Saturday, 25 Mar 2023

Ahead of Crucial Election, Security Crises and Kidnappings Plague Nigeria

A 61-year-old civil engineer was supervising a digging project on a farm in southern Nigeria when five young men carrying AK-47s stormed the place and dragged him into the bush.

For five days, the kidnappers held the engineer, Olusola Olaniyi, and beat him severely. Only after his family and employer agreed to pay a ransom was he released, in the middle of the night, on a road a few miles away from where he had been kidnapped.

Nigeria has faced an outbreak of kidnappings in recent years, affecting people of all ages and classes: groups of schoolchildren, commuters traveling on trains and in cars through Nigeria’s largest cities, and villagers in the northern countryside. With youth gangs and armed bandits finding that kidnapping for ransom produces big payoffs, such crimes have only multiplied.

As Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday to choose a new president, insecurity is the top issue facing the country, according to a survey by SBM Intelligence, a Nigerian risk consultancy. Between July 2021 and June 2022, more than 3,400 people were abducted across the country, and 564 others were killed in kidnapping-related violence.

“Insecurity has become a function of Nigeria’s economy,” said Mr. Olaniyi, whose family paid about $3,500 in ransom after he was kidnapped in 2021. “Many young men see kidnappings as a job.”

This epidemic of kidnappings is just one of multiple security crises that are creating levels of violence unseen for decades in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, with nearly 220 million people.

In the northeast, militants with the extremist groups Boko Haram and local affiliates of the Islamic State have killed at least 10,000 people in the past five years, and displaced 2.5 million people.

In the northwest and northern center of the country, armed gangs known as bandits have stolen cattle, kidnapped thousands of people and forced schools to close for months to keep students safe.

In the southeast, separatist movements have attacked dozens of police stations, prisons and courthouses.

And in July, in the country’s capital, Abuja, militants from the Islamic State West Africa Province broke into one of the country’s most secure prisons and freed hundreds of detainees.

“In the past, Boko Haram was Nigeria’s main security problem,” said Nnamdi Obasi, a researcher with the International Crisis Group, based in Abuja. “Now we have three or four of those major crises.”

Muhammadu Buhari, the departing president and a former general, was elected in 2015 in part on promises that he could get the violence under control. He has now served the maximum of two terms, and claims to have scored some successes in the northeast against Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province.

But violence has grown more widespread. In the last year alone, armed groups killed more than 10,000 people, according to a tally by the International Crisis Group.

Now election officials must secure more than 176,000 polling stations for the vote on Saturday. Threats to polling stations could discourage voters from showing up. Fifty electoral commission offices were attacked between 2019 and 2022. A senate candidate was killed on Wednesday in the south of the country, according to news reports.

The three leading candidates have all pledged to tackle insecurity, whether by recruiting more security personnel or upgrading the military. But many analysts argue that these promises remain vague and fail to address the root causes of the insecurity, such as poverty and unemployment.

The kidnappings have stymied Nigeria’s development — displacing families and disrupting farming (leading to hunger), slowing infrastructure projects, and limiting trade and employment, since travel has become risky throughout the country.

Last year, Nigerian lawmakers made kidnapping punishable by death if the victims die, and made paying ransom illegal. Yet in practice, little has changed. Between July 2021 and June 2022, more than $1.1 million was paid in ransom, according to SBM Intelligence. The ransoms, even small ones, are painful in a country where more than 60 percent of the population lives in poverty.

“It’s taking people’s entire savings,” Idayat Hassan, the director of the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development, said about the ransoms.

The kidnappings have been especially frequent in the northern state of Kaduna, where last March, gunmen attacked a train connecting Abuja to the city of Kaduna. Officials had boasted that the train route was safe.

Regina Ngorngor, a 47-year-old librarian, was in a first-class coach and hid under a seat when the gunmen ordered passengers to get out. She was later rescued by the Nigerian military, but at least eight people were killed and 26 injured in the attack. Dozens of kidnapped passengers were released months later.

Ms. Ngorngor took the risk of hiding under the seat because she said she knew what would have awaited her. Eight months earlier, her 17-year-old son Emmanuel was studying for a chemistry exam at his boarding school, when gunmen stormed the building and kidnapped him, along with dozens of classmates.

For three months, Ms. Ngorngor said, she waited for news while Emmanuel was detained in a camp run by bandits who would only negotiate with the school’s principal.

Only after paying 1.5 million naira, about $3,280, was she able to free him.

Emmanuel, now back home in Kaduna, said he hopes to study medicine in college. He said he struggles to fall asleep at night and often wakes up from nightmares.

Ms. Ngorngor said that after the train attack, she stayed at home for a month, too afraid to go out. She has since traveled back to Abuja, but by road — even though, because of kidnappings, the roads are more dangerous than the train.

Abductions in Ms. Ngorngor’s state of Kaduna and in neighboring Zamfara are still happening daily, so many that “you lose track,” said Malik Samuel, an Abuja-based analyst with the Institute for Security Studies. In the last quarter of 2022, there were 1,640 abductions nationwide, according to Beacon Consulting, a security firm.

Mr. Olaniyi, the civil engineer in Ibadan, said he would vote on Saturday, but he wasn’t sure yet for whom or whether it was worth it. No candidate cared about people’s security, he said, turning his wrists up to show the scars left on his arms by his kidnappers’ beatings.

“You can only survive on your own in Nigeria,” he said.

Oladeinde Olawoyin contributed reporting.

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