Nigeria: Kidnapping and Ransom Payments in Nigeria

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On February 17, a gang of "gunmen" kidnapped more than forty students, teachers, and administrators from a secondary school in Niger State. At least one student was killed. Niger State Governor Abubakar Sani Bello has appealed for assistance from President Muhammadu Buhari, who has ordered all four service chiefs to go to Niger State to coordinate rescue operations. In December, "bandits" kidnapped some three hundred schoolboys from a school in Kankara, located in Katsina State. There have been several other mass kidnappings, though none has acquired the international notoriety of the 2014 kidnapping of more than two hundred school girls from a school in Chibok. (More than one hundred are still missing, but some recently escaped.)

Most--not all--of these mass kidnappings appear to be purely mercenary. These kidnappings are different from Boko Haram attacks in the past decade where the goal was to kill those who were benefitting from Western education. In these recent instances, kidnappers are after ransom, and appear to try to keep their victims alive. Nigerian federal and state authorities always deny paying ransom. Yet they often do so. Schoolboys and bandits involved in the Kankara abduction contradicted official denials that ransom was paid. Reports suggest the Katsina State government paid N30 million (about $76,000) to recover the schoolboys. Hence, the expectation should be that unless the Kagara victims are quickly recovered, which is unlikely, either the state or federal government will pay ransom to secure the release of those who have survived.

Kidnapping in Nigeria and across the Sahel can be an extraordinarily lucrative enterprise in what is one of the poorest regions in the world. "Bandits" particularly prize citizens of the European Union. As rich countries with governments susceptible to emotional public opinion, EU member states can pay enormous ransoms while always denying that they are doing so. Jihadi and criminal networks overlap in the Sahel, so kidnapping can also provide both funding and manpower for jihadi groups. At Kankara, Boko Haram's Abubakar Shekau claimed his group was behind the kidnapping, though it appears to have been purely a criminal enterprise.

The United States as a matter of policy never pays ransom. The U.S. government had previously threatened to prosecute private individuals who seek to do so. Refusing to pay ransom may provide some cover for American citizens that find themselves in the Sahel. However, Americans are few in number in those areas where kidnapping is rampant.

NOTICE: Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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