The families of 317 girls abducted by gunmen from their boarding school in northwest Nigeria are enduring an agonising wait as security forced searched for the pupils on Sunday amid rumours they had been released.
An armed gang kidnapped the pupils from the Government Girls Science Secondary School in the town of Jangebe, in Zamfara state, at around 1am on Friday.
Witnesses reported a heavy military presence in state capital Gusau on Sunday, with army trucks moving in convoy and checkpoints on major roads, as police worked alongside soldiers in the third day of a search-and-rescue operation.
The raid in Zamfara state was the second such kidnapping in little over a week in the northwest of the country, where schools have become targets for mass kidnappings for ransom. Nigeria‘s president Muhammadu Buhari on Friday urged state governments not to reward “bandits” with money or vehicles.
School kidnappings were first carried out by jihadist groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province but the tactic has now been adopted by other militants.
On Saturday, gunmen released 27 teenage boys who had been kidnapped from their school on 17 February in neighbouring Niger state.
Parents in Zamfara are hopeful they too will receive good news.
Aliyu Ladan Jangebe said his five daughters aged between 12 and 16 were at the school when the kidnappers stormed in. Four were taken away but one escaped by hiding in a bathroom with three other girls, he told the Associated Press.
He added: ”We are not in a good mood because when you have five children and you are able to secure just one.
“We cannot imagine their situation,” he said of his missing daughters.
He noted residents of a nearby village said the kidnappers had herded the girls through the town like animals.
One resident said the gunmen also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from responding to the mass abduction.
President Buhari said the government’s priority is to get all the hostages returned safe and unharmed.
The girls’ abduction caused international outrage. Pope Francis decried the kidnapping and prayed for the girls’ quick release, during his public address in St Peter’s Square on Sunday.
“I pray for these girls, so that they may return home soon ... I am close to their families and to them,” Francis said.
Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the abductions and called for the girls’ “immediate and unconditional release” and safe return to their families. He called attacks on schools a grave violation of human rights and the rights of children, United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.
In December, more than 300 schoolboys from a secondary school in Kankara, in northwestern Nigeria, were taken and later released. The government has said no ransom was paid for the students’ release.
The most notorious kidnapping was in April 2014, when 276 girls were abducted by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram from the secondary school in Chibok in Borno state. More than 100 of those girls are still missing.
Boko Haram is opposed to western education and its fighters often target schools. Other organised armed groups often abduct students for money. The government says large groups of armed men in Zamfara state are known to kidnap for money and to press for the release of their members held in jail.
Nigeria’s criminal networks may plot more such abductions if this round of kidnappings go unpunished, say analysts.
“While improving community policing and security, in general, remains a mid-to-long-term challenge, in the short term authorities must punish those responsible to send a strong message that there will be zero tolerance toward such acts,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Centre for the New South, a Moroccan based think tank.
The International Organisation for Peace and Social Justice, which champions peace-building efforts in Nigeria, said: “The UK Parliament and government which seeks to be a ‘force for good’ on the world stage cannot stand by and watch as terrorists in Northern Nigeria continue to play chess with the lives of young citizens.
“And the government of Nigeria keeps negotiating with criminal and paying large ransoms which encourages and funds further evil.
“The UK, by turning a blind eye, sends a signal of support to the terrorists which in turn, gives them an air of superiority and impunity due to a lack of accountability.”
The Independent last week reported a schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram is still being held captive three years after the Nigerian Islamist group’s abduction took place.
Leah Sharibu, who is now 17-years-old, was taken hostage at the age of just 14 from a boarding school in Dapchi in Yobe State Nigeria alongside 19 other girls in February 2018. She is the only girl who has not yet been returned to her family following the raid and continues to be held captive.
Additional reporting by agencies