MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA — Africa’s most populous nation is grappling with an unprecedented kidnapping crisis.
In its deadly campaign to carve out an Islamic caliphate, the US-designated terrorist organisation, Boko Haram, popularised mass abductions during its decade-long war against the Nigerian government, which to date has claimed the lives of almost 350,000 people.
On the 14th of April, 2014, less than two months after killing 59 high school boys as punishment for attending school, the jihadists stormed onto the campus of another high school in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State and made off with 276 female students. They used the students, now known as the Chibok Girls, as a bartering tool to make demands – including the release of their fellow mujahideen in prison – from the Nigerian government.
In public, the Nigerian government insists that it will not negotiate with Boko Haram or pay ransoms. However, in a secret deal brokered by the Swiss government’s foreign ministry, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a small team of local mediators led by a lawyer based in the state capital of Maiduguri, the Nigerian government reportedly paid the equivalent of more than $3.5 million to get 103 of the Chibok Girls released between 2016 and 2017.
Since then, other criminal groups across the country have used kidnappings as a way to gather huge sums of money. Boko Haram claims to be purely motivated by its religious ideology, referring to the payments not as ransoms but as ihsan, a local word that conveys the practice of giving a token of appreciation. The insurgents demand families to pay an ihsan as an ironic gesture of gratitude for keeping their loved ones alive.
Nigeria’s murky kidnapping for ransom (known as KFR) industry has boomed in recent years. It’s an intricate, underground sector where there are no clear rules, no regulation, financial transactions are paid in cash and communication between parties are discreet. Security analysts have noted increasing collaboration between Boko Haram militants and other criminals in recent months to execute mass abductions.
“Kidnappers in Nigeria and across the Sahel can be an extraordinarily lucrative enterprise in what is one of the poorest regions in the world,” explained former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell.
In the last decade, Nigerian kidnappers have made at least $18 million.
In response, some local governments have closed schools and parents have withdrawn their children from many of the ones that remain open.
Abductors rarely face legal prosecution, raising suspicions among the Nigerian public that the kidnappers could be supported by people in government. Such suspicions are not unfounded. Earlier this year, local media reported that police had arrested a community leader for aiding kidnappers. Later, it was reported that a soldier and seven security personnel were also involved in assisting abductors.
The wave of abductions has sparked outrage across the country, specifically in the northern region where both Boko Haram operate in the harsh terrain of the vast semi-arid Sahelian landscape in which wide spans of seemingly ungoverned spaces leave families remarkably vulnerable.
In August, kidnappers released scores of children they had abducted at gunpoint in May from an Islamic school in Nigeria’s north-central Niger State after parents delivered $140,000 and gave motorcycles to the kidnappers, as part of the exchange deal. In March, a college in north-central Kaduna State became the third academic institution attacked this year by gunmen who went off with more than 30 students. They were eventually released but the government did not reveal if a ransom was paid. Local media reported that a state government paid the equivalent of $76,000 to kidnappers who had captured more than 300 schoolboys last December.
This year, more than 2,000 families of those kidnapped have been left with a choice: find a way to pay a ransom or watch their loved one die.
In January, an electronic appliances repair worker in northeastern Nigeria’s Yobe State was suddenly hit by this harsh reality when his younger brother was taken.
“A very unfortunate incident happened to my brother on his way to Maiduguri. He was kidnapped by Boko Haram around eight or nine in the morning,” Abdullahi Bawa said. “A week before he travelled, there was confirmation that the road was secured by military personnel. That was one of the reasons that motivated him to go.”
The Nigerian Army, in conjunction with an ad-hoc coalition of police officers, vigilantes and paramilitary forces known as the Rapid Response Squad, patrol checkpoints along the roadways to protect citizens from Boko Haram, but the risks remain high. The militants lurk nearby, often waiting for sundown before ambushing commuters.
Bawa’s brother, Muazu Babaji, left his home in Damaturu, a low-lying town some 80-miles west of Maiduguri. The Maiduguri-Damaturu Highway has become notorious for Boko Haram activity. The two-lane federal road effectively divides the two major sects of the terrorist organisation and the jihadists frequently visit the hamlets along the street to buy goods to take back to their camps.
“It is our core duty to ensure that anybody that follows this Maiduguri-Damaturu Road, that he will be protected,” Abioye Babalola, the commanding officer of the Rapid Response Squad and the Chief Superintendent of Police in Borno State said.
The squad, commissioned by the Borno State government and Borno State Police Command in 2020, is stationed along the 83-mile long Maiduguri-Damaturu Highway, the most dangerous one in the entire country – at least 100 people have been abducted there in the last year, including a wedding party and a young bride. It is the only open road connecting Maiduguri to the rest of the country and every day, dozens of company trucks carrying commercial goods embark on it. Other alternative roads are impassable due to even heavier Boko Haram presence.
Bawa eventually located his brother’s car abandoned on that highway. One of the tyres was busted; part of the rim was cracked; the car was pierced with bullets; some of his brother’s embroidered hats were still inside, along with his prayer mat and his copy of the Quran.
Babaji is popular in his community. Known as a fun guy he played football with the kids in the neighbourhood. A sorghum planter, he was active in the local farmers’ association. He had recently gotten married.
