By Joe Parkinson and Gbenga Akingbule
KADUNA, Nigeria—The kidnap for ransom business is booming across northern Nigeria, and schoolchildren are its hottest commodity.
Just before midnight on March 11 gunmen barged into a school around 300 yards from a military training college in Kaduna state and seized dozens of students from their dormitories. It took less than 12 hours for the captors to issue a now familiar demand, through a grainy video posted on Facebook.
“They want 500 million Naira,” said one of the terrified hostages from the Federal College of Forestry, sitting shirtless in a forest clearing, a sum equal to around $1 million. Masked men wielding Kalashnikovs paced among the 39 students—mostly young women—then began to hit them with bullwhips.
“Our life is in danger,” a woman screamed. “Just give them what they want.”
On March 13, the Nigerian army foiled an attempt to kidnap 300 more students at a boarding school less than 50 miles away. The following day, children were among a group of 11 people abducted from the town of Suleja, in Nigeria’s Niger state.
This was just one weekend in what has become a routine and brutal business in Africa’s most populous country. Since December, heavily armed criminal gangs have abducted and ransomed more than 800 schoolchildren, rocking Nigeria and drawing calls for urgent action from the U.S. government, the European Union and Pope Francis. Hundreds of school campuses have been closed across four states for fear of more attacks, leaving close to 15 million Nigerian children out of school—more than any other country in the world.
“Kidnap for ransom has become so normalized and institutionalized that it now bears the mark of legal enterprise,” said Bulama Bukarti, a security analyst and columnist with Daily Trust, northern Nigeria’s leading daily. It is even more lucrative, “especially when it comes to children,” he said.
Nigeria’s wave of violent crime is widening an arc of instability that has spread into three of its neighboring countries: Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Kidnappers have benefited from the weapons being taken south from war-torn Libya through Niger and across Nigeria’s border.
One former kidnapper, Auwal Daudawa, who turned himself in to the government in exchange for amnesty, said last month that buying guns in the country’s north was now like “buying bread.”
In the northwest of the country, criminal gangs carry out kidnappings, exploiting the ineffective government and weak security presence. They are dominated by nomadic herders from the Fulani ethnic group, who have been feuding with farmers over access to grazing land for their cattle. The clashes have become increasingly violent, and about 4,000 people have been killed in fighting since 2015, according to SBM Intelligence, a political-risk firm based in Lagos. Over the weekend, a criminal gang attempted to assassinate Samuel Ortom, the governor of Benue state, who has been vocal in supporting the farmers against the herders.
The bandits, as they are called in Nigeria, have become sophisticated and well-armed, using the dense Rugu Forest, which spreads across four Nigerian states and several hundred square miles, as a hiding place and base from which to launch attacks and then hold captives.
In the northeast, Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates as “Western education is sinful,” began the attacks on schools after it declared war on the Nigerian state in 2009. The jihadist group has kidnapped thousands of schoolchildren to terrorize communities and to force boys and girls into its sprawling camps.
The mass abduction that drew international attention was Boko Haram’s infamous kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014, igniting the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
More than 100 of those captives were freed in two exchanges in 2016 and 2017 for a prisoner swap and a ransom of 3 million euros, or about $3.6 million, according to government officials and people involved in the negotiations. The group aims to create a caliphate, and is responsible for the deaths of more than 37,000 since 2009, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank.
Nigerian security officials have raised alarms that there are new signs of integration between the terrorist group and the criminal networks.
Boko Haram released a video claiming responsibility for a kidnapping of 344 boys from a school in Katsina in December. Government officials said criminal groups conducted the kidnapping and Boko Haram played no role, but people familiar with the negotiations and terrorism analysts said the terror group’s role was more significant.
One person familiar with hostage negotiations said Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, Africa’s most wanted man with a U.S. bounty of $7 million on his head, sent emissaries to work with bandit groups to help plot more attacks and to raise the bounty for each abduction—using the fear generated by Boko Haram to induce payment.
“We have established that the jihadists are here,” said Yusuf Anka, a conflict analyst based in Zamfara. “They are inserting themselves, and action needs to be taken quickly.”
Mr. Shekau, who swore allegiance to Islamic State in 2014 and then split from the group in 2016 over theological disputes, has been cultivating alliances with criminal groups, which would give his organization the capacity to carry out terrorist attacks across a broader geography. In recent video messages, Mr. Shekau has claimed that Boko Haram has cells in the northwest, and appeared to address potential new recruits in the regional Fulani language.
Nigerian intelligence officials say that Boko Haram isn’t the only terror group seeking to exploit the nation’s power vacuum, saying that Nigeria’s Islamic State chapter and al Qaeda affiliate, Al Ansaru, are also trying to strike cooperation deals with bandit groups.
The fusion of banditry and terrorism across northern Nigeria is magnifying an instability that now stretches from the Lake Chad region across the Sahel and Sahara deserts and up to Libya.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told Congress last year that Islamic State and al Qaeda were on the march in the Sahel and that there had been a fivefold increase in terrorist activity in the region. Attacks targeting civilians have created hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Trapped between the kidnappers and an increasingly confrontational government are civilians, who just want their family members back unharmed.
“Right now it’s hard to see a way to put a stop to it,” said Fulan Nasrullah, a terrorism analyst who has advised government officials on the kidnappings. “If they don’t pay the money they are prepared to kill the children.”
