Lagos, Nigeria – It was early in the morning when Aliyu Kagada received the distressing news.
An armed gang, known locally as bandits, had just stormed a dormitory at the Government Science College in Kagara, a town in Nigeria’s Niger state, kidnapping his 18-year-old son, Nurudeen.
Twenty-six other students, as well as three staff members and 12 of their relatives, were also snatched in the raid, while one boy was killed.
The days that followed were agonising for Kagada, a father of 12. “I felt really sad,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep well … I couldn’t eat well; we only prayed.”
After days of tense negotiations with the bandits, the authorities announced on February 27 that all 42 abductees had been released from their 10-day captivity.
Since December 2020, gangs of bandits seeking lucrative ransom have kidnapped a total of 769 students from their boarding schools and other educational facilities across northern Nigeria in at least five separate incidents.
The region has long been afflicted by violence fuelled by disputes over access to land and resources, among other factors. Criminal gangs have taken advantage of the lack of effective policing to launch attacks, pillaging villages, stealing cattle and spreading fear.
But with climate change affecting livestock in the arid north and herdsmen migrating down south in search of pasture and water, these groups – believed to largely be comprised of Fulani pastoralists who collaborate with other nomadic tribes – have recently turned to mass abductions for financial gains.
In the Kagara case, authorities did not disclose if a ransom was paid for the abductees’ release. However, experts agree that the growing instances of mass abductions of boys and girls in the region are an offshoot of a booming kidnapping-for-ransom criminal enterprise that has become one of Nigeria’s main security challenges.
At least $18.34m was paid to kidnappers as ransom – mostly by families and the government – between June 2011 and March 2020, according to a report by SB Morgen (SBM) Intelligence, a Lagos-based political risk analysis firm.
“The motivation of these groups appears to be purely economic,” Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at SBM, told Al Jazeera. “They don’t seem political. The high rate of poverty in this country has led many to resort to such criminal activities for economic survival.”
Kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria can be traced to the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta region in the early 2000s, mainly targeting expatriates. It then spread across Nigeria, where 40 percent of people in Africa’s most populous country live below the poverty line.
Abductors have historically targeted the country’s middle- and upper-class, demanding ransoms between $1,000 and $150,000, depending on their victims’ net worth and capacity to pay, according to police.
In other cases, however, the sums are much larger.
In 2017, authorities announced the arrest of Chukwudi Onuamadike, popularly known as Evans and often referred to as Nigeria’s “richest and most notorious kidnapper”. Police said ransom money was paid to him in “millions of dollars”, with some victims being kept for up to seven months “until the last penny is paid”.
High-profile Nigerians have long been a target. In 2018, John Obi Mikel, the captain of Nigeria men’s national football team, received the news of his father’s abduction just a few hours before a crucial World Cup match against Argentina. Police later rescued his father following a shoot-out with the abductors in a forest in southeastern Nigeria.
In 2015, the family of James Adichie – a renowned professor of statistics and father of award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – paid an undisclosed amount of ransom for his release following his kidnapping on a highway, also in southeastern Nigeria.
Such main roads, especially the notorious Kaduna-Abuja highway, have long been a hunting ground for kidnappers. But in recent times, as the industry took hold in northern Nigeria and the number of casualties associated with it grew, the bandits have turned their attention elsewhere: learning institutions located outside of cities and town where security is often lacking.
“Schools are soft targets,” said Ikemesit. “They target school children as well as women because the incentives behind securing their release are much higher. Also, men are always considered to be in much more position to possess the finances to secure the release of their wives and children.”
Thirty-nine college students are still being held hostage by bandits after being taken from hostels in a March 11 raid outside the northwest city of Kaduna.
The latest bout of kidnappings began in December with the seizure of more than 300 boys from their boarding school in the town of Kankara, in northwestern Katsina state.
The incident evoked memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok that garnered global outrage. More than 100 of the girls seized by the armed group – whose name means “Western education is forbidden” are still missing. Boko Haram said it was behind the December 11 abduction in Kankara, but that claim later proved to be wrong. The boys were released after six days but the government denied any ransom was paid.
While there is no known link forming between the groups, the growing threat of abductions has terrified parents and forced authorities to briefly shut down schools.
“These [abductions] will affect school enrollment in the coming months,” said Henry Anumudu, founder of Sharing Life Africa, a nonprofit that supports quality education and women empowerment in low-income communities, calling school kidnappings an attack on the fragile education system in the country’s north.
Some 10.5 million children in Nigeria are not in school – one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children. The majority of them are in northern Nigeria, according to the United Nations.
“If we can’t solve the problem of insecurity and safety, ensuring that children will go to school and get back home there’s going to be a big problem,” Anumudu told Al Jazeera. “Security is the basic thing right now.”
In the past, the government has launched military operations involving the bombing of suspected hideouts to tackle banditry and rescue victims of kidnappers.
But since the kidnappings spiked in December, there have been no arrests or prosecution. This lack of accountability, combined with the authorities’ failure to step up security and intelligence operations, contributes to a deep-rooted sense of mistrust among vulnerable citizens that puts them at odds with the government, analysts say.
Many have also criticised certain state authorities such as in Katsina and Zamfara for negotiating with bandits and introducing amnesty schemes, saying they should instead focus on protecting citizens in the first place. Negotiations and impunity, critics say, end up encouraging criminal activity as perpetrators know they will be able to at least negotiate conditions for safety or even get paid huge ransoms.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in 2015 on the back of promises to tackle insecurity, has also blamed local and state authorities for the increase in mass abductions. In a Twitter post last month, he said they must improve security around schools and warned the policy of “rewarding bandits with money and vehicles” could “backfire with disastrous consequences”.
But his federal government has also come under fire. Experts say the members of the country’s security agencies are overstretched, poorly paid and underequipped, while the police forces are largely centralised and unable to handle internal security challenges. Others have also criticised the government after it commended “repentant bandits” for playing a role in the recent release of Kankara schoolboys.
“Criminality must be eliminated, not mitigated,” said Dickson Osajie, an international security expert. “Sadly, the government does not have the political will power in Nigeria to achieve that,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Bargaining with the enemy [the bandits] is a sign of weakness,” Osajie added. “Even if you want to bargain, do it from the side of strength by carrying out a risk analysis of what is happening, then you prioritise the risk by attending to each security threats as it comes.”
Anumudu agreed. “We just have to invest in the security of schoolchildren by setting up checkpoints and deploying military personnel across the affected regions,” he said.