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Nigerians Are Being Kidnapped For Ransom — But This Time It's Not Boko Haram

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Infants, school children and now hospital workers are among the thousands of people being kidnapped for ransom in Nigeria. According to one analyst, more than 1,300 Nigerians were abducted in June. That's about 45 people a day. And ransom kidnappings by heavily armed criminal gangs have become an industry, especially in the country's northwest. Authorities are overwhelmed and have told Nigerians that they need to protect themselves.

Joe Parkinson has been covering this for The Wall Street Journal, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JOE PARKINSON: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, people may have been familiar with, about seven years ago, when Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group, took schoolgirls in the northeast part of the country. This is not the same kind of kidnapping, but they're related. Can you tell us what we're looking at?

PARKINSON: That's right. Well, I think anyone who's been paying attention over the last six months now will have seen this huge surge in kidnappings in the northwest of Nigeria - as you say, something like 3,000 people since the beginning of the year, and half of them are school children. And immediately, what comes to mind is the abduction in Chibok seven years ago, which ignited the global Bring Back Our Girls campaign. Now, that was conducted by Boko Haram, the jihadist group. But what's happening now is actually different. It's in a slightly different part of the country, and Boko Haram tended to kidnap children and also adults for ideological reasons. They wanted to recruit. They wanted to indoctrinate. In some cases with young women, they wanted to force them into marriage. What's happening now is much more about money. It's much more mercenary, and it's much more transactional.

CORNISH: So that was a blueprint of sorts, right?

PARKINSON: It was a blueprint. This was the kind of origin story, if you like. And although they're being kidnapped for different reasons, the same thing is happening now - 11 high school kidnappings since the beginning of the year.

CORNISH: So the targets have been vulnerable people - schools, hospitals and children in particular. Can you talk about how these gangs work?

PARKINSON: Yes. The targets are actually widening. In recent days, as you say, we've seen babies kidnapped from hospitals. We've seen traditional rulers. We've seen high-profile targets, celebrities. And what these groups are doing is basically moving into a political vacuum, a power vacuum, where the government has lost control over law and order in a huge part of the country. So this is just one of the many different conflicts and insurgencies the Nigerian government is trying to fight simultaneously. And it's clearly being overwhelmed. I mean, what clearer metric can you have for state failure than the mass kidnapping of children from schools, a place where they should be safe? I think it's very clear now that the government is losing control and that this has become such a growing business that it's going to be very, very difficult to stop.

CORNISH: We've said that the government is basically telling citizens they need to protect themselves. How are they doing that? Is it keeping their kids from school? How is this playing out?

PARKINSON: Well, Nigeria now has more children out of school than any other country on Earth. And that's partly to do with the kidnapping epidemic, partly to do with longer-term insecurity across the northeast. What communities are doing is trying to get organized. They are trying to get hold of weapons. And several of the state governors in the north of the country have actually encouraged this. What we're seeing, unfortunately, is kind of the rise of more and more sort of civilian militias and vigilantism because communities have no choice but to defend themselves.

CORNISH: What is being talked about in terms of what to do in particular with children if this crisis continues? I mean, is there a long-term impact here that people aren't understanding the bigger picture of?

PARKINSON: So the concern now really is that there will be a lost generation in Nigeria. Nigeria's Africa's most populous country - 200 million people. And millions of children are now out of school with no chance of getting back. And so the concern is that there will be a whole generation of children without the means to escape the poverty, without the means to escape the security crisis in their region and possibly even more susceptible to radicalization or extreme ideas. And so you get into this vicious cycle, which will be very, very difficult to turn around.

CORNISH: That's Joe Parkinson, Africa bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, co-author of the book "Bring Back Our Girls."

Thank you for speaking with us.

PARKINSON: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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