Kaduna, Nigeria — Nigerian lawmakers are set to vote on a bill criminalizing ransom payments after reports that payoffs were made to resolve a series of mass kidnappings. The bill, which would impose stiff prison sentences, is being criticized by relatives of kidnap victims.
In Kaduna, many kidnappings have taken place recently.
Paul Mshelia and his wife woke up on the morning of March 12 to the frightening news that their son had been kidnapped from a forestry college in Kaduna state during a late- night attack.
Twenty-nine-year old Yahaya Mshelia was taken along with 38 others and marched through the bush. They trekked for 21 days with few stops until they arrived the captors' camp.
"If you get tired, they just kill you and continue moving. You can't just say you're tired, they waste [kill] anyhow. So, no matter how tired you are, you just have to keep moving," Mschelia said.
The most recent attack on schools in Nigeria came last Friday, when gunmen abducted 279 schoolgirls from a government secondary school in northwestern Zamfara state
Yahaya said they were usually exposed to harsh weather conditions and even wild animals like hyenas and snakes, especially at night.
They were eventually released in early May. Two sisters, Victory and Rejoice Sani, were among the kidnapped students.
They say while they were held, the bandits contacted school authorities and demanded a $1.2 million ransom from the government.
"When they told us that they don't need our parents' money, we were a bit relieved because we thought that since it's government, we will not stay long there," Sani said.
But the government did not pay the ransom and strongly opposes ransom payments, saying it only makes the kidnappers more powerful.
The parents of the kidnapped victims later negotiated and paid about $100,000, according to Samuel Kambai, head of the parents' association.
"There's no, how we'll fold our hands and watch our children in the bush and then you tell us that anybody who negotiates the life of his child will be persecuted," said Kambai.
This month, Nigerian lawmakers are expected to vote on a controversial bill introduced in May to punish those who pay ransoms by up to 15 years in prison.
Security expert Ebenezer Oyetakin supports the government's bill.
"It is a very difficult decision, but it is a decision that is worth taking because actually when you pay this ransom ... you have empowered them to purchase more bazookas, AK-47s and things of that nature and would encourage others who would also want to venture into it," Oyetakin said.
But the parents of kidnap victims like Friday Sani oppose the bill.
"If I have what to do to get my children out and I refuse to do because somebody is threatening arrest, it is better I do it, let my children come out and be under the roof of their father, let the government arrest me, then we'll meet in court," Sani said.
Since late last year, armed groups seeking ransoms have kidnapped an estimated 1,000 students from northern Nigerian schools.
While most have been freed, the lives of hundreds still held by captors hangs in the balance.