Since December, more than 1,000 Nigerian students and staff have been abducted and held for ransom by criminal gangs in the dense forests of the country’s remote northwest.
These gangs, locally called bandits, have been operating in northwestern Nigeria for more than a decade, but when they were infiltrated by members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in December, the abductions and violence escalated. There are still 300 students who have not been returned to their families.
Earlier this month, officials in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna took the drastic step of suspending all schooling out of concern for students’ safety.
So why do these mass abductions keep happening? Well, for starters, “kidnap-for-ransom is the most lucrative industry in Nigeria today,” Bulama Bukarti, senior analyst in the Extremism Policy Unit of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said.
Not only has Bukarti studied violent extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa, including Boko Haram, for over a decade, he also hails from the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, just a mile away from where Boko Haram originated.
So I called him up to find out more about why the Nigerian government has failed to rein in these bandits and stop the kidnappings and what, if anything, the international community can do to end the crisis.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
How are the more recent mass kidnappings in Nigeria different from Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls?
These particular abductions are being carried out by economically motivated groups, locally referred to as bandits, which have recently been infiltrated by some elements of Boko Haram. The bandit groups have been operating in the northwestern part of Nigeria for over a decade. But they have grown in strength and sophistication in the last few years, especially during the previous eight months.
In December 2020, they started a string of mass abductions of students. These are different criminal gangs without any central leadership. Official estimates from affected states indicate there are about 30,000 members. They operate primarily in the northwestern and central parts of Nigeria, where there are vast mountainous forests that have been mismanaged for years.
There’s no access roads or government presence there. So what these gangs do is get out of the forest on motorbikes and abduct students or anyone they can find and take them into the woods and hold them for ransom.
So what influence did Boko Haram’s abduct-for-ransom plots have on the bandits?
Everybody in Nigeria, including the criminal gangs in the northwest, saw Boko Haram receive a ransom payment of €3 million (about $3.7 million) [to free some of the Chibok schoolgirls]. In 2018, there was another mass abduction in which 110 girls were taken. Reports surfaced about how the hostages were released, and there were rumors of many being paid, including in a UN report. And in the last two years, at least one of the criminal gangs was infiltrated by Boko Haram.
As I said, since December , there have been eight mass kidnappings affecting six different states of Nigeria, in which over 1,000 students and teachers were taken. As we speak, three different gangs are holding more than 300 students.
So does that mean that the other 700 hundred students have either escaped or been released?
The 700 were released after providing proof of paying the ransom. After the first kidnapping last December, the state government negotiated with the criminals, ultimately delivering the ransom but denying it publicly. Shortly afterward, audio circulated over WhatsApp in northern Nigeria, in which one of the middlemen who took the ransom from the government to the criminals tells the gang leaders: “This is the amount they gave you.” That audio has never been published, but the released boys told the Wall Street Journal they were also told the ransom had been paid.
A couple of months ago, the Nigerian president asked governors to stop paying ransoms to avoid making matters worse — further evidence that ransoms were being paid. In some cases, they were paid by the [state] governments. But many governments have stopped paying now, so the burden falls on the parents of abducted students.
Over 100 million Nigerians live below the poverty line, so parents struggle to raise enough money to save loved ones. Some end up selling their homes or land. Some incur colossal debt that they can never repay. Others go to markets, mosques, and churches to crowdfund the money.
This tells you about the level of poverty, but it also reveals how brazen the transactions are. It’s not a secret anymore. If people are raising money in markets by saying, “Please help us pay a ransom,” the security agencies are definitely aware that ransoms are being paid. Police officers themselves have been kidnapped, and their families have been forced to pay ransoms for their release.
Why is this happening?
Kidnap-for-ransom is the most lucrative industry in Nigeria today. Two weeks ago, I made a Zoom presentation with the deputy director of Nigeria’s intelligence agency, the Department of State Services. In the first six months of this year alone, he said, kidnappers have extorted 2 billion naira ($4.9 million) from ordinary Nigerians.
First, because kidnapping pays, it continues to grow. Secondly, there are no consequences to crime. In the eight mass kidnappings since December, none of the gang leaders responsible have been arrested. None of them have been brought to justice for their crimes.
Why are the abductors not prosecuted? Why are there no consequences?
That’s a bit of a difficult question. For starters, prosecuting these criminal gangs requires arresting them, which requires robust security to track them and stop them. That’s just not happening right now.
The second factor is the Nigerian government. In a national TV interview last month, President Muhammadu Buhari said he has become overwhelmed by the situation in the northwest. Nigerian security forces are stretched too thin because at least six different violent hot spots are creating crisis situations in Nigeria today.
