When gunmen stormed a Nigerian government high school last week, kidnapping dozens of students for ransom, this fourth mass kidnapping in three months underscored that Nigeria’s response so far is not reducing the violence and insecurity spreading across the country’s north. That response has been largely ad hoc, a mix of federal military actions, state officials negotiating with the criminal gangs and, allegedly, the payment of ransoms. A more effective response will require better coordination among federal and state authorities, the inclusion of civil society in a broad strategy, and support from the international community.

Nigerian expatriates and Britons in London protest a mass kidnapping in Nigeria in 2015. Domestic and global pressures have led to Nigerian officials reportedly negotiating ransom payments that have fueled more abductions. (Garry Knight/CC License 2.0)
Nigerian expatriates and Britons in London protest a mass kidnapping in Nigeria in 2015. Domestic and global pressures have led to Nigerian officials reportedly negotiating ransom payments that have fueled more abductions. (Garry Knight/CC License 2.0)

The Security Crisis Deepens

Armed gangs have abducted more than 800 students from schools in northwest Nigeria in the past three months, part of an escalation in kidnapping for ransom, violence and fear across the north that is shattering rural life in one of Nigeria’s poorest regions. Criminal gangs in the northwest killed more than 1,100 people in the first half of 2020 alone—and in 2020, Nigeria continued to rank third in the world among nations most harmed by terrorism, according to the annual Global Terrorism Index.

Whether labeled as “banditry” or “terrorism” or “communal clashes,” a root of the violence is governance that, at ground level, is failing to meet the population’s needs. Widespread poverty and the failure to hold perpetrators accountable have heightened the appeal of armed criminality. Rural schools have become soft targets that yield high rewards for kidnappers. The Boko Haram insurgency, traditionally a major threat in Nigeria’s northeast, also is showing possible interest in the northwest, having claimed responsibility for a December abduction of more than 300 schoolboys in Katsina state.

The federal government, which controls the military and the police, has been largely consumed by the 11-year war with Boko Haram. Nigeria’s armed forces are now extended as well across the northwest. With security forces overstretched, roving armed groups in northwestern states have encountered little resistance.

The attacks on schools have prompted authorities in four northwestern states to close schools, suspending education for millions of students. With many schools in the northeast already shut for years because of the Boko Haram insurgency, and closures or restrictions due to COVID, Nigeria has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Ironically, this combined wave of violence in the north is achieving one of Boko Haram’s founding goals—to halt western education. And it is happening disproportionately in communities that already are marginalized, deepening their exclusion from the benefits of governance.

The Scramble to Respond

Some state governments have tried to stop the attacks through negotiations with criminal groups, signing secretive agreements or offering amnesties and other incentives. Authorities have paid ransoms, according to students, communities, and, reportedly, the criminals themselves—accounts that officials deny.

In February, dozens of Nigerian civil society organizations called on President Muhammadu Buhari to “take immediate steps” to improve security. Their demands included mobilizing the Nigeria Police Council—a body of top federal and state officials meant to oversee the Nigeria Police, ending the payment of ransoms, and increasing the capacity of the police force, including by seeking international cooperation.

Kaduna is Nigeria’s fourth-largest city. Armed men kidnapped students from a boarding school there. (Sani Nuhu/CC License 4.0)
Kaduna is Nigeria’s fourth-largest city. Armed men kidnapped students from a boarding school there. (Sani Nuhu/CC License 4.0)

Eminent civil society leaders of the Nigerian Working Group on Peacebuilding and Governance warned in September that Nigeria is “rapidly approaching a tipping point” of insecurity because of the increasing violence. They urged the government to initiate a dialogue process to address ethnic and communal violence. The group noted how the escalated violence is eroding public trust in the government that is vital, not least to stopping the spread of COVID.


Amid growing public anger over rising insecurity, Buhari replaced Nigeria’s entire military high command in January. But federal and state government leaders could take more systematic, effective steps to address the crisis, especially with sustained support from the international community, than the statements of condemnation when kidnappings occur.

Coordinate federal and state action and messaging. The strong coordination so desperately needed among Nigeria’s federal and state governments is too often set back by officials’ public criticisms of each other, and other careless public statements. In February, the passing of blame included Buhari’s criticism that governors were fueling the crisis by “rewarding bandits with money and vehicles.” The need for federal-state coordination is only heightened by the fact that Nigeria’s federal military is now actively deployed in every state, typically operating alongside other security agencies as well as vigilante groups authorized by state governments. An opportunity to build this coordination—and to improve the vital involvement of local communities in improving security—is that Nigeria is just a few months into its launch of an initiative to establish community-level policing nationwide.

Put accountability at the center of the response. Nigeria has tried and failed before to negotiate “peace” with violent groups while skirting the need for a reliable rule of law that can deliver justice for crimes. Deals with kidnappers have collapsed in recent years in the north. A decade-long effort to buy peace in the Niger Delta, which included “amnesty payments” to prevent militia attacks on oil installations, also failed. Not only does the approach fail to reduce violence in the long term, it fuels further criminality, including piracy and armed robbery. Injustice and impunity are at the center of Nigeria’s violence; the government cannot continue to incubate crime in the name of forgiveness or amnesty.

Rethink U.S. and international policies. The kidnapping of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok—seven years ago next month—attracted sustained attention worldwide with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. It yielded a Safe Schools Initiative by Nigeria and international donors to improve security at schools in the northeast. The effectiveness of that effort is in question as school kidnappings have not only spread west but have continued in that northeastern region as well.

These mass kidnappings often draw condemnation of the international community, which puts the Nigerian government under pressure to act. However, the international community must go beyond statements of condemnation when incidents occur, if we are to see any long-term policy change.

Clearly, a fresh approach is needed, both for Nigeria and the international community. U.S. and international policies should give a central place to Nigeria as an aspiring democracy and strategic partner in Africa, but those policies must include a better understanding of the country’s complexities—an argument made by former U.S. ambassador John Campbell in a newly published book. Stepping back to re-analyze how governance in Nigeria really works, and how it does not, is applicable to the crisis at hand.

For U.S. policymakers, this could be applied to re-evaluating the United States’ 2014 Security Governance Initiative, which had some potential but never got off the ground in Nigeria. The fresh look should emphasize partnership sustained over a long term, seeking areas where cooperation is still possible, and efforts—such as local, non-state initiatives—that are the most promising for making real change. International security assistance should be shaped with a years-long view and in a way that enables or incentivizes specific reforms. Nigeria’s partners should soberly recognize that the country’s political and security leaders bear a significant amount of responsibility for many of Nigeria's security challenges.

Nigerian leaders must plan and act more fully on an idea that they accept in rhetoric—that the challenges of insecurity cannot be addressed by the military force that has been the country’s primary approach for generations. While the military component is vital, only the addition of a broad-based, community driven approach will give Nigeria’s national and state leaders the ideas and public support they need to turn back the tide of violence that threatens to engulf the country’s north.

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