The second part of our deep-dive into the kidnap-for-ransom ‘industry’ in Nigeria uses data to show that kidnappings have been on the rise annually since 2018 across Nigeria. Read the first part of the report here.
As dusk fell on the second day of January this year, apprehension gripped Kaya as over 50 motorcycles, each carrying three men wielding AK-47 rifles, stormed the community. Then there were loud bangs from guns before buildings and vehicles went up in flames.
The attack left 11 persons dead and nine others with bullet wounds. The pictures that emerged from the attack are extremely gory and cannot be published for ethical reasons.
That attack was a return fight. The previous day, January 1, men in Kaya in Giwa area of Nigeria’s northwestern Kaduna State had confronted the gunmen, who had come to kidnap for ransom. In a rural context, where government is far removed, the men were already accustomed to mobilising themselves against armed attacks.
But their efforts were not successful. Despite losing their leader, Shamsu Umar, to the resistance, the invaders kidnapped an unspecified number of persons, including two women, according to records reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES.
“The bandits don’t want resistance when they attack a community to kidnap residents for ransom,” said Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, a journalist, who has had rare access to interview some of the bandits in their enclaves. “When they are resisted or they lose a member, or they are attacked by the vigilante or the military, they re-mobilise to sack the community.”
Kaya lies close to Hayin Kaura community in Katsina State’s Dandume area, where 80 Islamic school pupils were kidnapped in December 2020.
The attacks, which officials and the media loosely call banditry, have crumbled the world of Nigeria’s northwest, stalling progress against the region’s longstanding education sector crisis with repeated mass abductions of students at schools.
The January fate of Kaya is what several other communities across the Northwest, which has now become Nigeria’s kidnapping hotbed, have endured and it mirrors a pattern: invading communities to kidnap some “valued” residents and forcing families to raise money for ransom. If they are resisted, the bandits would re-arm and return to sack a community.
“It all started with the collapse of the Fulani economy,” said the Commissioner for Home Affairs and Internal Security in Kaduna State, Samuel Aruwan. “This is that a Fulani man, with a dozen children, all dependent on cattle, wakes up one morning and finds that his animals have been rustled. He has no skill, he may not even be able to speak any language other than Fulfulde.
“With easy access to arms in the forest, he would decide to rustle another man’s cattle and it goes on like that. But at a point, they feel that why do they have to go steal cows when they can kidnap the owner and force his family to sell all the cattle to raise money for ransom?”
In the year 2020, 937 people were kidnapped in Kaduna State alone, according to a government report that documented only reported cases. And in the first quarter of 2021, 949 persons were kidnapped, again as reported by the government. The report did not say if the 39 students abducted on March 11 at the Federal College of Forestry Mechanization, Afaka, were included in the statistics.
By May 5, all the students had been released following a deal that officials told PREMIUM TIMES involved a prisoner swap. But while the Afaka students were in captivity, bandits struck at another Kaduna school, Greenfield University in Chikun area, abducting at least 23 students and staff on April 20. They demanded a sum of N100 million for their release.
But amid reiterated vows by Kaduna State Government not to negotiate with the kidnappers or pay them, the kidnappers killed three of the students and left their remains in Kwanan Bature, a location close to the university on April 23.
On April 26, two more students were killed, sparking a wave of outrage across the country. On May 1, one of the students was released following what is believed to be a ransom payment deal by the students’ parents. Others remained in captivity for several weeks before their families paid ransom to free them.
In other cases of mass abduction at schools in the Northwest, 279 girls, said to be aged between 10 and 17 years, were abducted at Government Girls Science Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara State on February 26. That event mirrored a similar attack on December 11, involving over 300 students from a boys’ boarding secondary school in Kankara, Katsina State.
The mastermind of the Kankara abduction, Awwalu Daudawa, was killed in May after a gun duel with a rival gang. He had accepted an amnesty offered by the Zamfara State Government but decided to return to the forest where he was killed.
Apart from invading communities and schools to kidnap for ransom, bandits also lay siege to highways and undertake targeted operations, entering private residences to abduct individuals.
John Bala Gora, who is a community leader in Atyap Chiefdom of Kaduna State, was kidnapped from his Kaduna home after gunmen invaded his residence one late night in 2017, broke his arm and took him away.
“We walked in the bush through the night and what happened between my house and where we stopped in the morning was a hell of a beating,” said Mr Gora. “They kept beating me every night and said they were just interested in money.”
He did not disclose the amount, but he said his family paid a ransom to secure his release.
“I saw dead bodies,” Mr Gora added, recalling that his abductors told him those were the remains of their victims whose family could not pay the ransom. “But they said they also killed those whose families paid ransom, depending on what they just chose to do. Some of them also decided to kill me too but one of them saved me.”
Where bandits attack residences in urban centres, they work with information from urban residents, investigators familiar with arrested bandits told PREMIUM TIMES.
“It is a sort of an industry with different linked roles,” one investigator said. “There are individuals in the cities and towns who identify targets and obtain valuable information on their movements to help the kidnappers. They get paid for the information they supply. The kidnappers or bandits are usually resident in the forests. They don’t know the urban residents and have to depend on individuals, like neighbours and security guards of targets, for information.”
The vast forests straddling the Northwestern states, from the Northcentral Niger State, have long been ungoverned and infested with massive arms, easily traded along cattle routes extending to Nigeria from neighbouring countries, our findings revealed.
“From Birnin Gwari, you can get to Zamfara through the bush,” said Mr Aruwan, explaining that arms could be moved across locations by criminals in the ungoverned space that the forests have become.
He told PREMIUM TIMES that a key part of the government’s response is to combat arms flow.
Two suspected bandits held in custody in Kaduna, Umar Sule, 40, and Musa Sabiu, 35, told PREMIUM TIMES that they travelled to Zamfara State using a motorcycle along cattle routes from Kaduna’s Kachia area to procure a gun. They were arrested by the police just as they were about to cross to their settlement.
They said the gun was bought from one Rabiu, with whom they had operated as cattle rustlers in the Kankara area of Katsina State previously.
In the forests, PREMIUM TIMES learnt, bandits have to keep procuring arms to sustain their operations and protect themselves against rival gangs, vigilantes, and military strikes, thereby becoming hostage to gunrunners.
Apart from having to pay informants, proceeds from abductions mostly go to arms suppliers, our findings revealed, based on interviews with officials and persons with some understanding of the operations of the bandits.
But patrons also sponsor bandits with guns. Mr Gora said his abductors advised him to leave his work and “invest in us.”
He said, “I asked them what sort of investment and they said kidnapping business. They said I would only have to give them guns and ammunition and I would be getting a percentage from their operations.”
Based on our findings from interviews with officials, experts and survivors, the bandits are predominantly forest-dwelling Fulani herders who have now gone rogue.
But a Boko Haram splinter terrorist group, Ansaru, is also active in the northwest forests and has been involved in high profile abductions, officials told PREMIUM TIMES. Our reporter sighted highly disturbing photographs of the fatalities inflicted on the Nigerian security forces by the terrorist group. Ansaru is said to have recruited from rural Hausa communities.
As the kidnapping frenzy continues in the Northwest, emboldened bandits spread their activities to the neighbouring north-central state of Niger and communities on the fringes of Abuja, the country’s capital.
According to PREMIUM TIMES’s count of kidnapping in the media, an estimated 793 people were kidnapped in the North-central between January and May 2021. In 2018 the media only reported 24 kidnap cases in the region. The next year, only 30 cases were reported in the North-central. But the number rose to 135 in 2020 and 793 in the first five months of 2021.
According to the data, an overwhelming majority of the cases within the period (674) were in Niger State.
Other parts of the north
In Nasarawa State, the commissioner of police, Adebola Longe, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, said kidnappers were hiding the vast forests of the state.
“We would ensure that in Nasarawa State, there is no place for any criminal element, particularly the bandits to hide whether in the forest at Keyawu or Maraban Udege or Awe or Farin Ruwa or Nasarawa Eggon or Mada station or Eke in Doma local government,” Mr Alonge said.
Awyetu Jimba was kidnapped, alongside six other farmers, in early May on his way to the farm and taken to Zoni forest, another notorious hideout used by kidnappers in Nasarawa State. He and the other hostages were held for three weeks. He said they were fed once a day with yam their abductors stole from farms in the forest.
“The food was never enough. We walked far distances in the forest during the day and we rested at night. We slept on rocks and itchy grasses with mosquitoes, sometimes under heavy rain, as we changed locations daily until I was released,” he said.
Mr Jimba said his abductors tortured him daily as they grew impatient. He said the kidnappers originally requested a ransom of N5 million, but they eventually agreed to collect N3 million.
“My family was able to gather N3 million for my release with support and contributions from other members of my community,” he said.
The media reported fewer cases in the country’s Northeast, which is contending with the over decade-long Boko Haram insurgency. While Boko Haram is the primary kidnap culprit in the region, Yobe appears to be the kidnapping hotbed of the region with 112 cases reported between 2018 and May 2021.
Kidnapping in southern Nigeria
In the South-west, 264 people were kidnapped between 2018 and May 2020, according to media reports. Just like in other regions of the country, the data showed a drastic increase in the number of persons kidnapped in the region. The total number of people kidnapped in the region rose from 45 in 2018 to 92 by May 2021. Osun State with 50 persons kidnapped between 2018 and May 2021 and Ondo State with 99 persons kidnapped within the same period are the kidnapping hotbeds of the Southwest region.
The South-south used to report the highest number of kidnappings. Militants in Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers states targeted oil expatriates and pirates hijacked foreign sailors and their vessels for ransom.
While there are no official records of the frequency of kidnap incidents and the number of those kidnapped during the time, there appears to be a lull in the kidnap activities following the letup of militancy in the region.
However, the number of kidnap incidents in the region since 2018 is still a major source of concern. According to media reports, 341 persons were kidnapped in the region between 2018 and May this year. The data show that Delta, Edo and Rivers had the highest number of cases in the region with 73, 124 and 95 respectively.
The South-east recorded the lowest number of persons kidnapped of all six geo-political regions of the country with an estimated 77 persons kidnapped from 2018 to May this year.
The Nigerian military has since launched an operation to reclaim the forests of the North-west from the bandits. The governments of at least four states in the region have cut telecommunications networks, suspended weekly markets and restricted the movement of cattle and sale of fuel to support the operation.
Although initial reports indicated that the bandits were beleaguered and moving out of the area, latest reports indicate that they continue to attack rural communities in Zamfara and Sokoto states.
In the South-west, the six state governments have established a regional security outfit, Amotekun, to support the police in the fight against kidnappers. They also passed a law banning open grazing of cattle to check clashes between herders and crop farmers.
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