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general who won back-to-back elections on a promise to restore security, said recently the region is facing a profound crisis and has urged regional governors to stop paying ransoms.
Nasir El-Rufai, governor in Kaduna state, where the kidnapping from the forestry college took place, has pledged publicly that he wouldn’t pay ransoms to release hostages, which is worrying the victims’ families.
“They must pay the ransom,” said Lovina Odige, whose brother is among the hostages. “If these students were the governor’s children he would do everything to get them back.”
There has been no more public communication since the video published a day after the abduction. On Monday,, more than a week into the students’ captivity, hundreds of parents and students gathered at the college campus to demand the government do whatever necessary to bring back the captives.
“We have seen this kind of ugly event happen in Katsina, Zamfara and Niger states and swiftly the governments acted and ensured the safe and timely rescue of the victims, so why is our case different?” the parents said in a written statement. “Why should our innocent children pay for the failure of government to provide security of life and property?”
The federal government has pledged sweeping new security measures to combat the violence. Earlier this month, the governor of neighboring Zamfara state, Bello Matawelle, announced a deployment of 6,000 federal troops to attack bandit camps in the Rugu Forest. The governor also announced a ban on more than one person traveling on a motorcycle, the outlaws’ favored means of transport.
Previous efforts to ban motorbikes in the northeast, where Boko Haram has used them for raids and suicide attacks, have been largely unsuccessful since so many people depend on them for transportation.
Also earlier this month, Mr. Buhari announced a no-fly zone over Zamfara state—security officials say light aircraft have flown into the north carrying weapons for the bandits—and said anyone seen carrying a gun in the Rugu Forest would be shot on sight.
The pivot to a militarized policy comes after several local governors backed an amnesty and dialogue with criminal groups led by so-called repentant bandits. Some hostages have been released after an exchange of prisoners, money or supplies such as vehicles.
At the center of the mediation policy is Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a leading Islamic cleric in northern Nigeria who appointed himself as a negotiator working to secure the release of victims of kidnapping. Mr. Gumi argues that 80% of the bandits could be forced to lay down their arms through dialogue and amnesties to address their grievances, a claim that has been met with skepticism across much of Nigeria.
The governor of Niger state, Abubakar Bello, said this month that policy had largely failed as some of the criminals used government money to “purchase more weapons.”
The kidnapping and ransom of 279 girls from Jangebe high school in Zamfara state last month is a study in the violent new business model now operating across northwest Nigeria.
Shortly after midnight on Feb. 26, 15-year-old Habiba Ilyasu awoke to the sound of gunfire as dozens of heavily armed men stormed through the campus gates. Habiba and her classmates were corralled into lines by the gunmen, and within minutes were forced to march into the Rugu Forest in a long column.
“When we slowed down, one of them would run back to beat us with tree branch,” Habiba said. “I was barefoot. Only about five of us had slippers.”
The group walked for hours deeper into the forest, their feet and ankles lacerated by the rough terrain.
Some 100 miles away, at the residence of Mr. Matawelle, the Zamfara governor, officials frantically tried to deduce which of the region’s myriad criminal groups had taken the students, and waited for them to make contact.
Mr. Matawelle, who had spearheaded an amnesty policy offering money and vehicles to repentant bandits, had appeared on local radio months earlier to give a hotline number for bandits to call.
After two days, a message came from the gunmen holding the Jangebe girls.
Back in the forest, Habiba and her classmates were again trekking at gunpoint. They noticed many of their captors were scarcely older than them. The kidnappers offered them food—but threw sand into it. They refused to give them water, so they were forced to dig with their hands and suck wet soil. “We drank directly from the ground, just like cows do,” she said.
When the group halted, the gunmen brought another group of seven hostages, and Habiba recognized her father, who was bound and blindfolded. Three months earlier, four members of Habiba’s family had been abducted from their village by the same criminal gang that raided her school. Habiba began to cry on seeing family members she thought were dead.
“I was shocked,” Habiba said. “I began to cry, but my elder sister, Raliya, told me to be quiet because the bandits would beat me.”
Hours later, she could safely move closer to her father, who was still blindfolded and didn’t know she was there. He had been wounded in his shoulder, and blood was seeping through his shirt. “Baba,” Habiba said she whispered to him. “Is it my Habiba?” he replied.
Her father said the kidnappers suspected the family of belonging to a civilian militia that had tried to resist and told her not to reveal her family village.
They were soon separated, as Habiba and the Jangebe girls were marched to another location.
The schoolgirls weren’t aware, but talks to secure their freedom were advancing. The Zamfara governor’s team of mediators, led by two repentant bandits who were once senior kidnappers, were hashing out an agreement of money and an exchange of criminals being held in the local jails with representatives of the kidnappers, according to a person familiar with the talks. A delegation had traveled on motorbikes into the forest and met the abductors’ negotiators.
Two days later, Habiba and three other hostages saw the kidnappers firing their rifles into the air in celebration. “They said it was because a ransom was paid and that we could now go home,” she said.
Zamfara authorities deny that they paid a ransom.
When Habiba got home, she explained to her mother and uncle that her father and sister were alive. The Zamfara governor promised to intervene to resolve the case. Ten days later, they too were released.
“I will go back to school once it’s safe,” Habiba said. “But the kidnaps have to stop. They are happening everywhere here, every day, to everyone.”
SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL