Since December, more than 600 students have been kidnapped from schools in northwestern Nigeria, highlighting a worrying development in the country’s kidnapping-for-ransom crisis.
Friday’s kidnapping of 317 students from the Government Girls’ Science Secondary School in Jangebe, Zamfara state, was the second mass school kidnapping in less than 10 days. Twenty-seven children and their teachers who were taken from a school in Kagara, Niger state, on February 17, were released on Saturday.
Authorities say recent attacks on schools in the northwest have been perpetrated by “bandits,” a vague term for kidnappers, armed robbers, cattle thieves, Fulani herdsmen and other armed militias operating in the region that are primarily motivated by money.
Many here believe that a weak security infrastructure and governors who have little control over security in their states (the police and military are controlled by the federal government) and have resorted to paying ransoms have made mass kidnappings a lucrative source of income.
It is an accusation that the governors deny. Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle, who in the past promised “repentant” bandits with houses, money and cars, said people “don’t feel comfortable [with his] peace initiative “were sabotaging his efforts to end the crisis.
Until now, kidnapping victims were generally road travelers in northwestern Nigeria, paying between $ 20 and $ 200,000 for their freedom, but since the highly publicized 2014 kidnapping of 276 Chibok high school schoolgirls by Islamist militants. of Boko Haram in Borno State. , more armed groups have resorted to mass kidnapping of students.
The kidnappers rewarded with cars and money.
Kidnapping hundreds of students instead of road travelers guarantees publicity and government involvement in negotiations, which could mean millions of dollars in ransom payments.
Security expert Kemi Okenyodo believes this has made kidnappings lucrative for criminal gangs.
“The decision on the payment of the ransom needs to be reviewed. What are the best measures to prevent kidnappings and avoid paying the ransom?” she asked.
President Muhammadu Buhari has also hinted that state governors were fueling the crisis.
“State governments should review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles. Such a policy has the potential to backfire with disastrous consequences,” he said.
State governments should review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles. Such a policy has the potential to backfire and have disastrous consequences. States and local governments must also play their role by being proactive in improving safety in and around schools.
– Muhammadu Buhari (@MBuhari) February 26, 2021
The mastermind behind the kidnapping of more than 300 students in Katsina state in December was recently pardoned in nearby Zamfara state after “repenting” and handing over his weapons to the government.
Governor Matawalle promised Auwalu Daudawa and his gang accommodation in the city, along with assistance to improve their livelihoods.
In July of last year, Matawalle promised the bandits two cows for every AK-47 they delivered.
Unlike his predecessor, who was severely criticized for his handling of the kidnapping of Chibok girls, Buhari has not received large amounts of public condemnation for the kidnapping crisis, largely due to the goodwill gained from negotiating the release of some of Chibok girls in their early days.
His supporters also say his government has been more receptive to securing the release of kidnapped students, although dozens, including Leah Sharibu, a Christian who was kidnapped when Boko Haram attacked her school in Dapchi in 2018, remain in captivity.
But security in Nigeria has deteriorated under Buhari: four mass kidnappings of students under his supervision have been reported. The fact that three of them have occurred in the northwest highlights the worsening insecurity in that part of the country, while much of the international attention is focused on the Boko Haram insurgency hundreds of kilometers away in the United States. northeast.
Although the army is carrying out an operation against bandits in the region, the communities have been looted and most of the forest reserves in the region are under the control of criminals.
What has been done to secure the schools?
After the Chibok girls were abducted, a “Safe Schools Initiative” was launched to reinforce security in schools in northeastern Nigeria by building fences around them.
At least $ 20 million ($ 14 million) was pledged for the three-year project, which was supported by United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, a former prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Many container schools were built as temporary learning spaces as part of the plan, but it is not known whether fences were built in the affected communities.
Although most of the recent kidnappings occurred in the northwest, which were not covered by the Safe Schools Initiative, the 2018 abduction of 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi in the northeastern state of Yobe raised questions about the initiative’s success.
The Nigerian military has built posts near some schools, but the number of schools in the north means that many are left unprotected.
Some schools have employed local vigilantes armed with local weapons, but this has often proven ineffective against heavily armed bandits.
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How have Nigerians reacted?
Unlike the kidnapping of the Chibok girls that attracted worldwide attention, there hasn’t been much reaction to the subsequent kidnappings.
There have been no hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls that drew global support at the time and helped pressure President Jonathan to act, nor have there been any street demonstrations in Nigeria.
Bukky Shonibare, co-founder of the Bring Back Our Girls Group, which was involved in the protests in Abuja when the Chibok incident occurred, said Nigerians were exhausted by the frequency of mass kidnappings.
“There is only a limit to what the heart can bear, Nigerians went through a lot after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls … people are really tired,” he told the BBC.
He said that despite the lack of street demonstrations in the subsequent kidnappings, his group worked behind the scenes to apply pressure.
Nigerians on social media have poked fun at the way the president handled the kidnapping crisis using the #ThingsMustChange hashtag employed by Buhari while campaigning for office in 2015.
This tweet from 2015, when he said: “How can there be 219 missing girls in our country and our leader seems incapable of acting? #ThingsMustChange”, has been taken advantage of by tweeters.
How has education been affected in the region?
Authorities in the states of Kano and Yobe ordered the closure of more than 20 schools over the weekend due to insecurity.
Some schools were also recently closed in the states of Zamfara and Niger.
In Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, dozens of schools have been closed for years due to the Boko Haram insurgency.
For a region with a high rate of out-of-school children, this is a massive disruption to the achievements that have been recorded in recent years, compounded by restrictions imposed last year due to Covid..
According to Unicef, there is a net attendance rate of only 53% in primary schools in northern Nigeria, although education at that level is free and compulsory. Standards for girls are even lower due to sociocultural norms and practices that discourage attendance in formal education, she said.
“The implication of these [abductions] Are parents or guardians afraid to allow their pupils to go to school? ”Ms. Shonibare said.
“This literally takes us back to the progress we have made [especially] when it comes to girls’ education, “she said.
The series of attacks on schools in the Northwest indicates a double attack on education in the region.
The bandits, motivated by money, may be ideologically different from groups like Boko Haram in the northeast, who are against secular education, but together, they are having a devastating effect on education in northern Nigeria.