On the 17th of February, Hassan Aliyu was reading when he started to hear screams coming from the staff quarters of the Government Science College in Kagara, Nigeria, where he lives with his family. Then the voices came, demanding that those inside to open the door to the school’s residential building.
The gunmen eventually broke in and asked 18-year-old Hassan’s father, Tukur Aliyu, to take them to the students’ dormitory. Tukur managed to escape before taking the men to the dorms, Hassan tells VICE World News, but they were still able to abduct some of the students living in the staff residence.
“They took my three sisters and me, including other staff members with family, along with the Kagara students,” says Hassan.
School abductions for ransom have plagued northern Nigeria for more than a decade, and they are only getting worse. According to a Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack report, between 2009 and 2018, over 600 teachers were killed, 910 schools damaged or destroyed and more than 1,500 forced to close due to violence. This has interrupted the education of nearly a million children.
Alongside this, Nigeria already has the “largest number of out-of-school children” in the world, 60 percent of whom live in the north. The abductions have only made it harder for the government to convince parents to send their kids to school, when those institutions are not safe.
In recent months, kidnappings in the north of Nigeria by armed gunmen have accelerated. Back in December, over 300 pupils were kidnapped from a boys' secondary boarding school on the outskirts of Kankara, Katsina State. Last Thursday, gunmen attacked the Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation in Kaduna, and abducted some 39 students. It was the third major Nigeria school attack in the past two months. In a video released last week, the young hostages were filmed calling on the government to pay their captors N500 million (£950,000) as ransom. Just yesterday, three teachers were taken from a primary school not too far from the Federal College of Forestry. Around 600 schools have now decided to close.
Nigeria launched the first Safe Schools Initiative in May 2014 after the abduction of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno State, aimed at guaranteeing the safety of school children while in school and prevent future attacks. In March 2019, the Safe Schools Declaration (SSD) was ratified, allowing the federal government to put in place a national policy to guide the implementation of the SSD nationwide, and for state governments to also adopt the declaration.
Peter Hawkins, UNICEF representative in Nigeria, tells VICE World News that what was happening in the north east of Nigeria was a result of the terrorist group Boko Haram, who oppose western education and have a continued presence in the region. The situation in the north west and north-central is a result of opportunists extorting a government that has shown a willingness to pay ransoms.
Hawkins argues that the solution to the problem isn’t about the SSD. “The solution needed here isn’t even about closing down of schools,” he says. “It’s about sharing of intelligence and information about potential attacks across the board, knowing who the perpetrators are, their connections and what can be done to prevent the attacks on schools.”
He adds: “There's also a need to set up a rapid response unit where schools under attack can have someone to call the response mechanism apart from the police. The school also needs to develop a solid relationship with the [local] community – the best security for a school is the community. The community has a good idea of what is happening, and some of the perpetrators of these attacks are members of the community.”
Dr. Leo Igwe, religious scholar and the chair of Humanist Association of Nigeria, is concerned about the recent wave of school abductions.
“It is a vicious development that may not go well for the future of Nigeria as a country,” Igwe says. “Nigeria is gradually becoming a lawless state that is overrun by armed militias, abducting people and getting paid for it.”
Amanuel Mamo, director of advocacy and campaign at Save the Children International Nigeria, agrees and fears that the rise in abductions will lead to more families pulling their children out of school. “The kind of attacks we have experienced in Nigeria on schools, girls and teachers…is not just a current crisis but of the future generation, a significant number of children will be pushed out of school,” Mamo says.
“This will kill the dreams and potentials of so many children, many will be denied the opportunity to have an improved quality of life, hence remain in poverty,” Mamo continues. “There is a high tendency that those who are now missing education will add to the socioeconomic burden of the country.”
For Tukur Aliyu, Hassan’s father, the abduction was “a harrowing experience.” He said the kidnappings are enough to push many parents into a state of fear each time their children leave home for school.
“Education is the bedrock of everything in life,” Tukur says, “but the situation we are in today will make those who don't want to go to school make an excuse for not going to school, and not all of us can afford to enrol our children in private schools. The implication is that our children would lack in education and it will increase the cycle of poverty.”
In a recent statement, President Muhammadu Buhari called on “local populations” to join the efforts to tackle the rise in school abductions, admitting that the country’s security agencies might not be capable of handling the challenges alone.
“A country which has an efficient local intelligence network is a safer country,” President Buhari said in the statement through Garba Shehu, his senior special assistant on media and publicity. “Our military may be efficient and well-armed but it needs good efforts for the nation’s defence and the local population must rise to this challenge of the moment.”
Nigeria’s federal government is responsible for mobilising security forces to troubled regions and communities, as well as providing monthly assessments of the financial needs of each state to deal with their security challenges.
Dr. Kabiru Adamu, a regional security analyst and founder of intelligence firm Beacon Consulting Nigeria, believes that the government’s inability to coordinate security officers is to blame.
“Coordination is a major challenge within the Nigeria security architecture,” Dr. Adamu says. “It is difficult to ascertain...the number of existing officers and those exiting the force are not thoroughly checked and documented. There are several other security agencies like the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, and Federal Road Safety Corps that are carrying out policing functions but are not seen as part of the police. Then there are the local vigilante groups.”