Nigeria: Kidnapping, Corruption and Catastrophe


March 29, 2021: With the new year comes another period of widespread kidnapping. This is not unusual, as the main drivers of kidnapping, opportunity and means, have been present in Nigeria since independence in the 1960s and the rapid growth of oil income. All that oil money created a culture of corruption that is now recognized as the core problem in Nigeria. Periodically there is rapid growth in kidnapping for ransom until it becomes such a general nuisance that it subsides.

The current kidnapping epidemic started back in 2014, in northern Borno State when Boko Haram raided a boarding school near Chibok and kidnapped over 200 teenage girls. Since then Boko Haram has continued to use kidnapping to obtain hostages for ransom or trade or to use as slaves.

By 2018 the Christian pirates operating off the southern coast added kidnapping for ransom to their usual “robbery” tactics. The pirates kidnapped more often, taking officers and key crew members with them as they fled a large tanker or cargo ship anchored off a major port waiting for an opportunity to dock and load or unload cargo. The hostages were held for large ransoms. For a while such kidnappings were rare because local security forces could usually locate the kidnappers and free their hostages. That changed when some of the pirates made deals with local political and military officials to share the large ransoms. Once these ransom sharing deals were in place it became more difficult to find the pirate hideouts where hostages were held. This corrupt profit-sharing arrangement is nothing new in Nigeria and has been a component of the crippling corruption Nigeria has suffered since independence in the 1960s.

The problems with local officials, both elected and the traditional tribal and religious leaders, cooperating with bandits and terrorists is becoming more visible. These unpublicized arrangements reduce police and military pressure on the bad guys, who in turn share their income from robbery, extortion and ransoms. This arrangement also enables local leaders to quickly and effectively intervene to resolve a kidnapping that has triggered too much bad publicity.

The kidnapping has even spread to the outskirts of the national capital (Abuja) and many residents are moving out of their suburban homes for better security in downtown locations. In many parts of the country communities form armed security groups that can get away with murder if they encounter real or suspected kidnappers. This is a sign that the kidnapping epidemic is about to burn itself out when too many of the corrupt political and security officials find their own families endangered and the media feels free (and safe) to publish all they (and most Nigerians) know about how this all works.

First Place In The Worst Ways

Going into 2021, the worldwide covid19 economic slowdown and recession began to reverse itself. That is not apparent to most Nigerians because the unemployment rate is still rising. At the end of 2020 unemployment was nearly 30 percent and now is up to 33 percent and is officially the highest in the world. Because the covid19 economic damage was worldwide, it has hurt Nigeria more than a local recession would. Even with the recession, Nigeria still has the largest economy in Africa and the 26th largest worldwide. Post covid19 economic recovery depends on how effectively the government spends funds allocated for recovery and how well corruption is controlled. In the past, post-disaster recovery money has been a favorite, and vulnerable, target for corrupt politicians and other government officials.

Many Nigerians believe the rising unemployment plays a role in the rising incidence of religion and tribal violence. The Islamic terrorism is nothing new. Since 2014 five nations; Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan, have accounted for most of the terrorism-related deaths worldwide. That list changed in the last few years with Syria and Pakistan replaced by Somalia and Mali (including neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso). The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a more radical faction of al Qaeda that is currently the most radical practitioner of Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorism continues to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism-related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorism-related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorism-related deaths and are outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.

In Nigeria Boko Haram has always been the source of most Islamic terrorist violence, but since 2015 Boko Haram divided into factions and one of them, ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) is one of several Central Africa ISIL affiliates. In Nigeria it is often difficult, at first, to determine which faction of Boko Haram made an attack. Ultimately one of the factions will take credit. ISWAP is usually quicker to do so and has a much more efficient media operation than most Africa based Islamic terror groups. ISWAP is also finding that there is a downside to using ISIL techniques. More Western nations are willing to help Nigeria or at least coordinate existing counter-terrorism in the region (from Somalia to Mali and the Atlantic coast). There are smaller ISIL factions in northern Somalia, Mozambique, Libya and Algeria. These groups were once larger but have suffered heavy losses from local and/or international counter-terrorism efforts.

