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Nigeria Needs A National Hostage Crisis Negotiation Framework

The country needs a hostage crisis management framework and system to tackle the kidnapping epidemic and network of intermediaries.

The absence of an effective deterrence system, a national hostage crisis lead agency, and a negotiation framework has encouraged the proliferation of kidnapping for ransom and mediators in Nigeria. 

Nigeria is battling an alarming level of kidnapping and abductions, including the targeting of school children. Financial incentives or agitations mainly fuel the kidnapping epidemic, as is the case in parts of the Northwest, the oil-rich Niger Delta, and the Northeast.  

Another factor contributing to a surge in abductions is the complete absence of a strategy for hostage rescue by elite military squads. 

Kidnapping for ransom was an enterprise previously associated with the targeting of expatriate workers in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region.  However, It has rapidly spread to different parts of the country.  

HumAngle analysis of data from the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project launched in 2011 by the Council on Foreign Relations, indicated that 1,015 people were kidnapped in the first half of 2020. This increased to 2,842 in 2021. 

ACAPS, an independent specialist in humanitarian needs analysis and assessment,  estimates that between December 2020 and June 2021, over 1,000 students and staff have been kidnapped in nine school abductions. 

Abductors in these regions comprise mainly gangs of marauding criminals and terrorists on motorcycles abducting locals and travellers; demanding ransom depending on the abductees’ contacts, bargaining skills, and capacity to pay. At the same time, a lot of cases are managed by unskilled and unofficial mediators or intermediaries.

The payment of ransom by state actors and non-state actors, including relatives, employees, and community groups of abductees, has become a matter of ethical debate and concern because of its role in providing criminals and terror groups with resources that prolong insecurity as well as incentives that encourage copycats.

This is growing into an ‘industry’ with contractor businesses emerging from kidnapping for ransom, which has a high success window for the criminals and minimal success for the police working to contain the situation across the country.

According to an SBM Intelligence report titled ‘Nigeria’s Kidnap Problem: the Economics of the Kidnap Industry in Nigeria,’ between June 2011 and March 2020, at least $18.34 million was paid to kidnappers as ransom in Nigeria. 

The Lagos based think-tank added that “Even more frightening is that the larger proportion of that figure (just below $11 million) was paid out between January 2016 and March 2020.”

The abducted students of Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation, Afaka, in Kaduna were reported to have been released after a ransom was paid. Similarly, the parents of kidnapped students of Greenfield University in Kaduna State paid ransom to facilitate their release. 

The deal to release the Chibok schoolgirls, which occurred in two batches in 2016 and 2017, was reported to have involved the freeing of five jailed Boko Haram fighters and payment of three 3 million euros, delivered in two drop-offs.

‘The first exchange would be a secret, all agreed. But a bystander posted a photo of the young women as they went free, which went viral on social media. In retaliation, Boko Haram delayed the second release by six months, during which time, it said, two of the girls decided to join the group,’ The Wall Street Journal said.

HumAngle understands that the injection of cash obtained after abductions by Boko Haram or its splinter Islamic State West Africa (ISWAP) provides the group with financial resources that contribute to oiling the wheels of the terror organisations. 

A report published in August 2018 said ransom and the predominance of cash economy were providing oxygen for the insurgency around the Lake Chad region. The report cited the kidnapping of 111 schoolgirls from Dapchi in Feb. 2018 and subsequently released by ISWAP on 21 March, 2018.

However, investigations by HumAngle revealed that the Dapchi school abduction remains the most controversial release of hostages in Nigeria. ISWAP returned the girls – except for one of the schoolgirls, Leah Sharibu – to the school premises without any incident, insisting on no ransom payment. Their action was based on instructions from ISIS, who are ISWAP benefactors, said the group in internal communications.

However, senior security sources insisted that large bags of money meant for the negotiations left Abuja. The controversy led to the execution of Mamman Nur, ISWAP’s grand Khadi, for accepting two million naira from intermediaries; Nur was killed before receiving an additional eight million, according to multiple internal audio communications by the terror group.

Terror groups continue to demand ransom in exchange for aid workers’ release and other categories of people abducted at checkpoints or during violent attacks on garrison towns and humanitarian facilities.

The Nigerian parliament attempts to prohibit ransom payment through a bill titled Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Bill 2021, which has already passed the second reading. 

The bill, which wants to criminalise ransom payment by seeking to substitute Section 14 of the Principal Act, reads: “Anyone who transfers funds, makes payment or colludes with an abductor, kidnapper or terrorist to receive any ransom for the release of any person who has been wrongfully confined, imprisoned or kidnapped, is guilty of a felony and is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment of not less than 15 years.”

This move doesn’t solve the inability of security forces to prevent abductions, conduct rescue operations, address the mostly unofficial process of negotiations or the factors motivating the perpetrators.

Whether the government is directly involved or chooses to look the other way as transactional negotiation provides money to criminal networks across the country, a policy review with strict rules of engagement that aligns with national security objectives is urgently required. Therefore, it is imperative to mandate one agency to lead and curate all assets and resources deployed in every mass abduction crisis management across the country.

The agency will harmonise hostage negotiations by government and private entities, which could eliminate the activities of commercial intermediaries and strengthen intelligence gathering during the process. 

The mandate of this agency is to ensure that none of its actions should undermine military and national security targets and objectives with a focus to prevent, detect and disrupt such abductions from taking place. 

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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