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01.08.2021 investigations From COVID to Conflict: The Frantic Lives of Children Abducted, Tortured by Bandits

Published 1st Aug, 2021

By Ibrahim Adeyemi

For two weeks in June, IBRAHIM ADEYEMI combed the downtowns of Niger, Zamfara, and Sokoto states to document the wreckage left in schools racked by the Covid-19 pandemic and mass abduction of schoolchildren by bandits. After covering some 4000km in the war-torn northwest and northcentral states, he returns to document the shambolic conditions of schools and the traumatised students abandoned by the government. 

The normally busy Kankara road became haunted after bandits invaded the Government Science College. Photo: Ibrahim Adeyemi

The premises of the Government Science College, Kagara, Niger State, is silent. The pupils of this school have run for their lives and the teachers scattered all over the state have resorted to menial jobs. Those who refused to leave are living in fear; they are now peasant farmers, planting yams, cassava and corn in the schoolyard.

One would think the school was locked down to contain the spread of Coronavirus. But make no mistake. It’s not the pandemic-induced lockdown; it’s an epidemic of violent crimes ravaging the northern parts of Nigeria.

A contingent of armed men had descended on the college on February 10, 2021. The school soon became a bedlam of smoke, tears and blood. The bullet-ridden body of a pupil trying to escape was lain cold on the ground. Twenty-seven other pupils were rustled out like cows, including three staff and their 12 relatives. 

The nation received the news with sadness, and it got the usual “We are shocked” reaction from President Muhammadu Buhari. It happened about the same time the country reopened schools after the Covid-19 lockdown had caused massive dropouts of schoolchildren. 

FROM COVID-19 CRISIS TO MASS ABDUCTION OF PUPILS

The Kankara schoolchildren mask up as government officials address them after regaining freedom from the bandits’ den

Before the pandemic, Nigeria already had more than 10 million out-of-school children — the highest in the world — according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Education Above All, in collaboration with UNICEF, through its Educate A Child (EAC) project, had set a target of getting  500, 000 out of the children back into the classroom by June 22. But Nigeria’s Ministry of Education soon revealed that 3 million more children dropped out of school due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Nobody envisaged that bandits were planning to launch coordinated attacks on schools in the northwest and northcentral when the Nigerian government reopened schools in October last year.

Two months later, in December, around 10:30 pm, the marauders pulled up on motorbikes at the all-boys Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State, and marched about 400 students into a thick forest in the downtown of Zamfara, a neighbouring state. Six days into the abduction, they were freed from the bandits’ den, after the government’s intervention.

Hundreds of schoolchildren are used as negotiating pawns in exchange for huge ransoms demanded by their abductors. As the country contends with the coronavirus, armed bandits pillage towns and villages, displacing more than 200, 000 people from their homes

The recurring mass abduction of schoolchildren has spread fears, causing the shutdown of over 3000 disadvantaged schools in the northwest and northcentral states.

LOCKED DOWN BY COVID-19

The dilapidating staff quarters deserted after gunmen invasion

Save for the buzzing of flies and the bleating of goats at the Kagara Science College, the schoolyard is empty. All one can see here is an awful example of the mayhem that has made schooling a nightmare for hundreds of children in the state.

As he ventures out of his dormitory, Doudo Fodio, one of the few teachers left in the school, is shocked to hear that a reporter is here to interview him. Fodio hasn’t received a visitor in a while.

Cladd in a faded yellow shirt, the 42-year-old is reluctant to talk.  He is one of the teachers whose lives and morale have been battered by the coronavirus infections, especially during the lockdown. And since then, nothing has changed for good.

“As you can see, during the lockdown, movement was restricted.  And even the school was on lockdown,” says Fodio, telling chilling tales of the wreckage left by both Covid-19 and bandits’ attack in the school. “As you can see again, nothing is moving. Everything is standing still.”

Doudo Fodio, a teacher turned peasant farmer, narrating his ordeal to FIJ

He was sleeping by his wife in the night when the bandits barged into the house, asked them to submit their phones and ordered them to move out, threatening to shoot at anyone who attempted to escape.

“We moved outside to see that they had entered many houses. They had gone to the hostel, abducted the students, and killed one,” he recalls.

“They took us to an unknown destination. They stole some of our belongings, including my motorcycle which I took a loan to purchase. 

“We started the journey around 2pm and trekked till about 3 pm. We got to where they kept their motorcycles and then trekked again to the bush where we were held for days.”

The learning ground of Government Science College, Kankara, turned into a farmland

Every morning in the forest, the captors would wake the captives, using rods before feeding them with “stone-filled beans cooked with dirty water from the river”.

“They would share us into four groups with the students; they would put it on a small plate and we’d eat it together. Just two hands, the food would finish. We were given dirty river water to sip and pass it around.”