For the last seven years Nigeria has been where a disproportionate fraction of Islamic terrorist deaths occurred. The main reason for this is that about half of all Nigerians are Christian but most of them live in the south, where the oil and most of the developed economy is. Christians are better educated and more successful economically, which strikes many Moslem Nigerians as not right. After all, Christians are infidels and enemies of Islam. Boko Haram is more direct and believes that all Christians must convert to Islam. Those who resist must be killed or enslaved. Most Nigerian Moslems disagree with these harsh Boko Haram attitudes, which include accusing Moslems who disagree with them over Christian misdeeds to be enemies of Islam and subject to death unless they change their attitude.

While Islamic terrorism remains a major issue in Nigeria, such is not the case in the rest of the world. Islamic terrorism no longer dominates the world news now that ISIL has been largely suppressed. Global Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014 when there were 35,000. This activity is most visible in the GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. That puts Nigeria in the top ten because its casualties from Boko Haram violence alone would not do it. In the last year or so most terror-related deaths in Nigeria have come from tribal warfare, which had been a problem long before Islam showed up in sub-Saharan Africa about a thousand years ago. That was about the same time Islam underwent a religion-based shift in which science and technology went from being a useful area of study to a forbidden topic for devout Moslems. That was a side effect of a civil war that destroyed the caliphate (Islamic empire) because of nationalism and disputes over who the new caliphs (head of the caliphate) should be. That shift 800-year-old shift in Islamic attitudes created Boko Haram, which translates as “Infidel education is forbidden.” Most Moslems would prefer a more positive towards tech but such attitudes will get you killed during the periodic outbreaks of Islamic terrorism.

The appearance of Islamic radical factions was a regular occurrence during the last millennium and the nature of those radicals evolved, usually for the worse. Within the Islamic world efforts are being made to change this. That is difficult because there was never any central authority to decide what is “true Islam” and what is not. This is a big deal among Moslems because Islam was founded as a religion that also served as a form of government. No other major religion has that as part of their basic beliefs (as described in the Koran, the Moslem bible). This ongoing civil war is currently represented by the conflict between Iran, which follows the Shia school of Islam and is currently ruled by a religious dictatorship and the Sunni majority. Shia represent about ten per cent of all Moslems while the mainline Sunni represent about 80 percent. The Sunnis have no recognized leader and are divided into numerous sub-sects. Saudi Arabia is considered the most influential Sunni state by virtue of being Arab and ruled by the Saud clan which took control of the two most important Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in the 1920s when the Turkish Ottoman Empire was taken apart by the victorious World War I Allies, mainly Britain and France. Most of the Arab world had not been independent for centuries, since the Ottomans seized control of the eastern Roman Empire, a process that was completed in the 15th century and managed to survive until the 20th century (1918). The Turks solved the caliph/caliphate problem by declaring the Ottoman ruler (the sultan) the caliph and eliminating any Moslems who challenged that claim. The 20th century also brought global dependence on oil and most of that was found to be in Moslem majority areas. Suddenly Islamic radicals had access to more cash than ever before. Islamic radicals had no objections to accepting infidel cash for the oil, and the radicals eventually used much of that wealth to attack the infidel states, as well as seeking to gain control of Moslem majority areas by terrorizing Moslems who opposed them. That is why there was such an unprecedented outbreak of Islamic terrorism in the late 20th century. Groups like Boko Haram still despise infidel education but were eager to purchase all the gadgets and weapons that the Western scientific and industrial revolution made possible. The Moslem contribution to all that new tech was miniscule, and still is despite many Moslem majority states making an effort to become more competitive in tech.

March 27, 2021: In the northeast (Borno State) Boko Haram gunmen once more used explosives to bring down an electricity transmission tower and cut power to much of the state capital (Maiduguri). This is the third time this year that Boko Haram has done this, which is a form of terrorism and takes days to repair and get the power flowing again. At the same time the army reported success in a large-scale sweep up north, from the town of Chibok and into the nearby Sambisa Forest. The troops killed, wounded or captured several hundred of the Islamic terrorists while also capturing weapons and camps as well as freeing civilians being held for ransom. Sambisa remains a popular hideout for Boko Haram groups. The military uses air reconnaissance and regular multi-day ground operations to act on air recon discoveries and tips from locals.

