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Nigerian Man Helps Others Reunite With Family After His Wife, Brothers Were Kidnapped

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is the story of how one man went from being a victim to becoming a hostage negotiator dealing with some of the most fearsome kidnapping groups in Nigeria. The trouble began at night.

ABDULLAHI TUMBURKAI: Actually, it happened on the 11th day of March 2021 around 11 p.m. Nigerian time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Abdullahi Tumburkai. His wife, Fatima (ph), was a student at the Federal College of Forestry Mechanization Afaka in northern Nigeria. That day, a group of gunmen broke into the school and kidnapped her and over 30 other students, marching them into the countryside.

TUMBURKAI: They trek on their legs for almost four hours in that very night. They got inside to the bush - deep, deep bush.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By deep bush, he's referring to the lawless Birnin Gwari forest that is home to one of Nigeria's kidnapping hubs.

TUMBURKAI: In the forest here in Kaduna, there is so many groups - so many groups - thousands in that bush.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thousands of gang members who have made an industry of mass kidnappings, leaving people terrorized. He tells me the men are heavily armed.

TUMBURKAI: They come with sophisticated weapons. They have - their weapons is far, far better than the Nigerian army weapons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Weapons financed with the ransoms family members are forced to pay. There is a script to how these things work. You see, Abdullahi Tumburkai had been through this before. Just a month earlier, his two brothers had also been kidnapped. So after his wife went missing, he waited for a call. When the kidnappers made contact, he wanted them to know one thing.

TUMBURKAI: When they called me, I told them that my wife was pregnant.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fatima, his wife, in the early stages of pregnancy, had hidden her condition from the kidnappers, and he was terrified over her and his unborn child's safety. The bandits, as he calls them, made their demands. They wanted the release of three gang members who had been arrested by the government plus money - a great deal of it. The families of the students acted together as a group, asking the government for help. The government did eventually release one of the gang members, but it was up to the families to gather the money. Abdullahi Tumburkai is not a wealthy man. He's a journalist. But he had some land which he sold. Women sold their jewelry. Everyone did whatever they could.

TUMBURKAI: Yes, yes, we are in terrible financial problem because I give them all my belongings. There is no money to give your family food. It is so hard for us now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In total, they paid some $120,000 for those kidnapped students. He says there is only one way out.

TUMBURKAI: When they kidnap your relatives, you must pay. If you didn't pay, they will kill them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says things have gotten so bad that people are afraid to visit family members who live in the countryside. People are afraid to travel by car on the open road because they could be grabbed anywhere. He says he can't afford to be kidnapped or have another family member taken again. He's got nothing left. The Nigerian government, he says, does nothing. He says they're afraid of the gangs, who are better-funded and better-armed. Gang members have even killed army officials, which leaves people like him having to take control. While the negotiations over his wife were going on, he became the point person to talk to the gang. He developed, if not a rapport, then at least an understanding. He would tell them that he sympathized with their anger at the government.

TUMBURKAI: These people - they are living in the bush for all their lives. They don't have food. They don't have electricity. They don't have even potable water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They don't have the basics to live. And he says he does pity them. They drink water from the river. Their kids don't go to school. They have been abandoned by the state. He says they liked the way he spoke to them. And finally, the deal was struck. When the day came to hand over the ransom...

TUMBURKAI: We went to the bush, handed over the money to them, so they released the remaining students.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His wife, Fatima, would end up being held 57 days in total, and she lost her unborn child in captivity. But since the kidnapping, he's been using what he learned and has been helping other families negotiate with their kidnappers. Basically, it's made him a kind of community hostage negotiator.

TUMBURKAI: You have to be soft so that they will listen to you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he doesn't employ bravado or threats. Lives are on the line. Right now, there are two hospital workers that he's hoping will be let go. He's been talking to their kidnappers for a few months. Abdullahi Tumburkai says, though, that this is all untenable. It's not just individuals who are being held hostage but a whole community who are utterly unprotected. He wants the Nigerian government to step in and go for talks with those he terms notorious bandits, so the people won't have to give away everything they have just to keep their loved ones alive.

TUMBURKAI: That's why I called the government to call them for negotiate. Give them farm land, give them tractors. So let the government do something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for now, the official Nigerian government position remains that they will not negotiate or pay ransoms to the gangs. And as for the school where the students were kidnapped from - after that attack, it closed down.

And thanks to WEEKEND EDITION's Andrew Craig for his help reporting and producing this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.