Nigeria faces the third mass kidnapping of school children in three months

On Friday in daylight, parishioners continued to count the missing – it remained unclear how many girls were forced into the nearby woods – as security forces raided the area that has been ravaged by kidnappings in recent months.

No one took responsibility for the attack, but criminal gangs known as “bandits” are increasingly seizing groups as ransom – a threat that has led some Nigerians to call for a national state of emergency.

The newest high profile destinations in the north of the country: school children.

One of the girls’ guards, Saidu Kwairo, said he watched from his window as pickups sped into the town of Jangebe. The armed men fired their weapons into the air.

“We could hear the helpless voices of the girls screaming,” he said, “amid the sounds of dangerous guns.”

The kidnapping comes less than two weeks after attackers stormed another boarding school in north-central Nigeria and kidnapped more than 40 people, including 27 students. The Nigerian state’s victims remain in custody while the authorities try to negotiate their release.

Hostage taking is a growing business in the country.

Between 2011 and 2020, Nigerians paid at least $ 18 million to free themselves or their loved ones. This comes from a report by SB Morgen, a consulting firm that has processed data from open sources.

Sixty percent of that amount was spent in the latter half of that period, reflecting a worrying acceleration, the authors found.

Kidnappers used to focus on wealthy people or foreigners – targets that dangled greater rewards. Over the past three years, however, the pattern has changed: virtually anyone can be ripped from their homes or the streets in a number of northern states. Gunmen even stopped public buses.

“Bandits have realized that the authorities cannot protect people,” said Isa Sanusi, spokesman for Amnesty International in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. “That is lucrative. Ordinary people will give up everything to save their families. “

Boarding school strikes in poor areas are seen as a smart financial move.

“The schools are almost always in bad shape without much fence,” said Sanusi. “The kidnapping of the children makes them known around the world, and governments are always looking for a quick way to save them. Ransom payments are one of the few options. “

In December, Boko Haram took responsibility for the arrest of more than 300 boys from a school in northwestern Katsina state. The classmates were released days later under dire circumstances. Officials rarely say how they negotiate the freedom of the abductee.

The extremist group became known for abducting more than 270 school girls from Chibok City in 2014, sparking a viral social media campaign demanding their safe return: #BringBackOurGirls. More than 100 are still missing.

Although Boko Haram normally operates in the northeast of the country, analysts say gang members hundreds of miles away have relationships with fighters. The group has killed at least 36,000 people and displaced millions from their fort in the Lake Chad Basin in the past decade.

Authorities are unsure whether the recent kidnappings were carried out by co-conspirators or imitators.

Nigerian Defense Minister Bashir Salihi Magashi was outraged earlier this month after advising people not to be “cowards” and to defend themselves against kidnappers.

“In our younger days we will fight any aggression that comes our way,” the retired army major general said in a statement. “I don’t know why people run away from such little things.”

But in Jangebe early Friday, residents said they feared for their lives.

Gunfire appeared intentional, several said. Perhaps the attackers wanted people to hide in their homes.

Nobody had arms to strike back.

“We thought they had come to attack the residents, as they normally do, but this time, unfortunately, they were directed against the students,” said a neighbor, 52-year-old Bello Maikusa Jangebe, who was woken up by the sound of bullets . “We found that few of the students were left behind.”

Garba reported from Kano, Nigeria. Ismail Alfa in Maidurguri, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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