Armed bandits have left communities across north central Nigeria in extreme poverty, as dozens of abducted people remain in the custody of criminal gangs.
Victims of violence in north central Nigeria have told The Pillar that they believe the Nigerian government will not bring any aid to them as their communities continue to face violence from marauders who have burned villages and crops, stolen cattle, and kidnapped people for ransom.
In Nigeria’s Niger state, a survivor of violence and abduction in one community told The Pillar about a March attack on her village, in which she and dozens of other people were kidnapped.
The survivor, a 36-year-old mother of two who requested anonymity for her safety, recalled that “this year, precisely on Tuesday, 14 March, it was rumored that armed bandits would attack our village. We didn’t take it seriously as we went about our normal business.”
“On that fateful day, I went to fetch firewood. When I came to offload the first batch, I noticed my husband, who took our son to school, had brought him back. When I asked why, he said, there are fears that bandits are on their way to our community.”
Soon, the village leaders received calls from a nearby village that an armed gang was approaching their community, most of them on motorcycles.
“As we were planning to escape, we ran to the river to fetch water in case our children became thirsty while we are hiding. While we were there, they came and searched the entire village and found no one; by then, we were hiding in the surrounding bushes,” she said.
But hiding in the woods outside her village was not enough to keep the woman’s family safe, she said.
“Just then, the bandits decided to comb all the bushes in the village and they rounded us up. They forcefully collected our phones and money and broke into phone-shops in the village, carting away handsets,” she recalled.
“They gathered us and using brute force, snatched babies from their mother’s backs. My husband refused to allow them take our son. They hit him badly; I signaled him to allow them have the child. He did and they took him and others away and locked all the kids in a shop. They were shouting and wailing. The terrorists didn’t give a hoot.”
“They took 57 of us into the bush; we were with others they had abducted from two adjoining communities - we were about 100. They also searched all homes where they carted away money and other valuables,” she recalled.
After the villagers were kidnapped, they were marched at gunpoint through forests for three days until they arrived at a heavily guarded makeshift forest camp, where they would be held for ransom.
“We walked in bush paths non-stop for three days without food and water. 53 of us arrived the kidnapper’s camp near Kaduna state — 26 women, 22 men. They did a roll call to ensure we were intact.”
Some people had escaped during the march.
“Near one village, we saw a helicopter. It came close to us and went round twice. Sighting the plane caused commotion and four people used the opportunity to escape. Some of the bandits were on bike using bush paths while the others were guarding us by the left and right,” the woman recalled.
“The bike riders among them told others guarding us by the bush path to call the pilot of the helicopter and tell him not to shoot and that are they ones. Just then, the airplane disappeared in the sky.”
“When we arrived at the camp, they chose four women – two Christians and two Muslims — to cook for the 53 of us. This was done with few ingredients, under strict instructions by the armed men.”
The woman explained that the kidnappers in Niger state were not ideological terrorists. Instead, “they are moved by a strong sense of criminality, brigandage and ardent desire for money and material possession,” she said.
The woman alleged that she learned in the camp that her abductors had purchased weapons from government and police forces.
She said she had heard the gang’s leader saying, “government officials supply us weapons. The helicopter you saw yesterday brought us ammunitions. They know us but they don’t know you; any way, we will see if government will come and rescue you.”
Other kidnapping victims in Nigeria have made similar claims.
Victims of terrorist attacks in Nigeria’s southern Kaduna region have alleged that helicopters are used to supply weapons to the terrorists who ambush their communities.
And after a 2022 attack on a church in southern Nigeria’s Ondo state by suspected Fulani militants, Yoruba chief Gani Adams told media that: “These terrorists, according to our information, have their food being supplied to them via helicopter, and the Olowo, who is the traditional ruler of the ancient town, even the State Government, could not flush them out of the thick forest."
In March 2021, Nigerian government officials recognized that criminal gangs were being supplied arms via helicopter, but did not address the prospect that weapons were being sold by military and police forces.
The woman who was abducted in March explained that her kidnappers set a ransom of 200 million naira — more than $400,000 USD — for the release of the 53 hostages. The ransom was demanded of community leaders in the woman’s village.
“The community leader — Hakimi — was negotiating with them to reduce the amount to 15 million naira [$32,467], other villages pleaded that the amount be slashed to 10 million naira [$21,645].”
