More than 340 boys who were abducted from a Nigerian school by gunmen last week returned home safely Friday, sparking jubilation at their release after a week in captivity.
The 344 students, who were rescued following an operation by security forces, accounted for all the boys abducted when gunmen on motorbikes attacked their boarding school, Government Science Secondary School, in the town of Kankara last Friday night, Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper reported.
Images showed the boys, some of them barefoot and draped in blankets, gathered in local government buildings in the city of Katsina, northwest Nigeria, before meeting with state Governor Aminu Bello Masari.
One of the released boys, who did not give his name, told Nigeria’s Arise television that they were beaten with canes and poorly treated by their captors.
“They beat us [every] morning, every night. We suffered a lot. They only gave us food once a day and water twice a day,” he said.
He said that the kidnappers had described themselves as members of the jihadist group Boko Haram – which is infamous for previous mass abductions targeting schoolchildren – but he believed they were bandits trying to claim affiliation with the group.
“What I experienced, sincerely speaking, they are not Boko Haram,” he said. “They are just small and tiny, tiny boys with big guns.”
Meanwhile, a man who said that two of his sons had been abducted told the channel: “We are very grateful.”
Officials said the boys would be taken for medical checks before being reunited with their families.
The release of the schoolboys was announced on Thursday night by Governor Masari, who said the kidnapped students had been handed over to government security forces in neighbouring Zamfara state. He insisted no ransom had been paid for their release.
Speaking to the students on Friday, he acknowledged the trauma they had endured: “This is part of your history and part of your journey through life. I’m sure this’ll permanently be embedded in your minds.”
The news was met with jubilation in Nigeria, which is haunted by the memory of Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok in 2014. Only about half of the girls have since been found or freed.
In 2018, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram known as ISWAP kidnapped more than 100 girls in Dapchi. Following negotiations, all but one was released weeks later.
“This is a huge relief to the entire country [and] international community,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted Thursday night.
On Friday, he tweeted excerpts of a video interview that gave more details of the operation, saying the abductors had been surrounded to secure the release of the children. He also acknowledged frustration at his administration for failing to adequately deal with security threats in the country.
“We are acutely aware of our responsibility. Our responsibility is to secure the country, so we have a lot of work to do.”
Buhari hails from Katsina state and has faced heavy criticism for his failure to tackle armed militant groups in the north of the country, despite his insistence that Boko Haram has been technically defeated.
The identity of the kidnappers in Katsina remains disputed. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping on Tuesday, and on Thursday released a video showing dozens of the kidnapped boys in a wooded area.
Under the apparent duress of his captors, one of the boys called for security forces to leave the area, and repeated Boko Haram’s demand that the Nigerian government close down schools which teach “Western education”.
However, despite Masari confirming to CNN on Thursday that the video depicted some of the kidnapped children, Nigerian officials have insisted that the abductors are not Boko Haram, but bandit groups which have been trying to claim allegiance to the group.
The kidnapping in Katsina would represent an expansion from the group's typical stronghold in Nigeria's northeast.
Elizabeth Donnelly, deputy head of the Africa programme at the Chatham House think-tank, said that while many details of the kidnapping and rescue operation remained unclear, the fact that the boys were recovered so swiftly suggested the kidnappers were more likely a local criminal group, rather than Boko Haram.
“Were it Boko Haram, I suspect the negotiations would have taken longer than they did,” she told VICE World News. “They often make quite heavy demands. It’s not just about ransom, it’s about prisoner releases and other demands.”
Donnelly was surprised at Boko Haram’s claim of responsibility, given its usual base of operations in the northeast of the country: “It would be deeply worrying if Boko Haram have crossed that distance and entrenched themselves in the northwest.”
She said that, despite the state government’s denial, it was likely that a ransom would have been paid for the return of the boys. While the scale of the abduction was eye-opening, it reflected a pattern of rising kidnaps-for-ransom by so-called bandits in the northwest, where spiralling insecurity had triggered protests earlier this year.
“[The rescue] is excellent news for these boys and their parents, but Nigeria had a really long way to go in securing northern Nigeria,” she said. “It’s really troubling, and it’s on a downward trajectory.”