Friday, 15 March 2024 04:48

Children drop out of schools, families torn apart as over 7,000 Nigerians get kidnapped in 9 months

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Esther Joseph said she went "almost mad" with anguish when her 13-year-old daughter Precious Sim was kidnapped from a northern Nigeria high school along with other students on July 5, 2021.

In the following days, she tried to go after the kidnappers in the surrounding forest, but soldiers - alerted by fellow community members - caught up with her and brought her back.

In the end, she sold her meagre possessions - including pots, fans and a television set - and enlisted the help of her brothers and in-laws, as well as local church members, to pay a ransom of 2 million naira ($1,256) and secure her daughter's release.

Precious, kidnapped from the Bethel Baptist High School of Maraban Damish in Kaduna State, came home after one month in captivity, Joseph told Reuters.

The 51-year-old street hawker said that she has not fully recovered yet from the ordeal, and her daughter still suffers from panic attacks.

"Sometimes she gets agitated when you turn the light on. She jerks up in her sleep and runs to hold me. Heavy sounds scare her," she said in an interview in the town of Kaduna, northwestern Nigeria.

Kidnappings at schools in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, were first carried out by jihadist group Boko Haram, which seized 276 students from a girls' school in Chibok in Borno State a decade ago. Some of the girls have never been released.

But the tactic has since been adopted by criminal gangs without ideological affiliation seeking ransom payments, with authorities seemingly powerless to stop them.

With Nigeria's economy and poverty levels worsening, abductions have become an almost daily occurrence in recent years.

On March 7, 286 students - some as young as eight - and school staff were kidnapped by gunmen in Kuriga, a town in Kaduna State. Local authorities told Reuters on Wednesday that the captors demanded a total ransom of 1 billion naira, or just over $620,000, for their release. On Monday night, around 60 people were abducted in Buda, in the same state, residents said - bringing the total of those kidnapped across the country in the first two weeks of March to nearly 750, according to Amnesty International.

"Kidnapping for ransom has eclipsed other motivations for abductions, especially political reasons," research firm SBM Intelligence said in a July 2023 report.

Speaking about last week's mass kidnapping in Kuriga, Information Minister Mohammed Idris said on Wednesday that the government position was that security forces should secure the hostages' release without "a dime" paid for ransom. Paying to free hostages has been a crime in Nigeria since 2022 and carries a jail sentence of at least 15 years.

The kidnappings are tearing apart families and communities who have to pool their savings to pay the ransoms, often forcing parents to sell their most prized possessions like land, cattle and grain to secure their children's release.

While Precious returned to school and is now studying international relations in her first year of university, many other kidnapping victims drop out after being released, fearing they might be abducted again.

At least 10.5 million children are out of school in Nigeria, the highest number in the world, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF. That is due to insecurity, including abductions and a long-running insurgency in the northeast.

Kidnappings are "a major driver of withdrawal of children from schools in northern Nigeria," said Isa Sanusi, director at Amnesty International in Nigeria.

"No parent wants to go through the horror of having children abducted by ruthless gunmen... On and off, schools are closed due to security concerns and the children end up missing out on education. Because girls are usually raped when abducted, many girls have been withdrawn from schools and married off at an early age."

GUNMEN ON MOTORBIKES

SBM Intelligence estimates that 7,000 people have been kidnapped throughout Nigeria since President Bola Tinubu took office in May.

Successive Nigerian governments have deployed soldiers and bombed suspected hideouts used by armed groups, mainly in Kaduna, Zamfara and Katsina states.

But that has not stopped the kidnappings. Gunmen on motorbikes control large swathes of land. Schools in remote rural areas, often unfenced and with minimal, if any, security, are an easy target.

Sanusi said that it was difficult to get accurate figures for school kidnappings. He said that, according to Amnesty's findings, more than 780 children were abducted for ransom in 2021 alone. And as of 2022, more than 700 schools were closed in seven of Nigeria's 36 states.

"Some schools have reopened, while others remain indefinitely closed," Sanusi said.

Emmanuel Audu-Bature, a member of a vigilante group, remembered going to the bush with another vigilante to bring the ransom for his brother-in-law Treasure, 12, to his kidnappers.

"He was the only one left to be released and we had to take the ransom to the forest. In the process we were also kidnapped. After a week they released us, after we too paid a ransom," he said.

Treasure came back home a year later, he said. "We had already given up (hope). But there was this night when my mother-in-law called me and told me: 'Treasure is back'."

($1 = 1,592.9100 naira)

 

Reuters

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