Kidnapping becomes endemic in Nigeria’s northwest

Tensions between farmers and herders have escalated into a large and deadly conflict

At least 60 people were kidnapped from a remote area in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state this week, according to residents who told Reuters news agency that those taken were mostly women.

Kidnapping for ransom has become endemic in the region as groups of bandits terrorise civilians and vigilante groups, formed in response, step up recruiting and arm themselves. Yet the situation has gone largely under the radar internationally, as attention remains focused on Nigeria’s northeast, where a war with Islamist insurgents is being waged.

Violence in the northwest began a decade ago amid tensions between Hausa farmers and nomadic Fulani herders over access to land and water, and it has morphed into a much larger conflict. In February, the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development said that more than 12,000 people have been killed, more than one million displaced and more than one million children have been forced out of school by the violence. Authorities accuse bandits of using abductees as “human shields” against military attacks, while locals report paying ransoms to have family members freed.

The latest kidnappings come as aid workers warn about a growing humanitarian emergency, which international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called a “catastrophic malnutrition and health crisis”.


“This violence really has escalated ... especially in the past year, we’ve seen mass kidnappings of schoolchildren, villages completely vacated,” Simba Tirima, MSF’s Nigeria country representative, said during a phone interview.

He said one of the consequences of people being displaced is that they don’t have access to their farms. Concurrently, the cost of food is rising, with a bag of rice weighing about 50kg almost quadrupling in price since 2020. “It’s exponential,” said Tirima.

This year, MSF has treated about 140,000 children for malnutrition in the northwest, 25,000 of whom have required in-patient treatment. “The numbers are staggering ... These are people who are able to reach us. I suspect there are many, many more who weren’t able to reach us,” he said.

Far fewer international aid organisations work in the northwest than in the northeast, Tirima added, with the northeast getting more international attention because it is perceived as an international conflict whereas the northeast is seen as domestic.

“The northwest is neglected. The northwest doesn’t get the attention that it really needs ... It’s creating a hierarchy of victims,” said Tirima.

He also worried that the Nigerian election in February could further distract from it. The election will see a new president elected as Muhammadu Buhari, who has been in power since 2015, comes to the end of his two four-year terms.

A snapshot released by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which describes the severity of food emergencies, says that nearly six million children aged under five, in northeast and northwest Nigeria, are likely to suffer from acute malnutrition this year. It listed the main contributing factors as being “inferior food consumption (quantity and quality) and poor health-seeking behaviours,” along with “poor health services, feeding practices, access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services and facilities, and food insecurity.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa