Nigeria’s Kidnapping, Inc.
Armed groups have abducted thousands of Nigerians in recent months. The government blames bandits, but international observers highlight religious motivation
Stephen Shuani, 30, left his family on March 10 and returned to the Federal College of Forestry Mechanization in northwest Nigeria’s Kaduna state. He decided to return to campus to study for the final exams required to obtain a Higher National Diploma certificate.
At 9:30 p.m. the next day, gunmen cut a hole through the perimeter fence of the college and started shooting. The suspected militant herdsmen entered the students’ hostels and took 23 females and 16 males, including Stephen, 30.
His older sister Jennifer was still lying in bed the following morning when her mother called to inform her. “Somehow in my head, I was saying, It’s not possible, he’s not part of them,” she said.
School abductions in Nigeria first drew international attention with the kidnappings of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014 and Leah Sharibu’s kidnapping in 2018. Nigeria’s abduction business has continued to boom. Since December 2020, heavily armed kidnappers have abducted more than 800 students, some as young as 10. Nigerians paid at least $18.34 million in ransom to abductors between June 2011 and the end of March 2020, according to SB Morgen (SBM) Intelligence. The Lagos–based political risk analysis firm said the majority of those payments happened between January 2016 and March 2020.
Islamic insurgent groups—Boko Haram and Islamic State West African Province—immediately claimed responsibility for the Chibok and Sharibu attacks respectively, but Nigerian authorities have blamed much of the recent violence on kidnapping-for-ransom criminal gangs they call “bandits” or “unidentified gunmen.” But abductions and killings have continued to plague religious communities and other regions previously void of such violence. While security analysts report growing links between kidnapping groups and established Islamic extremists, international groups are calling for the Nigerian government to act.
JENNIFER struggled to believe her brother was gone. Over and over she called his cell phone, but it was off. When abductors released the first proof-of-life video two days after the abduction, Jennifer spotted Stephen among the students crammed together on the ground while one of their captors struck them with a whip. “That’s when reality hit,” she said.
The captors held the hostages at a camp near several settlements of Fulani herdsmen, semi-nomadic, largely Muslim cattle farmers sometimes implicated in armed attacks. The men running the operation were all ages, including one as young as 15. They released 10 students in two batches about a month after the attack, but Stephen was not among them.
The abductors initially demanded a 500 million naira (about $1.2 million) ransom from the government. But when state Gov. Nasir El-Rufai ruled out negotiating with the criminals, kidnappers contacted families directly.
Jennifer got her call on a Sunday. The kidnapper demanded 25 million naira ($60,000) for her brother. The kidnapper threatened to kill him if the family failed to raise the money, then passed the phone to Stephen.
“He said we should just try to raise whatever we can, even if we borrow,” she recalled. Stephen said he could work to pay it back.
Stephen’s family scrambled. Jennifer designed posters with his picture and circulated them on social media sites to raise awareness and funds for his ransom. The family prayed together daily and constantly called each other to check in and share updates. “I can’t deny the fact that the hand of God was at play through all of this,” Jennifer said.
Abductees’ parents also set up a committee to advocate for their rescue. They staged a demonstration outside the National Assembly in the capital city of Abuja and did radio interviews.
“Why should our innocent children pay for the failure of the government to provide security of life and property?” leaders of the parents’ committee said in a statement. “Or is it now a crime to seek education in schools?”
SCHOOLS have become one of the abductors’ primary targets. On Dec. 11, 2020, gunmen riding motorcycles entered the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara, in the northwestern state of Katsina, and carted away 344 students. On Feb. 17, gunmen took 27 students, along with some staff members and their relatives, from Government Science College Kagara, in Niger state. One student died. Nine days later, abductors captured 279 schoolgirls from their boarding school in northwest Zamfara state.
On May 29, some 14 students and staff from the private Greenfield University—located along the Kaduna-Abuja highway, notorious for kidnappings—reunited with their families after more than a month in captivity. Five students had already died, and the gunmen released one of them on May 1 after his family paid a ransom.
One day after the Greenfield release, gunmen seized 136 students from the Salihu Tanko Islamic school in Niger. On June 17, armed men seized more than 60 students and about eight teachers from the Federal Government College, Birnin Yauri, in northwest Kebbi state.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the Kankara attack, but security forces have neither identified nor caught the culprits in most other cases. They blame gangs, armed Fulani herdsmen, and other armed militia operating in the region. Most are comprised of Muslims.
NORTHWEST Nigeria is at the center of the complex security crisis. The gangs include armed herders who have clashed with majority farming communities. Weapons traced back to war-torn Libya have proliferated in the region, spurring even more violence. Criminal groups operate in lawless backcountries that forestry authorities once patrolled.
The International Crisis Group reported last May that many criminal groups in the region lack a clear religious orientation but partnered with extremist groups in ambush training or in arms sales. Others have worked with the armed herders to terrorize farming communities.
“This is not to say it can’t evolve,” said Olajumoke Ayandele, a human security and counterterrorism expert. She listed the region’s high unemployment, lack of security, and government response as concerning factors. “They’re all interacting with each other,” she said of the many groups.
But the security vacuum has emboldened insurgent groups like the Islamic State West Africa Province and al-Qaeda affiliate Ansaru, which want to build a regional presence.
“A poorly secured international boundary, meanwhile, enables the influx of arms and facilitates the movement of jihadists to and from the Sahel, where the Islamic State has been expanding its influence,” the International Crisis Group noted.
The attacks have also included religious communities across a widening area. On May 20, armed men stormed a Catholic church in northern Katsina state, where they killed one priest and abducted another. The Jesuit magazine America reported in February at least 20 priests have been abducted over the past five years.
