Insight

Kidnapping: A nation weighed down by out-of-school children (1)

In this investigation that traverses three northern states, Zamfara, Niger and Kaduna, JULIANA FRANCIS looks at the effects of students’ abductions on parents and victims, and the failure of the government to make schools safe for learning

 

 

 

Niger State
Five months after they gained freedom from their abductors, some students of the Government Science Secondary School (GSC), Kagara in Rafi Local Government Area (LGA) of Niger State, have stopped attending the school. Those who are courageous among them now attend schools in Bosso, Chanchaga, Suleja, Paikoro and Shiroro LGAs, just to complete their education. The students insisted that they would never return to their former school or nearby schools without first seeing visible security in place. The school, which used to be one of the training grounds for the combined security task force, is now a ghost town. Students, who accepted to speak with our reporter, looked petrified, and a few declined to mention their names. One of them said since his release from bandits’ captivity, he has not returned to school. He said: “Some of us in SS3 had been enrolled in Minna by the state government to sit for our West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) and National Examination Council (NECO). But others who are in SS2 and JSS are afraid. Some of them, who are living at Kagara, cannot go to school because there are informants everywhere giving information to bandits. One of my cousins, a JSS 3 student, is now at Suleja with our uncle. He now attends school there.” The students maintained that they would never return to their former school because of the threats by their captors. One of the students, Suleiman Lawal, recalled that the bandits told them that they had informants everywhere and that they could attack any school and abduct pupils at will without any hindrance. Lawal added: “How can I go back to that school when the bandits told us that they were in collaboration with informants? The bandits said they pay huge sums of money to those who enable them to kidnap students. They said they had informants within the government and communities. During our 10 days in captivity, the bandits were very boastful and most of them were illiterate. They listen to news and know how people would react to abductions. Even as we were with them, information came from different people, including security personnel and members of the communities.”

The boy described their experience as horrible.

He said: “We suffered so much. I’ve never experienced such in my life. In fact, I thought I was dreaming because the torture was too much for us. We were fed with beans once daily. They gave five people a sachet of water to share. We were very weak. I don’t think I will like to go to that school anymore, or want my brother to go there except if there is adequate security.” Lawal’s experience is a reflection of the suffering and trauma of many students who had tasted the bitter pill of abduction while in school.

The surging mass abductions

These escalating cases of mass abductions of students in places of learning also question the failure of the government in protecting schools and students. Protection of its citizenry is one of the cardinal functions of any government. Tragically, these students are caught in a dance whose rhythm they know nothing about. Aside from being abducted, some are killed to score a point with the government and parents. The female victims are often assaulted sexually and forced into child marriages. In July 2021, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported that parents of the schoolgirls abducted from the Federal Girls’ College, Yawuri, Kebbi State, had raised the alarm after the kidnappers told them on the phone that their daughters had been married off.

 

A recurring nightmare

Attacking schools and kidnapping schoolchildren for ransom have become a recurring nightmare, creating understandable anxiety among learners, teachers and parents. These attacks and abductions, aside from the obvious trauma on victims and parents, leave parents, who have to run from pillar to post to raise money for ransom, in debt. Most importantly, it creates more outof- school children and early marriages, especially among the girl-child. Security experts have argued that the negative impact of schools closing down because of attacks and abductions will be felt in the next 10 years. Educationists have also opined that the government, enforcing extant laws and domesticating some legal frameworks with respect to the rights of the child to an education in a safe environment, could be a solution. A group, Education in Emergencies Working Group Nigeria (EiEWGN), brings together Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), United Nations agencies, academics, and other partners under the shared goal of ensuring predictable, well-coordinated and equitable provision of education for populations affected by humanitarian crises. According to EiEWGN, President Muhammadu Buhari ratified the Safe Schools Declaration (SSD) on March 20, 2019, which otherwise would have meant opening the door for the Nigerian government to put in place a national policy to guide the implementation of the SSD nationwide. The SSD argues that the penalties for crimes committed within educational institutions should be more severe, with penalties doubled or tripled, than when the same offence is committed in a non-educational environment. Therefore, there should be a change in national policy for an improvement in national attitudes to educational establishments so that they are seen as no-go areas. The Chairperson of EiEWGN, Abiola Sanusi, said: “The SSD is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries with the opportunity to express support for protecting students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack during times of armed conflict. It highlights the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict and the implementation of concrete measures to deter the military use of schools. “The SSD was opened for endorsement by countries at an international conference held in Oslo, Norway, on May 28 to May 29, 2015. “We call on the Federal Government to follow through on this milestone approval and issue a policy statement that would guide implementation of the declaration to protect children from attacks in schools and ensure their education continues without hindrance at all times. EiEWGN also urges the National Assembly to put in place a law to support implementation of the policy.”

