Kidnapping in Nigeria has evolved into a lingering security threat that feeds a vast network of criminal and Islamist groups.

From July 2022 to July 2023, at least 3,620 people were abducted in Nigeria. That’s according to an analysis of Nigeria’s kidnapping industry published by SBM Intelligence, an Africa-focused consulting company.

Mass abductions are also common, with an average of six people taken for every kidnapping incident.

Kidnappers demanded ransom totaling at least 5 billion naira ($6.4 million or €5.8 million in June 2023) from July 2022 to June 2023, the report found. However, as a sign of Nigeria’s struggling economy and soaring unemployment, only $387,179 was paid in ransom. That is considerably lower than the $1 million paid from July 2021 to July 2022.

Who is behind the kidnappings?

Various groups are involved in the kidnapping business in Nigeria.

Firstly, there are the violent criminals and armed gangs, known as bandits, who have emerged across northern Nigeria. These groups have evolved in the past two decades from roving brigands often involved in cattle rustling and local raids to organized gangs of criminals involved in drug and arms smuggling. These groups are now engaging in mass kidnappings of local villagers and schoolchildren for ransom.

The northern region, and in particular the northeast, is also plagued by Islamic militants, such as the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Boko Haram. The latter is infamous for the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014. Boko Haram, in particular, targets girls and young women, who are often living in boarding schools or university hostels.

Several armed groups are also active in the oil-rich Niger Delta, one of the most polluted places on earth. These often have their roots in the militant groups that formed in the 1990s to pressure the government to address oil pollution and endemic poverty as a result of ruined farmlands. While the abduction of foreign oil workers often makes headlines, government officials, the children of prominent individuals, and other high-net-worth individuals quickly became targets.

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What do the kidnappers want?

Many of the abductions are driven by economic desperation and used as a way of raising funds. Kidnappers mostly ask for money as ransom, although at times, they have demanded foodstuffs, motorcycles and even petrol in exchange for the release of those abducted.

Motorcycles are “an easy, less-demanding economic tool for many unemployed northern youths and relatively easy to use for terror attacks,” finds the SBM Intelligence report.

Sometimes, however, the kidnappings have a political motivation. Many see the abductions carried out by Boko Haram as a way of signaling its strength to both the government and the Nigerian population. Others say that the targeting of young women in schools and colleges by Boko Haram, whose name literally means “Western education is a sin,” is a way of frightening them off continuing their education.

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Who is kidnapped?

Kidnappers tend to target several distinct groups. Firstly, there are the vulnerable, such as women out collecting firewood, school children, or unprotected villagers living in remote regions far from police or security forces. These are often mass abductions.

Then there are high-value individuals such as current or former government officials, family members of high-profile people such as politicians, and wealthy individuals.

Catholic priests have also emerged as a high-risk group, with priests even being snatched during services. The abduction of 21 priests from July 2022 to June 2023 illustrates how Catholic priests are perceived as a lucrative source of income, presumably because of the Church’s resources.

Numeorus Nigeria army trucks are parkd on the sand and dried grass in front of a school in Chikun, Nigeria.
The army investigates yet another mass kidnapping of schoolchildren in Nigeria, this time in Chikun in central Kaduna StateImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu


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