By Lisa Vives
Nail-biting negotiations are underway for the release of 317 schoolgirls kidnapped on February 26 in north-western Nigeria — a region beset by banditry that takes thousands of lives each year. Terms of a large ransom are reportedly being discussed but officially denied.
Frightened parents who raced to the scene on hearing gunshots arrived too late to rescue their daughters at the Government Girls Secondary School in Jangebe, a village in Zamfara state. Police say they believe the girls in a state of distress were taken to a forest after being abducted at about 1 a.m. from their boarding school.
It is the largest mass kidnapping from schools since hundreds of boys were taken from a school in neighbouring Katsina state in December and it comes just days after dozens were kidnapped in Niger state.
President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the latest kidnapping as “inhumane and totally unacceptable”.
“This administration will not succumb to blackmail by bandits who target innocent school students in the expectations of huge ransom payments,” he said in a statement.
But he ruled out “massive force” against the bandits which could lead to the girls being used as human shields.
The term “bandit” has been applied to motorcycle gangs with bush guns, AK-47 assault rifles and RPG launchers who massacre villagers and kidnap busloads of people.
A student, speaking to a reporter in Pidgin, described the nightmare of his abduction: “Dem beat me hard I wish I die. The forest is horrific.”
The increasing frequency of reckless abductions has raised questions about the ability of President Buhari to rein in the violence. His election pledge in 2015 to defeat the jihadi Boko Haram and make Nigeria safer has had little if any success.
Now, nearly two years into his second term, writes Neil Munshi, Lagos reporter for the Financial Times, banditry affects the entire country, from the north-west to the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south.
“It has surpassed the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east, now in its 11th year, as the top security concern,” Munshi wrote.
Efforts by some Northern governors to defuse the attacks with pledges to build clinics and schools have largely been unsuccessful. Offers of amnesty for those who “repent” and disarm have been overruled by the President who compared them to unsuccessful strategies used with militants in the Niger Delta.
“Criminals are criminals and should be dealt with accordingly,” he said, adding a warning against “ethnic profiling” in a possible reference to Fulani herdsmen who are often blamed for the violence.
Meanwhile, the states of Yobe and Zamfara have closed all boarding schools until further notice amidst fears of new attacks. Press spokesman Yusuf Idris dismissed reports that students had been freed, calling them “fake news” since talks are still ongoing.
Nigeria’s kidnapping crisis came to world attention in 2014 with the abduction of 276 girls from Chibok town in Borno state. Millions of dollars in ransom were paid but about 100 girls are still missing.
Finally, a $30 million grant for a Safe Schools Initiative is drawing fire from activists who are demanding to know how the money was spent.