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Inequality & Abduction: The Economics of Student Kidnapping in Nigeria

This photo comes from a video posted to YouTube, purportedly by Boko Haram. It allegedly depicts Boko Haram fighters standing in front of a crowd of kidnapped girls.

In late February, an estimated 300 Nigerian girls were abducted from their school in an overnight raid in Zamfara, Nigeria. Over 100 gunmen, some dressed in the same outfit as the school security officials, swiftly breached the hostels and moved the girls into the forest. Fortunately, a few days ago, the raiders released all the schoolgirls without ransom.

Although Nigerian President Buhari celebrated the safety of the victims, the timing of the occurrence still raises serious concerns about the safety of Nigeria’s schools and the epidemic of student kidnapping. According to the Washington Post, this is the country’s third mass school kidnapping in the past 3 months. This incident comes approximately six years after Boko Haram organized the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. Americans quickly caught on to the story, which later sparked the infamous hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. However, over 100 girls are still missing today, and parents still fear sending their children to school. Moreover, over the next two years, thousands of other children also disappeared. Nigerian administrations have taken security-based approaches and invested in increasing the presence of authorities at these schools with the Safe Schools Initiative. However, this has failed to halt the targeting of students. Although the hashtag led to short-term action, the nuances of why this problem has festered throughout Nigeria are based in economics. Under government corruption, child kidnapping has become a thriving business.

Although Nigeria has entered a period of rapid economic expansion, this has been accompanied by increasing levels of economic inequality. 86 million people live in poverty, yet the country’s richest man earns an estimated 8,000 times more than their annual salary each day. From 2004 to 2010, the number of people living in poverty rose from 69 million to 112 million while the number of millionaires increased by 44%. The disparity between the lives of the poor and rich has grown over the past few years, however, the government has failed to adequately address the problem. In fact, a recent report by Oxfam and Development Finance International ranked Nigeria as last out of 152 countries in “commitment to reducing inequality.” With such high levels of inequality, it is unsurprising that people commit crimes with high financial payoff.

The primary reason why student kidnappings have become rampant across Nigeria stems from economic opportunity. The kidnap-for-ransom in Nigeria has become a tool that both organizations and individuals have used to take advantage of both rich and poor families. By exploiting the areas with limited security and the country’s influx of firearms, they have “found a very creative and easy way of getting millions of naira.” In fact, according to one Nigerian intelligence organization, the government paid $18 million to kidnappers from June 2011 to March 2020. To tackle the issue, President Buhari has called on governors to stop rewarding these criminals by fulfilling their demands. This understanding of the kidnappers’ motivations provides valuable insight into why some children are still missing, while others seem to suddenly reappear. When Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok girls who were taken in 2014, security experts suggested that the release would not have been possible without a “significant incentive,” or a ransom payment. Boko Haram and numerous other terrorist organizations and individuals continue to commit abuses against civilians for economic exploitation.

While hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls raise important awareness about the victimization of schoolchildren, government officials can co-opt these movements to cover up their own role in fueling this crisis. Authorities often deny that they pay the ransom requested because of the signal it sends to the perpetrators. Denying that a payment took place allows governments to indicate that they will not listen to terrorists and disincentivize future kidnappings. However, first-hand accounts frequently contradict these claims. For instance, in the state of Katsina, government officials repeatedly denied that they paid any form of ransom after gunmen kidnapped over 300 schoolboys from a Kankara school. The children later revealed, however, that the gunmen received 30 million naira, or around $78,000. In fact, the Nigerian government similarly denied that they paid any sum for the release of the 21 Chibok girls. It was later revealed that Switzerland facilitated the discreet exchange of 3 million Euros from the government to the perpetrators. Although President Buhari has repeatedly pledged to prevent future kidnappings, the secrecy behind these ransom payments undermines public confidence in the government and fails to disincentivize future kidnappers.

In addition, the power of money explains why prior Nigerian administrations have been unable to properly deal with the business of child kidnapping. Over the past few years, corruption scandals under former President Goodluck Jonathan have emerged. Most recently, Buhari accused Jonathan and his oil minister of accepting bribes eight years ago to broker a $1.3B oil deal. This type of unethical government behavior reinforces Nigeria’s history of misallocating funds and severe income inequality. 

Rampant corruption has also played a role in fueling the country’s kidnapping crisis. Government officials have been suspected of secretly participating in these operations in return for financial gains. Moreover, with a limited military that protects those who can pay for it, many villagers are left to fend for themselves. This political and economic corruption has previously stymied any attempts at international cooperation to recover the victims. After months of public frustration over his inaction, Goodluck’s government started arresting protestors and criminalized the #BringBackOurGirls movement to defend against the political fallout. As a result, in 2015, the United States started withholding intelligence related to Boko Haram from Jonathan’s administration. Resolving kidnappings requires an administration willing to address economic development and inequality.

The underlying causes of schoolchildren kidnappings in Nigeria reveal a problem that is much more complicated than human rights violations. The primary motivation for kidnappings is economic. By disrupting the families of ordinary people, organizations like Boko Haram can extract significant funds from everyday citizens. Despite the social media frenzy and the widespread sharing of #BringBackOurGirls, no long-term policy action has addressed the kidnap-for-ransom business. In order to stop the cycle of kidnapping in Nigeria and protect civilians against the psychological consequences, the country has to use economics. One way the government can do this is by closely collaborating with NGOs in order to create a plan to reduce income inequality across the country. Actions such as raising wages and offering more high-quality jobs will improve wealth distribution for all Nigerians. The government must resolve economic inequality in order to disincentivize people living in poverty from kidnapping students for ransom money. Otherwise, the country’s youth will remain the victims of rampant corruption.

Photo from AFP Photo/Boko Haram