The freeing of perhaps 344 boys kidnapped from a boarding school at Kankara in Katsina state is unalloyed good news. However, the foiled attempt to kidnap another eighty school children, at Dandume in the same state a few days later on December 19, highlights the iniquitousness of criminal gang activity. As for the now-freed Kankara victims, many questions remain. Just how many were kidnapped, how many escaped, how many were released, and how many (if any) are still in captivity is unclear.
The perpetrators of the Kankara crime appear to have been three criminal, locally based gangs known to the state government of Katsina. The state government negotiated their release. The governor's denial of having paid ransom is hardly credible, given usual Nigerian practice. Media is saying credibly that the gangs and the state government have a longstanding relationship, with the latter paying the former protection money. Such "peace agreements" frequently go sour. That might be the background to this kidnapping—gang pressure on the state government. Alternatively, the kidnapping could have been "commissioned" by Boko Haram, perhaps the reasoning behind Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau's claim of responsibility. Media reports that the three gangs have long been associated with Boko Haram, to which it sells stolen weapons and other illicit material. However, the gangs retained control of the kidnapped boys, rather than turning them over immediately to Boko Haram, making possible bargaining. At Dandume, the perpetrators were also involved in cattle rustling. According to the media, quick action by the police and a local militia freed the children and recovered the cattle from a local hideout.
Both episodes highlight the role of criminal gangs in the north and their interrelationship with governments, jihadi groups, and local militias. "Ungoverned spaces" are controlled by a kaleidoscope of elements ranging from the purely criminal to jihadi. What about the people? The popular support or acquiescence enjoyed by criminal gangs and jihadi groups is hard to judge. But exploited and marginalized people everywhere have turned to criminal gangs and religion since the days of Robin Hood and "evil" King John.