Harrowing Experience in Bandits’ Enclave

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After spending six days in bandits’ enclave under dehumanising conditions, some of the freed 344 students of Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State relived their harrowing experience with Francis Sardauna

For Yusuf Suleiman, Friday, December 11, 2020, was like every other day for a typical secondary school student. Suleiman’s dream has always been to continue with his secondary school education. That dream was on course until that fateful day when about 10pm, an incident almost derailed it.

Abduction
The 17-year-old Suleiman was among the 344 students abducted by armed bandits from Government Science Secondary School Kankara, in Kankara Local Government Area of Katsina State that fateful night immediately after their night prep.

Recounting his ordeal to THISDAY, Yusuf said shortly after their abduction, they were divided into batches before being led through thorny bushes and trekked in the cold night for several hours.

He explained that some of them who could not keep pace with the rest were flogged as the bandits shot into the air to warn them against trying to escape.

The SSS 1 student said: “We came back from prep on Friday night when some people entered our hotels with guns. Although, we are used to gunshot sounds from vigilantes but that day the gunshot sound different. So we thought it was from them.

“We were not scared by the two gunshot sounds. From there we heard the first gunshot in the school. That was when we headed to the fence and attempted to jump it but some of us couldn’t. So, we returned to the hotels.

“Some of the Fulani beamed their torchlight on us and asked us to return. At that time, we thought it was the vigilante who came to our rescue us”.

He added: “Then some of us came back while others scale through the fence and run. It was those of us that came back that were assembled and matched out through the gate. At that point, we thought they will send us into the town and so we were relaxed only for them to matched us into the forest.

“We trekked all through the night till dawn. We stopped and continued with the journey. We got a point where we passed the night. We continued the following day and all through on foot. They were following us closely, beat us and threatened to kill whoever attempted to escape.”

Whilst in the hands of their abductors, Ismail Samilu, a Junior Secondary School two student said: “We were being pushed and beaten, we spent two nights trekking in the bush to unknown destination with them, sometimes walking on thorns. When they discovered that we were tired, they asked us to sleep in one forest.”

When asked whether some of the students were killed by bandits in the forest, he said: “My colleagues told me some students were killed but I didn’t see any. Honestly, I didn’t see any student killed but some of our colleagues told me there were some that were killed in the forest.”

Shekau’s Claims

As the parents agonised over the disappearance of their kids, their fears were worsened when Boko Haram claimed responsibility. In a four minutes audio message that trended on social media, the Leader of the terror group, Abubakar Shekau, claimed his members kidnapped the schoolboys because Western education is against the tenets of Islam.

In the Arabic audio message he translated in Hausa, Shekau said: “What happened in Katsina was done to promote Islam and discourage un-Islamic practices as Western education is not the type of education permitted by Allah and his Holy Prophet.

“They are also not teaching what Allah and his Holy Prophet commanded. They are rather destructing the Islam. It may be subtly, but Allah the Lord of the Skies and Earths knows whatever is hidden. May Allah promote Islam, may we die as Muslims.”

He added that: “In a nutshell, we are behind what happened in Katsina. The speaker is Abubakar Shekau, leader of Jama’atu Ahlussunna Lid-Da’awati wal Jihad”.

However, Shekau neither gave details of the attack nor number of the abducted schoolboys or mentioned issue of negotiation with the Katsina State Government.

Although the video went viral, the Defence Headquarters dismissed it as the usual propaganda of the terrorist group.

Interim Plans
Whilst the negotiations and security intelligence were ongoing, the governor took immediate steps to
order closure of all schools.

The security operatives on the other hand were closeted all day as they ruminated on the way to secure the release of of such large number of hostages without collateral damage on the part of the young boys.

Protest
For the distraught parents, the measures by the government and security forces were not swift enough. To convey their fears, they took up placards and stormed the road. The protesters marching with placards, called on the federal government to immediately rescue their children. Some of the parents held placards with the inscriptions such as ‘Government must speak out’, ‘We want our children back’ and ‘We want security in Kankara’.

Controversial Release
After spending six days in the bandits’ enclave under dehumanising conditions, the students were finally released. Yusuf and the other students looked unkempt and emaciated as many of them were barefoot and limping.