In the northeast, there’s Boko Haram, while in the northwest, there are these criminal bandits. In the north-central region, there’s a cropland crisis [with the amount of arable cropland shrinking and conflicts between herders and farmers erupting over resources]. To the southeast, there’s a separatist movement. And in the Niger Delta, there are oil-pipe pirates. At the same time, in the southwest, kidnap-for-ransom, a cropland crisis, and separatist tensions are all raising concerns.
In addition, Nigeria’s military is now deployed to over 90 percent of the country on active duty, so Nigeria is currently a country at war with itself. The only thing missing is a formal declaration.
There are also fundamental logistical challenges, like not enough access to communication equipment. Villagers often speak of how they could spot an attack before it happened, but the closest military formation said that they didn’t have the means to confront the criminals who end up attacking.
Along with the mass kidnapping of students, hundreds of villages have been razed. Security forces are spread thin. Nigeria is a country of 200 million people, but there are less than 350,000 police officers. Officially, virtually 50 percent of these officers are attached to VIPs like governors, private citizens, and companies. Another 20 percent of police do administrative work. So you can say that only 30 percent of Nigerian’s 350,000 police are fighting crime in the country.
Moreover, their budget and capacity for fighting crime are meager, and they lack basic technology. The police are also poorly paid. So, as a result of all this, you’ll find a local government responsible for 2 million people with only 30 police officers. For example, in Katsina State, where the president is from, the governor said there were only 30 police officers for 100 villages in August last year. That’s a preview of the entire country.
But there are also theories that the abduction situation in the northwest is getting worse because of political choices. Many Nigerians feel that since most criminal gangs are from the president’s tribe, he’s treating them softly. This theory may not be accurate, but it is passionately held in many communities in Nigeria, further exacerbating tensions and stoking social divisions.
To recap, the kidnappings continue happening because they pay well, there are no consequences to crime, and security forces are ill-equipped and overburdened?
Yes, but I’d also mention the geography of the northwestern part of Nigeria, where there are dense, mountainous forests that have been mismanaged for years. The northwest also borders Niger. So, it’s close to jihadist groups operating in the Sahel. Because of porous borders and corruption, weapons are easily smuggled from Libya through Niger to Nigeria.
The official estimate is that there are now over 6 million illegal weapons, primarily AK-47s, in a country where possessing any weapon is prohibited.
So the geography of the area and openness of the border is exacerbating the issue, but also the availability of opioid drugs, which help the criminal groups continue wreaking havoc. They need to be energetic during operation, so they get high.
The last thing I would mention is that by arrangement, Nigeria’s public boarding schools are located on the outskirts of towns. Most of these schools are vulnerable because they lack even basic fencing.
Even though the government declared the Safe Schools Initiative in 2014, following the Chibok abduction, there are still many vulnerable schools that criminal gangs can easily break into. Students are then used as a bargaining chip to get governments and politicians on their knees, praying for their release, while the criminal gangs make millions.
Okay, so how do we end the crisis of mass abductions in Nigeria?
The first thing is to step up military and intelligence efforts, which requires building up the capacity of the Nigerian military and intelligence agencies to contain the criminal groups. It’s tough to avoid [having to use] violence against groups committing massacres of students and civilians every week or taking mass numbers of people into the bush for ransom.
The capacity of the Nigerian police also needs to be built up. Police need more manpower, equipment, and, most importantly, better leadership, which also requires tackling corruption. When it comes to the situation in the northwest, there’s also a need for transnational cooperation, especially with Niger, which shares a 1,600-kilometer border with Nigeria. About three of the six most-impacted states border Niger.
And we now know that the criminal gangs operate in Nigeria and slip into Niger to hide and vice-versa. One clear example of this is when an American, Philip Walton, was abducted in southern Niger last October; he was rescued in the northwestern part of Nigeria.
So the criminal gangs are already operating transnationally. Unless the Nigeria-Niger border is secured, the bandits will continue working transnationally. Weapons and ammunition will be smuggled from Libya to Niger and from Niger to Nigeria.
As we speak, there are lots of military operations going on in the northwest. But there is no emergency number [for citizens to call] the military to inform them when attacks are underway. Right now, they must get in touch with a politician who knows someone in the police, who knows someone in the military, for help. Not having basic phone numbers for contacting the military indicates that even basic technology isn’t used to its full advantage.
Even deploying basic technology to track the numbers the gangs use to communicate with parents isn’t being done. It would be easy to find their location. Criminal gangs have now started accepting ransom payments through bank transfers.
So they could easily track down these criminals?
Yes, but Nigerian banks are so archaic that they need a court order to freeze the accounts. And while that happens, the delay in the legal system means that the criminals have time to withdraw the money and disappear. Since I tweeted reports of criminals using bank transfers for ransom earlier this week, several victims have shared with me and publicly that they were stopped and forced to swipe their bank cards and empty their accounts to the gangs.
This shows how normalized paying ransom to bandits is becoming in the country and that basic technology is not being used to track and crack down on the criminals.
