Kidnapping for Ransom Drives Economic Hardship in North West Nigeria

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The combination of instability and criminality is having a dramatic effect on the lives of people in Nigeria. It is estimated that in the past year over 70,000 civilians from North West Nigeria have fled their communities to find refuge in the Niger Republic while more than 210,354 people have been internally displaced in 171 towns across the region. Much of this has been driven by motor-cycle riding armed groups known as “bandits”.

Conceptualising and defining these groups is complicated. They are not religiously and ideologically motivated like Jamaa`atul Ahlis Sunnah (JAS) or Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) – radical Islamic terrorist organisations that have themselves generated almost 3 million internally displaced persons in Northeastern Nigeria. They also lack a strong and centralised leadership or international affiliation. Instead, their main motivation appears to be financial and the modus operandi is opportunist. 

In other words, these groups are looking to boost their income by carrying out activities such as extracting ransoms from the victims of kidnapping, as well as cattle rustling and “tax collection” – i.e. extortion – from local communities. Thus while there is no evidence of a direct link with ISWAP or JAS, bandits appear to be borrowing some of their tactics including extracting rents, sacking communities, and taking hostages that are only released when a payment has been made.

The crisis can be traced back many years, and has evolved out of cattle rustling activity that started over a decade ago, but the matter became significantly worse in early 2016 when the bandits started attacking local miners in Zamfara communities. Since then, the attacks have spread out and now affect the entire North West region, especially the border area with Niger Republic. 

While the human rights dimension of this crisis has been well covered, its impact on local livelihoods has received much less attention. In this article, I look at the economic pain caused by banditry, and why the response of the government has so far been woefully insufficient.

The impact on livelihoods

North West Nigeria is how to approximately 35.8 million people, with around  25.75% of the total population of Nigeria living across the seven states of Katsina, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, Zamfara, Jigawa and Sokoto – a sizeable landmass of some 216,065 squares (National Population Commission, 2006 census). The majority of the population (85%) are farmers, with others engaged in trade and commerce and animal husbandry.

The activities of bandits has caused significant disruptions to these economic activities. These groups sometimes operate by mounting checkpoints and surrounding agriculturally based communities, denying local farmers access to their farmlands if they do not pay a “tax”. Many farmers that I have talked to lament that the group warned them that they would be risking their lives if they sought to cultivate any piece of farmland without permission. In some cases, communities have been providing $800-$1000 to armed groups just to be able to harvest food for their families. In other areas, farmers have abandoned their lands, and have been reduced to street begging.

In addition to pushing communities into poverty, the disruption of agricultural production has created rising food insecurity. A classic strategy of the bandits is to set homes and grain stores on fire as a way to intimidate individuals into paying up. Early in 2019, the former Governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari, is reported to have said that nearly 500 villages and  13,000 hectares of land had been destroyed, and 2,835 people killed, between 2011 and 2018.

The escalating scope and scale of these activities has forced up the price of food, hurting all Nigerians: the Consumer Price Index report for June 2021 records that month on month food inflation skyrocketed to 21.83%.

Local trade and revenue generation suffers

Banditry has also disrupted the lives of local traders, who, fearing attacks and abduction, feel compelled to remain indoors. In some cases, traders have simply abandoned their businesses and relocated to other areas. This may be an extreme response, but it is also an understandable one because the costs of remaining can be very high indeed. On 26 May 2021, for example, an armed group blocked the road, stopping local cattle traders heading to the Garin Gadi weekly market in Sokoto state, and robbed them of money and goods worth around ₦12,000,000. This loss not only impacted the traders, but also those who rely on the market for their livelihoods.

Another weekly market was stormed by hundreds of heavily armed bandits in the Birnin Tsaba village of Birnin Magaji Local Government Area in Zamfara State in March 2020. In this incident, bandits fired sporadically on local traders, killing a number of individuals, before setting the market ablaze. In an interview with staff of the ministry of local government and chieftaincy affairs – who spoke on anonymity revealed – I learned that from 2017 to date revenue generation within some of these local government areas has fallen by as much as 40% compared to previous years.   

Paying Ransom Push Economic Hardship

A recent proposed piece of legislation proposed to deal with these issues to threatening to the friends and families of kidnapping victims who pay ransoms to free their loved ones. In a recent article, I argued that this was unfair, pointing out that many Nigerians pay ransoms because they have lost hope that the security forces will respond effectively. Instead, there is a growing fear that some of those who are supposed to be protecting citizens are really working as collaborators and informants to the armed groups.

As a result, the cost of ransom payments will continue to increase. A report by Southern Kaduna People Union reveals that about ₦900,000,000 was paid as ransom by poor, vulnerable and defenceless people from January to December 2020. According to a second report by Dataphyte, the high cost of ransoms, and the frequency with which communities are being forces to find large sums of money to pay to kidnappers, has pushed many into even greater economic hardship, increasing the level of poverty.

Worse still, the cost of kidnapping continues to rise. It is now estimated that total ransom fees in 2020 were around ₦1,025,635,000, a steep jump from the ₦68,400,000 paid in 2018. Furthermore, SB Morgen estimates that ₦13,500,000 million was paid in ransoms from January to May 2020 alone. One of the worst aspects of this crisis is that it generates fresh cycles of poverty, as people sell their farmlands and properties in order to pay ransoms, and so lose their ability to make money, sinking deeper into debt and hardship.

Response from Government

The Nigerian government has launched multiple military operations in the North West region to curtail the menace of banditry menace from 2019 onwards, including ‘Operations Puff Adder’‘Diran Mikiya’‘Sharan Daji’‘Hadarin Daji’‘Thunder Strike’ , ‘Exercise Harbin Kunama III’ and most recently Operation Exercise Sahel Sanity. These operations led to the killing of 220 bandits and the rescue of 642 kidnapped victims from captivity. The troops also destroyed 197 bandits’ enclaves, killed the notorious armed leader nicknamed “Dangote” – of the eponymous “Dangote Triangle” in Katsina – and arrested 335 suspected bandits and 326 illegal miners in Kebbi, Kaduna, Niger, Zamfara and Katsina states.

But these efforts have not stopped the attacks. Now that the genie of banditry has been let out of the bottle, it will take more than sporadic military operations to put it back. As a result, state-level governments are trying alternative startegies. In July 2020, Mustapha Inuwa, the Secretary to the Katsina State Government, announced that his state had spent about $73,000 (₦30,000,000) on an amnesty program for repentant bandits and cattle rustlers before the scheme collapsed. Inuwa further explained that the reason for the collapse of the programme was that the bandits kept reneging on agreements, betraying their promises to the government.

In the absence of an effective state response, Nigerian citizens are being left to fend for themselves. This increases the risk that bandit attacks will spark cycles of violence as local communities seek to set up their own militia, and threatens to create a situation in which bandits, rather than the government, enjoy a monopoly of control over the economy and the political system. If something is not done urgently to restore law and order to these regions, North West Nigeria will reach the point of no return.

Idris Mohammed is an investigative Journalist and researcher on extreme terror and violent extremism in Nigeria. He tweets @Edrees4P.

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