Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Early this morning, a total of 317 schoolgirls aged 12-17 were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen from a school in Nigeria's north-western Zamfara state, police say. This is the second mass abduction in the region in just over a week.
School officials say the perpetrators invaded the town of Jangebe "in their hundreds" and "shot sporadically in the air to scare the residents" before storming the school and kidnapping the girls. "It's possible some of them managed to escape, but we're not sure" one teacher said.
One father, Sadi Kawaye, corroborated the incident, saying he'd been told that the school had been "invaded by bandits". Another parent said his two daughters, ages 10 and 13, were among those missing.
The state information commissioner confirmed the story, saying "It's true, gunmen... kidnapped students. They went to the school with vehicles. They forced some of the girls to trek."
A report said that some of the gunmen were dressed as government security forces. An eye witness said "They broke into the school and shot at the security man, before waking the girls, telling them it was time for prayers. After gathering them, they took them away to the forest."
A surge in armed militancy in the northern and north-western regions of Nigeria has caused a widespread breakdown of security and unrest.
This is not a singular attack. Just over a week ago one student and 42 people, including 27 students, were abducted from a boarding school in the state of Niger, in Nigeria's north-central region. The hostages are yet to be released. Armed gangs often seize schoolchildren for ransom.
Similarly, in December, over 300 boys were taken from a school in the state of Katsina, the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, while he was visiting the region. The boys were later released following negotiations with government officials, while attracting global outrage and coverage.
The most infamous attack in the area, however, occured in 2014, when 276 secondary school female pupils were kidnapped in Chibok in the Borno state by jihadist group Boko Haram. While some of the girls have since been recovered, over 219 are still missing.
Criticism of the government has been pouring in since. The Nigeria Union of Teachers and the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) said they were ready to close schools as students and faculty were no longer safe. A NANS coordinator told local media "We have lost confidence in the government. We will embark on rallies and shut down all the schools because we cannot continue to toy with the lives of our youths".
The governor of the Niger state, Abubakar Sani Bello, also criticised the government for leaving states to manage rescue efforts alone, saying "At the moment, we have not seen any federal support here since the incident occurred."
Large criminal gangs have adopted the northwest and central Nigeria as a base to raid villages, killing and abducting those who live there after looting and torching their homes. Senior adviser for Nigeria at the International Crisis Group, Nnamdi Obasi, said there had been a rise in kidnappings of children for ransom as they put pressure on the government and authorities to negotiate with the perpetrators and attract large media coverage.
Mr Obasi said that while multiple police and military operations were underway in the area since 2016, the government at all scales were torn between dialogue with and fighting against armed groups.
But why is this occurring?
Each time an attack like this occurs, the Chibok kidnapping is brought up. This specific abduction was not the first- although they never usually involved girls-, but was the first to attract such widespread media attention. After Chibok, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign showed armed groups that mass abduction of children was a sure way of pressuring authorities, asking for ransom and often receiving it- although authorities always deny paying- and attracting media coverage.
Two weeks ago, lawmakers from the Zamfara state suggested offering amnesty to repentant kidnappers in exchange for sustainable economic opportunities. While controversial, it has yielded some positive results in the Niger Delta, which saw a reduction in crime after a similar strategy was implemented in 2009. However, the government has so far said it will not negotiate with these criminals. However, the longer they wait to implement a successful solution, the more at risk all schoolchildren and staff here are.
What has been done?
A "Safe School Initiative" was launched after Chibok to improve security in schools in Nigeria's north-eastern region by building fences around them. At least $20 million was pledged for the 3 year project which was globally supported. However, most of the recent kidnappings occurred in the north-west, which were not protected by the Safe Schools Initiative. The success of the program has also been called into question after the 2018 kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls from the Government Science School in the Yobe state.
There are ties to some of the abductions with Boko Haram, occasionally selling those they kidnap to the terrorist group or carrying out criminal operations at the groups request, but the majority are done by individual gangs and bandits, as well as a few other jihadi groups active in the northwest region.
The government need to regain control and police authority over the entire country in order to protect their students, because until then, leaving the schools open is dangerous for all who attend them. The national police and army are understaffed, underpaid and poorly trained, and therefore not equipped with the skill, technology or knowledge to prevent these attacks or recover those kidnapped in the aftermath. Hence, a deep distrust with the government is widespread among the population.
These attacks reflect the growing strength of criminal gangs and the weakness of the government and its security services. Because kidnapping is highly profitable and the nation is currently facing an economic slowdown brought on by a decline in international oil prices and COVID-related disruptions, it's especially attractive now. Hence, it's also especially important to tackle now.
To read more, I recommend the Telegraph, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations and the NY Times.
CNN have an especially interesting article on the top 6 reasons why these abductions matter, which can be found here:
We all need to DO MORE to educate ourselves about these attacks and spread the word. While pressure on the government is potentially a cause of why these abductions continue, enough pressure will also cause actionable change.
As always, do let me know any petitions/ donation pages/ other interesting articles related to the topic.
Update 2/3/21- The kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls from the Jangebe town, Zamfara state on Friday have now been released and are 'safe'. Read the Sky News article here at: https://news.sky.com/story/nigeria-kidnapped-schoolgirls-have-been-released-and-are-safe-12233235