Nigerian students fear next mass kidnapping

Tuesday April 20, 2021

From the Washington Post

For Nigerian students living in fear of the next mass kidnapping, there is only one defense — to run

By Ismail Alfa and

Danielle Paquette

April 19, 2021 at 2:39 p.m. EDT

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — By night, the boarding school teacher becomes a security guard. He wears a whistle around his neck in case gunmen jump the low-slung fence and break into dormitories where 300 boys sleep.

They know to run if they hear the shrill warning — straight to town, toward the police station. Knock on doors until someone hides you.

“The students are in dire need of therapy,” said Saminu Haruna, who teaches math in Adamawa state. “They can’t concentrate. They’re afraid.”

In a normal year, a few drop out. Since January, 20 seats in his classroom have emptied. Attackers stormed schools in Nigeria’s north three times in the past five months, kidnapping at least 667 children. The abductions have instilled fear in students and teachers, leading to a wave of dropouts.

The attacks are chipping away at an already fragile education system. More than 600 schools in the region have shuttered this year — some temporarily, some indefinitely — and 3 million fewer children are in class, government data show. Experts blame a combination of coronavirus pandemic closures, extremism and organized crime.

Politicians have pledged to vanquish the kidnapping threat, asserting that security forces will be better prepared next time, but teachers and students at 10 schools told The Washington Post that they haven’t seen meaningful change.

Most guards are poorly equipped volunteers from the community — a defense layer that receives inconsistent backing from police officers and soldiers — and calls to authorities when strangers are spotted near campus have not yielded more protection, the teachers and students said. Students are struggling to pay attention. Grades are slipping.

“You never know who the next victim is,” said Hamidu Umar, a teacher at a Borno state school with 1,300 students. “Neither the students nor teachers can focus.”

Nigeria’s education ministry said it was not responsible for students’ security.

“Our responsibility is to provide quality education to every Nigerian,” spokesman Ben Goong said in a statement. “It is the duty of security agencies to provide security to schools.”

A military spokesman directed The Post to the Ministry of Education. Local government officials say they have pleaded for more backup from the police, and police say they need extra support from the military, intelligence agents and civil defense groups.

“Gone are the days when you can say protecting lives and property lies with police alone,” said Frank Mbah, a spokesman for the Nigeria Police Force.

The blow to education is especially troubling as Africa’s most populous country confronts an extremist insurgency on top of endemic gang violence — two forces that analysts say are increasingly overlapping.

Some assailants have voiced extremist views during school rampages, pressing boys and girls to abandon modern education if they want to live in peace, victims told The Post. Others seemed to be opportunists seeking easy paydays.

Mass kidnappings command harsh media attention, pressuring local governments to make hefty ransom payments, analysts say, although the terms of such deals are rarely disclosed. Between 2011 and 2020, Nigerians spent at least $18 million to free themselves or loved ones, according to a report from SB Morgen, a consulting firm that analyzed data from open sources.

“Kidnapping is now a thriving, lucrative business,” Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, tweeted in March, “and students are now their stocks and goldmine.”

Nigeria confronts second mass kidnapping of schoolchildren in nine days after 317 girls vanish

Boarding schools are especially vulnerable. There are thousands in the country’s north — usually outside of the densely populated cities — that attract some of Nigeria’s poorest children with free lodging and meals. (Many students don’t have access to steady schooling in their own rural communities.)

Security is unreliable at the public facilities, and upgrades are scarce because wealthy parents — people with influence — don’t enroll their sons and daughters.

Now, advocates say the sole educational option for millions is widely considered dangerous.

“Many parents decided to withdraw their kids from school after the kidnappings,” said Isa Sanusi, spokesman for Amnesty International in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. “This is a devastating setback for education — worst of all for girls.”

Conservative views tend to dominate northern communities, he said, so promoting education for girls has long been a challenge. Many parents raise their daughters for marriage and motherhood.

In Borno state, the stronghold of Boko Haram, researchers say the number of girls in school plunged after the extremist group kidnapped more than 270 female students from a Chibok town school in 2014. Boko Haram — whose name loosely translates to “Western education is forbidden” — has killed more than 30,000 people and displaced millions more in the region since its bloody campaign began more than a decade ago.

These days, Borno’s schools are concentrated in the capital, Maiduguri, which is thought to be safer, despite periodic gunfire and suicide blasts. Those overcrowded classrooms are disproportionately full of boys.

The scourge has spread into other parts of the north where schools had been relatively calm until December, when Boko Haram claimed responsibility for abducting more than 300 boys from a boarding school in Katsina state. Two months later, gunmen raided another school — this time in Niger state — dragging 20 students, 12 family members and three teachers into the woods.

Then in late February, attackers forced 317 girls from a school in Zamfara state, firing their weapons in the air all through town, residents said at the time, as if to scare off anyone trying to save them. (In all three cases, the students were later released in unclear circumstances.)

“We are working hard to bring an end to these grim and heartbreaking incidents of kidnapping,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted in the aftermath of the February attack.

Security forces, he said, will continue to pursue the perpetrators, he wrote, but they “need the support of local communities in terms of human intelligence that can help nip criminal plans in the bud.”

Yet teachers say they still feel unsafe after tipping authorities about unusual loiterers and teaming up with armed vigilantes. Several said they have requested more security assistance — including funding for higher walls — and have heard no response.

“We wrote to the Ministry of Education, who redirected us to the police,” said Haruna, the teacher in Adamawa, “and as of this moment, there has been no feedback from the ministry despite follow-up letters.”

Hamma Kaki, headmaster at another Adamawa school with 600 students, said that the strongest security measure in place is telling everyone to sprint away at the sign of danger.

“I live in trepidation every day,” Kaki said. “Most children don’t concentrate and their performance continues to dwindle.”

A boarding school in Yobe state has partnered with 15 volunteer guards since the kidnappings to protect about 700 boys.

“I must admit that they may not be able to repel an attack by Boko Haram insurgents or bandits,” said Saidu Abdullahi, a teacher, “because they are only 15 in number with inferior arms and ammunition.”

At a different school in Yobe state, about 1,850 boys and girls study together. Three years ago, Boko Haram fighters abducted dozens of girls in the area, pushing parents to pull their daughters out of class, said the vice principal, Abubakar Usman. The recent attacks in other states have prompted parents to make the same decision.

“Parents have withdrawn them and married them off,” Usman said. “Every day comes with anxiety.”

Teachers and students across the 10 schools shared a similar feeling: If attackers come, they won’t be able to stop them.

One of the boys kidnapped from the Katsina school in December, Abdulkarim Abubakar, 15, said fighting back had seemed impossible. Gunmen had overwhelmed his campus.

“They told us that the government cannot deal with them,” said Abubakar, who was released about a week later. “They are more powerful than the government.”

He remembers the captors warning the boys never to return to school — to “stop Western education” — if they survived.

But despite his nerves, Abubakar came back.

His classroom is less crowded now. The son of farmers wants to stick around and become a security agent fighting terrorism.

Paquette reported from Abuja, Nigeria. Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

Read more:

Boko Haram claims kidnapping of over 300 boys in Nigeria, marking an alarming move west

He was Nigeria’s biggest Scrabble star. The pandemic spelled identity crisis.

In this Nigerian city, Pfizer fears loom over the vaccine rollout


Danielle Paquette

Danielle Paquette is The Washington Post’s West Africa bureau chief. Before becoming a foreign correspondent in 2019, she spent five years writing about labor, gender and the economy.


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