The genesis

Attacks and abductions in schools, which started in Borno State with the abduction of the 276 Chibok girls in 2014 by Boko Haram members, have spread to other states, including, but not limited to Lagos, Zamfara, Yobe, Kaduna, Kebbi and Niger states. While students shiver in fright and parents agonise over their abducted children, the kidnappers continue to laugh all the way to the bank, what with the stupendous ransom they extract from victims’ families. Also, other criminal-minded elements have keyed into the money-making scheme, making it a criminal adventure for all comers. Another student of GSC, Abdullahi Adamu (SS2), recollected the day of his abduction like it was yesterday. He said: “We suffered a lot and even when we were served, they gave us food in our hands without plates. After eating, we continued to trek nonstop. We were cold because we slept outside and didn’t know where we were going. They beat us without reason. I’m not sure I will go back to GSC unless the government can guarantee our safety. I’m now in Minna and my parents have relocated to Beji town. But I miss my school and my classmates.” Abubakar Sindi, who is preparing to sit for his WASSCE in a school in Shiroro LGA, noted: “I’m safe in Gwada because my parents are here. Each time I remember the day we were kidnapped and the long walk through the forest, from 2.30pm till about 7pm, I feel traumatised, because all through our trekking, there was no time we rested, drank water or even ate anything. The bandits tortured us to move faster and threatened to kill us if we didn’t obey. I was scared because the forest was thick. All through this time, we didn’t eat until they stopped and asked us to sit on the ground. I will not go back to the school unless the government builds fences around the school and beef up security.” Adamu said they were flogged and at one point, he thought he would die. “I was so scared. In fact, I am not sure I can ever return to my school without remembering that incident. Whenever I see any bush or forest, I just remember the incident and I get scared,” narrated Adamu.

Every victim was tortured

A worker in the school, Mohammed Musa Abubakar, who was also kidnapped, said that all the victims were tortured. He added: “What we went through is not what I would wish for my worst enemy. We went through a terrible experience, which I can never forget in life.” Asked if the students had returned to school, Abubakar replied: “If you’re a parent and your child was abducted and later released, would you allow that child to return to the same school without adequate security or measures in place? Well, as for me and other staff, we are here in the quarters waiting for the government to improve security. The school is undergoing some kind of maintenance, and I know that very soon, things will be alright. But only a few students returned and there are fears in the area because of informants.” A parent, Halima Sanda, said the trauma she had when her son was abducted was indescribable because she couldn’t eat, sleep or think straight. She said: “I was just like a mad person because even when I tried to sleep, it was as if I was hearing his voice calling on me. I didn’t pay a dime as ransom because the government did whatever negotiations they made and assisted to bring our children back. There is no way I can allow my son to go back to Rafi LGA! These bandits, about two months ago, abducted more than 130 children in Tegina not far from the school in Kagara and you think any right thinking parent will allow his or her child to remain there? My son now attends another school!” Another parent, Ibrahim Abati Erena, in Shiroro LGA, said that the experience of knowing that one’s child had been kidnapped could even lead to death. “I was confused and couldn’t eat, let alone take my bath. My son is now in a school in Minna. I borrowed money, not for ransom but to do some running around. By God’s grace, I have been able to pay back,” Erena said. The Niger State Governor, Abubakar Sani Bello, has ordered public and private schools located in LGAs susceptible to attacks to be shut down, pending the return of peace. The governor explained that the closure of schools in LGAs being attacked by bandits was necessary to give relevant security agencies the time and opportunity to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment of all public schools. Twenty-two secondary schools – 11 day and 11 boarding schools – have earlier been closed in the border LGAs that link Kebbi, Kaduna and Zamfara states. The Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Alhaji Ahmed Matane, said the government has mapped out strategies to address the issue of insecurity. He said: “A database for all the schools will be opened as part of measures to improve security. The database will include details about each pupil and their parents, school, the teachers and, of course, families of staff.” The Commissioner for Education, Hajiya Hannatu Jibrin Salihu, said the government’s resolve to close some schools was taken after an emergency consultative meeting with the leadership of Association of the Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), Association of Model Islamic Schools (AMIS), Executive Chairman, Niger State Universal Basic Education Board (NSUBEB), heads of education agencies, directors of the ministry and other stakeholders of the education sector in the state.