On February 27, the 42 abductees were freed after spending 10 tortuous days with their captors who demanded “huge millions” in exchange for their captives.

Would freedom be a happy ending for the victims?

KNOCKED DOWN BY BANDITRY

Fodio in his faded yellow shirt

Fodio, a school teacher, is now a peasant farmer living in fear. And he is not alone. Ezekiel, his colleague, also takes solace in fishing and farming. About 30 teaching staff of the school have left to take up other jobs in the state.

Fodio’s wife could no longer bear the horror that trailed their freedom from the bandits’ lair. She left her husband behind in Kagara to earn a new living in Minna.

“It has not been easy for us,” he says of his traumatic post-abduction experience. “At night, you’ll feel as if the bandits are here. Sometimes you’ll just close your eyes and start dreaming. Sometimes you’ll imagine that they’ve come back. Since that time I have never slept from night till morning.”

Asked why he has refused to leave, he says: “Why would I leave? If we all leave, who will take care of this place?”

The dilapidating students’ hostel

The school itself is a junkyard of dilapidated infrastructure.  The building looks derelict from afar and, closer, the cracking walls and faded paints bear scars of decadence. The walls are falling. The roofs are tattered. The staff quarters and students’ hostels are now safe havens for rats, cats, cockroaches, flies — the size of honeybees.

HEADTEACHER IN TEARS

Alhassan, the headteacher of the Salihu Tanko Islamic School

Abubakar Alhassan sits under a baobab tree at the Salihu Tanko Islamic School in Tegina, Rafi Local Government Area of the state. He is surrounded by aggrieved parents and relatives waiting to know the fate of their children.

He had been on a national television sobbing endlessly to express how the state government had failed to reach out to them since the gun-wielding gangs wearing descended on the school premises to abduct about 150 children.

The Salihu Tanko Islamic School is under lock and key

But in a press statement, the state government said it was negotiating with abductors of the children. The government also claimed to have “given 89 operational vehicles, 283 operational motorcycles, 30 bicycles, four tricycles in addition to funding the various security operations in the state” to rescue them.

“We didn’t even see a fly from the state government,” says Alhassan, debunking the statement.

“It’s a lie. And it’s surprising. We didn’t even receive mosquitoes from the state government. The officials should not sit in their office telling lies.”

The state government also claimed that the community had been forewarned that there would be an attack but they refused to heed the warnings. Alhassan says this is not true. 

“I am the headteacher of this school. I have children here. I have children of my relatives here. So how could I have known that they were coming to attack and still allowed them?”

LONG, DEADLY WAIT FOR 148 ABDUCTED CHILDREN

A signpost of the Salihu Tanko Islamic School

Alhassan ran faster than his shadows when the gunmen invaded the school. It was around 3 pm. He was on his way to the school when he saw the armed men shooting repeatedly into the air. 

“Unfortunately, security agents in the area couldn’t come to confront them because their weapons were inferior to the bandits.”

The attackers initially abducted about 150 children “but later sent back those they considered too small for them — those between four and 12 years old”.

“We’ve been hearing from the bandits. They are calling me. They always call me every day and night. They’re demanding N150 million.”

LAST HOPE DASHED

As he speaks, everyone watching keeps mum. Their only hope of educating their children has been crushed. The Islamic school established to educate their female children has now been shut down.

“Are you a government official? Have you come to us with good news?” one of the parents of the abductees interjected.

The inner side of the school

Sadly, two of the parents of the abducted kids have died of shock. Showing the burial pictures of one of them, Alhassan reiterates that the incident has truncated learning opportunities for the female children in the community.

“The school was established for the community to benefit from Islamic knowledge,” he says. “We found out that we needed to contribute to western education, most especially for girls. Our priority is to promote girl-child education.”

JANGEBE: A SCHOOL FOR ‘THE GHOST’

Inside the Government Girls Secondary School, Jangebe in Zamfara

The learning ground of the Government Girls Secondary School, Jangebe in Zamfara, is shut down. There is a welcoming serenity, entering the expanse of the school but the mayhem that put the building on lockdown is beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

In February, bandits invaded the school to kidnap 217 girls. And since then, the girls’ college has been under lock and key.

Another side of the Government Girls Secondary School, Jangebe in Zamfara

Traversing through the deadly road network of Jangebe, soldiers at a checkpoint three kilometers from the school are seen extorting commuters, exchanging hands with tokens given to them by commercial drivers, and smiling to give them their ways.  Residents living around the school say the soldiers were there when the raiders hoarded over 200 pupils out of the building.

One of the empty classrooms of the school after bandits’ invasion

“The children shouted and cried but they were helpless,” Bello Ruwan, a parent and resident of the area, recounts, bemoaning the negligence of the military contingent. “What’s their essence? Why are they there?”

