NewsAfricaA wave of kidnappings for ransom hits Nigeria

A wave of kidnappings for ransom hits Nigeria

Girls abducted in February 2021 from an institute in Zamfara, northwestern Nigeria, at the time of their release days later.AFOLABI SOTUNDE (Reuters)

Kidnapping has become a booming business and one of the main sources of income for armed criminal groups proliferating in northwest Nigeria, whose activity is booming. Between July 2021 and June 2022, there were some 500 kidnappings in this African country, in which 3,420 people were abducted and, for the most part, later released after paying a ransom. Of them, 2,715, that is, 80%, were captured in five northwestern states: Kaduna, Zamfara, Niger, Katsina and Sokoto, according to the SBM Intelligence research platform, which highlighted in a recent report that this expanding criminal activity It meant for these armed groups at least one million euros and other material goods. The authorities are concerned about the connections between these gangs and more active terrorist cells in other regions of the country.

In early November, some 80 people, mostly peasant women, were abducted in three different incidents in Zamfara State. Eleven of them died during the attacks, which usually begin with dozens of men on motorcycles and armed with rifles and shotguns breaking into towns and acting with extreme violence. Once again, the communities reacted with outrage.

This type of crime has become a nightmare for thousands of Nigerians. Many towns are in ruins due to the payment of ransoms and others have to dedicate a part of their income obtained from agriculture and livestock to a kind of tax on these groups in exchange for their protectionwhich translates into extortion so as not to suffer attacks.

Since the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in the town of Chibok in 2014, the kidnapping-for-ransom industry has increased dramatically and, above all, it is now led by groups of criminals without ideological or religious claim that hide in wooded areas. It is a business and those who run it are “bandits”, as they are called in Nigeria. Kidnappers sometimes agree to complete ransom with payment in kind, ranging from state-of-the-art mobile phones and motorcycles to oil cans, sacks of rice, cases of whiskey, sunglasses, cigarette packs, and even codeine. .

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So far, the federal authorities have shown little effectiveness in curbing this criminal activity, despite the fact that it was one of the promises of the president, Muhammadu Buhari. Last April, the Senate reformed the anti-terrorism law and introduced a ban on paying ransoms. Some northern governors negotiate with criminals and have even given them land and vehicles in exchange for releasing people, a measure that the federal government has harshly criticized. “The general importance of this bill is to discourage the growing wave of kidnappings in Nigeria, which is spreading rapidly throughout the country,” said Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, promoter of the initiative. However, there are many doubts about the application of this law. Another measure has been the obligation to register when buying a SIM card to be able to track calls.

One of the most notorious kidnappings of the year occurred on March 28, when a group of assailants derailed a train linking the country’s capital, Abuja, with the north. Some 160 passengers were kidnapped and dozens are still to be released. The last known incident took place on November 8: a Catholic priest and nine other people were captured in a small town in Kaduna State. At the same time, the few successes of the Government in this combat are announced with hype and cymbal. This was the case last Saturday, when the Government reported the death during a police operation of Dogo Maikasuwa, nicknamed Millionaire Bulldoga gang leader in Kaduna who had carried out numerous kidnappings and murders.

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A group of schoolchildren who were kidnapped are escorted by the Nigerian army after their release, on December 18, 2020 in Katsina.
A group of schoolchildren who were kidnapped are escorted by the Nigerian army after their release, on December 18, 2020 in Katsina. Sunday Alamba (AP)

The effects are enormous and the first is in education. Between 2020 and 2021, 1,409 students and 17 teachers were kidnapped and hundreds of schools have closed due to security concerns. Some 10 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are out of school, the majority in the north and almost always girls, according to Unicef, and only one in four children between the ages of 7 and 14 can read correctly and do basic arithmetic operations, according to the Nigerian National Statistics Office. Behind these figures is fear. “The entire education system in northern Nigeria is at serious risk if nothing is done urgently,” said Peter Hawkings, UNICEF representative in this African country, in a report published in 2021.

Behind the kidnapping industry is also the enormous circulation of arms. Nigeria has some 220 million inhabitants and it is estimated that just over six million weapons move illegally in the hands of civilians and armed gangs. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who was the country’s president in the late 1990s and is now director of the National Peace Committee, issued a warning last year. “Six million weapons of all caliber circulate illegally. It is worrisome and is behind the death of some 80,000 people and the forced displacement of three million,” he said. The economic consequences are evident: they range from discouraging investment and entrepreneurship in the most affected States, to the impoverishment of the population by paying ransoms or in exchange for security.

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Some experts warn that these armed gangs are increasingly connected with jihadist groups and that these kidnappings are just another form of terrorism. Members of the jihadist group Boko Haram are suspected of involvement in the Kaduna train attack, for example. “In reality, northwestern Nigeria has become a safe haven for increasingly active terrorist groups,” said researcher Oluwole Ojewale in an article published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), citing two branches of the Islamic State, the Sahelian (EIGS) and the West African (Iswap), present in the region. The recent arrest in Kaduna of Nasiru Mohammed, whom law enforcement identifies as an Iswap liaison for its establishment in northeastern Nigeria, reinforces this thesis.

The armed groups also take advantage of the inter-communal violence between herders and farmers, which affects the center-north of Nigeria above all, and between groups of the Hausa and Peul ethnic groups, as an element that reinforces their presence in the region. As in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, a country with which Nigeria shares no less than 1,500 kilometers of border, these local quarrels and conflicts are the breeding ground for the establishment of armed groups. The absence or weakness of the State in an extremely poor area and the challenge of climate change, which increases conflict, are elements that also contribute to criminal activities.

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