Why Thousands Of Nigerians Are Abducted Every Year

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The abduction of hundreds of children from an elementary school in northwestern Nigeria in March brought renewed attention to a kidnapping-for-ransom crisis that has long wracked Africa’s most-populous nation. The problem first made international headlines when 276 schoolgirls were seized by jihadist group Boko Haram in the northeastern town of Chibok in 2014 and they became a global cause celebre. Since then, criminal gangs have turned kidnapping into a thriving industry, seizing thousands of Nigerians on rural highways and from boarding schools and hospitals in cities and villages in every corner of the country. Key roads have become too dangerous to use and successive governments have failed to get to grips with the issue.

1. Why are so many people being kidnapped in Nigeria?

Mainly because of poverty and impunity. About 80 million Nigerians live in extreme deprivation and the economy isn’t creating anywhere near enough jobs for a population that is growing faster than almost anywhere else on earth. The kidnapping crisis began in the north — far from the country’s bountiful southern oil reserves — where insecurity and unemployment are rife and development has been sorely neglected. Gangs found willing recruits among the jobless, first to rustle cattle and later to abduct people. As it became clear that few of the bandits were being arrested and jailed, the phenomenon spread countrywide, with a marked spike since 2020.

Kidnappings in Nigeria Soar

Abductions exceed 3,000 people annually for three years through 2023

Source: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, Jose Luengo-Cabrera

2. Who are these bandits?

Most are members of motorcycle-riding gangs, who tote AK-47s, set up fake checkpoints and ransack villages. Islamist groups in the northeast — including Boko Haram — also engage in kidnapping, but the broader national crisis is driven by criminal organizations that emerged from the nomadic Fulani community, long neglected by the government. Some groups moved from fighting sedentary farmers over access to land and water to crime. In some northern states, governors have offered amnesty to bandit leaders, but the deals have always fallen through.

3. What happens to the hostages?

Sometimes the ransoms are paid and the hostages released. At other times, they are rescued. Occasionally they are killed, as happened in January to one of six sisters who were abducted in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

4. What is the government doing about it?

Not enough. Almost 5,000 people have been abducted since President Bola Tinubu took office in May 2023, according to Nigerian research firm SBM Intelligence. Tinubu has pledged to tackle out-of-control insecurity by overhauling and expanding law-enforcement agencies and providing them with better training and equipment. But a cratering economy has only made the country more dangerous, and a turnaround is seen as a necessary precursor to addressing the root causes of the kidnappings. Tinubu has expressed confidence that the hundreds of schoolchildren who were taken from the school in Kaduna state, as well as hundreds of women and children who were abducted while collecting firewood in northeastern Nigeria a few days earlier, will be rescued. “Nothing else is acceptable to me and the waiting family members of these abducted citizens,” he said. “Justice will be decisively administered.”

5. What’s the economic impact been?

The north is Nigeria’s breadbasket and the bandit attacks have prompted many farmers to abandon their land. This has contributed to nationwide food shortages. The problem has been exacerbated by arbitrary taxes imposed by state officials and extortion by criminal gangs, which have rendered some farms unprofitable, and flooding that has destroyed crops. Major highways — including one linking Abuja to the north’s major commercial centers — are routinely attacked, forcing trucks ferrying goods to wait out the violence, find alternate routes or risk being hijacked.

6. Where are the police in all of this?

Nigeria operates a 300,000-strong national police force that is centrally controlled. It has faced operational challenges and hasn’t proved up to the task of tackling widespread criminality, an Islamist insurgency in the northeast, deadly clashes between farmers and herders in the central regions, and separatist and gang violence in the southeast. In February, the government said it was considering introducing state police forces to bolster law enforcement, but it has yet to follow through.

Source: Bloomberg

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