 

School owners must provide security -Police

The Niger State Commissioner of Police, Adamu Usman, said the responsibility of providing security in schools is that of the owners of the schools. “We’re encouraging the schools to provide fences, improve security and take the security of the schools with seriousness. There are over 100 boarding schools in the state and the police cannot provide security for all of them,” Usman said. But fences have not been able to check abductions in school since bandits are known for infiltrating school premises by breaking sections of fences. This was the methodology used in infiltrating Bethel Baptist High School in Chikun LGA and Lagos State Model College, Igbonla, Epe to abduct students. The Executive Director, Initiative for Social Development in Africa (ISODAF) and Convener, Niger Accountability Group, Mathew Oladele, said only one public school, GSC, Kagara in Rafi LGA had been attacked in Niger State and most recently in the same Rafi LGA, over 130 children had been abducted from a private Islamic School (Islamiyya). Oladele lamented that attacks on schools will further set the state backward educationally. He said despite claims of scaling up the security apparatus at flash points across the state, especially its border towns to forestall insecurity, a report on the worst five states places Niger State fifth, with 90 deaths behind Borno State, which has 342; Kaduna 198; Katsina 193; and Plateau State 92.

Zamfara State

The horrific experiences of teachers, students and parents in Zamfara State are not different from what is obtainable in Niger State. January 26, 2021 will forever be remembered in Zamfara State. It was the day when about 300 students of Government Girls Secondary School (GGSS), Jangebe, were abducted. Educationists and civil society organisations believe the attacks on the school will bring a setback to the girl-child education, considering the number of girls that have stopped schooling owing to abductions. All boarding secondary schools shut down! The Permanent Secretary, Zamfara State Ministry of Education, Alhaji Lawal Mainasara Bungudu, said: “All boarding secondary schools have been shut down, while all the boarding schools located at dangerous spots have also been shut down to avoid the abduction of our students.” According to him, five boarding schools for girls and several other girls’ junior secondary schools were affected. Bungudu added that the closure of these schools will affect the standard of education, particularly at a time when students were sitting for their junior and senior WASSCE. He noted that Zamfara State has over 20,000 students who are to sit for the WASSCE this year. “We have created some centres in the state where the students will sit for the examination and we will provide adequate security during the period,” the permanent secretary said. Explaining that no parents paid ransom to secure the release of their children, Bungudu recounted that “when the students were abducted, the state government, in collaboration with some repentant bandits, secured their release within three days and no ransom was paid.” He stated that adequate security agents had been drafted to all the centres where NECO examination was being conducted. Despite all these security measures listed by Bungudu, parents who spoke with our reporter expressed scepticism.

‘We’re no longer safe’

One of the parents, Alhaji Ibrahim Mohammed, whose three children were among those kidnapped at GGSS, said he would never allow his children to return to school. He said: “I have decided to withdraw my children from school because of the insecurity situation in the whole country. We and our children are no longer safe due to rampant cases of students’ abductions across the country. As such, I feel that it’s better for me to withdraw my children so that I will have peace of mind.” A mother of two, Hajiya Hafsat Sani, said the abductions of students across the country have sent a bad signal to many parents.

To be continued

Additional reports by Baba Negedu and Daniel Atori lThis report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism under its Regulators Monitoring Programme

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