When a ransom was set, “arrangements were concluded that a young man from the community would take the money to them the next day. When he went to get the money from the community, they told him that it was not complete. Because the bandits were calling and threatening him, he fainted.”
Meanwhile, “five others who had spent three months in custody were brought to our camp. Among them was a soldier. It rained that night, and the [gang leader] asked us to gather sticks to fix his tent, which had been battered by the rains. As we were doing that, they killed one of our revered elders, alongside the soldier from whose family they had collected a ransom of 300,000 naira and 2 million naira respectively.”
The two men were killed because “the kidnappers wanted more money,” she said.
“The main killer - the shooter - of the gang is a young boy who is about 19 years.”
The woman told The Pillar that she was beaten while in captivity, and begged her abductors to release her and her children.
Eventually, since the community had not delivered a negotiated ransom, the abductors decided to release some hostages, who were expected to return and pay a ransom before seeing their families released.
“They released me and another women to go home and bring the ransom; our husbands were still in captivity. When I got home, I was afraid of going back with the said ransom, but I had a dream that I went and paid the money and members of our community were released to me.”
“I was emboldened by the dream. We took 6.13 million naira to them. But they released only 11 people - 10 women and 1 young man. Our husbands were not released. They insisted that the money was not complete. After a week, we took a cash sum of 4 million naira to them. This time around, they released only 3 people.”
To pay the kidnappers, “we met during the day in the bush. The guy who collects the money appears in military fatigues; you would think he is a military officer. The first time I took the money to him; he stood some distance away, with his men stationed around the area and asked me to bring the money.”
To ensure delivering the money to the right person, “I told him that if he does not call my cell phone, I will not give him the money; he was almost getting upset. Eventually, he dialed my line, and I gave him the money.
Afterwards, he said that I am a cunning woman. I told him, ‘I had to wear the shirt I left the camp with so that you can identify me, but you came in a military attire; how was I supposed to know you are one?’ We parted ways and I returned to the village.”
But the other woman who had been released faced a devastating outcome.
“Unfortunately, they released the husband of the other woman and took her, instead. She had told me that she was having some butterflies in her stomach, while we were on the way. I encouraged her not knowing that she was right. It was sad to see her taken away, but I could not help her.”
As a ransom, “they asked for a Honda motorcycle” insisting that they were doing so “because someone from the community called and insulted them” she added.
Finally, on May 20, more than two months after the villagers were kidnapped, “the woman’s husband took two Honda motorcycles to them, and they set the remaining 14 people in captivity free.”
The woman said that by some standards, she had been fortunate.
“The commander was good to us. He warned his boys not to touch any of the woman and dared to kill any of them if he molested anyone of us.”
But she said no Nigerians should count on government security agents.
“The security agencies fear for their lives, because the ammunitions they are supposed to be given finds its way in the hands of the bandits. They are afraid because they are also human beings.”
Corroborating her story, a local subsistence farmer in the same community recalled how over “100 terrorists entered their area, two-by-two, on motorcycles on March 14 around 8:30 am.”
Providing graphic details, the 30-years old man disclosed that he and fellow villagers ran to the bush only for the bandits to go after them and forcefully fetch them.
“They brought over 80 people from a nearby village. After screening, they dropped their phone number with the local leader — Hakima — to contact them and pay ransom, and then they whisked the 57 of us into the bush,” he said.
He continued, “We spent 3 days trekking without eating or drinking water and arrived at a camp near Kaduna state. We would often beg to be allowed to drink dirty water from streams along bush paths.
“Most of us were beaten mercilessly. The brutal killing of one of our veteran old men while we were in camp sent cold shivers down my spine,” he recalled.
That man — the father of one son and one daughter — told The Pillar that he escaped during a forced march through a forest.
“While we were walking in the forest, the magazine of one of the bandits who was moving close to me fell off [his gun]. When he retreated to look for it, I moved ahead quickly and began to run for my dear life. I have never run in my life like that day.”
“I found myself in a certain community where I met a good woman – a Good Samaritan assisted me. When I told her my story, she narrated it to the villagers who contributed 38,000 naira for me to use as transport back home. She did not take anything out of the money that was contributed for me. In fact, she paid my transport fare out of her money. In all, it took me one week to get home.”