Why are entire schools being kidnapped in Nigeria?
More than 600 Nigerian children have been kidnapped from their boarding schools since December, with three separate attacks carried out in the past month alone. The recent abductions join a growing list of attacks and kidnappings in Nigeria’s north carried out by bandits, criminal gangs or Islamist groups on African victims. Ransoms are not new to Africa, but abductions of entire schools have never been so prolific. When Islamist Group Boko Haram (name loosely meaning ‘Western education is a sin’) abducted almost 300 girls in 2014, the kidnapping was presented as a deliberate offence on women’s education. But the continued attacks from non-affiliated criminal groups suggests the true motivator is something less ideological; money and poor governance.
Kidnapping and ransom are not uncommon in Nigeria. Bandits and criminal groups have long targeted the relatives of esteemed and famous Nigerians, leveraging their wealth and notoriety to demand ransom payments. New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and former President Goodluck Jonathan have all had family members captured in return for money, cars, or weapons. Yet, the capture of 276 girls from their boarding school in Chibok by Islamist group Boko Haram in 2014 permanently altered the targets for criminal groups. Boarding schools, often on the edges of towns, became easy targets for mass abductions, with bandits opting for a higher volume of captives, often from poorer backgrounds. It’s estimated $18 million was extorted from the Nigerian government in the past decade alone, with the majority coming in the past five years.
Though they often deny it is the case, governments offer ransom payments in the form of cars, weapons, cash or houses for the safe return of captives. Corrupt governors are also expected to be skimming ransom payments while simultaneously benefitting politically from captives' safe return. It’s a dangerous cycle. The practice has earned criticism from President Muhammad Buhari, who recently tweeted that offering payment has the “potential to backfire with disastrous consequences.”
As each attack seems to spur another, he may be right. The Chibok incident demonstrated to criminal groups that stolen children get better media coverage than the relatives of famous Nigerians, and as such provides them with stronger leverage to pressure officials to act faster and reap the benefits. Paradoxically, helping to free the school children bolsters local politicians’ political standing, a situation even Buhari has been guilty of exploiting. He still leverages the popularity that came with saving many of the girls from the Chibok abduction to shield himself from criticism over his current handling of affairs. More recently, he coordinated a photo opportunity with the boys who returned safely after being taken from Kankara State, reaping the political gain from their return despite little involvement in securing their freedom. While politicians of all levels may decry the practice of offering ransoms, there’s no doubt they all benefit from the process.
Where is the Government?
While money motivates the criminal groups, it’s poor governance that allows them to flourish. Governors eschew security responsibilities, heaping it on to the military. However, Nigeria’s military is underperforming and overstretched, not aided by the vast range of issues currently occupying their attention. The Gulf of Guinea, a coastline that Nigeria shares, is one of the world’s most piracy-ridden oceans, clashes between farmers and semi-nomads are causing thousands of deaths, even more than those caused by Boko Haram, who are experiencing a resurgence in Nigeria’s North-East. It’s more than a logistical headache. Buhari announced new Military Commanders in January with the aim of remedying the situation in the Gulf, but the changes are surface level and don’t tackle the military’s poor infrastructure and organisational issues. In the face of criticism, a Senior Military Commander turned his attention to the besieged communities, saying they “shouldn’t be cowards,” insinuating that it is the responsibility of individual communities to protect their schools from bandits.
Although a $20 million project with the UN to protect schools in the North-East was welcomed after the Chibok incident, the abduction of 110 girls from the region in 2018 has led many to question the efficacy of the program. As a result, some are demanding tougher penalties for kidnapping whilst some suggest offering amnesty and economic opportunities to bandits. Despite an array of options, the government seems to lack any clear plan to tackle the banditry and kidnapping. In the face of inaction, communities are losing faith in their government’s ability to protect them. In the North East, where Boko Haram has since made a return, towns claim they warn the military of impending attacks, yet rarely receive defence from their already thinly stretched military. Though not unsurprising, the military’s inability to help even when there is a known attack is deeply concerning. The continued attacks on schools are not merely an outcome but a symptom of wider dysfunction and incompetence.
What does it mean?
Some experts predict the COVID-19 recession will lead to more business for kidnappers, as out of work youth get enticed by criminal behaviour. The flow-on effects will be devastating, not just for victims, livelihoods, and community safety, but also for education. As kidnappings become more commonplace, parents are beginning to worry about sending their kids to school, undoing the decades of hard work to increase educational opportunities, particularly for young girls in the region. Young people leaving school earlier, with lower educational attainment and fewer job opportunities also risks creating a deadly cycle that fuels more crime and banditry. Abubakar Mansur, a civil servant whose son was recently abducted in Kankara, said that he's not willing to risk sending his son back to boarding school now that he’s home safe. Unless Nigeria can tackle the issue quickly, the story of Mr Mansur’s son risks becoming a sad story shared by more.
Cassius Hynam is the Regional Correspondent for Sub-Saharan Africa. He has previously interned at the Grattan Institute and is currently a Graduate Economist within Victoria's State Government.