On his mobile phone, Bawa received a proof-of-life video of his brother who appeared seated on a mat and pleading for the Nigerian government to come to his aid. He tried seeking help from local government officials and friends, but nothing came out of it. At times, the government attempts to rescue hostages but some of those efforts fail.
To fill in the gap of the government’s repeated failures to free the captured, about half a dozen hostage mediators have emerged to help families whose loved ones have been taken either by Boko Haram or other militant groups.
The mediators operate in utter secrecy and one of them, a 25-year-old young woman named Ummu Kalthum, is not only the youngest but has become one of the most successful. In two years, she’s worked toward the release of 11 people.
In March, she was able to secure the release of Bulus Yekurai, a Christian pastor from Chibok who Boko Haram had taken in December 2020. After weeks of negotiating directly with Boko Haram to agree on a ransom, Kalthum was given the signal by the jihadists to meet them in an undisclosed location where she delivered about $15,0000 in cash and came back to Maiduguri with the dazed man.
Apart from Yekurai, Kalthum had several other cases to work on this year and Bawa’s brother was one of them. She focused on his negotiations as part of a batch of a total of 10 hostages. Kalthum encouraged Bawa to raise whatever he could afford. “We will go and sell our properties and pay,” Bawa told VICE World News. His family is stretched thin. He barely makes $50 a month, repairing radios and other small appliances. “And if it is beyond our means, we’ll give up. There’s nothing we can do, no matter how much we love him.”
“They have to be released together,” Kalthum explained. “If it’s not together, if two or three families are ready [with the money], the rest might be killed.”
After launching the eponymous, privately-funded charitable organisation Kalthum Foundation For Peace in 2017, she began addressing some of the needs within her community in Borno State, such as education for girls and women empowerment. But, she somehow found herself tackling kidnappings. She keeps the details of how she initiated contact with Boko Haram as a closely guarded secret.
Her first success was in 2019 with the release of a young mother-of-two. “I’m usually the first contact for the families of abductees,” she said. “People seek my assistance to help them negotiate with the insurgents...I have good rapport with the insurgents.”
Last year, Kalthum received a video from Boko Haram that showed the beheading of a popular Christian pastor whose case she was working on. Kalthum said the violent murder was the militants' response to her suggestion for a lower amount than what had initially been requested.
“Most of the time they request 10 million naira (around $20,000). It can’t be lower than that,” she said.
The demands are getting higher – $50,000 in one deal and up to $500,000 in another. She claims that she receives no financial benefit from these exchanges. At times, she helps the families to raise money by reaching out to public officials herself.
After the amount is agreed, Kalthum waits for the meeting location and then makes her way there – usually a remote locale far away from Maiduguri. Some in the Nigerian government are aware of her work and lend her support; she needs clearance from the Nigerian military and intelligence agency to carry out her operations. However, she ensures that the insurgents do not see her as an agent of the state.
The Borno State government told VICE World News that they work directly with Kalthum but denied knowledge that ransoms have ever been paid.
In a controversial bid to shut down the KFR industry, in May, Nigerian lawmakers introduced a bill to the Nigerian parliament that would criminalise ransom payments. Those who pay ransoms or facilitate payments could face 15 years in prison under the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Bill.
“We do not under any circumstance encourage the payment of ransoms to kidnappers, or other criminals, as it is tantamount to rewarding crime and motivating other criminals to follow that path," Senator Ezenwa Francis Onyewuchi declared from the floor of the Nigerian senate.
The bill faced opposition from the Nigerian public. Former public officials and security analysts described it as hypocritical and drew attention to an open secret: the government has paid ransoms. Across the airwaves, social media and on popular local television news broadcasts, pundits condemned the move as another emblem of government incompetence.
The bill is currently on the desk of President Muhammadu Buhari and if passed, Kalthum could face prison time. But she also knows the dangers of not paying.
“If you don’t pay, they will kill them,” she said.
Kalthum – who describes the insurgents as “people just like any other” rather than as terrorists – walks a fine line as a hostage negotiator. She is aware that her work raises ethical questions and could be seen as financing terrorism. But, she insists that she is only trying to save lives. A few months ago, a young woman named Tope Bayo came to her, seeking help for her husband Eric who had also been captured on the Maiduguri-Damaturu Highway, in February.
Kalthum needed to clear Bawa’s case before she could move forward to assist Bayo. For the batch of 10 hostages that included Bawa’s brother, Boko Haram demanded $2 million and gave Kalthum a date in May, after Ramadan, as the deadline to deliver the cash.
Towards the end of May, Kalthum snuck out of Maiduguri to meet the insurgents for the exchange. Five days later, she returned, shaken by the ordeal and said she was robbed by a rogue group of insurgents and was not able to retrieve anyone.
In June, she tried again. It worked. She came back with all 10 hostages, including a Christian cleric who had been held captive for seven months. She claims that no ransom was paid.
Bawa reunited with Babaji. On a grainy cell phone video, shared with VICE World News, the brothers are seen embracing and holding hands with beaming faces. Bawa said he is thankful for Kalthum's life-saving intervention. Meanwhile, Bayo still goes to church every week, praying for her husband’s freedom.