LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Gunmen have attacked another school in northern Nigeria, this time grabbing children as young as 3 before abandoning the youngest ones in the forest when they could not keep up with the group on foot.
The kidnappings at the Salihu Tanko Islamic School in Niger state on Sunday mark the latest student abductions carried out for ransom this year in the north. Some victims have been university students but others like the children this week are elementary school aged.
After one harrowing abduction, the kidnappers killed five students from Greenfield University in Kaduna state after their parents failed to meet hostage demands. Here is a closer look at the mounting crisis in Africa's most populous nation, which is fueling criticism of the government's response:
HASN'T THIS HAPPENED BEFORE IN NIGERIA?
Nigeria gained international attention back in 2014 when Islamic extremists from the Boko Haram group abducted 276 girls in Chibok, prompting the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign. The young women were forced to convert to Islam and marry their abductors, many bearing children. While some escaped, more than 100 remain missing seven years later.
Then in 2018, a Boko Haram breakaway group known as ISWAP kidnapped 110 girls from the Government Girls’ Science and Technical College in Dapchi. Five girls were trampled to death inside the crowded vehicle used by the jihadists. A Christian young woman named Leah Sharibu is still being held while the other girls taken in that incident have been released.
In the years since there have been a number of abductions for ransom, though there has been a marked spike in attacks since the beginning of 2021. At least five mass school abductions have now been reported in north since February.
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE KIDNAPPERS?:
Nigerian authorities so far have only blamed “bandits” for carrying out the latest wave of kidnappings in the north. Some believe they are former cattle herders who have developed in well organized armed groups specializing in abductions for ransom.
The kidnappers behind the Greenfield University attack earlier this month released a video of the students they were holding hostage, but those responsible did not identify themselves. A ransom was demanded, but the the bandits did not outline any extremist beliefs.
Authorities, though, fear there could be links between these bandits in the northwest and the Islamic extremists who have long been active in Nigeria's northeast. U.S. officials say that an American man kidnapped in Niger across the border from northwestern Nigeria was going to be handed off to the extremists in the northeast before he was ultimately rescued, suggesting the groups may be in touch with one another.
The kidnappers are also using some techniques long employed by jihadist groups, including making videos of their captives. And the gunmen who attacked the Greenfield University campus later killed five of the hostages after parents failed to meet their ransom request. The others were later freed and found wandering on a highway.
ARE RANSOMS BEING PAID? IF SO, IS THAT LEADING TO MORE ABDUCTIONS?
Nigerian media have reported that parents of the Greenfield University students were negotiating a ransom payment with the gunmen, though the amount has not been made public.
Although authorities deny paying ransoms, the government is often known to enter lengthy negotiations with armed groups after mass abductions of school children. When the children regain their freedom, authorities often claim they were rescued by the military or that the captives were released voluntarily.
Many Nigerians do not believe these accounts, and media outlets have reported huge sums of money being paid as ransom for the release of schoolchildren including the Chibok schoolgirls. Some senior Boko Haram commanders are said to have been released from prison as part of the deal to free the Chibok girls. The government has denied these allegations.
WHY CAN'T THE ABDUCTIONS BE PREVENTED?
“The schools especially in the remote areas are poorly secured and so it is easy for gunmen to walk in and take as many school children as possible,” said Ernest Ereke, a senior lecturer at the University of Abuja.
Some of the attacks have taken place at night at boarding schools, when fewer staff are on campus.
Nigeria’s military is also stretched thin fighting the decade-long Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, and many police forces lack the capacity to provide security.
ARE PARENTS RECONSIDERING BOARDING SCHOOLS IN THE WAKE OF SO MANY ATTACKS?
There are fears many parents will now withdraw their children from schools in the face of growing insecurity. The states in northern Nigeria already have the lowest rates of literacy in the country and the spate of recent abductions has seriously affected the government’s efforts to encourage parents to send their children to school.
Analysts fear this in turn could only further support for Islamic extremism in the long run. The low level of education in both regions is blamed for the high level of poverty and the large number of uneducated youths who are ready recruits for extremist groups and armed gangs in the regions.
Sam Olukoya, The Associated Press