Kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls released

Kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls released

The 317 students abducted on 26 February in the north-western Nigerian state of Zamfara have been released. The news came on 2 March and was apparently due to a successful rescue operation conducted by Nigerian police and military. Yet, the story might not be the end of the mass abduction phenomenon that has stricken the conflict-torn country for years.

Early in the morning on 2 March, Zamfara governor Bello Matawalle tweeted:

What happened?

The announcement came four days after several dozens of armed militants stormed a school in Jangebe town at night at about 1 am, forcing most of the kidnapped students into vehicles. Police announced back then that the abductees were moved “to a neighboring forest”. Short afterwards police and army officers “commenced a joint search-and-rescue operation with a view to rescuing the 317 students kidnapped by the armed bandits”, Mohammed Shehu, a police spokesperson, said.

Although no military grouping had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, there was hope that the schoolgirls would be found as on 27 February, police released 24 students and 14 adults abducted from another northern school on 17 February. Also, last December 344 schoolboys were kidnapped and released after six days.

Nigerian, international reaction

Short after the abduction of the Jangebe schoolgirls, Nigerian officials and the international community expressed their outrage at this particular event and at the abduction phenomenon, in general. The UNICEF representative in Nigeria, Peter Hawkins, condemned the attack and demanded “immediate release of the girls”, as well as staunch steps by the government to ensure “the safety of all other children in Nigeria”.

“Children should feel safe at home and at school at all times – and parents should not need to worry for the safety of their children when they send them off to school in the morning.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote on his Tweeter account:

Pope Francis decried the kidnapping and prayed for the girls’ quick release, during his public address in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, AP News has reported. “I pray for these girls, so that they may return home soon … I am close to their families and to them,″ Pope Francis was quoted as saying.

Labelling the kidnappers as “bandits”, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated that his administration “will not succumb to blackmail by bandits who target innocent school students in the expectations of huge ransom payment”. He called on state governments to put an end to their policy of giving money to criminal groups, highlighting that “such a policy has the potential to backfire with disastrous consequences”.

Reasons for/roots of mass abduction

The president’s call came amid accusations that state governors were resorting to ransom payment in order to release abductees, an approach that seems to have turned mass abductions into “a lucrative business”.

SB Morgen, a Lagos-based geopolitical research consultancy, reported that at least USD 11 million was paid to kidnappers between January 2016 and March 2020.

Yet, state governors have denied any such accusations, including Zamfara governor Bello Matawalle, who in the past has promised “repentant” bandits with houses, money, and cars said people “not comfortable [with his] peace initiative” were sabotaging his efforts to end the crisis, BBC has reported.

Until 2014, gunmen in northwest Nigeria used to kidnap road travellers who were subsequently forced to pay from USD 20 to USD 20,000 for their freedom. Yet, following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in 2014 by the jihadist group Boko Haram, mass abduction of students has turned into a widely spread phenomenon.

In recent years kidnapping has increasingly become part of general terrorism with the aim of deterring and disrupting the population. Several large groups of armed men operate in Zamfara state and are known to kidnap for money and for the release of their members from jail.

The Jangebe schoolgirls are back in their families. Yet, amid increasingly more cases of the mass abduction of students in north-western Nigeria, the authorities have been called to draw attention to deteriorating security there, to put in place a strategy to thwart kidnapping attempts, and to heighten security in schools. Although in recent years, military posts have been built near certain schools in an attempt to protect them, many are still left unprotected. This does threaten the right to education, experts have warned.