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Hundreds kidnapped from Nigerian villages as violence intensifies

More than 100 people have been kidnapped this month from villages in the same Nigerian state in which a priest was killed violently this year.

Amid an uptick in terrorist attacks on Christian farming villages, dozens of Nigerians remain held for ransom by criminal organizations, with little opposition from law enforcement.

A Nigerian village destroyed by fire during a May 15-16 terrorist attack. Credit: The Pillar.

On Wednesday, according to an eyewitness in one Nigerian village, a gang of criminals “entered the town unnoticed and started shouting and shooting sporadically to scare people.”

As members of a criminal gang began shooting automatic weapons into the air and lighting buildings on fire, “many people died. I had to abandon my car and run into the bush where I stayed-put for hours.” 

“Many people were abducted - about 60," explained the witness, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“The attackers operate for days without the intervention of security agencies,” he added.

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Another attack saw 49 people abducted May 12, in the rural Fugge village of the Niger state. 

An eyewitness said that a band of terrorists invaded their village on motorcycles last Friday, and began firing automatic weapons into the air while locals ran for safety. 

Men, women, and children were taken captive, along with livestock stolen by the perpetrators, and made to walk or run at gunpoint into the countryside outside the village. 

According to local media, the families of some abducted residents have been contacted, receiving demands for motorcycles, fuel, and money as ransom.

The abduction comes amid an upswing of similar crimes in the Nigerian state of Niger in recent months. 

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Last Thursday, 13 people were kidnapped from the Sikiti village in the Niger state.

“On May 10 around 11:30 am, “Sikiti community was attacked and 13 people were kidnapped. The bandits asked for 100 million naira [USD $216,450] to release their victims. Up till now, the abductees are in their custody," one local resident told The Pillar.

The source, who requested anonymity because of the prospect of violence, told The Pillar that Sikiti is part of a cluster of villages which have this year “experienced several attacks, beginning on February 14.”

In February, the source said, in the village of Kwagana, “56 people were kidnapped and a ransom of 200 million naira was demanded in the first instance. [USD $432,900]. After members of the community pleaded, the abductors agreed to take 10 million naira [USD $21, 645].

"Even though members of the community contributed to rescue the victims, only 11 persons out of 56 were released,” the source said. 

“The gang demanded a Honda brand of motorcycle as ransom for each of the remaining victims. Since their demands were not met, the victims are still in the bush, even as I speak to you now," he explained this week.

The source described another attack this spring, in the Abolo village.

“Eight people there were abducted. And Pastor Matthew Achibe was killed in that attack.”

The Protestant pastor, he said, “was on admission in the hospital and on an [IV] drip. His wife was looking after him. She assumed that the bandits would pity her and her sick husband. After deceiving her that they will help her, to her dismay, one of them brought out a gun and shot the husband on his sick bed. He died instantly.”

“They went away with the dead man’s wife. She could not even witness her husband's burial. Till today, there is no news about her since the ransom they demanded was not paid. She is still in the bush; in their custody.”  

Members of an armed criminal gang in northwestern Nigeria. Credit: wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

More villages in the Niger and neighboring Kaduna states have suffered attacks in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, a gang attacked the Christian Idon Gida village in Kaduna, abducting nine people - seven women and two men, including a local chief. The criminals also sacked food barns in the community and made away with motorcycles and some cash belonging to the villagers.

Last Friday, a criminal gang razed four villages in the Paikoro area, stealing livestock and vehicles. 

And earlier this week, Fulani herders razed houses in villages across the Mangu region of Plateau State, in northern Nigeria, killing more than 100 people.

While the violence is widespread, the Diocese of Minna and other local Catholic dioceses have aimed to distribute food and clothing to Nigerians displaced by the violence, especially through the local Justice, Development, and Peace Commission.

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Security experts and human rights activists blame an uptick in violence on criminal gangs, often composed of Fulani herdsmen, many of whom are not from Nigeria. 

One survivor of terrorist attacks in the Ishau village told The Pillar that a brutal 2022 attack there was perpetrated by “bandits who are mostly foreign Fulanis with few indigenes who are their informants and show them the way.”

That 2022 attack, he said, saw an armed gang bomb a moving train, killing dozens.

More recently, 16 people were kidnapped last week,” May 11, “and the sum of 32 million naira [USD $69,274} was demanded for their release."

In the May 11 attack, he said, “some persons sustained gun shots including a local Church official.”

But since the January 2022 attack in the region, police have not been present in the region, the source said. 

Most Nigerian security experts say that armed gangs operating in the Niger state do not have a unified chain of command, the groups compete for territory with other gangs. 

While there is crossover between armed criminal gangs and Islamist terrorist cells in Nigeria, many criminal gangs in the country’s north are profit-oriented, experts say, rather than focused on the spread of Islam. 

Gangs in Niger, Kaduna, and other Nigerian states engage in weapons traffic, illegal mining, cattle rustling, and profit-driven kidnappings. 

The Council on Foreign Relations has reported more than 800 kidnapping incidents in Nigeria this year, with 670 in the northern region, which includes the state of Niger.

The state of Niger, Nigeria’s largest, is home to some 4 million people. Lawmakers and activists in the region have complained that federal law enforcement agencies rarely confront armed gang activity in the country, allowing for a kind of lawlessness to set in. Last year, an armed gang killed some 30 Nigerian soldiers at a mining camp in the region. 

The Niger state is also where Fr. Isaac Achi, a parish pastor, was killed in January by a gang of bandits who invaded his rectory. The killing was believed to have religious motivations, as the priest’s killer shouted Islamist slogans before he was killed, according to witnesses.

One Minna priest said that amid the violence, Achi is remembered as “a brother, friend, faithful pastor and priest of the most high God.”

Christians in the region pray that“Church beatifies and canonizes him because he died for Christ and his people,” one priest said.   

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