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Kidnapping crisis grows, Nigeria says no to ransoms

March 14, 2024

With more than 280 schoolchildren kidnapped, Nigeria's President Tinubu is enforcing a no-ransom policy despite a surge in kidnappings. Now the kidnappers have threatened to kill them.

A machine gun suspected to belong to an insurgent group in Nigeria
Amid an economic downturn in Nigeria, abductions for ransom are on the riseImage: Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty Images

Nigeria's President Bola Tinubu has squarely rejected the idea of paying any ransom for the release of more than 280 schoolchildren who were abducted last week. Tinubu specified that "not a dime" would be spent to meet the kidnappers' demands, after the payment of ransom was made illegal in Nigeria in 2022.

Authorities may be running out of time to secure the release of the hostages in northwestern Kaduna state, as the kidnapping gangs have vowed to kill the captives if their demands are not met.

The kidnappers have asked for the equivalent of over $620,000 (about €570,000) for the release of the students and school staff — in addition to 11 Toyota Hilux pickup vehicles and 150 motorcycles.

The abductions, which took place in the town of Kuriga on March 7, are the first major kidnappings to take place in Nigeria since 2021. However, gunmen have been operating in the region for several years. Known locally as bandits, they frequently abduct individual locals, especially pupils, to demand ransom payments.

Nigeria: Kidnappings on the rise

President Tinubu also stressed that the military must step in to ensure the release of the victims, according to Nigeria's Information Minister Mohammed Idris.

"The president has directed that security agencies must as a matter of urgency ensure that these children and all those who have been kidnapped are brought back to safety," Idris told reporters on Wednesday.

Kaduna Governor Uba Sani added that all authorities were "doing everything possible to ensure the safe return of the pupils and students."

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu
Tinubu has continued his zero-tolerance policy toward ransom payments — despite a shift in public opinionImage: Temilade Adelaja/REUTERS

Islamist militants, bandits behind kidnapping surge

This recent surge in abductions has become a growing challenge for Nigeria's embattled government. Earlier in the week, some 60 people were also abducted from another village in Kaduna state.

In the past 10 days alone, close to 400 people have been kidnapped for ransom, including 15 other students.

"We see that there are two actors [behind the kidnappings]: one are Islamist militants and then the [other are] bandit groups who have been prescribed as terrorists by the Nigerian government," security expert Ryan Cummings told DW.

Cummings, the director of Signal Risk, a security analysis organization with a focus on the African continent, added that while for the Islamists, "there are some political considerations they demand in exchange for the release of hostages, such as the release of some of their own captured militants," the local bandits operating primarily in northwestern and north-central Nigeria chiefly appear to be motivated by money and secondly by protecting their territorial interests.

"[The bandits] tend to demand financial concessions, but they also use hostages in some of their camps as the means of preventing the Nigerian military from conducting air raids on their positions, for example.

"So obviously they are using civilians as human shield," he said.

Locals in Kuriga pictured next to a military vehicle
Families of the abducted are worried the government won't change its courseImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Are kidnappers 'ready for negotiation'?

Some attempts are nevertheless being made to negotiate between the government and the criminal gangs. Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, a respected Islamic cleric with a strong military background, has offered to mitigate between the two camps — but there's little hope of success.

Such an intervention, however, would be difficult as the kidnappers seem to become bolder with increasingly excessive ransom demands, said Aliyu Othman, a Nigerian media analyst and journalist.

"The issue of negotiating with bandits will in a lot of the cases not bring about peace. Sheikh Gumi has been offering that opportunity since the period of [Muhammadu] Buhari as the president of Nigeria," Othman told DW.

"Are the kidnappers, the bandits, ready for negotiation or settlement? That is what is important here."

Nigerians demand state help to free their kids

'All we have tried so far has not worked out'

While officials remain resolute in not entering into negotiations with the kidnappers, some Nigerians believe Tinubu's government must keep an open mind in dealing with the crisis.

DW took to the streets of Abuja to ask locals their views. A female resident said she believed the government had to do more to ensure the safety of families who were exposed to the activities of bandits across the country.

"We wake up to a fresh story of a kidnappings every day, when you least expect it. And the sad thing is that now the vulnerable are the victims, like children, women and entire families," she said.

A mother from Abuja, meanwhile, responded that something needs "to be done because all we have tried so far has not worked out. All the security measures that were put in place by the government have failed."

A Nigerian soldier pictured with a machine gun in front of six military vehicles in the distance
Underequipped and underpaid: Nigeria's military is unable to contain the spread of crime and terrorismImage: STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images

A male resident of Abuja told DW that the government needed more resources to tackle the crisis.

"The attacks are rampant all over. […] If we begin to ask ourselves how many security personnel we have on the ground and how well have they been taken care of, we might get somewhere. So I am appealing to the government to buy the latest technology to track down these criminals because that is the only way forward," he said.

Corruption hindering efforts to fight abduction crisis

Security analyst Cummings agreed that Nigerian authorities have to step up their efforts to stop the kidnappings.

"The Nigerian government will firstly have to enhance the resources available to state security personnel and properly train specialized units that are engaged in anti-kidnapping operations. But most members of the security forces are too inadequately resourced [to begin with], they lack ammunition and food provisions and other resources, too," he said.

Cummings said that while the tools necessary to fight terrorists and kidnappers were in sore demand across the region, corruption within the security services was also contributing to the derailing of efforts to end the crisis.

"The state is not in the position to provide additional resources. This needs to change. There needs to be a shift in strategy."

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson