The student abductions in northwestern Nigeria reflect the growing strength of criminal gangs and the weakness of the federal government and its security services. Kidnapping is prevalent nationwide, often perpetrated by small, ad hoc groups.
Northern Nigeria is receiving attention now because, unlike elsewhere, the perpetrators are well-organized criminal gangs and the number of victims has been dramatically large.
In the town of Kankara, Katsina State, around three hundred boys were abducted in December 2020. Just days later, more than eighty students in Dandume were targeted in a failed kidnapping.
Another incident reminiscent of a Western Hollywood epic witnessed the abduction of an unspecified number of schoolboys in Kagara LGA in Niger State.
These incidents were reminiscent of the 2014 kidnapping of close to three hundred schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok. (More than one hundred Chibok girls are still missing.)
Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of kidnap-for-ransom cases. Other countries high up on the list included Venezuela, Mexico, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Thousands of Nigerians have been kidnapped for ransom and other purposes over the years. Kidnapping has prevailed in spite of measures put in place by the government.
Boko Haram insurgents have used the proceeds of kidnapping to keep their insurgency afloat. The insurgents engage in single or group kidnapping as a means of generating money to fund their activities. Huge sums are often paid as ransom by the victims’ families and associates to secure their release.
In addition to militants and insurgents, organized local and transnational criminal syndicates have been involved. This is happening to apocalyptic proportions in northwest Nigeria where rural bandits engage regularly in kidnapping in the states of Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, and Sokoto.
The Nigerian police’s anti-kidnapping squad, introduced in the 2000s, has endeavoured to stem the menace. But this has been to no avail, mainly due to a lack of manpower and poor logistics.
Are these kidnappers offshoots of the now-depleted Boko Haram?
Ties appear to be transactional and opportunistic. Bandit networks are involved in illegal weapons trafficking and on occasion supply Boko Haram. They sometimes sell those they kidnap to Boko Haram or carry out criminal operations at the group’s request.
It’s possible that their foot soldiers overlap. But such groups are, in essence, criminal, while Boko Haram’s motives are ideological, religious, and political in nature (though the militant group readily resorts to criminal methods).
Boko Haram has become a catchall label for a kaleidoscope of factions; the one led by Abubakar Shekau is the best known, but it is only one of several.
It remains too early to tell whether the abduction is a genuine reflection of a Boko Haram expansion into the area or if the terrorist group wants an opportunistic claim for publicity.
Aside from Boko Haram, other terrorist groups are already active in the northwest, sometimes in conjunction with bandit groups or on behalf of herders quarreling with farmers over land and water use.
How the FG can tackle this menace without shirking responsibility?
The statement attributed to the Defence Minister, Major Gen. Bashir Magashi (retd) in the aftermath of the Kagara schoolboys’ abduction on Wednesday, February 17, reeks of victim-blaming and typical Nigerian laissez-faire attitude to the myriad of problems bedevilling the polity.
Magashi stated, “It is the responsibility of everybody to be alert and ensure safety when necessary. We shouldn’t be cowards. Sometimes the bandits come with about three rounds of ammunition and when they fire shots everybody will run. In our younger days, we stand to fight any form of aggression.
“Why should people run away from minor, minor aggressions? We should stand and face them. If these people know that the people have the competence and capability to defend themselves, they will run away.”
It is utter ridiculousness to expect locals to wage war against RPG-wielding terrorists who are hell-bent on wreaking destruction on everything in their path – it is disrespectful to the sensibilities of grieving parents and Nigerians as a whole.
At Dandume, Nigerian security services responded quickly. The federal government took credit for foiling the abduction, though it was helped by a local militia.
In the case of Kankara, the state (not federal) government secured the release of the victims, likely by paying ransom.
Nationwide, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is being criticized for its failure to provide security to Nigerians—from Boko Haram and other terrorists in the north, from conflicts over land and water use in the Middle Belt, and from a low-level insurgency in the oil patch in the south.
The nationwide crime wave, particularly abductions such as those in Kankara sapped public confidence in all levels of government.
Like its predecessors, the Buhari government has responded to these security challenges by resorting to force. The administration has advanced no political initiative to address their social and economic drivers.
Though paying ransom is illegal in Nigeria, the federal government is too weak to enforce the law, and the practice is ubiquitous. The national police and the army (which is almost always used to maintain internal order rather than respond to external threats) are understaffed and poorly trained, with their low pay often in arrears.
Moreover, Nigerians distrust the security services, long associated with abuses against the civilian population.
How this spate of abductions can be thwarted
While no safeguards can completely protect against attacks on schools and the abduction of students, a number of steps would help minimise risks in the northeast. These include:
Improve military deployments and other security arrangements: The army, police, and other security agencies need to deploy more personnel in the north east. While all agencies are overstretched, the government could allocate personnel more efficiently. In particular, the army should review its engagements countrywide, pull out personnel and resources from what are in essence police operations, and concentrate its forces in the north east.
Security agencies should redeploy forces to the smaller towns that are often more vulnerable to insurgent attacks than state capitals. State education authorities should review security arrangements and procedures at all schools in the region, especially at girls’ boarding schools.
Probe the abductions, publish findings and follow recommendations: The government should investigate the security lapses that enabled the abductions, security agencies’ subsequent blame game, and the information mismanagement by federal and state officials.
Sustain military operations while pursuing talks about a cessation of hostilities: The only long-term way of protecting schools and towns across the northeast is by ending the insurgency.
Many challenges lie ahead on any path to a negotiated settlement. Insurgent factions are not uniformly disposed to talks. Nor is it clear that the ISWAP leaders with whom the government engages represent the entire faction.
Whether leaders of even that a faction can abandon their rigid views of the government, education, and place of religion in public life remains unclear, as is the role they envisage for themselves after the fighting is over. Victims of Boko Haram atrocities may reject any compromise with insurgents.
The government cannot and ought not abandon its counter-insurgency campaign. But given the remote prospects of militarily defeating the insurgency, it should actively explore all additional options, including dialogue, which might help diminish levels of violence and end hostilities, even if only with one insurgent faction.
Kidnapping has led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives and huge sums of money in Nigeria. Many of the victims of the crime have been killed in the course of their abduction, custody, or release. Many more have been injured. This is in addition to huge amounts of money lost to ransom takers.
For the victims and their families and friends, the consequences are even more frightful.
Nigeria should never have got here. Kidnappers persist because the benefits of their crimes exceed the costs. So the obvious solution is to raise the costs by imposing harsher, surer penalties. The present penalty for kidnapping ranges from one to 20 years in prison, with the possibility of life imprisonment for extreme cases involving, for instance, murder.
Stricter measures, such as life imprisonment or the death penalty, may not be completely out of place in dealing with the kidnapping menace. After all, the crime of kidnapping is a maximum threat that requires an equally maximum deterrence.
By Mayowa Oladeji…
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