Such attacks are also springing up in majority Christian southern states, where some communities are battling secessionist movements and increasing armed herdsmen attacks.
On May 10, suspected armed herdsmen abducted Pastor Otamayomi Ogedengbe while he was preaching at his Deeper Life Christian Church in southwestern Ondo state. On the night of June 5, at least 20 people died when suspected Fulani herders staged a reprisal attack on the Igangan community in southwestern Oyo state.
At least 1,470 Nigerian Christians died in attacks from January to April, according to a report by Nigeria-based rights group Intersociety Rule of Law, which drew international attention. The report blamed Fulani herdsmen for more than 800 of those deaths. Intersociety Rule of Law estimated 3,200 Nigerians were abducted within the same period, including about 2,200 Christians.
Part of the problem is that religious intolerance has grown in recent years, the Rev. Fr. Anthony Bature, a Catholic priest in northeastern Taraba state said during a recent hearing organized by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
He recalled how Christians and Muslims in the past jointly celebrated Christmas and Islamic Eid holidays. “The political leaders have seen religion as a tool to manipulate the vulnerable masses of the society,” he said. “There is need to revive national consciousness.”
In December, the U.S. State Department declared Nigeria a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act—making it the first secular democracy to receive the designation. That means it could face economic sanctions or risk losing U.S. aid.
Frustration is also building locally. On May 24, several young people burned tires and blocked cars from moving along the Kaduna-Abuja highway to decry kidnapping along the notorious road and its neighboring communities. Gunmen killed three people and kidnapped 15 others in a recent attack in the area.
But the school cases have drawn wider attention since they are what many analysts have referred to as “soft targets.” Dozens of state leaders across the region shut down boarding schools that lacked fences and security measures.
JENNIFER received another early morning call from her mother on May 5. This time it was good news.
A local television station was broadcasting video of three white buses arriving at the police headquarters in Kaduna state with the kidnapped students. They came out with dirt-matted hair, still dressed in the nightwear they had on when the kidnappers took them. They had to walk nine hours to meet up with security officials after their abductors released them.
Jennifer turned on the television and saw Stephen. She felt both relief and guilt. “This is my younger brother. I should be able to do something,” she told me, breaking down in tears. “I thank God I didn’t fail him.”
Two days later, Stephen’s mother Catherine stood with her niece among other anxious mothers and family members back at the college’s student hall. Screams and loud cries replaced nervous chatter as the 29 students held captive for 55 days filed in through a side door.
Catherine spotted her son and yelled his nickname as he walked toward her, a tired smile on his face. She gripped him tightly and wept on his chest while he patted her back, comforting her.
“Bobo is back, praise God,” said his cousin, who recorded the reunion.
The parents’ association at Stephen’s school confirmed they paid a ransom to the abductors but refused to provide any additional details. The students suspected herdsmen were involved in their abduction because of the location their captors kept them. But authorities never provided more details besides calling them “armed bandits.”
The federal government, not the states, controls police and security agencies. State leaders say security agencies take too long to respond to problems or are absent in many rural areas.
States like Zamfara have offered armed groups amnesty and other incentives in exchange for peace and surrendering their weapons. Other officials in places like Kaduna state, where Stephen’s school is located, have insisted they would not enable criminals with payments.
Zailani Bappa, a media adviser for the Zamfara state governor, told Reuters in March that the government did not pay ransom to the abductors of the Jangebe students but offered them amnesty and assistance resettling in a new community.
Niger state Gov. Abubakar Bello in March called the policy a failure since the criminals use the government funds to “purchase more weapons.” In February, Auwalun Daudawa—a criminal suspected as the mastermind of the kidnapping in Kankara—and some of his followers surrendered 20 AK-47 rifles and vowed never to engage in criminal activity again. Local media reported he died in May during a gun battle with a rival gang. He developed a relationshiop with Boko Haram, which claimed responsibility for the Kankara attack.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Senate has been debating a bill that would sentence anyone who pays ransom to terrorists or kidnappers to up to 15 years in prison.
Ayandele, the counterterrorism expert, has called for a strategy that emphasizes a greater role for community leaders, community policing, and stronger cooperation between intelligence and security agencies.
International rights groups have also criticized the Nigerian government’s response.
During the USCIRF virtual hearing in June, Mike Jobbins with Search for Common Ground called on the United States to increase partnerships with Nigerian institutions to document attacks. The crisis reporting so far, he explained, is flooded with incidents blamed on “unidentified gunmen.”
Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf warned the violence is affecting nearby countries and called for a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.
“I believe … that Nigeria will implode,” Wolf said in the USCIRF hearing. “If this were happening in Scandinavia, if this were happening in Eastern Europe, do you think the world would be silent? The world would be engaged, and right now the world is not engaged.”
A FEW WEEKS after Stephen’s release, he wore a white, traditional outfit to join his family for an early morning thanksgiving Mass at their family church. He danced forward next to his mother, her face glowing with a smile.
He plans to return to school to finish his exams and start his mandatory service in the National Youth Service Corps. Despite the celebration, Jennifer worries about the impact of the nearly two-month experience on her brother. He acts indifferent and only sleeps in short spurts. “At 3 a.m., you hear him moving around looking for what to do.”
A request from the parents’ committee for the state to provide therapy for the students is still pending, Jennifer said.
Though her brother is now free, Jennifer still thinks of the other students in captivity and the near daily abductions. “I’m scared for where we’re going,” she said. “A whole lot of people are really disconnected from the reality of what’s happening.”
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