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Hasannat, a 40-year-old mother of three whose name has been changed for security reasons, was returning from a trip to Kaduna to Abuja on 19 July 2019, when she missed her train. Leaving a seven-month-old baby at home in Abuja, she could not afford to stay over and opted for a road journey. With other eight passengers, she got into a crammed mini-bus for the roughly 190km journey. Around 7pm, at Rijana, just outside of Kaduna, which is a hotspot for deadly kidnappings, gunfire broke out.
A hail of bullets rained on the SUV just ahead, but it was bulletproof and got away.The kidnappers who were clad in military uniforms, frustrated that their target had got away, seized the opportunity that there was a bus in sight with ten people in it. They shot at the bus, brought it to a stop and carted the passengers into the bush.
The kidnappers demanded N50m ($120,340) ransom from each of the victims’ families.
“I told them my family cannot afford N50m. [To pay] it means we have to bring all my village members to them. We don’t even have such money,’’ Hassanat tells The Africa Report.
Poverty and insecurity
In Nigeria, about 80 million of the country’s estimated 200 million people live below the poverty line, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. Coupled with a skyrocketing unemployment rate, which has shattered previous records and now stands at 33%, and shrinking economy, majority of Nigerians face grim economic realities.
These realities have been recently compounded by insecurity, with scattered and complex networks of criminal and terrorist organisations overwhelming Nigeria’s security forces with kidnappings and killings.
Nevertheless, kidnapping gangs operating in rural areas in northern Nigeria often demand high ransoms from families of victims, which leave families and victims financially crippled. Why?
Sources of revenue
Between 2011 and 2013 in the north-west region of Nigeria, the dynamics of the communal rivalry between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and sedentary Hausa farmers changed. Climate change has contributed to the depletion of grazing resources for the herdsmen, which brought a spike in clashes between members of the ethnic groups.
Without government intervention, herdsmen formed amorphous militia groups carrying out kidnapping for ransoms. Since 2018, more than 5,000 people have been killed and many people have been displaced by attacks.
The militia groups are dubbed ‘bandits’, but the government belatedly described them as “terrorist” groups in January.
The groups get money mostly from ransoms paid by families of kidnapped victims and taxes levied on communities in rural areas.
Why target rural areas?
“People living in the rural areas are not poor. They only lead a poor life because they are farmers. Some of them have had millions of naira [in property] for years,” Yusuf Anka, a security expert based in the north-west, tells The Africa Report. “And the bandits know because they are part of the rural economy as herders. You see a herder as young as 18 years [old] and in possession of a 100 cattle [which can cost a hundred thousand naira each].”
Confidence MacHarry, the lead security analyst at SBM Intelligence, says the high ransoms are not targeted at an individual but at a community.
“When they demand such ransom, they are not expecting the individuals to bring it up,’’ MacHarry says. “Their sources of revenue are community crowdfunding and the government.”
The damage done
Mallam Aminu, a farmer in his early forties and father of eight children, was returning to Sokoto from a religious celebration in Zamfara when the bus he was on was ambushed early in March. He said that there were more than 10 passengers on board.
‘’They kept us in the bush and kept beating us every day with a cable. They even injured me on the head,’’ Aminu says, showing his injury. He is reticent, suggesting the events are difficult for him to process. He spoke on the behest of his village head.
The kidnappers demanded N6m and a new motorbike for the passengers.
Aminu’s parents were at the forefront of the fundraising and they were joined by the rest of the community. He says they are still struggling since his release after nine days in captivity.
Security analyst Anka says the high ransoms are in part due to the high costs of running a kidnapping network.
“You see a horde of kidnappers which has 30 gang members,’’ he explains, ‘’So if you give them N10m for instance, it does not mean so much to every individual.”
“[The gangs] fuel their bikes and they get the fuel at a very high rate, pay their informants, buy vouchers, treat the injured, repair their bikes, buy or pay the rent for their arms. The foot soldiers eventually get around N20,000-30,000.”
Where the wealth goes
Most of the gangs are controlled by wealthy leaders.
“When you look at the kidnappers, they look very unkempt and rough. And you are wondering why people who collect millions of naira in ransom look that way. There are higher-ups where this money goes to,’’ SBM’s MacHarry says.
Hassanat, whose three daughters were awaiting her at home, was released after her family came up with N3m in ransom.
“Till now, I have not gone to where I was [financially] because I am still paying debt. When I came out from that place, I was not psychologically stable. I had to be in the hospital for a month because if any time I saw someone wearing military gears, you see me screaming ‘See them, see them!'” she says.
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