The story of a government that fails to help cattle herders, an army that fails to fight bandits, a train that fails to safely get from A to B, and the bandits who benefit from this mess.
Any passenger trying to travel between Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and Kaduna, the northern region’s hub about 200 kilometres away, comes away with the impression that the loose bands of thugs locally known as ‘bandits’ are now more powerful than Nigeria’s government and army.
For a long time, making the journey by road has meant accepting the risk posed by bandits who lurk along the roadsides and target the passing traffic. There is a railway but travellers must be prepared to pay off corrupt officials, and then they still risk meeting bandits on the track anyway. Even investing in a plane ticket is risky these days- the airport was subject to an attack recently, too. And if you’d like to make a complaint about this bleak situation, good luck. Accountable officials, police and generals do not seem to exist when you need them, much like their email addresses and phone numbers.
Nigeria's Transportation Minister Rotimi Amaechi is admittedly busy, though, because he is campaigning to become Nigeria’s next president.
Bandits lurk in the forest
“All tickets have been booked”, announces a pop-up message on the e-ticketing portal through which tickets for the train between Abuja and Kaduna are sold. This means I must physically go to the railway station, where I will pay an inflated price to an official who pre-booked all of those tickets for resale. I go and I pay, because I have to: I must be in Kaduna for work, and I can’t travel by road because bandits with heavy weaponry lurk in the forest, targeting any traveller who looks like their family might pay a ransom to have them returned unharmed.
‘I can't risk the road again. In 2020 I had to stay in a kidnap den for two weeks before my relatives could raise 1.5million Naira (about US$4,000) for ransom. The bandits told me that they would kill me if the ransom was not paid’, recent victim Sunkanmi Rahman told me recently.
While some of the richer victims of kidnapping have gotten off lightly - some by paying quickly and others by negotiating state assistance through connections - those of lesser means are not so lucky. They often spend long periods in captivity, and suffer physical torture as a means of coercing relatives into raising the money to pay their ransom. In just the first quarter of 2022 close to 1,400 people were kidnapped in Kaduna state; this figure includes nearly a hundred from the Abuja-Kaduna road alone.
The bandits in the Kaduna forests used to be cattle herders, mainly from the Fulani community. But in the past decade environmental decline and the growing scarcity of water and arable land have led to vicious resource competition between herders and crop farmers. Starting in 2011, herders began encroaching on village lands in their quest for fresh pasture for their herds. Peasants fought back, and the conflict soon escalated from scattered clashes to an insurgency. Herders became gunmen, using motorbikes to sweep into villages and cart away livestock and anything else of value. Though much of Northern Nigeria is witnessing similar clashes, Kaduna is among the most affected.
Lately these bandits have begun to branch out into kidnapping, and their armouries are beginning to resemble those of an army. Amongst other weapons they have deployed AK-47 rifles, bombs, SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles, and even anti-tank missiles. They seem to be able to bring weapons into the country with ease, despite the fact that Kaduna State is host to no less than fifteen military bases.
Why is it, then, that the Nigerian army, with more than 200,000 soldiers under its command, cannot prevent these guns from reaching the bandits? And why can’t the federal government, or even just Kaduna’s state government, find and allocate fresh grazing land that would enable herder communities to return to herding? We don’t know, and it’s not for lack of trying. Five phone calls were made, and many Whatsapp messages were sent to the spokespersons of each of the relevant state structures, asking a set of questions. These messages were sent to army spokesperson Brigadier General Onyema Nwachukwu, Military Headquarters spokesperson Jimmy Akpor and the Kaduna governor’s office, amongst others. All efforts at contact made from both inside Nigeria and from Amsterdam remain unanswered. Messages to their active Twitter accounts were not responded to either, and emails to official email addresses invariably bounced.
Contracts and shenanigans
Apparently there was a plan once, in 2018. Back then the Nigerian government announced that in order to resolve the conflict it would allocate ranches and land to the herders and introduce economic reforms. Alas, much like the emails and the phone numbers, this plan seems not to have worked.
When the scourge of road banditry first started to appear, the Nigerian government responded by announcing a new train line. But as soon as the Abuja-Kaduna track opened in 2018, officials at the railway stations saw an opportunity. Passengers, scared off the roads but still obliged to travel, were flocking to get train tickets. And so staff started buying up the available stock of tickets and then reselling them on to the general public at three to five times their face value.
Complaints about this practice from extorted passengers elicited just as much of a response from the Ministry of Transportation as journalists’ questions about the US$1.5 billion Chinese railway contract itself had done previously, receiving nothing more than a stony silence. Those questions had been about the exact terms of the contract, and about how the Chinese grant money was to be budgeted.
‘In Nigeria we run a corrupt system, where the people at the top don't care about the shenanigans being perpetrated by those at the bottom’, says Rotimi Abire of the Anti-Corruption Crusade Initiative, despondently. “It is not just in the transportation sector.’
