In September 2021, 73 students were abducted amidst a school attack in the northwestern region of Nigeria. These abductions are far from being a rare occurrence in Nigeria, where random kidnapping for ransom has been surging since the Boko Haram insurgency in 2014.
Over 1000 students have been kidnapped in northern Nigeria alone since December 2020, not including the latest case in September and other abducted citizens of the state. The frequency of cases rose astronomically in the last couple of decades, so much so that kidnapping has become one of Nigeria’s fastest-growing markets. Rising unemployment, poor security, failed leadership, and the crumbling economy has made kidnapping an easy money-making and viable career for the people of Nigeria.
Boko Haram – The Beginning
Boko Haram (Boko meaning ‘western education’ and Haram meaning ‘sin’ or ‘forbidden’) is a radical Islamist group hailing from Nigeria. Their Arabic name ‘Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad’, translates to “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” In 2014, militants of Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from a government secondary boarding school in Borno state’s Chibok.
They were mainly abducted for recruitment purposes and indoctrination. “You’re only coming to school for prostitution. Boko [Western education] is haram [forbidden]so what are you doing in school?” said a militant, according to one of the escaped girls.
Over the years, few escaped from the confinement, while most were released after the militants acquired their ransom. The remaining girls are unaccounted for with no trace left behind, some deceased in captivity owing to a myriad of reasons. The abduction had a global repercussion, with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign spreading like wildfire on social media.
This was a starting point of mass kidnappings in Nigeria. The situation has only escalated further since then at an alarming rate with no sign of stoppage.
How did kidnapping become a business?
“Kidnapping is becoming more democratised. More people are participating in it in more places. There is a spike in the frequency, the number of kidnapped people and the ransom paid,” said the Head of Research of SB Morgen Intelligence, Ikemesit Effiong.
Boko Haram was paid a hefty sum of USD 3 million (INR 22,50,30,000) as ransom to release some hostages as part of a deal in 2013, according to Nigerian government reports. In 2018, a splinter group of Boko Haram was also paid heavily to free 110 girls kidnapped by them as per a UN report. These instances of receiving ransom led to the creation of more abduction groups locally called ‘bandits’, giving rise to several mass kidnappings and violence. In the crippling economy of Nigeria, kidnap-for-ransom became the easily attainable and financially rewarding sector. Thus, making it “the most lucrative industry in Nigeria today,” according to the analyst, Bulama Bukart.
“We are in a situation in Nigeria where people who ordinarily would enter normal society, would work, they do not have any hope for anything. Instead they . . . go and kidnap people [to]make money,” says Aisha Yesufu, a social justice activist from the north of the country. “Sadly the kidnapping industry is thriving across Nigeria.”
The groups initially targeted high-profile citizens, celebrities, sports stars, traditional rulers. Since then, they have worked their way through each sector of people, now landing on regular citizens and villagers – primarily students and school staff. But as abductions intensified, the Nigerian government denied paying the ransom, thereby letting common people fend for themselves. Over 100 million citizens of Nigeria live below the poverty line. The economic situation makes it extremely difficult for guardians of the abducted to pay for their ransom, while simultaneously being the reason for the upsurge in kidnapping as a business.
Experts believe that the abductions that persist now are solely for financial motives and not for ideological reasons, as was the case with Boko Haram. Kidnapping is the easiest way to earn a substantial amount amidst Nigeria’s dwindling economy. Youngsters deliberately opt for kidnapping as a profession in this country. The banditry revealed Nigeria’s mismanaged and underfunded security force and government that fails to protect its citizens. The kidnappers thrive in the absence of the state’s authorized watchdog.
For a country with a population of 200 million, there are only 350,000 police officers in Nigeria. A large part of the force is deployed for high-profile citizens, meaning the common folks are left with little to no police protection from the abductors. This forced over one million Nigerian students to drop out of school over the fear of being kidnapped.
“Learners are being cut off from their education… as families and communities remain fearful of sending children back to their classrooms due to the spate of school attacks and student abductions in Nigeria,” said UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Peter Hawkins.
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