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Fighting Nigeria's Kidnapping Industry

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It happened again. Hundreds of girls were kidnapped from their boarding school in northwestern Nigeria. They were released a few days later. The week before, dozens of children and staff were taken from a boarding school. In December, more than 300 boys were abducted. Kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria, once seen as an aberration, has now become more like a growth industry, with local officials involved or seemingly powerless to stop it. We're joined now by Bulama Bukarti. He is an analyst with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where he leads the team on sub-Saharan Africa.

Welcome to the program.

BULAMA BUKARTI: Thank you very much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you have, on the one hand, kidnappings on these sort of industrial scale, but there are also many smaller-scale kidnappings that go unreported. Why has kidnapping become so common and part of a business, almost?

BUKARTI: In Nigeria, no day passes without a village raided by kidnappers and people taken. Travelers stopped on the road and some of them abducted. Criminals and terrorists have come to understand that - not only that there are no consequences to crime, but it indeed pays.

Family members are forced to sell off their properties, farms, houses to pay off criminal gangs or terrorists. But also, governments have been reported to have paid to get abducted individuals released. A case in point is the Chibok girls who have become a household name in the U.S. when they were taken in 2014. There are credible reports saying the Nigerian government paid at least $3 million to their abductors to release about a hundred or three of them in 2017 and 2018. And finally, Nigeria's security agencies are very weak. In some cases, you have over a hundred villages being covered by just three police officers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why are impoverished schoolchildren often targets? I mean, what makes them so attractive?

BUKARTI: It's almost counterintuitive for poor children to be abducted, but there is a reason for that. Abducting schoolchildren brings a lot of media attention and put diplomatic and media pressure on the government. And at the end of the day, governments will go to criminals and terrorists, kneeling down and begging for the children to be released. And it is at that point that they make demands for money.

Number two, children cannot defend themselves. And Nigerian boarding schools are so exposed, located on the outskirts of town in the bush. And they do not even have proper fencing, no security presence. And therefore, it is very easy to invade them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we know that after these kidnappings, it really impacts the communities and the children. These kids get treated differently - don't they? - when they get returned. And it really fractures families.

BUKARTI: These children go through a lot of trauma in the hands of their captors. Some of them get beaten mercilessly. They're exposed to sleep in the cold for days or even weeks without food. Some of them get raped. We know some of the Chibok girls that returned came back with children. And then when they come back to the society, many of them get stigmatized in the communities.

Secondly, the first thing you see after attacks like these is shutdown of schools. Even as we speak, at least five states in northern Nigeria have shut down all their public boarding schools. That's hundreds of thousands of children out of school. Some of them, especially girls, when there are disruptions like this, are just married off young. And so they never go back to school. And even boys amongst them - some of them never go back to school.

As we speak, there are 10.5 million Nigerian children out of school. And with every attack, this number continues to swell. I mean, by and large, Nigerian children are unfortunately - and their parents - being forced to choose between their lives and their education. This poses the risk of creating a lost generation of Nigerians that will affect not only the future of those children, but also that of the whole country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What needs to happen, in your view, to stop the kidnappings?

BUKARTI: Long-term, non-security efforts must be put in place. And this includes addressing the socioeconomic circumstances pushing people to criminality and terrorism. In this part of the country, over 70% of the population lives far below the poverty line. Over 70% did not go to school. So they are uneducated. They are unemployed and unemployable. That has to be addressed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Bulama Bukarti. He's an analyst with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and a columnist for the Daily Trust, one of Nigeria's largest papers.

Thank you so much.

BUKARTI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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