Nigeria is currently facing extreme insecurity, from the prevalence of Boko Haram to a recent increase in bandit-related crime. The poor socioeconomic status of northern Nigeria and the rampant corruption of the government and the military contribute to the continuation of the conflict in the region. There are also increasing suspicions that Nigerian authorities commonly pay ransom money to kidnappers, further incentivizing criminal groups to rely on abductions as a source of income. The recent kidnapping and subsequent release of 279 Nigerian schoolgirls in the state of Zamfara have fuelled these suspicions, as it is unlikely that the girls would have been freed four days after being kidnapped without financial incentive.
Kidnapping Rates in Nigeria
Kidnapping is now commonplace in Nigeria, happening in some places on a daily basis. Since December 2020, over 600 students in northwest Nigeria have been abducted from their schools. The recent schoolgirl kidnapping was the second mass kidnapping in the past three weeks, as twenty-seven boys were taken with their teachers on February 17th. The boys have also been released.
In May 2020, a Nigerian consulting firm, SB Morgen, released a report on the economics behind the kidnapping business in Nigeria. They found that between June 2011 and March 2020, there had been over USD 18.34 million paid in ransom money, the majority paid in recent years, indicating a rise in ransom payments and profit behind the illicit activity. Additionally, it is not only organized criminal networks and terrorist organizations perpetrating the kidnappings but also small, ad hoc groups, indicating the extremely poor security conditions Nigeria faces. The negative impact COVID-19 has had on Nigeria’s economic conditions has further increased kidnapping for ransom, as there are limited employment options and rapidly increasing poverty rates.
Ransom Money Fuelling the Problem
Although President Muhammadu Buhari denies supporting ransom payments, various government bodies have been known to pay ransoms, raising the question of how bending to the criminals’ demands could encourage further kidnappings. In the case of the most recent Zamfara kidnapping, Buhari admitted that the state government was involved in paying the ransom money for their release. It is possible that the federal government was involved in this too, although they will not admit it.
If Nigerian authorities continue to pay criminals for the release of kidnapped victims, it will reinforce the idea that kidnapping for ransom is an effective method of income. Payments also encourage other actors to join in on the activities if they have no other source of income, knowing that they will most likely be paid (ie. rewarded) for their actions. For this malicious cycle to end, paying ransom money should not be the go-to solution. Instead, the socio-economic and security situation in Nigeria – particularly in the northern region – should be addressed to curb the common occurrence of kidnappings and abductions.
A Reactive vs. Proactive Government Response
While President Buhari agrees that paying ransom money should stop as it promotes kidnapping, his words are not enough. Paying ransom money is technically illegal in Nigeria, but the government is not strong enough to effectively enforce this law. Many see the widespread kidnapping for ransom as a result of the administration’s failure to address Nigeria’s ongoing security concerns. Nigeria has extreme corruption problems throughout the government and military that have negatively impacted the country’s internal security. The rampant corruption has also affected the international community’s willingness to help the Nigerian government, as foreign actors are wary of where their aid is ending up.
The Nigerian government is currently acting in a responsive rather than proactive way. The government should not try to counter the insecurity with more armed forces, as the country is already extremely militarized. They have tried this tactic repeatedly and it has never worked. Rather, it would be beneficial to restructure the security system in the country. Some have pointed to the fact that the federal government has the most control of the police and army, leaving governors with limited control of the security within their states. The lack of effectiveness of state forces to keep regions safe has prompted non-state actors to take it upon themselves to provide security. These self-made militias often clash, further deteriorating the country’s security.
If the federal government decentralized the military, it could encourage state governors to implement measures that would be beneficial to their specific states and subsequently discourage ransom payments made by governors when they feel there are no other alternatives. Additionally, the security sector as a whole needs to increase its transparency to ensure that the money invested in it is being used in an effective way.
Acting proactively would also mean taking measures to improve the socioeconomic status of regions where crime is high. Between 2017 to 2018, the unemployment rate of youth in Nigeria rose from 18.8% to 23.1%. The SB Morgan report pointed to youth unemployment as one of the main factors of increasing bandit kidnappings. Youth unemployment goes hand in hand with the closures of schools due to militant groups and insecurity. This cycle could be broken if reopening affected schools was a top priority for the government, allowing everyone in the country the right to an education.
Promoting economic growth by investing in the northern region of the country could provide more job opportunities for people, and subsequently discourage local ad-hoc groups from turning to kidnapping. Currently, the government’s funding to the defence, police, and interior sectors is almost equal to the funding invested in education, health, and infrastructure combined. This shows how the government is still stuck on militarizing its response to the country’s problems. There needs to be a shift in priority towards funding development if the situation in Nigeria is going to change, as a lot of the violence has been fuelled by economic grievances and poverty.
Almost all of the industries in the north have been negatively affected due to the presence of armed groups including Boko Haram. Specifically, the tourism and hospitality industries in northern Nigeria have plummeted, as the prevalence of violence discourages investment and travel to the region. Improving internal security would have long-term positive effects not only on the population but on the country’s economy as well.
While the issue of security in Nigeria is complex, with many underlying factors, if the government acts proactively to prevent kidnappings, instead of reactively with ransom payments, it will benefit the country’s long-term security situation. Moving forward, it looks as if reforming the country’s security infrastructure to be more decentralized, transparent, and effective is key to building the foundation needed to address the structural inequalities and poverty in the region. Improving the socio-economic conditions would in turn decrease the kidnapping industry, provide other economic opportunities besides crime, and hopefully encourage the future development of Nigeria.