A Kidnapping Negotiator Gets His Biggest Test: Saving His Own Wife

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Abdullahi Tumburkai volunteers helped deal with kidnappers in the kidnapping crisis in Nigeria. One conversation was particularly harrowing.

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When the call came, Abdullahi Tumberkai, 46, was sitting on his bed in the dark about 100 miles away. He said that behind the worried voice of his wife, he heard gunshots. He had previously been on dozens of tense calls to free abducted family, friends, and neighbors, and he tried to remember to keep his voice steady and calm.

Talking to his wife, Fatima, he was careful not to mention that she was pregnant. If those people heard this, he feared that they might increase the price of the ransom.

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“Don’t worry,” she said over the phone. “We’ll kick you out.”

Mr Tumburkai is estimated to have helped free more than 80 people in the north-west of Nigeria over the past year, which has become one of the world’s worst abduction crises. Kidnapping for ransom by heavily armed criminal gangs taking advantage of the weak security presence of the government has become a brutally profitable business across the country. Gangs abducted an estimated thousands of Nigerians in 2021, including more than 1,200 children confiscated from their schools.

Using only his iPhone, Mr Tumbarkai has become part of an informal world of volunteer negotiators – who represent families, communities and himself – working to bring hostages back home.

Mr Tumbarkai was cast in the role when two of his brothers were kidnapped last February. Neighbors and friends then sought his help for their abducted relatives. In October alone, he was tapped to free a pharmacist, a university lecturer and two hospital orders that had been taken over by armed kidnapping gangs. He said he has negotiated ransoms ranging from a few hundred US dollars to six figures for high-profile victims.

Interviews with a dozen interlocutors, hostages and the kidnappers themselves uncovered the secret work of middlemen like him, which comes with increased risk.

If they do not bargain for a ransom that the victims can afford, the hostages can be executed. If they succeed, these brokers make themselves a target among those who oppose any negotiation with the kidnappers. The work embodies a moral argument that divides governments around the world: should you pay to secure the return of the hostages?

Nigeria’s government and several community leaders say freelancers like Mr Tumberkai are making the problem worse by creating a route for payments that finances terrorism and encourages more kidnappings.

Nigeria’s presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, said talks with the kidnappers were “totally unacceptable” and the government was outraged over the ransom payment. “It is the responsibility of the police to advise those whose relatives have been kidnapped as to what to do,” he said.

In Kaduna state, where Mr Tumburkai lives, Governor Nasser al-Rufai has vowed to prosecute all interlocutors. “Even if my son is kidnapped, I will pray to build a heaven for him because I will not pay any ransom,” he told local media in April.

On Wednesday, Nigeria’s attorney general said the groups responsible for the kidnappings would be formally listed as terrorists, and as a result anyone who interacted with the kidnappers could be charged with financing terrorist groups. The military has rapidly expanded its bombing campaign against a bandit base in the forests of the northwest in recent weeks.

Vigilantes have killed several interlocutors in recent months, including a 70-year-old government official who was trying to free a small group of hostages.

Despite the risks, Mr Tumbarkai said he could not dissuade families who beg for his help. All the time, the kidnappers call in new demands on his phone, which he never lets the battery run out. He has become accustomed to the sound of gunshots and screams as hostages threaten to kill their hostages to expedite payments. He said communities in the northwest have nowhere to turn, as the government has acknowledged that it does not have the capacity to free all abducted civilians.

“I am afraid of kidnappers and afraid of the government,” he said. “But no one is helping us.”

booming industry

Nigeria is home to the continent’s largest economy, largest oil reserves and a bustling commercial capital, Lagos. Yet easy access to small arms has made mass kidnapping a booming industry in a country whose population growth was already outpacing economic growth, before the pandemic hit Nigeria at its worst in 40 years. Indicates a bad recession.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says Nigeria has the largest number of people registered as missing of any country at 24,476.

