West African countries should act now to eliminate international kidnapping across West Africa. Kidnappers in Nigeria today are not herdsmen and we should stop calling them herdsmen. Kidnapping has become an international occupation and big business for several people in Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and others in West Africa. There are international kidnappers in Nigeria today; they move from one country to other in West Africa. Most of the international kidnappers in Nigeria cannot speak English language.
International kidnapping now constitutes a wing or part of the coalition of jihadist groups known as Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM). It brings together al-Qaeda’s Sahara franchise (AQIM), with a number of other militant groups. Kidnappers and bandits that speak Fulani are part of jihadist groups that should be treated as terrorists and not as herdsmen. The coalition was formed in March 2017 and operates in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
A franchise of the so-called Islamic State, known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS, has been active since 2015 and is also gaining ground despite recent pressure from French forces. An assortment of home-grown militant groups – including Ansaroul Islam in northern Burkina Faso and Katiba Macina in central Mali – completes the picture. Their success is largely predicated on understanding the local grievances of different communities, in particular the Fulani.
Foreign kidnappers have discovered that it is more lucrative to kidnap in Nigeria. Over the decades, kidnapping in Nigeria has evolved into a lingering, pervasive security threat and fast-paced and multifaceted criminal enterprise. It is now perpetrated by diverse armed groups and criminal gangs operating across the country, on land and at sea, pursuing different agendas and driven by different motivations: political, ideological, financial, social and cultural. Over time, the practice became increasingly monetised. Desperate to secure the release of their staff, oil companies were quick to pay hefty ransoms. Given how lucrative their stock-in-trade had become, militants went from kidnapping oil workers to kidnapping local politicians, their relatives or other high net-worth individuals. The ransoms were likely to have been used to purchase arms and ammunition.
In terms of geographic prevalence, kidnapping for ransom and extortion by criminal groups, including on roads, has been the most widespread manifestation of the crime. I get frustrated when Nigerians refer to kidnappers as “unknown gunmen” and bandits waging violence in Nigeria. Why should kidnappers, gunmen and bandits be unknown for years? They kill innocent people and destroy their means of livelihood and yet they are unknown: we have security agents mandated to ensure the safety of all citizens and within all military and paramilitary agencies, we have intelligence units and yet these killers remain unknown. Why are West Africa cattle herders turning to jihad? The transition of pastoralists from vigilantes protecting their cows to jihadists capable of carrying out complex attacks is a story Africans and Western powers would do well to heed, as their pursuit of violent extremism in West Africa becomes ever more enmeshed in long-standing ethnic and clan conflicts. What we have experienced so far with the foreign kidnappers is nothing short of terrorism and it is high time government handled it with the seriousness required for such a grave situation.
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