And that goes back to this question of political choice, and that’s why some Nigerians believe that maybe it is because the federal government doesn’t want to tackle this problem. This feeling is partly fueling separatists groups in southern Nigeria.
More broadly, there are 17 security and law enforcement institutions in Nigeria — all of them under the federal government and directly answering to the president. Since state governors have minimal powers to do anything about physical security, the problem lies in the federal government’s hands. But the government isn’t doing enough to tackle the situation.
The last thing I would mention is that there’s no central body for coordinating these security groups. In some cases, there’s a rivalry between the police and the military. The military doesn’t want the police to succeed because then that means the police will have more public goodwill.
The security architecture is in complete disarray because there is no coordinated policy among security agencies or governors in affected states. This weakness is exploited by criminal gangs. Ending the crisis requires leadership from the federal government, which means developing a clear policy on the northwest and the criminal gangs. It also means getting state governors on the same page to pursue a single policy that can work.
Is dealing with security concerns going to be enough to help Nigeria recover from years of mass kidnappings?
Thanks for asking that question, because a critical point I wanted to mention is that security efforts can help contain the situation, but they will not solve the underlying causes. There are deeply seated socioeconomic and political grievances pushing young people to criminality and violent extremism in Nigeria’s northwest and central parts.
We know that the overwhelming majority of these criminal gangs, if not all, have never gone to school. So they’ve never had the opportunity to get an education — and that’s one of the grievances they’ve expressed in their messages. Without proper education, many of these groups can’t find employment in the Nigerian system — so they resort to crime.
So investing in quality education is one of the ways to get at the root causes. Today there are 10 million Nigerian children who are out of school. Over 70 percent are located in the northern part of Nigeria, where this crisis is going on. The more children we leave out of school today, the more candidates for committing crimes and terrorism we will see tomorrow.
Besides quality education, we need to invest in the economy and develop infrastructure in these rural areas, including in the remotest areas. Building essential access roads will stop many of these criminals because security forces can then pursue them into the forest. Investing in infrastructure can help create good-paying jobs that will take people away from criminality and extremism.
Another important thing that must be done is to add other initiatives to strengthen the social contract between ordinary Nigerians and the state. The average Nigerian doesn’t see the worth of democracy in the country because it hasn’t worked for them. Nigeria’s democracy works for the few in Abuja, the federal capital, and those in government in the states, so there is this widespread frustration with democracy.
The lack of good governance must be addressed through investment in the economy, education, infrastructure, and other initiatives to take people out of abject poverty and strengthen the social contract.
I spend most of my time reporting on climate change. Do you see any connection between environmental issues and the current violence plaguing the country?
Climate change is a key driver of this conflict. Most of these criminals were once pastoralists (animal herders). They feel their grazing reserves have been taken over by climate change impacts if not taken for further urbanization of big foreign companies. So Nigeria must tackle environmental issues too.
There is also increasing desertification, turning fertile agricultural land barren and increasing rainfall, leading to floods or prolonged droughts, which take a toll on subsistence farms. Competition over scarce land and water resources, exacerbated by the impact of climate change, is leading to communal tensions, complicating the security situation in the northwestern region and across Nigeria.
We’ve spoken a lot about what Nigeria must do to end the kidnapping crisis. So what can the US and the rest of the international community do to support the effort?
Money alone won’t be enough to help. Simply too many militants have made what I call a “great discovery”: They can become rich by abducting people. So it will be tough to take them back to pastoralism. Getting them to return back to their old ways of life is almost impossible.
But I think the West can help in two significant ways. The first is to help with capacity-building for the Nigerian security forces with weapons and ammunition. The US recently delivered six jets to help the military fight extremism and criminality, which was welcomed across the country.
I know that there are human rights concerns regarding the military and the police. Some of those are valid concerns, but the way out is not [for the US and other Western countries] to stop helping but to use the assistance to get the army and the authorities to respect human rights and the rule of law.
Second, the US can support the Nigerian government, civil society organizations, and companies to help create jobs and educate young people in Nigeria. The US is currently doing a lot of work in Nigeria; unfortunately, its military assistance is not yet taking place in its northwest region.
Last August, the US Africa Commander told the media that al-Qaeda has infiltrated the northwest and criminal gangs. Unless we do something to tackle criminality through security and treat the root causes in the medium and long term, we allow a fertile soil for extremism to develop.
For example, suppose extremist groups like Boko Haram [which is located in the northeast] were to consolidate in the northwest. In that case, they will quickly make the situation worse, furthering a vicious cycle where you have criminal groups working with violent extremists. So the US and other countries have a solid impetus to intervene to help the Nigerian government in the security sector and with long-term development.
The best way forward is for the Nigerian government to build its security capabilities with international support, address underlying root causes, and stop paying lip service to these issues by saying they are doing their best. Because, unfortunately, their best is nowhere near enough.