Abductions are rife in the north of the country, where armed gangs target schools and colleges with apparent impunity
When his two daughters were abducted from their university dormitories by armed men in April, Friday Sani volunteered to deliver the ransom. In two bags he carried banknotes to the value of more than 40m naira (£70,000), the price to free Victory and Rejoice, and 37 others taken from the Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation in Afaka, Kaduna.
In April and May more than 70 students were abducted from the federal college and the nearby Greenfield University. With little faith that police could help, a group of parents went to the kidnappers, through an intermediary, and paid to get their children back.
“I personally went with the provost of the college to a location in the Giwa local government area. I held the two bags myself,” Sani says. Those young people were returned. Five from the Greenfield group were killed.
Kidnapping has become endemic in northern Nigeria. Bandits – heavily armed militants, many of them ethnic Fulanis – are waging their own insurgency, killing, abducting and terrorising impoverished communities. The lawlessness has evolved from years of conflict between farmers and herders, fuelled by economic crisis, police inaction and the authorities’ refusal to intervene.
Some state governments in the north have made controversial peace deals with the bandit gangs to stop the violence but many see these agreements, widely suspected to include money, as simply incentivising criminality.
Since the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirlsin 2014, abductions by armed groups have become a highly lucrative crime, with ransom demands of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Children are prize targets. The groups face minimal resistance at boarding schools and universities and have grown bolder, with some kidnappers cultivating a celebrity image, making ransom demands on radio stations and granting interviews to journalists.
There is a crisis in education today but the impact will be over the next seven to 10 years for Nigeria
After each kidnapping, a network of negotiators emerges, including clerics, former militants and security forces personnel. When the federal college students were kidnapped, the families sought the help of Sheikh Ahmad Gumi.
Gumi, an influential if controversial imam and government critic based in Kaduna, has close connections with the gangs and has acted as a go-between in several cases.
The parents say Gumi gave them contact details for former bandits who claimed to know the kidnappers. Some parents suspected the intermediaries were working with the gang, especially when ransom demands suddenly rose.
Gumi told the Guardian that his connections with the gangs did not mean he agreed with, or financially benefited from, kidnappings. “Parents approached me and I tried to appeal to the bandits,” he says.
“Many of them [bandits] are very young and they are angry because they say they do not get justice, when farmers and some of these communities are going after them.” He says the farmer-herder conflict had pushed many Fulanis to banditry. “This is difficult to hear in Nigeriabut there are real grievances,” he says.
“There’s no way this can end without dialogue. We have to come to a settlement, or else this situation, as we are seeing it, will get much worse.”
More than 2,000 children and young people have been abducted in Nigeria this year, according to the UN. The most recent incidentwas in Zamfara in September when 73 pupils were abducted from a secondary school. In July, 140 pupils at Bethel Baptist high school in Kaduna state were snatched, although 25 escaped.
Peter Hawkins, head of the UN children’s agency Unicef in Nigeria, says the insecurity is causing an education crisis, setting back gains made in pupil retention, particularly among girls.
“There was a girls’ school in Zamfara where 300 girls were kidnapped and the impact of that was the other parents saying, ‘we’re not taking kids to school.’ There is really a serious crisis in education that is happening today but the impact will be over the next seven to 10 years for Nigeria,” says Hawkins.
Kidnappers are becoming more brazen in their attacks, undeterred by the consequences they could face.
The attack on Greenfield University was led by a criminal known as “Sani Jalingo” and often referred to as “Baleri”, who initially demanded 800m naira (£1.4m) for their release. He is thought to have also led the kidnap at the forestry college.
When the money was not forthcoming, the kidnappers killed five of the young people and then called Nasiru Adamu El-Hikaya, a presenter on the Voice of America Hausa radio station. In the call, part of which was broadcast, Jalingo boasted about the abductions, then forced some of the kidnapped students to make an appeal to their parents.
“He called and said he’s ‘Sani Jalingo the kidnapper’. He said he had something to say and had asked for my number, so I decided to record him,” says Hikaya.
One of the students forced to appeal was Hamza Nasiru, 25. “I think he was crying,” Hikaya says. “He was asking for help. When you are talking from the den of kidnappers and you get an opportunity to talk to someone that can raise alarm, you will do it because your life depends on it.”
If I had my way, I would move my children out of this country
Jalingo sounded “reckless”, Hikaya says, and on a high. “He was laughing, boasting. He was comfortable in what he was doing, saying he believed he is doing the right thing, that he’s even proud to be a kidnapper. He was saying the weapons they usually get could defeat the military. That they are really like the government of the forest, of the bush.”
Ahmad Idris, Nasiru’s uncle, was distraught. “He is almost like my own son; I felt it like as if it was my child.”
When, soon after the kidnap, the abductors called the students’ relatives and issued their demands, some parents got in touch with the authorities; others contacted Gumi. All of the surviving students were eventually released.
Nasiru is slowly recovering from the trauma, his family says, and is waiting to continue his education. Greenfield University has relocated its campus to a more secure site in Kaduna town, while plans to move the forestry college have also reportedly been drawn up.
Many communities affected by the kidnapping gangs have been dismayed at the lack of government support. The fact that the kidnappers are often not pursued even after ransoms have been paid has caused a lot of anger.
It was a struggle for Sani and the other parents to find the ransom money. Many sold all their possessions. But after the students came home, the security forces “didn’t even bother to dig further to find the kidnappers”, says Sani. Victory and Rejoice have not yet resumed their studies.
“If I had my way I would move my children out of this country for education,” he says. “Our major concern is how our children can get back to school.”