Last week’s abduction by bandits of students of Federal Government College, Birnin Yauri, Kebbi State is the latest chapter in the reprehensible attack on innocent children and the educational system in northern Nigeria. While UK-based Reuters News Agency and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Television reported that 80 students and five teachers were forcibly taken away from the school by the kidnappers who killed a policeman in the attack, the Nigerian Police disputes the number, claiming that it is much lower. No matter whatever number it is, the abduction represents a failure of the nation to protect its leaders of tomorrow. The cheering news is that the children have been rescued successfully except for the regrettable loss of one of them killed in operation. Unlike before, this is one instance where the security forces have opted for direct engagement of the bandits. The result is encouraging and can only get better if sustained.
From the 2014 Chibok girls incident to Dapchi( Yobe State) mass abduction, terrorists and bandits have specifically targeted vulnerable school children . Since December 2020, when suspected gunmen attacked the Government Boys Science Secondary School in Kankara of Katsina State and abducted over 300 students, kidnapping school children for ransom has become rampant. Two months after the Kankara incident, specifically on February 17, 2021, it was the turn of Kagara as suspected bandits abducted 27 students and 15 others at Government Science School, Kagara in Niger State. Less than ten days later, bandits kidnapped 317 female students at Government Girls Secondary School Jangebe, Zamfara State, in an early morning raid on their school. Then, in late May, heavily armed men on motorcycles attacked the town of Regina in the Rafi local government area of Niger State, shot indiscriminately, and abducted about 150 children of Salihu Tanko Islamic School.
In Kaduna State, the bandits seemed to step up to higher institutions as they abducted 39 students of Federal College of Forestry Mechanization in early February and 20 students and three non-academic staff of Greenfield University in April. In the latter incident, the bandits killed students to pressure their parents and the government to acquiesce to their enormous ransom demands.
According to press reports, armed groups have repeatedly attacked schools and universities in Northwest Nigeria in the last few months, abducting more than 700 students for ransom since December 2020.
The recent spate of abductions and mass kidnappings of schoolchildren probably represents the biggest existential threat to the future of schoolchildren in Northern Nigeria. What makes the school abductions in the north bad in the long run is that they combine two negative streaks. First is the Boko Haram backward doctrine that ‘western education is evil’ with ransom-seeking criminal mercantile motive. Both are now indistinguishable.
This area is already beleaguered with endemic poverty, religious and cultural practices that do not bode well for Western education and affected by the prevailing systematic crisis in the Nigerian educational system. Thus, the advent of kidnapping school children for ransom is an ominous gathering cloud, of which its rain may have catastrophic and far-reaching consequences not only on Northern Nigeria but on the entire nation.
The Northern part of the country is already the most educationally disadvantaged region going by available statistics, the low cut off marks for unity school entrance and JAMB admission requirements. The insecurity will further depress standards and interest. It is on record that of the estimated 10.5 million out-of-school children in the country, 69 per cent come from the North. The females are mostly affected due to some cultural practices and economic issues, limiting children’s active participation in school.
With its debilitating effects on economic and education systems, the intractable Boko Haram insurgency is also heavily concentrated in the region. Additionally, the Nigerian education system is still recovering from the devastating effects of the prolonged school closure from the COVID-19 pandemic. When the spate of recent school kidnappings added to an already bad situation, the result is a reduction in community and parental trust in the education system, further complicating access to quality and equitable education. This anomaly can lead to the collapse of the educational system in Northern Nigeria with catastrophic consequences.
The consequences of this are enormous. First, with the current spates of kidnappings, parents may lose confidence in sending their children to school in a region where many parents are not doing that already, and many resources are expended to encourage them to do that.
Secondly, parents who value education and send their children to schools may withdraw them out of fear of the safety of their children. Most parents will protect their children than risk them at the altar of getting western education. This will decline the number of children of school age attending schools in the North and inadvertently play to the doctrine and philosophy of the dreaded Boko Haram and Islamic terrorists.
This possible decline in education has long term implications. A Northern Nigeria that has not educated its children portends danger for the future. First is the opportunity cost of lack of foundational education – the human capital of the future is degraded and wiped out because of the present predicament of kidnapping school children in Nigeria. Second, the economic loss will be enormous – the lost earnings and the cost of carrying a considerable youth population that are less educated, with little or no skills and hugely relying on government for survival is a travesty and will push Nigeria to the dustbin of comity of nations in this 21st century.
