It was past midnight when a dozen men armed with AK47s stormed into Mohammed’s home just outside Nigeria’s capital Abuja to kidnap the truck driver and his wife.
After being held hostage in a tiny cave deep in a forest for three days, the couple were released when a relative paid the gunmen 600,000 naira (about $1,400).
For the criminals called “bandits” by Nigerians, it was quick and easy money, but for Mohammed, who asked not be identified by his real name, the trauma lives on.
Kidnappings are not new in Africa’s most populous country, where Boko Haram jihadists made worldwide headlines in 2014 when they abducted 276 schoolgirls in the north-eastern town of Chibok.
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But hostage-taking has since snowballed into an industry now largely led by criminals, with authorities seemingly powerless to stop them.
The phenomenon, along with general insecurity, will be major issues in Nigeria’s elections in February 2023 to replace President Muhammadu Buhari.
At least five times more people were kidnapped in Nigeria last year than in both Mexico and Colombia combined — countries notorious for abductions — according to estimates from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
Families and entire communities who pool their savings to pay ransoms are being destroyed, with many hostages afraid or ashamed of reporting their ordeals.
Businesses too are affected, with many spending fortunes to protect their assets.
500 a month kidnapped
Data on kidnapping is notoriously unreliable because of under reporting, but ACLED estimates almost 3,000 people were taken last year.
A senior Western diplomatic source who tracks kidnappings in Nigeria told AFP the real figure could be more than double that, with an average of 500 people a month taken.
Nigeria’s security services, known as the DSS, denied there was a “kidnapping epidemic”.
It “has spread because insurgency has spread”, DSS spokesman Peter Afunanya told AFP, blaming insecurity on the proliferation of foreign weapons and the spread of jihadists outside of their enclaves in the northeast.
Analysts in Nigeria have documented instances of cooperation between bandits and jihadists, but so far have described the links as minor.
One reason for the dramatic rise is a series of mass kidnappings with hundreds of people taken at a time. In one in late 2020, more than 300 boys were taken by bandits from a school in Katsina state.
They were released after a week, but the shocking case was a turning point for many, with some deciding to stop sending their children to school.
Police and other security agencies have deployed anti-kidnap units, but the forested areas where gangs hide are difficult to access let alone control.
The northwest, the most affected region, consists of seven states and is almost the size of the UK.
The authorities say they have tried alternative methods to curb kidnapping, such as registering mobile phone SIM cards to better track their owners.
Lawmakers have also passed a bill criminalising payments to kidnappers, but observers say enforcement will be impossible.
Of the handful of kidnappers who are arrested, most end up in a clogged judicial system where investigations are rarely completed.
And so, every day, gangs “rustle human beings, and nobody cares,” said Murtala Rufa’i, a professor at northern Nigeria’s Usmanu Danfodiyo University, who has studied banditry and lives in the northwest.
Former bandit Musa, who asked not to be identified by his real name, said he joined a gang after losing all his cows to rustlers.
“Nobody forced me but when you have nothing… you find yourself hopeless, you end up joining them,” said the 43-year-old from Zamfara state.
For four years, he helped launch reprisal attacks against the cattle rustlers but the violence escalated and he eventually decided to leave the gang.
“For us nothing justifies crime, but for them, it’s just tit for tat,” Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, a prominent Muslim cleric told AFP in an interview in late 2021.
Gumi has long argued that some of the bandits — like Musa — are driven at first by a sense of injustice, after losing relatives and belongings in old inter-communal conflicts.
For him, a “Marshall plan” for bandits rather than more security could help solve the crisis.
“Bandits have been surrendering and giving up their weapons but… there’s no rehabilitation, no school, no nothing, so they go back, because a man cannot be idle,” he said. “The real bandits are the political class.”
Those who can afford it have stopped using roads and trains and travel only by air, creating a vicious cycle where parts of the country are abandoned to bandits who prey on poorer rural communities.
Many end up selling their homes, belongings or land to pay for ransoms, which for an average Nigerian farmer can be anywhere “between 200,000 naira and up to two million ($4,700),” said security analyst Kabir Adamu of Beacon Consulting.
And it’s not just cash they need to find — sometimes kidnappers also demand food, smartphones, motorbikes or even sunglasses.
When kidnappers target higher status victims such as priests or politicians and their relatives, the ransoms tend to be a lot higher.
In a daring case earlier this year, gunmen kidnapped 72 passengers from a train from the capital Abuja, many of them well-off.
“As of the end of July, 37 hostages had been released for various sums starting from 100 million ($230,000) per abductee,” according to a report by consultancy firm SBM Intelligence.
The problem is also worsening food insecurity in the country where already more than 80 million live below the poverty line.
“People don’t go to their farms because of the fear of abduction… The rural economy has been grounded completely,” said professor Rufa’i.
Many rural communities are ruined by repeated ransom payments, or because they decide instead to pay “taxes” to bandits for a promise of protection.
In one case among many, a resident of Yankara village in Katsina state said they had paid bandits 700,000 naira ($1,700) to leave their farms alone, but then another gang attacked them.
In some instances, farms and villages are being abandoned entirely.
“There are areas where 70 percent of the people have been displaced or are unable to farm. This disrupts supply chains, even in (the capital) Abuja,” said Adamu.
Companies in Africa’s largest economy are also affected.
The kidnap threat “is a nightmare”, an executive with two decades of experience in the country told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The impact on business is huge… because of the cost of securing our assets,” he said. “I have some projects guarded by 30 soldiers at night.”
The Nigerian security services said they were “in a hurry to see” kidnapping tackled, in part because insecurity drives away investors.
“The DSS is concerned about the menace of kidnapping and is very committed in stamping it out,” Afunya told AFP.
People should stop seeing “kidnapping as a way of life or as a means of survival,” he added.
But when more than seven out of 10 Nigerians are under 30 and official youth unemployment stands at 42 percent, some become desperate to make money.
And as “the level of poverty and unemployment is on the increase,” Rufa’i said “the possibility of more people joining the kidnappers is very clear.”