‘I Have to Save Lives’: Meet the Hostage Negotiator Who Deals With Boko Haram

Ummi Kalthum has negotiated the release of over 20 hostages, but now she could be facing criminal charges for her work.
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Ummi Kalthum in Nigeria. (Photo by Roberto Daza for VICE )
Ummi Kalthum in Nigeria. (Photo by Roberto Daza for VICE )

The Nigerian government is trying a new approach to its escalating kidnapping crisis: It’s going after the family members and negotiators who pay ransoms to secure hostages’ release.

A new bill would criminalize the act of paying ransom with up to 15 years in prison—and critics say the bill punishes families who feel they have no other option to get their loved ones back. Some of these families work with a 25-year-old named Ummi Kalthum, who’s negotiated the release of over 20 hostages, making her one of Nigeria’s most successful negotiators. 


“There are some times when I made up my mind to stop,” she told VICE News. “[But] people will continue coming and pleading. So what do I do? I have to save lives.”

Kalthum is operating in a murky, clandestine industry, a legal gray area without clear rules or regulations. The spike in kidnappings has been driven largely by Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS and declared war against the Nigerian government. As part of their war, they started carrying out mass abductions upon realizing that kidnapping for ransom was a lucrative business. 

In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 students from a girls’ boarding school in Chibok, which provoked a massive global campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls.” Though the Nigerian government denies it pays ransoms, the equivalent of more than $3.5 million was paid to Boko Haram to release 103 of the girls. 

Since then, Boko Haram has continued abductions, and other criminal groups in Nigeria have followed suit, seeing kidnappings as a way to amass huge sums of money. Kidnapping for ransom has exploded as an underground economy involving the kidnappers, the government, the abductees, and the negotiators, who navigate a high-wire act: serving as a last point of hope for families, while ferrying funds to the terrorist groups that abducted their loved ones in the first place.


“She's saving lives, but sometimes I don't think it's worth doing,” Ummi’s adviser Dr. Mohammed Sani told VICE News. “If it is too much, you end up arming [Boko Haram].” 

But Ummi says there’s no other choice. “If I say no, nobody will talk on behalf of these victims,” she says. “And if they stay long, they will be killed.”

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This story was produced by Jen Kinney.

For more, watch VICE News video reported and produced by Chika Oduah, Joe Hill, and Roberto Daza.

SPECIAL THANKS to Joe Hill, Sean Stephens, Craig Thomson, Julia Steers, Roberto Daza, and Abdul Kareem Haruna

VICE News Reports is hosted by Arielle Duhaime-Ross and produced by Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Sophie Kazis, Jen Kinney, Janice Llamoca, Julia Nutter, and Sayre Quevedo. Our senior producers are Ashley Cleek and Adizah Eghan. Our associate producers are Steph Brown, Sam Eagan, and Adreanna Rodriguez. Sound design and music composition by Steve Bone, Pran Bandi and Kyle Murdock. 

Our executive producer and VP of Vice Audio is Kate Osborn. Janet Lee is Senior Production Manager for VICE Audio.


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