About half of them are still being held by their captors, including 80 who were kidnapped on Thursday 17 July when their school in north-western Kebbi state was attacked.
“How can 219 girls be missing in our country, and our leader appears incapable of action?” Muhammadu Buhari had asked in January 2015 while criticising then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan over the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in the northeast state of Borno.
Fast-forward to six years later: five times that number of students have been abducted under Buhari’s watch, dealing a heavy blow to the goodwill on which he rode to power.
“Right now, Nigeria’s future is at stake, with children not safe even in their own schools and this is a big concern for us, the civil society organisations,” said Hamzat Lawal, founder of Follow The Money, a social accountability initiative.
“The Buhari-led administration has failed. The best that the APC-led administration can offer is what we have. And I believe there is nothing more they can do.”
What we know about Nigeria’s mass school abductions
All the 10 mass school abduction incidents in Nigerian schools since December 2020 have been blamed on bandits – a loose term used to describe marauding groups who kidnap for ransom and terrorise remote communities from their base in forest enclaves in northwestern Nigeria.
But unlike Boko Haram insurgents in the northeast or secessionists in the southeast, the bandits’ motivation is still not clear. Sometimes, they launch attacks to avenge killings of their members or families. Other times, they are motivated by ransoms to buy more arms or draw government attention to alleged marginalisation. They are also flexible and move in their hundreds on motorcycles, making it easy to evade soldiers and police officers in communities with little security presence.
Overwhelmed, governors in some northern states have resorted to closing their schools while others have succumbed to negotiating with the bandits and going as far as offering them rewards to surrender their arms.
“The Nigerian state has lost the monopoly of violence, and that has made it extremely difficult for the current police and military system to protect every community due to the absence of manpower,” says Yusuf Anka, a security expert based in Zamfara, the epicentre of the banditry.
“Across the north, schools are located far from populated areas in most cases and in the outskirts, making it easier for the bandits who are pastoral in nature to attack them.”
There are growing concerns that Nigeria, which already has one of the highest numbers of children out of school in the world, will see more of them in the streets.
The bandits have been able to purchase arms through ransoms. Lagos-based research firm SBM Intelligence estimates that $18.34m was paid as ransoms between June 2011 and March 2020.
But Anka also tells The Africa Report that the attacks have been sustained because the bandits are usually more interested in swapping abducted schoolchildren for their members detained by Nigeria’s security agencies, than in the ransoms.
“So, if you arrest a bandit leader, his group can stage a mass kidnapping and take school children and negotiate their release,” he says. “Sometimes, they will also negotiate for the stoppage of airstrikes and bombings.”
Timeline of the mass school abductions:
● Dec 11, 2020 – 344 students from Government Science Secondary School in Katsina State.
● Dec 20, 2020 – 80 from Islamiyya schools, also in Katsina.
● Feb 17, 2021 – 27 from Government Science College (GSC) in Niger State.
● Feb 26 – 279 from Government Girls Secondary School in Zamfara State.
● Mar 11 – 37 from Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation in Kaduna State.
● April 20 – 20 from Greenfield University in Kaduna State.
● April 24 – Three from the Federal University of Agriculture in Benue State.
● May 30 – 136 from Salihu Tanko Islamic School in Niger State.
● June 10 – Eight from Nuhu Bamali Polytechnic in Kaduna State.
● June 17 – 80 students from Federal Government College in Kebbi state.
How has this affected Buhari’s popularity?
Amid widespread criticisms and following a trip to Borno state where Boko Haram insurgency has raged on for over a decade, the Nigerian presidency maintained that Buhari’s popularity remains “unassailable” and that his “die-hard following is legendary”.
Abdullahi Aliyu, a government official in Katsina – Buhari’s home state – agrees that “you cannot shift all the blame” of the abductions to the president.
“Buhari went to Maiduguri (in Borno) and the same reception he was given in 2015 (when he first contested for president) is the same he was given on that trip,” Aliyu tells The Africa Report. “What does that tell you? They appreciate him and they know that he is trying. I can tell you that he is the only one we (northerners) have in Nigeria for now.”
But many don’t seem to agree, particularly in northern Nigeria where all the school abductions have taken place. 19 northern states contributed to 77% of the 15m votes that Buhari polled as the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate in the 2019 presidential election. 13 of those 19 states belong to the APC; but at least four of them, and Abuja – the seat of power – are witnessing increasing protests demanding that the president resign over insecurity.
“This is affecting Buhari’s popularity and goodwill; he has lost the popular support of the people who voted for him,” Anka says, arguing that what is currently sustaining the APC is the “ethnic and regional solidarity with politicians.”
More children out in the streets
In a statement shared with The Africa Report, Save the Children [a global humanitarian organisation] described the mass abductions in Nigeria as “a grave violation of child rights” and asked a pertinent question: “When will children stop being used as pawns in games played by adults?”
“Places of learning should never be targets, and children should never be abducted. Save the Children is deeply concerned about the protection of children in the places that should be safest for them,” the organisation also said.
Moreover, there are growing concerns that Nigeria, which already has one of the highest numbers of children out of school in the world, will see more of them in the streets, especially in the north where UNICEF said there is a net attendance rate of just 53% in primary schools.
Two parents who spoke to The Africa Report confirmed that schools from where their children were kidnapped, before being released earlier this year, are still closed.
Aliyu Isa, whose five children spent weeks with the bandits in northwestern Niger, added that they have been forced to relocate from their community to Minna – the state capital – amid fears that the security situation may not improve anytime soon.
“We’ve seen families who are scared and not allowing their children to go to school; we’ve seen a lot of girls losing interest in going to school and we are now seeing a high rate of early child marriage where girls are being given out as brides,” said Lawal, who is also the chief executive of Connected Development (CODE).
The way out
About 80% of schools in Nigeria are not well secured, according to the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps. As a solution to this, Confidence Owamninaemi, an analyst with SBM Intelligence, says protecting schools must involve both kinetic and non-kinetic measures.
“Investment into signals intelligence tailored toward national security should complement the use of data gathering with a view to preventing attacks,” he tells The Africa Report, adding that the problem could, however, persist “if governance does not reach far-flung border areas and remote communities” where non-state actors continue to fill the gaps in Nigeria’s vast ungoverned spaces.
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