The 344 abducted students were released in Zamfara state on Thursday night before being transported to Katsina where they were handed over to Governor Aminu Masari on Friday morning.

There were controversies over the true identity of those responsible for the freedom of the schoolboys, with the Nigerian army debunking the claims of the Katsina State Governor, Aminu Masari that the operation leading to the release of the boys involved the security agencies and members of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN).

But Masari’s counterpart, Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State claimed he spearheaded the release of the students in synergy with members of MACBAN and some repentant bandits.

Insisting that his government in collaboration with Fulani apex socio-cultural organisation, Miyetti Allah negotiated the release of the 344 schoolboys, Matawalle at a press conference in Zamfara, reiterated that his administration was able to secure the release of the students through the help of MACBAN and repentant bandits in his state.

Despite claims by the Boko Haram insurgents that they kidnapped the boys, the Zamfara state governor told journalists during the media parely that “nothing like Boko Haram in this abduction, the bandits did it”.

The governor explained that Miyetti Allah leadership and some repentant bandits were employed by his government to establish contact with the abductors of the students before pleading for their release.

“When we established contact with them, I persuaded them to release them unharmed. And so they did tonight. This is not the first time we facilitated the release of our people without payment of ransom. What we do is to extend an olive branch to them because they also want to live in peace”

The Commander of the 17 Brigade, Nigeria Army Brig-General WB Idris, who handed over the students to Masari, on the other hand said they were rescued by a combined team of security operatives in the state.

Idris, who led the security men to receive the boys in Zamfara, escorted them to the Katsina Government House in seven buses. The boys were accompanied by stern-looking military personnel and policemen who wielded their guns as if they were waging war against the bandits in the General Muhammedu Buhari House, Katsina.

Ransom
While random figures were popping up on the internet about the likely sum paid as ransom to secure the release of the boys, the government-both at federal and state level, has been unequivocal about its stance that no ransom was paid.

Speaking shortly after receiving the students at the Katsina Government House, Governor Masari, debunked claims that ransom was paid by the state government to secure the release of the students

Masari said his administration did not offer a penny to the abductors of the boys for their release, saying security agencies and members of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) were responsible for the release of the schoolboys.

He said: “Those involved in the negotiation include my adviser, some top military and police operatives, members of Miyetti Allah; (they) were all involved in the negotiation. You suffered physically, mentally and psychologically, but let me assure you that we have suffered more. Your parents have suffered; whatever you do, you should thank Allah and your parents and pray that this incident will never happen to anybody again.

“The released students will be carefully reunited with their parents after the state authorities in collaboration with local government officials confirm that those that come forward are the real parents, guardian. The principal of the school cannot know all the 344 parents and guardians of the released boys which is why the government has to engage local officials. Also, the released boys are to identify their relations before we hand over any child.

“The Executive Secretary, Science and Technical Education Board, will list all the names of the students and their parents because we are not going to release a child to anyone until we are sure they are the parents or guardians. We will continue to discharge our responsibilities as government and leaders in the state. I am more disturbed about the abduction than any other parents. This is because while parents cried for a missing child, I cried for 344 missing children.”

Fears

Asked if he will return to the school after the invasion, Suleiman replied in the negative. Insisting he would not return to the school again because it is prone to attack, he said: “It will be difficult for me to go back to the school. A lot of us are thinking of not going back to the school for fear of fresh attack.

“There are those thinking of schools close to the place but not the same school. The school is located on the outskirts. If there is a possibility it should be relocated to a nearby place inside the town with people around“.

Ismail Samilu, a Junior Secondary School two student, who was also among the 344 freed students, has called on the state government to, as matter of urgency relocate the all-boys secondary school to Kankara town to avoid futur reccurrence of the scenario.

He said based on the current location of the school which resulted in their abduction, himself and some of his schoolmates have made up their minds not to return to the attacked school.

According to him, “with this horrible experience, I will not return to the school again. I and my friends are thinking of seeking for transfer to a school within Katsina metropolis”.

The schoolboy, who literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death and lived to tell the story of his escape, stated that lack of adequate security in the school was responsible for their mass abduction by the marauding bandits.

Ismail, 13, who trekked through farmlands and a forest in the dark, urged federal and state government to provide security to all schools across the three senatorial zones of the before reopening them for academic activities.

Presidential Charge

Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari who met with the freed 344 students last Friday evening at the Banquet Hall of the Katsina State government House, urged them to put their horrible experience behind them and return to school.

Buhari, who addressed the students in Hausa, said: “You are lucky, your school focuses on the sciences, and sciences are part of modernisation, which allows you to secure good jobs. The future is not for those that read English Language or History, but for those that read the sciences. I hope you will forget what happened to you and focus on your education instead.”

The president said he too had gone through boarding school like the students, as a young boy, pointing out that education was what made him what he is today. He described the students as being lucky for going through such harrowing experience in the hands of gunmen, and coming out unharmed.

“I have relations that are not educated, and their cows have finished while their lands are not as productive as before. It is because I acquired education, that is why I am where I am today. Therefore, try your best to acquire both western and religious education so that you can become what you want in life.

“I call on all security agencies, the military, police, DSS, to continue to do their work in the fear of God, by rooting out the bad eggs amongst us. You should not forget that we would all face justice at the end of the day, whether we like it or not.”

Reunion
Done with the profiling, the next step was to reunite the boys with their estates parents. At the reunion, there were tears of joy at the state Pilgrims camp as hundreds of parents reunited with their children.

The parents, many of whom threw decorum to the wind, could not contain their emotions after they saw their children at the state camp, where they were lodged for onward reunion with their families.

One of the parents, Kamilu Abdulkadir, who anxiously moved around in search of his two children, begun to sob quietly when he did not see them at first, “shouting where are my children?”

Abdulkadir had almost given up in his search when he suddenly spotted his kids—Aminu and Salisu—seated amongst their fellow students in serene environment provided by the state government, looking lean and sorrowful. When he spotted the freed boys, he jumped in joy, shouting their name and hugged them tightly.

Safiyanu Muhammed, another parent said the days his 14-year-old son, Babangida spent in the den of the bandits were the most traumatic experience in his life, adding that the horror of waiting endlessly for an abducted child really affected “my family throughout the six days of waiting and harbouring the fears of what could have happened to Babangida.

“It was therefore a big relief for us when we received a call at exactly 11 p.m on Thursday night, informing us that our son and the rest of the abducted students had been rescued and were due to arrive Katsina on Friday. I am also grateful to the state government as well as the federal government. It was a terrible experience for me and my entire household throughout the period that he was abducted”.

But Khadija Mannir, who could not see her son within the crowd as of the time of filing this report became agitated, with some of parents weeping openly, while a few of them wailed uncontrollably.

Appeal
Also toeing the path of Buhari, the Wife of the State Governor, Dr. Hadiza Bello Masari, appealed to parents of the abducted students not to withdraw their children from the school as a result of the incident.

Speaking at a press conference at her residence, Mrs Masari said it was normal for the abducted children to go through trauma due to the incident, but added that they would soon overcome the problem and continue with their normal life.

The governor’s wife who was overwhelmed by the release of the boys, said: “I call on parents whose children were abducted not to keep them away from continuing with their education, as doing so would not augur well with their future. It is normal for the children to go through emotional trauma, but this is bound to pass and the children would continue with their normal lives. So, I am appealing to their parents to return them to school”.

She reiteratred that education is the bedrock of national development and that children deserve to be educated to prepare them for the future, just as she commended state government and security agencies for their unflinching efforts that led to the rescue of the students.

She assured parents and residents of Kankara Local Government Area that adequate security measures will be put in place by the state government to avoid future occurrence of the scenario.

UN’s Call for Unconditional Rescue of Other Hostages

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres while
commending the swift rescue of the boys further called for the immediate and “unconditional” release of those still in captivity, just as he emphasised the need to provide the released children and their families with the necessary health and psychosocial support.

The secretary-general also called for increased efforts to safeguard schools and educational facilities in the country, just as he reiterated the solidarity and commitment of the UN to supporting the government and people of Nigeria in their fight against terrorism, violent extremism and organised crime.
Meanwhile, whatever reason given for the increasing insecurity across all parts of the country, both federal and state governments must adopt evolving security strategies in order to tackle the deteriorating security challenges bedeviling the country, particularly in the Northern region.