Aid agency officials said the figure was thought to be too low, as most missing people are never reported to the Red Cross. Reported cases have often remained unresolved for years, he said, with many victims presumed dead.

The Red Cross has offered to help Nigeria’s government set up a registry of abducted people, but the proposal has not progressed in a country with no agency or ministry dedicated to solving the problem.

The United Nations says more than 200,000 people have left their homes in the region, especially in small, rural towns where kidnappings are rampant. These include 18 people who are now living in Mr Tumburkai’s three-room house. Security officials say most kidnappings in Nigeria take months to solve.

“Everybody knows not only one person who has been kidnapped, but many more,” said Yusuf Anka, a graduate law student at Zamfara State who studied the origins of the conflict.

Mr Anka, whose cousin was held hostage for months before being released in November, is also set to negotiate the release of the kidnapped from his hometown, including several other members of his own family. Are included. Other volunteer interlocutors he knows include fellow students, former kidnapping victims and a local doctor who once treated a wounded robber.

The government of Nigeria has periodically shut down cellphone reception in some states to make it difficult for gangs to operate, disconnecting millions of citizens.

The kidnappers have started sending demand letters through handwritten letters. Motorcycle couriers take them to the villages, containing a list of the kidnapped people, the price of each person, and the ransom time limit. A list recently sent to Gatawa village in Sokoto state had nine names and a demand for about $50,000.

“It is getting worse. The ransom is getting more and more,” said Sheikh Ahmed Gumi, a former Nigerian military officer who in 2015 negotiated to free his brother in a wide-ranging deal between the bandits and the government Tried to mediate.

Kidnappings were once rare in the North-West, where Mr. Tumburkai lives. In the 2000s, abductions were concentrated in the oil-rich southern delta. The next decade saw the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast, in which thousands of people were kidnapped from villages and schools.

Mr Tumburkai first heard of a kidnapping in his area in 2018. Gun-wielding shepherds, mostly the Fulani minority, had captured villagers working in the fields demanding a ransom.

A fight between Fulani herders and farmers over access to grazing land for cattle turned violent, killing thousands. Kidnapping – a way for victimized shepherds to terrorize farming communities and quickly raise money – was becoming industrialized. Bandit groups used ransom money to buy weapons, while governors encouraged villagers to take up arms because the state could no longer guarantee their safety. Nigeria’s Auditor General said on Tuesday that some 180,000 guns, including 88,000 AK-47 rifles, were missing from police shops.

“It has now reached the point that we have the same weapons as the army,” Shehu Rekeb, a militant leader from Zamfara state, said in a phone interview. “We’ve learned that we have the upper hand over them.”

interlocutor

In February 2021, Mr. Tumburakai was woken up by a call at 3 am.

A neighbor said that two of his brothers, Mohammad and Mehmood, were abducted after an attack on the family compound. After waiting for news for three days, a kidnapper called with a demand: pay 15 million naira, about $38,000, immediately or the brothers would be killed.

“At least we knew they were alive,” Mr. Tumburkai said. “Now I had his phone number.”

His only experience of mediation was to break the fights of childhood in the school courtyard. He sometimes donated his breakfast of rice and beans to struggling classmates, “just to calm things down,” said Mr. Tumburkai, whose friends call him Biggie Smalls for his size and calm disposition.

His first task was to reduce the price of the ransom. “We didn’t have that kind of money,” he said. “They were angry but I tried to empathize with them.”

In a frenzy of calls, often in the middle of the night, he would talk to the kidnappers, using his mother’s Fulani language to beg for more time and a lower price.

After more than a week of talks, the kidnappers let her talk to her younger brother Mahmood. “He started crying: ‘They beat me, please bring money. Otherwise these people will kill us.’ “The prisoners were being fed raw rice, his brother told him.

Mr. Tumbarkai told him to stay alive and asked the kidnappers if they would reduce the ransom to $25,000. A bandit negotiator called a few days later to say that they would accept the price, but he needed the money immediately.

Till day, Mr. Tumbarkai was busy…

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