Don’t ever put your daughters in school again. This was the ominous warning from Boko Haram after the release on 22 March of over 100 Nigerian schoolgirls following their abduction in February. It was a welcome end to the saga, but as the group continues to broker deals in exchange for kidnapped citizens, the case raises questions about how to stop abductions from happening and prevent extremists from using extortion to finance further operations.
Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed, confirmed that after “back-channel efforts”, Boko Haram had returned the 110 girls it had kidnapped from a secondary school in the northeastern town of Dapchi. This is not the first time the ISIS affiliate has used this tactic. But it showed that the group is becoming adept at abducting people, especially women and children, often for ransom.
The group’s first use of this tactic came in April 2014, when it kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls popularly known the Chibok girls. Reports suggest the group was paid £3 million to secure the release of about 120 of them, while 100 more remain in captivity. Several Boko Haram commanders in detention were also released as part of the transaction.
Almost immediately after that deal, the group indicated that it was going to use the proceeds of the operation to unleash renewed violence. It was a threat the militants delivered on. Apparently encouraged by the government’s willingness to play ball, kidnappings for ransom continued. In July 2017, the group kidnapped three university staff members, while ten women, mainly spouses of police officers, were abducted in a raid on a police convoy a month earlier. All were released in February 2018 after striking an agreement with the Nigerian government.
Less than two weeks later, the Dapchi schoolgirls were seized from their dormitory. Before their release, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had indicated that Abuja was working with international organisations and negotiators, understandably saying, “It is better to get our daughters back alive.” And while the president has said no ransom was paid in the latest case, it remains unclear whether other conditions were agreed to.
Such concessions present risks. Not only will more schoolchildren be in danger of capture, but other Nigerians will too. Similarly, the payment of ransom and release of commanders gives the terrorists more cash and manpower to sustain their decade-old insurgency. A vicious circle of abduction, payment or concessions, violence and then further abduction is likely to worsen as other criminal gangs are encouraged to adopt the same tactic.
Nigeria must focus on ways to stop kidnappings from happening again. The proposal Buhari made to African leaders in January 2018 to implement a regional response to block such payments would be a welcome start. It would send Boko Haram and other extremist groups operating across the Sahel a strong signal that extortion cannot be a way of financing terror.
Security agencies must also upgrade their manpower and equipment to make it difficult for such groups to continue abducting women and children. Furthermore, information and intelligence sharing among agencies fighting the group must be improved. This can help stop the war against Boko Haram and allow families to feel that their children are safe at school. It can also boost dwindling public trust, which may have been lifted by the girls’ release but will almost inevitably plummet again the next time this happens. While this approach presents difficult moral questions, the government cannot cave into extremists’ demands. The long-term effects of doing so would be devastating.