How to stop the kidnapping crisis in Nigeria

Nigeria faces another all-too-familiar challenge: children at risk. Kidnappings first gained international fame in 2014 when the jihadist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 school girls from their boarding school in the northeastern city of Chibok. Despite a global media campaign to demand their safe return, #BringBackOurGirls, more than 100 of them are still missing today. Much more children have been abducted since then – and the trend could get worse.

In the past four months, armed groups have raided boarding schools and abducted more than 650 students. Perhaps the most famous of these incidents, more than 340 boys were abducted from a school in the home state of Katsina by President Muhammadu Buhari in December. In February, 42 students and staff were seized in the nearby Nigerian state. One student was killed. Just a few days later, 279 girls were admitted to the state of Zamfara. Fortunately, everyone involved in these kidnappings has now been released, but a fourth group – 39 college students abducted from a forest school in Kaduna state in mid-March – are still in custody.

In contrast to the seizure of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014 and the kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe state in February 2018, the latest wave of kidnappings did not take place in Boko Haram’s known areas of activity in northeastern Nigeria, but in the increasingly troubled northwest. Here, the effects of climate change and rapid population growth have worsened the region’s semi-arid soil, forcing more people to struggle for control of less usable land. Fueled in part by these higher stakes, the normally reticent disputes between the region’s shepherds – predominantly of the Fulani ethnic group – and ethnically diverse farmers are becoming increasingly vicious. Both sides have formed armed militias for self-defense and repression attacks that have set off a cycle of deadly confrontations.

In recent years the security situation in northwest Nigeria has been exacerbated by the emergence of criminal armed groups rustling cattle, blackmailing and looting local villagers, robbing gold miners and traders, and kidnapping ransom. The government, the mass media and many Nigerians refer to members of these groups as “bandits”. The groups have been able to grow and engage in illegal activities, some of which are hidden in the region’s vast forests, which are largely not monitored by forest officials. They are armed with illegal weapons flowing through Nigeria’s permeable international border with Niger.

While the leaders of the armed groups say they resort to violence due to the neglect of their communities by federal and state agencies and abuse by security forces, for the most part they have turned against villagers in rural communities – not state officials or infrastructure. From 2011 to 2020, violent attacks in northwestern Nigeria killed more than 10,000 people and displaced over 260,000 people in mid-2020, some of whom fled to Niger. In the state of Zamfara alone, armed groups kidnapped more than 3,600 people and collected ransom money well over 3 billion nairas – around 8 million US dollars. Boko Haram and its factions – the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP) and Ansaru – appear to be working to forge links with these armed groups in the northwest, but relations remain bleak.

Amid mounting turmoil in northwestern Nigeria, there are several reasons why armed groups continue to target schools. For one thing, they are often poorly protected, with little or no fences and poorly trained security guards, which makes them easy targets. The police and other state security forces are extremely thin across the region – just like across the country.

In addition, mass kidnappings of school children attract far more national and international media coverage and arouse more public outrage than the kidnapping of adult villagers or travelers on highways. The media spotlight and public protests are forcing state governments to frantic negotiations with the armed groups – and in all likelihood to make concessions to them. Government officials persistently deny payment of the huge ransom that militants are demanding for the release of their prisoners, and such payments are difficult to prove. However, it is inconceivable that the abductions could occur so frequently while the perpetrators received nothing in return.

While there are no easy solutions, the authorities cannot afford to throw their hands up. If we do not act now, it could affect educational development in northern Nigeria for years.

The recent spate of kidnappings is jeopardizing education in northwestern Nigeria, already the worst region in the country in terms of learning outcomes. Since December, armed groups have forced local governments to temporarily close more than 600 schools in seven states – Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara. This follows the long closings forced by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, which have already disrupted student academic progress. Even if the conditions for schools to reopen are deemed safe enough, the attacks could reduce enrollment and attendance in a predominantly Muslim region where many parents are still deeply skeptical of what they see as a Western and immoral model of education . Some schools may also be downsized as teachers seek other jobs or move to safer parts of the country.

The kidnappings are also causing political damage to the government of Buhari and the governors of the embattled northwestern states. Even before the kidnappings drew public attention, heightened insecurity in several parts of the country sparked increasingly severe criticism of Buhari’s performance. His repeated charges against the security forces for defeating the armed groups had little effect – partly because the armed forces are understaffed and poorly equipped for the scale of the challenge, but also because security operations are sometimes hampered by state governments negotiating with the armed forces want groups.

Many Nigerians have expressed concern that the government’s ineffective response to the abductions is making armed groups increasingly invincible, making them more attractive to the large number of unemployed youth in the area. In February, a coalition of 68 civil society organizations called for Buhari to resign or to be impeached if he could not calm the rampant uncertainty. Although Buhari ignored the statement, the increasing frequency of such demands reflects the public’s declining confidence in his government.

The Nigerian federal and state authorities must act urgently to stop the kidnappings. First, the federal government, which controls the military and police forces, should deploy more troops and military assets in the northwest to protect schools and other soft targets, respond more quickly to early warnings and emergency calls, and take more concerted action to curb the activities of the armed groups, who camp in the forests of the region. This requires troops from lower priority security operations in other parts of the country to be withdrawn.

The federal and state governments should work together to formulate a unified response to the crisis. Buhari should invite the security chiefs of the northwestern state governments to jointly develop a joint, concerted strategy to protect schools and improve security in the entire region.

Federal and state agencies should also reconsider the Safe Schools initiative, launched by Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan after the 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, but largely not implemented since then. The initiative called for all schools to be equipped with basic protective equipment, better trained guards and functional precautions to alert security authorities immediately after the siege. These goals are long overdue and the Buhari government urgently needs to meet them.

While there are no easy solutions to the situation, the Nigerian authorities cannot afford to throw their hands up. If we do not act now, it could affect educational development in northern Nigeria for years or even decades, at a huge cost to the country’s promising children and the communities that will one day lead them.

Nnamdi Obasi is Senior Advisor for Nigeria at the International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organization.

This article is part of a regular series of briefings from International Crisis Group analysts.

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