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Voters deciding Nigeria's political future worry about the lack of security

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Lack of security is a top concern for voters deciding Nigeria's political future this week. Parts of Africa's most populous country are practically ungovernable, and kidnapping for ransom is now a regular occurrence. It's made cross-country travel dangerous and reshaped life for millions. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu reports.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Good morning, distinguished ladies and gentlemen.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: A few years ago, boarding a train in Nigeria felt ordinary. Now it feels like a risk.

Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.

AKINWOTU: Can I have a train to Kaduna?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, if you go economy.

AKINWOTU: Economy?

At Abuja rail station, passengers stream into the station hall to catch a train to the northern city of Kaduna. When the train line opened seven years ago, there was optimism and excitement at the new rail connections being built around the country. But now that's changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISSING)

AKINWOTU: On the train, there are at least two officers armed with AK-47s who stand at each end of every carriage, while others patrol the corridors. Most of the seats are empty and have been since the last attack almost a year ago.

KEHINDE AKINYEMI: That very day, I can remember we departed Abuja by 6 p.m. as usual.

AKINWOTU: Thirty-three-year-old Kehinde Akinyemi is an engineer for the Nigerian Railway Corporation and was on the train that night when the gunmen struck.

AKINYEMI: When we are about to reach Dutse, I just heard, like, gunshots. (Vocalizing).

AKINWOTU: A bomb went off on the track, derailing the train. A dozen terrorists stormed on board and killed nine people. Kehinde and two others hid in a train toilet, praying but not making a sound.

AKINYEMI: They are kidnapping people, killing, shooting. They are telling the passengers, stand up. Let's go.

AKINWOTU: At least 63 people were kidnapped that day and held for ransom. The attack was carried out by two armed groups, including an affiliate of Boko Haram, the terrorist group notorious for kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls in Chibok back in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: Over the course of six months, the terrorists would release videos like this. Eventually, they were all released, with some forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom.

TUNDE LEYE: The kidnap thing usually progresses where initially, it's niche.

AKINWOTU: Tunde Leye is a political and security analyst based in Lagos.

LEYE: As time goes on, it becomes proliferated, democratized. And anybody that is able to just organize a bunch of boys is willing to take the risk.

AKINWOTU: Leye says that as the economy has suffered, kidnaps for ransom have become a prolific industry, from the early days of kidnapping foreigners for grievances and then money in the oil-rich Niger Delta to groups like Boko Haram kidnapping to support their ideology.

LEYE: There are areas in the country, for example, where people are farmers, but they've not planted for 10 years. All the young guys that should have learned farming skills in those 10 years have not. The only skills they have right now is how to fight.

AKINWOTU: Passengers on the Abuja to Kaduna line chose to take the train that day because they felt it was the safest bet, safer than a flight because just two days before, gunmen attacked Kaduna airport, and safer than the road because the Abuja to Kaduna highway is notorious for kidnappings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)

AKINWOTU: The Abuja-Kaduna line finally reopened in December after nine months. Authorities reassured that the journey had been secured, but Kehinde wasn't convinced it was safe enough to return to his old job on the Abuja-Kaduna train line. And since that day, he's had many sleepless nights.

AKINYEMI: If the night comes, if I lie down on the bed, my mind will be at the incident. So to daybreak, my mind is replaying the incident because I'm scared.

AKINWOTU: And the new train line that the government hailed as a mark of progress has now become a symbol of Nigeria's vulnerability. Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Abuja.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "GOLDEN HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.