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How to Halt Nigeria’s School Kidnapping Crisis
How to Halt Nigeria’s School Kidnapping Crisis
Op-Ed / Africa

How to Halt Nigeria’s School Kidnapping Crisis

Originally published in World Politics Review

Nigeria is once again facing a challenge that has grown all too familiar: children in peril. Kidnappings first gained international prominence in 2014, when the jihadist group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls from their boarding school in the northeastern town of Chibok. Despite a global media campaign to urge their safe return, #BringBackOurGirls, more than 100 of them are still missing today. Many more children have been abducted since then—and the trend could get even worse.

Over the past four months, armed groups have raided boarding schools and kidnapped more than 650 students. In perhaps the most prominent of these incidents, more than 340 boys were abducted from a school in President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state of Katsina, in December. That was followed by the seizure of 42 students and staff in nearby Niger state in February; one student was killed. Just a few days later, 279 girls were taken in Zamfara state. Thankfully, all of those who were taken in these abductions have since been released, but a fourth group—39 college students kidnapped from a forestry school in Kaduna state in mid-March—are still in captivity.

Unlike the 2014 seizure of the Chibok schoolgirls and the February 2018 abduction of 110 schoolgirls in Dapchi, in Yobe state, the recent spate of kidnappings took place not in Boko Haram’s well-known areas of activity in northeastern Nigeria, but in the increasingly troubled northwest. Here, the impacts of climate change and rapid population growth have degraded the region’s semi-arid soil, forcing more people to vie for control over less usable land. Fueled in part by these higher stakes, the usually low-key disputes between the region’s herders—predominantly members of the Fulani ethnic group—and ethnically diverse farmers are turning increasingly vicious. Both sides have formed armed militias for self-defense and reprisal attacks, spurring a cycle of deadly confrontations.

In recent years, the security situation in northwestern Nigeria has been further aggravated by the emergence of criminal armed groups that rustle cattle, extort and pillage local villagers, rob gold miners and traders, and kidnap for ransom. The government, mass media and many Nigerians refer to members of these groups as “bandits.” The groups have been able to grow and conduct illicit activities partly hidden by the region’s vast forests, which are largely unpatrolled by forestry guards. They are armed with illicit weapons that flow through Nigeria’s porous international border with Niger.

From 2011 to 2020, violent attacks in northwestern Nigeria have killed more than 10,000 people and, as of mid-2020, displaced over 260,000, some of whom have fled to Niger.

While the armed groups’ leaders say they are resorting to violence due to neglect of their communities by federal and state authorities, and abuse by security forces, they have largely targeted villagers in rural communities—not state officials or infrastructure. From 2011 to 2020, violent attacks in northwestern Nigeria have killed more than 10,000 people and, as of mid-2020, displaced over 260,000, some of whom have fled to Niger. In Zamfara state alone, armed groups kidnapped over 3,600 people over the same period, collecting well over 3 billion nairas—about $8 million—in ransoms. Boko Haram and its splinter groups—the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, and Ansaru—appear to be working to forge links with these armed groups in the northwest, but the relationships remain murky.

Amid the growing turmoil in northwestern Nigeria, there are several reasons why armed groups keep targeting schools. For one, they are often poorly protected, with little or no fencing and ill-trained security guards, making them easy targets. Police and other state security forces are stretched woefully thin across the region—as indeed they are across the whole country.

Moreover, mass abductions of schoolchildren attract far more national and international media coverage, and stir more public outrage, than kidnapping adult villagers or travelers on highways. The media spotlight and public protests pressure state governments into frantic negotiations with the armed groups—and, in all likelihood, into making concessions to them. Government officials persistently deny paying the huge ransoms that the militants demand for releasing their captives, and such payments are hard to prove. But it seems inconceivable that the kidnappings would recur so frequently while the perpetrators gain nothing in return.

The recent spate of abductions is jeopardizing education in northwestern Nigeria, already the country’s worst-off region in terms of learning outcomes.

The recent spate of abductions is jeopardizing education in northwestern Nigeria, already the country’s worst-off region in terms of learning outcomes. Since December, armed groups have forced local governments to temporarily shut down over 600 schools across seven states—Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara. This follows the long closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, which already disrupted students’ academic progress. Even when conditions are deemed safe enough for schools to reopen, the attacks could diminish enrollment and attendance in a predominantly Muslim region where many parents are still deeply skeptical of what they view as a Western and immoral model of education. Some schools may also be drained of staff, as teachers seek other jobs or migrate to safer parts of the country.

The abductions are also doing political damage to Buhari’s government and the governors of the embattled northwestern states. Even before the kidnappings grabbed public attention, rising insecurity in several parts of the country was already stirring increasingly stringent criticism of Buhari’s performance. His repeated charge to security forces to vanquish the armed groups has had little effect—partly because the forces are undermanned and ill-equipped for the scale of the challenge, but also because security operations are sometimes hindered by state governments seeking to negotiate with the armed groups.

Many Nigerians express concerns that the government’s ineffective response to the abductions is making the armed groups look increasingly invincible, thereby making them more attractive to the region’s numerous unemployed youths. In February, a coalition of 68 civil society organizations demanded Buhari resign or face impeachment if he could not calm the rampant insecurity. Although Buhari ignored the statement, the growing frequency of such demands reflects diminishing public confidence in his government.

Nigeria’s federal and state authorities need to act urgently to stop the abductions.

Nigeria’s federal and state authorities need to act urgently to stop the abductions. For a start, the federal government, which controls the military and police forces, should deploy more troops and military assets to the northwest to protect schools and other soft targets, respond more quickly to early warnings and distress calls, and take more concerted action to curb the activities of the armed groups camped out in the region’s forests. That will require pulling troops from lower-priority security operations in other parts of the country.

The federal and state governments should work together to formulate a unified response to the crisis. Buhari should invite the security chiefs of northwestern state governments to jointly develop a common, concerted strategy for protecting schools and improving security across the region.

Federal and state authorities should also revisit the Safe Schools Initiative, which was launched by Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, following the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, but has been largely unimplemented since then. The initiative called for all schools to be provided with basic protection facilities, better-trained guards and functional arrangements for alerting security agencies instantly once under siege. Those goals are long overdue, and Buhari’s government must urgently fulfill them.

While there are no easy fixes for the situation, Nigerian authorities cannot afford to throw up their hands. Failing to act now could set back educational development in northern Nigeria for years or even decades, at a huge cost to the nation’s promising children and the communities they will one day grow up to lead.