In 2020 the Ministry of Transportation finally responded to the complaints of irate passengers by announcing yet another contract, this time allocating more than two million US dollars for an e-ticketing booking portal. Faced with journalists’ questions about the tender process and who the suppliers were, the government once again pursued a course of silence. The Nigerian Railway Corporation’s (NRC) Managing Director Fidet Okhria surfaced just once, to tell the public that this shiny new digital service would put an end to such corruption, since passengers could now buy their tickets directly online. The fact that the system would link passengers’ personal details to their ticket would also ensure that there was a database of all passengers boarding the train, said Okhria at the time, which would be good for ‘emergencies and other purposes.’
But of course the system was always still going to be operated by the same public officials in the same department. Which is why, in February 2022, my computer screen announced that ‘all tickets have been booked’ and I must go to the railway station to buy an inflated ticket, just as I had before the e-ticketing portal was introduced.
At the station I am offered a pre-booked ticket for resale at three times its original price by an official calling himself Ayo, who happily tells me he can help me to get a ticket anytime, ‘as long as you are ready to pay me.’ When asked why, his explanation is simple: ‘It is a black market, so it’s expected to be more expensive,’ he says. Ayo seems quite content with this opportunity to make an extra buck, which is perhaps not surprising since formal wages in Nigeria remain rather low. There might be more room for proper salaries if there was less corruption at top state and government levels, of course, but there you go.
No amount of crying will help you
‘No amount of crying will help you. I always advise people to pay if they have the money. It is better than being killed or kidnapped by terrorists,’ remarks a passenger beside me in the queue while we struggle for tickets, explaining that they themselves experienced such extortion multiple times. The problem is wider than just railway officials, too- one of the soldiers monitoring our queues seems also to have joined the black market. ‘I have a ticket to sell if you don’t mind,’ he calls out to a passenger nearby.
An even bigger concern than the expensive ticket price, however, is my awareness that, though safer than the road, the trains aren't actually totally safe. On 20 October 2021, four months before my trip, the track of the Abuja-Kaduna route was blown up with explosives. An ex-senator, Shehu Sani, was one of the passengers on the train that passed shortly after the explosion. He later reported that ‘we saw them (bandits) from our windows. I think they were watching to see whether our train would slide from the rail track so that they could attack the passengers or abduct some of us. There were gunshots and they were targeted at the driver and his crew. The (bandits) intention was to separate the head of the train from the rest of the body. In fact, we were lucky it did not hit anyone.’
The Ministry of Transportation responded to the outcry from now-desperate commuters by announcing yet another contract, this time for a ‘digital security system' to monitor bandits' activities along the rail lines, according to Minister Rotimi Amaechi. Once again the minister did not give details on who would supply the system or what the budget would look like. He also neglected to give any further details on what the system actually was, or how it would stop bandit attacks. Up until today, no implementation activity seems to have followed Amaechi’s announcement.
Meanwhile, I had managed to get back safely from my Kaduna assignment and was preparing to travel back there once more in the second half of March, when two things happened. First, on March 26, bandits raided Kaduna airport itself in a daring heist which did away with the illusion of safety for flying passengers. Then two days later, on March 28, there was another attack on the train.
Not a single government official called
The bandits again pursued the same strategy they had tied before, destroying the track with explosives. However this time the strategy worked- the train was derailed. Eight passengers were confirmed killed in the attack, while 168 others disappeared, with over sixty of those since confirmed kidnapped in proof-of-life videos, including five children. According to local reports, one of the passengers who remains in captivity was pregnant and has since given birth to her baby.
Two months after the incident, the authorities are still yet to give updates on their efforts to secure the victims’ release. A major complication in this respect is that it isn’t clear who the victims actually are, since, contrary to what the railway director had announced when introducing the e-ticket portal, there really isn’t a database of the passengers’ details. Most tickets were bought up by middlemen before being resold on the ‘black market’ after all, and as such they do not bear accurate passenger details.
When family and friends came forward to declare their loved ones dead or missing after the attack, the government seemed less than eager to engage with them. According to a relative of one kidnap victim, who talked to the press, ‘not a single government official has called any of the family members (who had come forward).’ When survivors and relatives went to the offices of Kaduna’s Federal Ministry of Transportation to protest, they were refused an audience. Aides attached to State Transportation Minister Gbemisola Saraki physically pushed and kicked journalists covering the protest. Days later, Nigeria’s Federal Transportation Minister Rotimi Amaechi declared his candidacy for the country’s presidency in the 2023 elections.
Like all other public officials contacted about this story, Amaechi’s ministerial spokesperson, David Iyofor, repeatedly ignored the questions sent to him about the conduct of his ministry. However one of the questions, - about whether the Ministry of Transportation supported Amaechi’s presidential candidature- was more or less answered by the same Iyofor when he inadvertently returned a phone call to ZAM at its number in the Netherlands. As soon as he understood that the unrecognised caller was ZAM, the government official quickly ended the call, saying that he was ‘busy campaigning.’
Meanwhile, Abire and others in the Anti Corruption Crusade continue to expose the way Nigeria’s leaders and bureaucrats behave. ‘We are only hoping that if things cannot get better with our fight against corruption, they at least shouldn't get any worse,’ Abire sighs.
On 18 May, as we were busy compiling this story, bandits on the Abuja Kaduna highway again ambushed a bus. This time they abducted an estimated twenty passengers.
(Investigative and narrative editing Evelyn Groenink)