By Owei Lakemfa
At the weekend, after my ear drums had been continuously assaulted for few weeks about how well the government has done, especially on security, my mind went back to one of its ‘success’ stories.
The Tanko Salihu Islamic School is in Tegina, a densely populated town in Rafi Local Government Area of Niger State. It runs a nursery, primary and junior secondary school. It also has Islamiyya and Hadda “The testimony” classes in the evenings and at weekends.
On Sunday, May 30, 2021, bandits entered Tegina. In a guerrilla-style operation, they attacked the police station and went round the town shooting into the air. In the ensuring pandemonium, they headed for what apparently was their target, the Islamic school where pupils, as young as three, were learning.
They rounded up 148 of the pupils and about 50 others, including the teachers, and marched them away from the Zungeru Junction school premises into the forest. The children who were taken through paths, bushes and forests must have walked for hundreds of kilometers before they were located in Kebbi State.
One of the older boys, Musa, gave an idea of the torturous journey: “We trekked for days without food and water. We only rested a little when the bandits noticed that we were tired and afterward continued. And it was so difficult since we had to carry the little ones on the back as they could no longer walk because they were weak and tired before we finally got to the hideouts of the bandits in the forest.”
The school and parents organised themselves to seek the release of their children from the bandits who initially demanded a ransom of N300 million which they scaled down to N100 million. They were frustrated for they were mainly peasant farmers who could not on their own raise 10 per cent of the ransom.
Their frustration was further heightened when after one week of their wards’ abduction, and, despite the wide publicity the case attracted, neither the state government nor the Federal Government visited the school or the town to even make an assessment or liaise with them. Only the Local Government Chairman showed visible concern. The people were abandoned to their own devices, including negotiating ransom and raising funds.
The Headmaster of the school, Abubakar Garba Alhassan, who had evolved into the coordinator of the school and parents platform, cried to the press: “None of the state government officials either came to us or contacted us, apart from the Rafi Local Government Chairman who is always here to sympathise with us.”
When confronted with these claims, the state government, through the Deputy Governor, Ahmed Mohammed Ketso, responded thus: “It is strategic for us not to have visited the families and people of Tegina, but we are making frantic efforts.”
Incredible! What strategy was it abandoning a populous town at a period the residents were most traumatised?
The Presidency also responded with a bland statement that: “President Muhammadu Buhari has charged the nation’s security and intelligence agencies to expedite efforts towards the recovery of the 200 children kidnapped from an Islamic school in Niger State.”
The parents and school sourced for funds from various sources, including selling their valuables to pay the ransom.
Meanwhile, the pupils were going through a nightmare. One of the bigger boys, Musa said: “We went through hell. We were beaten and they even threatened to kill us if our parents did not pay the ransom they demanded…We told them we were poor and that our parents were mere farmers. But they neither listened nor cared about us, even though we were speaking the same language.”
One of the abducted pupils, Furera Isah, recalled: “They would call us out in the night and beat us. We were never comfortable…They called us to beat us everyday, but they allowed us to say our prayers. Sleeping was also another problem. We slept in a shabby place under the rain and the sun. Since we got kidnapped, we never took our bath. We were fed with small amount of noodles or beans on our hands. Some days, we stayed hungry as there was nothing to eat. We were kept together in one small room in the forest. Sometimes, we were beaten if we try to complain of hunger or ask questions.”
Finally, after 88 days in captivity, the children were released. But not all returned. On the pupils release, Alhasan, the coordinator of the negotiations, told the media: “I am feeling comfortable now that they are back. Only one died but we thank God that we got them (others) back alive. The child who died is my child. We are not closing down the school, we will continue with it. If we do close the school, the generation that we are protecting will feel bad. I believe it is my child’s destiny to die that day because if he was at home with me, he could have died that same day as well. So I thank God for everything.”
There had been mass kidnap of students before the Tegina one. In February 2018, a total of 107 students of Government Girls Science and Technical College, Dapchi, Yobe State, were kidnapped. After ransom payment, they were released, except Leah Sharibu, a girl who refused to renounce her faith. She has now spent five years, one month and three days in captivity.
On Friday, December 11, 2020, over 300 students of the Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State were abducted. On February 17, 2021, bandits attacked the Government Science School, Kagara, Niger State abducting 27 students, three staff and 12 of their relatives.
Government Girls Science Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara State was attacked on February 26, 2021 and 279 female students aged between 10 and 17 were abducted. The Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation, Afaka, Kaduna State was attacked in March 2021 and about 30 students abducted. They spent over 50 days in captivity.
After the Islamiya School incident, more schools were attacked and students abducted. These include the July 5, 2021 kidnap of over 120 students of the Bethel Baptist High School, Damishi, Kaduna State. At least one of the abducted students remain with the bandits; the 20th month in captivity.
In June 2021, bandits invaded the Federal Government College, Birnin Yauri, Kebbi State, kidnapping over 90 students and teachers. Twenty nine of those students are still held by the bandits having spent one year, nine months in captivity.
All these occurred and are happening in a country with a Commander-in-Chief who says he has done marvelously well on security and deserves medals. I do not doubt that the C-in-C reports for duty which may be why the budgetary provision is being expended, but why does he seem to be perpetually absent from duty?
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.