When nearly 300 Nigerian students were kidnapped from a boarding school by the Islamic group Boko Haram in 2014, the world responded with revolt. Hundreds of people marched through the Nigerian capital, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls (handing over our daughters) was circulated by then-US First Lady Michelle Obama, and the President of Nigeria struggled to respond to the mass kidnapping in the village of Chibok.
It looked like an aberration. Since last December, however, mass kidnappings of girls and boys from boarding schools in northwest Nigeria have become increasingly common – there has been at least one every three weeks. Nearly 300 girls were taken from their school in Zamfara state last week, and the previous week more than 40 children and adults were abducted from a boarding school in Niger state. They were released on Saturday (27).
With the Nigerian economy in crisis, kidnappings have become a growing “industry”, according to interviews with security analysts and a recent report on the economics of kidnappings. The victims are not limited to the rich, the powerful or the famous – it is also the poor, and more and more students, who are kidnapped en masse.
Those responsible are often criminal gangs who take advantage of the lack of effective police services and the abundance of weapons in the country.
Each abduction seems to inspire another. The media coverage that explodes after each incident puts pressure on the government to release the hostages.
The governors of the northern states of the country are heavily criticized for their inability to protect their citizens. But when the hostages are released, the government sometimes benefits from the publicity. And, according to Nigerian analysts and the media, corrupt government officials have already been accused of appropriating part of the bailouts.
“If the government doesn’t take this problem seriously, I don’t see when it will end,” said Babuor Habib, an education and security specialist based in Maiduguri. “The kidnappers found a very creative and easy way to get millions of naira [a moeda nigeriana]. “
Boarding schools, which are common in northwest Nigeria, are often found outside the cities, where there is often no security.
On a Friday evening in December, shots were fired at the Kankara government science high school. The boys came out of their dormitories. Some of them climbed over the school fence and fled. But the bandits deceived the others and convinced them to stay, saying they were policemen. They made the boys walk all night in the woods. Almost everyone was barefoot.
“I will never forget the day of the kidnapping,” said civil servant Abubakar Mansur, whose 13-year-old son Garba was taken hostage in December. “My whole life almost fell apart.”
The boys were released after six days and shown to television cameras. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari told them to forget about the incident and focus on their studies.
Last week, Buhari, on Twitter, blamed state and local governments for the increase in attacks, saying they needed to improve safety around schools. He said the policy of “rewarding the bad guys with money and vehicles” can have “dire consequences”.
As kidnappings become increasingly indiscriminate, the deaths associated with them are on the rise. According to a recent report on the economics of kidnappings carried out by the Nigerian intelligence platform SBM Intelligence, for the perpetrators, the lives of their victims are disposable.
“When you have such large-scale kidnappings of harmless and helpless children, the value of the ransoms will be high due to international pressure to save them,” said Confidence McHarry, a security analyst who worked on the Smart SBM report. “Everything is in favor of the kidnappers.”
According to the report, at least $ 18 million (R $ 101 million) was paid to the kidnappers between June 2011 and March 2020.
Instead of attacking people who can afford to pay hefty ransoms, the hijackers in northwest Nigeria have carried out more attacks and demanded lower amounts per victim – amounts of around 1,000. dollars.
But it’s not just criminals who are benefiting from the increase in kidnappings – corrupt government officials are also benefiting, some experts say.
“The kidnapping of schoolchildren becomes a lucrative business for the bandits and also for the government officials involved in the rescue process,” said Habib, the Maiduguri analyst. “Due to the secrecy involved, it becomes easier for these employees to pocket millions of naira supposedly paid to save children.”
The Nigerian Minister of Information did not respond to requests for a response on Monday (1).
It is not today that the rich and famous in Nigeria need to worry about being kidnapped or having it happen to their families.
But it was the kidnapping of 300 students from Chibok in 2014 that inspired the subsequent kidnappings, according to a recent report – also from SBM Intelligence – on the security situation in Niger state, where several of the kidnappings took place.
According to the authors of a recent book, “Bring Back Our Girls,” a Nigerian minister admitted that the government had paid millions of euros to secure the eventual release of some of Chibok’s girls.
Like many governments, the Nigerian authorities often deny that they are paying ransoms. But the students and the thugs contradict them.
Many Nigerians would like the government to protect them from kidnappings in the first place, instead of paying expensive ransoms or allowing dangerous and costly rescue operations.
But the common view is that the police are in cahoots with those who can afford to pay for protection.
No one knows for sure how many Nigerian children are currently being held hostage by kidnappers. But most of the children taken in six recent mass kidnappings from schools have been released.
Chibok is the big exception. UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) estimates that 173 of the abducted girls are still missing.
The prospects for children’s education are at stake in Nigeria, a country where a third of children of primary school age are no longer in school.
With the kidnappings taking place in the north of the country, “for some students, it is the end of their university life,” said Muhammad Galma, retired army commander and security expert. “No parent is going to want to put their child’s life in danger just so they can study.”
This was exactly Mansur’s reaction when his son Garba was kidnapped.
“Neither Garba nor anyone in my family will ever return to residential school,” he said. “Not after the suffering we endured because of these soulless bandits.”