Hundreds Are Feared Seized in Nigeria, as Kidnapping Epidemic Worsens


Theirs were already lives of great hardship, in camps for displaced people, after they had fled their homes in Nigeria’s embattled northeast. One recent day, they risked a foray into the countryside to collect firewood — and around 200 of them, some officials said, were kidnapped.

Just days later, dozens of children — if not more — were reported abducted on Thursday from a primary school some 500 miles away in central Nigeria.

Who was responsible was unclear, and the security services have made no statements. The first incident took place in the region terrorized by Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist group with a history of mass abductions. Residents told the local news media that bandits had carried out the second.

But the two had vital elements in common: They involved some of the most vulnerable people in society, and demonstrated the failure of Nigeria’s successive governments and armed forces to bring peace and stability to a fractious land.

Parts of Nigeria, a West African nation that is the most populous on the continent, are plagued by crime and violence, and the 15-year-old Boko Haram insurgency in the north continues. Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok 10 years ago, which set off international outrage, is still an open wound; 98 of the victims are still missing, according to Amnesty International.

More than 3,600 people were reported abducted in Nigeria last year — the highest number in five years, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, though the true number is likely much higher as many episodes go unreported.

The details of the two most recent mass abductions remain extremely murky.

The first occurred in the state of Borno, which has been at the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency. Across the northeast, more than two million people have left behind their homes and livelihoods to seek refuge in camps in garrison towns, where they struggle to scratch out a meager living. The towns are defended by the Nigerian military and surrounded by trenches, beyond which jihadist groups operate.

The people abducted in Borno — many of them women and children — ventured out from one such town, Ngala, near the border with Cameroon, in search of firewood to sell, according to Mohamed Malick Fall, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria. He said they were seized by members of an armed group, who released a few older women and some children under the age of 10.

“The exact number of people abducted remains unknown but is estimated at over 200 people,” he said in a statement.

The House of Representatives member who represents Ngala, Zainab Gimba, put the figure at 300, according to Nigerian news media reports, and she and other lawmakers called on the security services to free the abductees.

But Babagana Zulum, the governor of Borno State, warned that the numbers might be inflated, saying some of those reported kidnapped could have gone willingly, even to join the militants.

“We are yet to ascertain the correct numbers of the abducted victims,” he said. “Some may have decided to go voluntarily.

The incident “is about recruitment” for militant groups, the governor said. “They lost their members and their numbers have depleted, and they are now looking for new recruits and women.”

The abduction was carried out a week ago, but news of it did not become widespread for several days.

“Those who venture beyond the protective trenches surrounding these towns to forage or farm do so at great peril,” Mr. Fall said, “with killings, abductions, forced recruitment and sexual and gender-based violence rampant.” He added that the authorities needed to do more to help displaced people earn a living so they do not have to risk their lives fetching firewood.

Governor Zulum said last month that the government could do no more for displaced communities facing economic hardship, and that the money spent on food and other items for them was already “humongous.”

Mr. Zulum has pursued what analysts have called an “aggressive program” of closing camps and relocating displaced people, despite a lack of security in the areas they are sent back to.

The kidnapping on Thursday took place in Kuriga, a small town in Kaduna State. Residents told the local news media that pupils had just finished their morning assembly when armed men appeared and marched children into a nearby forest. The school had recently relocated from the countryside to the town to improve security.

There was no official statement from authorities as of Thursday afternoon, though a senator, Shehu Sani, said that as many as 232 students could have been abducted, adding in a post on X that he was “optimistic their freedom will be secured.”

Nigeria, a diverse nation of more than 200 million people, faces many complex security challenges, including conflict between herdsmen and farmers, separatist movements, piracy, and violence associated with oil theft, as well as jihadist insurgencies including Boko Haram’s. Kidnapping is a feature of all of them, according to the Nigerian analysis firm SBM Intelligence, and the primary motivation is ransom payments.

Some of these ransoms are paid in cash. Others are paid in food or medicine. Many of the Chibok girls were released in exchange for reported ransoms that stretched into millions of dollars.

Ismail Alfa contributed reporting from Maiduguri, Nigeria.


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