Away from the haunted expanse of the school are wandering children who were victims of the post-lockdown abduction.

217 GIRLS, ONE FATE

The 217 abducted girls after returning from the bandits’ den

The rusty iron door unlocks from the inside and pushes open slowly. A girl in a faded green hijab looks up as the scorching sun pierces into the room. Her name is Zainab. She is 14 years old and one of the victims of the abduction that happened in their school.

Informed of the reporter’s mission in the village, she quickly dashes out of her room to call on others who share the same story with her. “I am not the only one,” she says as she leaves.

Zainab

A few minutes later, she returns with two other girls. One of them, Umulkhair, 14, looks pale and sick. She has just returned from the early morning hawking and her mother is asking her to go for another round. The other girl, Balkisu Umar, 16, is reluctant and shy.

It’s a Monday afternoon, during school hours, but the trio has been forced out of school. Zainab, their mouthpiece, says they are not happy being at home wandering the streets while their mates are schooling.

“It’s terrible staying at home now,” she says in Hausa of the post-Covid-19 lockdown attack on their school. “We would love to go back to school.”

The girls say they are still suffering from the trauma of terror unleashed on them by their abductors a few months ago.

“When they captured us, they took us somewhere and kept us there,” Zainab says, recounting their ordeal. “They usually feed us with bad food. The water they gave us to drink was messed up with their urine.”

Habiba Iliyasu, 15, one of the victims, says she saw a strange thing in the forest. She met her father and a family member in the bandits’ den. The abductors had kidnapped them from their dormitories days back, before storming Habiba’s school.

Like other teachers and staff, Abdullahi Hakeem, the vice-principal (academic) of the school says he is caught between the trauma of the Covid-induced lockdown and the shutdown of their school, following the terror invasion.

“There is no big difference between now and the lockdown period,” he says. “The only difference is that during the Covid-19 lockdown, everybody was at home. But now, teachers can pick up other jobs at least.”

DOGS HIRED TO GUARD SCHOOLS

The Katsina state government says it is creating a local solution for the local problem of rising insecurity by hiring dogs to guard public schools against the marauding armed gangs.

Badamasi Charanchi, the state Commissioner for Education says the dogs are capable of differentiating people with good intentions from those with evil plans. 

“By their nature or build-in capacity or mechanism and by their performance worldwide, they can smell far away (more) than humans, especially objects and persons,” Charanchi said.

The Commissioner says that dogs have an innate skill of manning the school environment to foresee coming dangers.

THE HARD NUT TO CRACK

For a region with a high rate of out-of-school children, banditry, as worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, has caused lots of disruptions to the recorded success of promoting education. Unfortunately, banditry has become a hard nut to crack for many Nigerian leaders, including President Muhmmadu Buhari.

The Kaduna government recently shut down all public schools in the state due to rising insecurity, following the abduction of Bethel Secondary school students. Before then, he had secretly withdrawn his son from a public school. He had publicly enrolled the child in the school to appeal to the interest of the public.

But after bragging and vowing not to pay ransom to bandits even if his kinsmen would be involved, he had to refute his verdicts about enrolling his children in a common man school.

In Niger, a bill prescribing death by hanging for kidnappers, cattle rustlers, and their informants has been signed into law. The new law, an amendment of the state’s Kidnapping and Cattle Rustling Special Provisions Law of 2016, is aimed at curbing bandit attacks that have left many dead in the state within the first half of this year.

However, despite the enactment of the law, the killing and kidnapping of women and children continue to thrive in the state.

WONDER KIDS TURN WANDER KIDS

Although education at that level is free and compulsory, there is a net attendance rate of just 53% in primary schools in northern Nigeria, according to UNICEF.

Isah Jangebe, a community leader in the Jangebe area of Zamfara says the recent attacks on schools in the state have ruined efforts made by elites to reduce the number of out-of-school children.

A mother hugs her daughter on July 25 after she was released together with other 27 students of the Bethel Baptist High School

“My fear for the children is that many of them have been pushed to the streets and many will not return to school again,” Isah says. “Now that the school is shut down, don’t be surprised that some of them might even be married off before they resume.”

Nigerians were exhausted from the frequency of mass abductions, according to Bukky Shonibare, a co-founder of the Bring Back Our Girls group.

Shonibare told the BBC that despite the lack of street demonstrations in subsequent abductions, her group is working behind the scenes to apply pressure on government authorities.

The implication of these [abductions] is parents or guardians get scared of allowing their wards to go to school,” she said.

“This literally takes us back on the gains that we have made [especially] when it comes to girl-child education.”

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Free to share project.

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Published 1st Aug, 2021

By Ibrahim Adeyemi

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