•Rescue operations enhanced by intelligence, professionalism, says DHQ
Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja
The abduction of 344 Katsina schoolboys was triggered by feud between Hausa farmers and Fulani herdsmen and not extremism, four Katsina and Zamfara government officials have said.
The pupils, who were kidnapped from Government Science School, Kankara, Katsina State, were rescued after one week in captivity by a combined team of personnel from the police, military and intelligence agencies.
This is coming as the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) said yesterday that the rescue of the Katsina pupils was enhanced by the “fussion of intelligence”, technology and professionalism.
Briefing newsmen in Abuja, the Coordinator of the Directorate of Defence Media Operations (DDMO), Major General John Enenche, said the rescue operation succeeded as a result of cooperation from the parties involved and the absence of “conspiracy of silence.”
But four government and security officials familiar with negotiations that secured the boys’ release told Reuters the attack was a result of inter-communal feuding over cattle theft, grazing rights and water access, not spreading extremism.
Officials in Katsina State and neighbouring Zamfara State, where the boys were released after six days, said the attack was carried out by a gang of mostly semi-nomadic ethnic Fulanis, including former herders who turned to crime after losing their cows to cattle rustlers.
“They have local conflicts that they want to be settled, and they decided to use this (kidnapping) as a bargaining tool,” said Ibrahim Ahmad, a security adviser to the Katsina State Government who took part in the negotiations through intermediaries.
The report said such groups are known more for armed robberies and small-scale kidnappings for ransom.
Cattle herders in the North-west are mainly Fulani, whereas farmers are mostly Hausa.
For years, farmers have complained of herders letting their cows stray on to their land to graze while herdsmen have complained their cows are being stolen.
Officials in both states told Reuters they established contact with the kidnappers through their clan, a cattle breeders’ association and former gang members who participated in a Zamfara amnesty programme.
The intermediaries met the kidnappers in Ruga forest on several occasions before they agreed to release the boys, according to Zamfara State Governor Bello Matawalle and security sources, including Ahmad.
The gang accused vigilante groups, set up to defend farming communities against banditry, of killing Fulani herders and stealing their cows, Matawalle and Ahmad said.
They also made similar accusations against members of a Katsina State committee set up to investigate cattle theft, Ahmad added.
He said he was not aware of any such incidents, but said a police investigation had been launched. No ransom was paid for the boys’ release, according to officials in both states.
However, his claim that no ransom was paid, which is consistent with official narrative on how the 344 pupils were rescued, conflicted with accounts of three of the victims who spoke with Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a newspaper based in the United States.
The WSJ, in a publication on Wednesday, had reported the pupils as saying that the bandits insisted on collecting N1 million ransom for each of the abductees.
Reuters could not reach the gang for comment, but a spokesman for the herders’ association, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders’ Association of Nigeria, declined to discuss the negotiations.
The day after the boys were returned to their families in Kankara and other towns, another gang briefly abducted some 80 pupils who were returning from a trip organised by an Islamic school.
The kidnappers released the children after a gunfight with police and a local vigilante group, state police said.
“All the bandits were Fulanis and are over 100 in number,” Abdullahi Sada, who led the vigilantes, told Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Defence Headquarters has said that the successful rescue operation was the result of a combined operation of the military, police and intelligence agencies in what it described as “a fussion of intelligence”.
“This is the age of information technology. It was a fussion of intelligence management.
“It was also professionalism that boosted the operation and the children came out alive. There was cooperation and no conspiracy of silence”, Enenche said, while noting that the vigilante groups and the locals cooperated with the operation.