Caught between the Boko Haram insurgency and deadly farmer-herder conflicts, kidnapping and banditry are gaining a foothold in Nigeria’s northern areas.
On March 13, Muhammed Usman took a bus from from Gusau, the capital city of Nigeria's north-west state of Zamfara, to see his family in Dangulbi, a small farming community about 50 kilometres away.
Half an hour into the trip, the bus came under a heavy fire. A fully armed gang of 18 members shot at the travellers from the front and rear end of the vehicle for several minutes. Usman grabbed a child who sat next to him and crouched down beneath the seat, covering him with his body.
As the gunfire stopped, Usman found the child had died in his arms.
“The bullet struck his head,” Usman told TRT World. “I didn’t know I was the only person who survived except when I saw the blood and corpses.”
The mother of the child died in the same incident - and apart from Usman, not one person survived the shooting.
The assailants were young – drawn largely from Nigeria’s emerging kidnapping cartels - whose brutality has worsened over the past one year. They rode motorcycles, brandishing AK47s, G3s, AK-49s and machete
A 50-year-old primary school teacher in Zamfara state, Usman was taken as a captive, blinded, handcuffed and led into the woods.
“We drove deeper and deeper into the forest. We trekked when the road got bad,” he said. "We were at the centre of a thick forest when my eyes were opened. It took us five hours. It was already late in the night.”
Usman was detained in a small hut, his body strapped with a chain. A young, armed guard stood outside to keep an eye on him. Several other men and women were detained in separate huts.
Usman’s is one among hundreds of kidnapping cases taking place in Nigeria every year. It is difficult to place precise figures and numbers on the crime as a result of a lack of fact-finding measures and sometimes, the clandestine nature of the crime. At any rate, kidnapping cases, beyond its changing dynamics, are now more widespread. That, at least, is what increased media reports indicate.
Days in the kidnappers Den
Over the course of Usman's first night in the unknown forest, he heard human voices, rustling in the bushes and intermittent gun shots from afar.
At daybreak he was fed with rice and salt – an unexpected show of kindness from a group that had gunned down innocent people including children the previous day.
But it didn’t take long for the group to switch back to brutality. “Almost every hour someone threatens to kill you. And they kill sometimes,” Usman said.
More days passed. Usman learned the forest was a safe haven for several other kidnapping groups. For Usman's kidnappers, he was a rich man who could fetch an initial ransom of $555,000 (200 million naira). In the end, they settled on $4,150 and let him go.
The kidnappers are open to negotiating the ransom money but if the victim's family refuses to pay or fails to raise the money, they show no remorse in killing and dumping the body in the forest. There are places of torture too, where victims are pressured with cruel punishments to comply.
“Even far from the trench I could feel the strong smell. The guard said I would be killed and dumped in that place if I don’t cooperate,” said Usman.
Usman said the kidnapping cartels have cultivated resources to gather intelligence on civilian movements, military operations against them and their alliances. The Nigerian military has consistently raided villages and forests in the northern states of the country to weed out organised criminal syndicates.
“They [the kidnapping cartels] predicted military operations at least three days ahead of time,” Danladi Mohammed, who was kidnapped in late March, told TRT World.
Mohammed was released 18 days later after his family paid a ransom. When asked how much he had to pay to be free, he refused to disclose the amount, saying that could expose his financial standing and make him a soft target for other kidnapping groups.
Many victims TRT World spoke to quoted $1,000 to $10,000 as the average money paid to kidnappers for the release of each captive In a country where more than 86 million people live below the poverty line, such cartels are becoming attractive for the country's unemployed youth.
It doesn't take much to buy a couple of guns and organise a gang. The government on the other hand has a loose grip on rural areas where such criminal enterprises thrive.
“Each of the group have boundaries and leaders in the forest. There is no corporation or aggression between them. But if one group release you, the other can still re-abduct and the victims have to pay a new ransom,” said Mohammed, who was kidnapped with his wife and daughter.
Negotiating Ransoms with families
Not much is known about the emerging kidnaping cartels, not because kidnapping is new in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, but because it is taking root in the northern part of the country, a region less known for this sort of crime. The abduction of over 250 school girls in northeastern state of Borno, the hub of a decade-long insurgency by Boko Haram in 2014, was the first major imprint of kidnapping in northern Nigeria in recent history.
The country's southern parts has long been grappling with the scourge of kidnapping gangs. It's commonplace for wealthy Nigerians, oil workers and expatriates to be targeted by kidnapping cartels in the country’s oil rich Niger Delta. But the police made a crucial breakthrough two years ago, when they arrested billionaire kidnapper kingpin--Chukwudi Dumeme aka Evans.
Dumema ran one of the most powerful kidnapping syndicates the country has ever known and after his arrest, several other cartels in the region, especially around the oil-rich Niger Delta where expatriates are particularly targeted, came under the police's stranglehold.
While the kidnapping gangs in the south largely targeted the elite, the north is facing a completely different style of abductions: the kidnappers block the roads, ambush buses and cars full of travellers, and enter villages to take men and women at gun point. They don't even spare poor households, including farmers, teachers, small time traders and drivers.
“Because of this pattern, the kidnapping in the north is different from what we used to know, ” Khalid Salisu, a Gusau-based journalist covering the crisis, said.
The government has launched several military operations in the region since 2017 - focusing on the north-western states of Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna Niger, Kano and Sokoto.
Security experts say the cartels have gunned down at least 300 captives this year.
Resolving a complex problem
Many experts see the sudden rise of kidnapping cartels as a consequence of Nigeria's major security challenges that emanate from the presence of the deadly terrorist group Boko Haram and the longstanding farmer-herder conflict, which has killed more than 4,000 people since 2011.
According to Lagos-based security analyst Nnamdi Anekwe-Chive the cartels not only recruit locally but also hire assailants from neighbouring countries.
“My studies show there over 1,000 foot paths that can lead you in and out of Nigeria which are not formally protected,” Anekwe-Chive said, “When you join that to lack of political will, its normal to have this crisis.”
For Anekwe-Chive, the government can still rein in the kidnappers and their cartels if it first recognised that its existing military approach is not comprehensive.
“A comprehensive approach is needed, which I believe can solve the crisis and create jobs, good governance, poverty alleviation, tighter control over the flow of arms and strong border control,” he said.
“The police are making a lot of effort. The police have launched some combined military operations with other military agencies which has helped to curtail the attacks,” said Gambo Isa, Spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force in Katsina, one of the worst-hit states. “We have recorded a lot of success, though the attacks and kidnapping hasn’t stopped altogether. It might take more time because we have challenges with manpower.”