sign of slowing down as abduction rates continue to rise. This is despite the election of a President who vowed to take down Islamist militants and finally put an end to the country’s insecurity. And yet, Nigeria is no closer to preventing mass attacks than it was seven years ago when jihadist terrorist organization Boko Haram attacked the school and abducted the girls. To this day, around 100 of the schoolgirls remain missing.

While abductions by Boko Haram had begun prior to the 2014 Chibok incident, it was the first of its scale, an apparent display of the group’s mounting strength. Mass kidnappings have plagued Nigeria and its citizens ever since the insurgency began in 2009, and unlike the large majority of cases involving kidnapping for ransom, everyone and anyone is a potential target, regardless of social class or economic status. Fuelled in part by rising levels of youth unemployment and the need for financing extremist political agendas, these attacks have become a national security issue, affecting all areas of the country. In the South, the selection of victims tends to be more targeted — kidnappers will often target the wealthier, more prominent citizens living in the Niger Delta. Victims are typically subjected to much larger ransoms than those in the North, making them much less expendable as it is in the kidnappers’ interest to keep them alive so as to extract as much money as possible. It is a completely different story in the North. Villages are raided and victims are rounded up in large numbers, with the majority being poor villagers and schoolchildren. Because of their relative poverty, they are often unable to pay the demanded ransom, meaning they are much more likely to be killed by their captors.

Only last month, in an attack reminiscent of that which took place in Chibok, a raid on an all-boys’ secondary school in the northwestern state of Katsina resulted in yet another tragic incident that left hundreds of school children missing for multiple days. Several gunmen stormed the Government Science Secondary School on December 11th, rounding up students while brandishing and shooting AK-47’s into the air. More than 300 were abducted; thankfully, all were returned home safely a few days later. While Boko Haram claimed responsibility, authorities believed the abductors to be bandits as opposed to insurgents, as Boko Haram has not been known to operate in the northwestern regions of Nigeria. Still, this brings forward two increasingly terrifying realities for Nigerians — one in which Boko Haram has in fact begun expanding into Nigeria’s northwestern regions, and one in which they were able to do so with the help of other rebel groups already established in the area.

Incidents like these are all too common for those living in Nigeria, and this was only the latest in a series of violent attacks and abductions involving innocent civilians and school children. While the northwestern part of the country is often targeted by such kidnappings, civilians of northeastern regions are also victims of exceptionally violent attacks by insurgent groups. In February of 2018, 110 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a boarding school in the town of Dapchi; in November 2020, over 70 farmers were brutally murdered in the northeastern state of Borno; in December 2020, only a week after the mass abduction of the Secondary School boys, 80 schoolgirls were kidnapped while returning home from a religious ceremony in Katsina. In a statement issued by Amnesty International in December 2020, “more than 1,100 people were killed by bandits in northern Nigeria in the first six months of this year” — none of the attackers have been brought to justice. It is Nigeria’s biggest security threat, one that has led to the deployment of the Nigerian military in every state of the country, save for Kebbi and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja.

According to data analyzed by SB Morgan, a Nigerian consulting firm, at least $18.34 million was paid to kidnappers in ransom between June 2011 and the end of March 2020; almost $11 million of this figure was paid out between January 2016 and March 2020, indicating a seriously sharp rise in kidnapping incidents in recent years. “This points to the democratisation of insecurity in the North, specifically with respect to kidnapping,” the report states. According to SB Morgan, kidnapping has increased in almost every state, with Nigeria becoming less and less safe every year.

With a pandemic driving Nigeria into a recession that will only lead to an increase in unemployment and, in turn, a desperate search for new ways of obtaining money, these abductions aren’t likely to end any time soon. There is a growing concern among civilians regarding the country’s levels of insecurity, and these attacks have left Nigerians fearful, enraged, and doubtful about their government’s ability to protect its citizens. “We are terrified here in Katsina state. We don’t see the point of the government,” expressed Bint’a Ismael, whose son and younger brother were both abducted during the Secondary School raid.

As a former general and military dictator, the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 was believed by most to be an important step towards ending insecurity in Nigeria. The President has repeatedly vowed to take down Boko Haram and other militant and bandit groups operating in the North, as well as promised to return every Chibok schoolgirl home. But six years later, not much has changed. Militant groups continue to terrorize Nigerians, kidnappings for ransom are at an all-time high, and millions have been displaced. The public’s confidence in their government has faltered, and it is clear that its current strategy of operating on the defense does not work.

In the past few years, the Nigerian military’s strategy in the fight against insurgency has involved the creation of “super camps,” a defensive move in which large groups of soldiers gather in garrison towns, “digging trenches around them and waiting to repel [Boko Haram] attacks rather than going on the offensive against the militants in their hide-outs,” as explained in an article by the New York Times. While this strategy works to protect the military, it is completely counterproductive to the goal of ending insecurity as it directly places civilians in harm’s way; militant groups are free to move around and attack defenseless villages situated in the countryside, which is exactly where mass kidnappings and killings are taking place. Furthermore, its focus on fighting insurgencies in the northeast has left the northwest completely vulnerable to militant and bandit groups operating there. While soldiers continue to wait out in these super camps, Boko Haram has quietly expanded into the northwest, forming alliances and collaborating with other bandit groups — the same believed to be responsible for the Secondary School kidnappings in December.

Evidently, it is time for the government to change its tactics. “It is clear for everyone to see that the leadership of the security agencies are not up to speed, they don’t have the qualities, the competence and the capacity to tackle this level of insurgency. A government that cannot protect lives and properties is not a government,” explained Eze Onyekpere, founder of the nonprofit Center for Social Justice. And he is right — Nigeria’s security forces remain outnumbered, underequipped, underfunded, and unmotivated, while weak sanctioning and deterrence mechanisms have created an environment in which banditry thrives.

Economic and political reforms should be pivotal in Nigeria’s fight against insecurity and insurgency — things like poverty alleviation and anti-kidnapping programmes, youth employment opportunities, better training and equipment for security personnel, policies of deterrence and stricter penalties for kidnappers and perpetrators, better protection and relations with neglected and vulnerable communities, civil-military coordination as well as collaboration with foreign governments and NGOs — all of these will be necessary if the President wants to fulfill his promise of ending insecurity and tackling insurgency.

While President Buhari’s decision to dismiss the country’s security chiefs last week was finally a step in the right direction, it definitely should have been done earlier on in his presidency. But this change of leadership has ignited a glimmer of hope, an opportunity to bring about new strategies that will hopefully include more offensive tactics.“To deal with insurgents, you have to be taking the battle to their doorsteps. You cannot remain in a camp and claim that you are fighting insurgents,” expressed Ahmed Jaha, a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives. But the road ahead will be long and difficult, as there seems to be no near end in sight to the terror these groups have inflicted upon Nigerians and their communities. Until offensive military tactics and proper reforms are put in place, everyone remains vulnerable, and these abductions will continue to persist.

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