March 26, 2021: In the southeast (Cross River state) police and soldiers have been raiding Igbo separatist hideouts used by armed members of IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) and seizing weapons while arresting sixteen suspected IPOB members. Several days earlier in nearby Abia State similar raids against the ESN (Eastern Security Network) killed sixteen suspected ESN members, ESN was formed by IPOB to defend Igbos in the southeast from Fulani raiders and government violence. The government has responded by sending troops to areas thought to contain ESN members and bases. This was unpopular with the locals as Nigerian soldiers are notorious for their violent behavior. These troops had been ordered to behave but that proved difficult for them to so in the face of Igbo contempt and hostility.

March 25, 2021: In the southeast (Ebonyi State) Effium tribesmen attacked an Igbo town, killing fifteen civilians, wounding many others and setting fire to over 200 structures. The Effium are considered a branch of Igbo that speak a similar language that most Igbo speakers don’t understand. These differences contribute to feuds between Effium and Igbo communities. This is a common pattern throughout the country and in Moslem majority areas of northern and central Nigeria religion is also an issue with militant Moslems often demanding that southern Christians who have moved to the north, return to the south. Most Moslem political and tribal leaders condemn these religion-based threats, in part because it is illegal and also because many Moslems have moved to the south for better educational and economic opportunities. There is much less religion-based hostility in the Christian-majority south.

March 7, 2021: Nigerian pirates are applying many of the techniques that worked for the Somali pirates. The Nigerian pirates are locals who know their way along the many small waterways found in the Niger River Delta. Like the Somali pirates, the Nigerians freebooters began to thrives only after establishing depend on a network of middlemen, some of them local politicians, who help broker the ransom deals. Bribes and political influence will often prevent the police and navy from finding pirate hideouts deep in the delta. For a while Nigerian pirates tried to loot cargoes by arranging for another ship to meet with a captured one to transfer a lot of the cargo before daylight and curious police came to check on the ship whose crew was no longer responding to calls from port authorities or the shipping company that owned or leased the ship. The police became more alert to the cargo transfer scam and did radio checks more frequently with large ships anchored off the major ports waiting for an opportunity to unload or take on cargo. The pirates have, so far, adapted more quickly than the shipping companies or local security forces.

Because of the pirates the Gulf of Guinea, which includes the Nigerian coast, shipping companies warn that this will increase maritime ship insurance and other piracy related costs that will be passed on to consumers in Nigeria and neighboring countries if something is not done. Off the Nigerian coast the pirate activity is increasing despite Nigerian efforts to curb the practice. This is not as bad as what Somalia once was but it is becoming enough of a problem to cause serious problems for shipping companies and their customers in the Gulf of Guinea.

Nigeria will not get as bad as Somalia, which was the only place in the world where pirates could, for nearly a decade, take a large ship and anchor it off a small coastal town controlled by pirates. With no threats from local authorities, the Somali pirates threatened to murder hostages, especially the ones taken ashore, if the anti-piracy patrol attempts to take back the ship. This lack of any Somali coast guard or government control of the entire coast was why Somalia was the only region seriously enough threatened by pirates that armed guards were allowed on large commercial ships passing through the danger zone.

In the other pirate hotspots, like Nigeria/Gulf of Guinea, the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia and parts of the Caribbean local police, navies and coast guard keep the pirates under control and forbid armed guards on ships. The main risk outside Somali waters is nighttime raids by local pirates who rob the crew of valuables and the ships of anything portable. That changed when the Nigerian pirates established economic links with local politicians.

These robberies, and the current kidnappings, are possible in areas where a lot of large ships have to anchor off a busy major port and await their turn to dock for loading or unloading cargo. What enabled the Nigerian pirates to become more of a menace was the entrenched gangster culture in the Niger River Delta. This is where most of Nigeria’s oil is produced. More of the oil is coming from offshore rigs and these became attractive targets for the pirates as well. The seemingly entrenched gangster culture is made possible by the culture of corruption among local politicians and local security forces. Many politicians adopt a local gang to provide muscle for ensuring elections select the most corrupt candidates. Nigeria has been undergoing increasingly vigorous and effective reform efforts since 2000 but the gangster culture is so pervasive and entrenched that eliminating it is slow going. Nigerian leaders don’t like being compared to Somalia, but there are similarities. One difference is that there is more to steal in Nigeria and that many Nigerians, unlike Somalis, consider the outlaw culture a flaw not a feature.


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