19 February 2024, The Tablet

Kidnap culture – how does a father cope?

by Graham Tomlin

West Africa’s kidnap-and-ransom horror is now a global threat.

Kidnap culture – how does a father cope?

“If one of us is taken” is a subject every parent in Nigeria talks to their child about. 
File photo by poco_bw / Alamy

Suleiman Nasirou, a softly spoken West African Pastor, tells the story of three friends kidnapped by Islamist gangs. Two of them, a Church elder and a university professor, were released after the payment of large ransoms. The friends of the third, an ordinary Christian from a rural area, paid the ransom to liberate him. The kidnappers took the money and killed him anyway. “It has made us feel very vulnerable,” says Pastor Nasirou. “This is coming so close. Am I next?”

It is a realistic question. “If one of us is taken” is a subject every parent in Nigeria talks to their child about.  The reach of kidnap networks, and the apparent helplessness of the police, has disfigured family life.  Agonising choices are made:  whether to risk the journey to the bedside of an elderly relative?   Whether to send children to school at all?  Generations of families are now daily tipped into poverty as school laptops, college funds, and family homes are given up and sold, in the desperate hope of raising the ransom to see a precious loved one again.

While large terror groups may abduct hundreds, suburban gangs take one or two people. But all are achieving the goals of terror: the shutting of schools, the flight of Christians, and the paralysis of the state.

Religious violence has been rising in Nigeria for over twenty years. Christians, especially those in the middle belt and north of Nigeria, understand this very well. The killing of around 200 Christians across 26 villages in Plateau State on Boxing Day, by Islamist Fulani militants attacking farmers, is only the latest mass killing event among thousands.

The story of this conflict is rarely told in the west. Wars in Gaza and Ukraine have occupied our attention in recent months, with miles of column inches dedicated to analysing the progress and causes of those conflicts. Yet long before these wars began, this deadly struggle has been growing across west Africa, which could in the long term turn out to be even more significant.

Pastor Suleiman describes how in 2000, Sharia Law was introduced in twelve states in Northern Nigeria. In Kaduna State, Christians gathered to protest the imposition of Islamic law and its implications for their community. Gangs of Muslim youths attacked: 5000 people, or more, were killed.  It was the beginning of a wave of attacks on the Christian population.

Salafist clerics had started preaching jihad against Christians around that time and so, by 2009 the rise of the notorious Islamist group Boko Haram was no surprise – militancy had been growing, as Muslim young people had been increasingly radicalised over those years.

Over the last ten years, the creeping violence took a new shape in regular attacks on Christian farmers by Muslim Fulani herdsmen. In western accounts of the story, the conflict is blamed on climate change, with the traditional lands of the Fulanis no longer capable of supporting their flocks of cattle, making them move into land owned by Christian agrarian farmers. Suleiman is having none of it. “If they want land, why don’t they buy it, in the normal way, as Nigerian law allows them to do?” he asks. In any case, the Fulani who attacked the Christians at Christmas didn’t even speak Hausa, the local language. Bishop Kukah, the local Catholic bishop asks: “Who are these killers? Where are they coming from? Who is sponsoring them? What are their grouses and against whom? What do they want? Whom do they want? Who are they working for? When will it all end?”

He goes on: “With time, Nigerians are gradually losing hope in the ability of their government to protect and secure them.’’  The Nigerian government seems powerless to stop the violence. Or, as Pastor Suleiman hints, turns a blind eye.

Christians, it seems, have nowhere to turn but God. “I keep no weapon in my house,” says Pastor Nasirou. “We ask the children to watch over each other. If someone hears a noise, sees something unusual, to warn us all. We stay close with our neighbours. Most of all, we pray.”

The numbers of Christians being murdered is astonishing. In Nigeria, 4,118 Christians were murdered for their faith in 2023, according to the Open Doors World Watch List*.  In 2022, 5,014 murders were recorded, up from 4,650 the year before. In the Middle Belt, Christians scattered from the countryside find shelter in cities like Jos, formerly a place where Muslims and Christians lived together as neighbours. Now, community cohesion has broken down. Increasingly Muslims and Christians live in separate parts of town, viewing each other with suspicion.

Fear and mistrust, fed by religious extremism, are devouring the bonds of society. Suleiman’s own brother Umara, a soldier in the Nigerian army, came face-to-face with religious hostility from a Muslim fellow-soldier. The soldier killed Umara by running him down in a military vehicle. Suleiman refused to press charges, but went through treatment for trauma, through which he says, “God healed me, and I was able to forgive him.”

It is not just in Nigeria. Across a swathe of west Africa, in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, the same pattern recurs. The war in Ukraine has fuelled fears that other nations may get drawn into the conflict and the same is true of Israel's war in Gaza, that it may mutate into a wider war in the Middle East. The conflicts caused by religious extremism spreading across sub-Saharan Africa also have the potential to destabilise the whole continent in ways that could lead to greater violence and chaos.

For Pastor Suleiman, the memory of a Christian woman from Burkina Faso is something he cannot escape. She came to one of the trauma centres set up by him and his friends in Nigeria. A married Christian with children, she was kidnapped, raped, kept in a terrorist camp for three years and while there, gave birth to the child of her rapist.  “When I looked into her eyes,’’ he says, “I saw pain I can never describe.”

The gradual vanishing of Christian faith from the Middle East is a story we have often heard told.  We may now be looking at the same in West Africa, in one of the least known, but most dangerous conflicts in the world. The emptying-out of Christians from the region is unfolding with consequences we cannot predict. Christianity has a habit of surviving – even thriving – under persecution.  After all, it sprang from the empty tomb in the Resurrection. When persecuted, it tends to spring up in surprising places. And yet, whether Christianity survives in West Africa is in the balance.


Graham Tomlin is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and Editor-in-Chief of Seen and Unseen magazine. He was Bishop of Kensington from 2015-2022, taught theology within Oxford University and is the founder of St Mellitus College.

*Figures compiled by the Open Doors World Watch List, Open Doors’ research rankings examining those countries where Christians are most persecuted. The figures – compiled from extensive in-country research by the Open Doors research team – are considered conservative by experts.  


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