The social cost is even far more disturbing. Lack of education, literacy and opportunities are among the root causes of criminality, banditry, and terrorism in Northern Nigeria. Having a mass of unemployed and unemployable youths in the future will make things worse and may destroy Nigeria. Statistics show that in the next 15 years, barring any wars or natural disaster, Nigeria population will be heading to 300 million with many young people. This population size should be a blessing if these young people are educated and have the requisite skills to compete in the post-pandemic, technology-driven world. Imagine what will happen if a large proportion misses out on education now. It will be a lost opportunity and a recipe for disaster.
Bandits operate in rural communities where a lack of deterrence creates the opportunity for criminal activities. Moreover, most communities where the bandits operate have little or no government presence, with households separated by and interspersed with forest areas, rendering them vulnerable to banditry. The situation is made worse by the absence of efficient community policing mechanisms capable of addressing the hinterlands’ peculiar security challenges.
As I had suggested earlier, after the ‘Kangara Boys’ kidnapping, the federal government should adopt a kind of carrot and stick approach to bring the problem of banditry to an end. On the carrot side, there should be a recognition that some of the factors that lead to banditry include youth unemployment, poverty, and inequality. The government should strive to build trust with local communities by addressing the structural inequalities that drive people to violence, like a lack of education and opportunity, corruption, and government ineptitude. Government should provide critical infrastructures.
On the stick side, the government must decisively deal with the bandits who are simply criminals taking advantage of our security and institutional failures to terrorise the populace and enrich themselves in the process. They should not be treated with kid gloves. Like criminals, they lack moral compulsion and negotiating with them is useless as criminals are not known to keep agreements. Moreover, it is always dangerous to allow kidnappers of innocent school children to glamourise their evil deeds, as is the case recently as this inspires other wannabe abductors to plan the next despicable soap opera where one part of the main actors get money and fame. In contrast, the other part and their families suffer untold pains and anguish, which sometimes lasts them a lifetime.
What is instead needed is a comprehensive policy that would keep our schools safe from bandits. The government needs a re-evaluation, revamping and expansion of the Safe Schools Initiative, or creating a more responsive intervention. The Safe Schools Initiative (SSI) was launched after the abduction of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram in 2014. Targeted at the North-Eastern part of the country, ravaged by terrorism, it was a plan to build fences around vulnerable schools or relocate students in high-risk areas and other strategies to strengthen education in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). At least $20m (£14m) was pledged for the three-year project supported by the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.
The scheme achieved modest success but was beset with challenges. Though most recent kidnappings happened in the North-West, which the Safe Schools Initiative (SSI) did not cover, the 2018 abduction of 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi in North-Eastern Yobe state raised questions about the success of the initiative. Nigeria’s military has built posts close to some schools, but the number of schools in the North means many are left unprotected.
The main principles of SSI should not be discarded, and there should be a re-evaluation of its strong points, including its emphasis on the training of school staff to deal with emergencies and a focused extension of the initiative to cover all states under the threat of bandits. In addition, the government should involve international organisations like UNESCO. If well-managed and sufficiently funded, it could effectively protect vulnerable schools in the northern part of the country.
Bandits kidnapping school children for ransom is only a part of the prevalent insecurity that threatens to collapse our economy and dismember the country. Nigerians all over the country groan under the yoke of Islamic terrorists, secessionists, armed robbers, ritualists, and all manner of criminal elements. These problems need to be approached and tackled holistically. It behoves the state governments in the North to devise ways of creating incentives to sustain interest in education despite the trauma of these abductions. The Federal and State governments must strategically deal with the persistent violence and insecurity in the land and have a coherent plan to regain control of Nigeria’s “ungoverned spaces,” to ensure the safety and security of all Nigerians. Our schools can only be safe if the larger society is safe.
The way things are going in the country, especially as it relates to insecurity, Nigeria is on the path of self-destruction if nothing drastic happens. Our leaders and the citizenry have destroyed our politics and economy. We have killed our value system and communal spirit. Now we are gradually destroying our youths and education, two symbols of our future. And it seems that nobody is taking note.