Hundreds of schoolboys have been abducted by gunmen in central Nigeria after an attack on their boarding school, the latest in a rising wave of mass abductions and attacks that have beset the country.
Heavily armed gunmen dressed in military uniforms overran the all-boys Government Science College (GSC) in Kagara Town, Niger state, on Tuesday night, killing at least one student and abducting hundreds of students. Some teachers were also reportedly abducted and taken into the nearby forest.
The attack is thought to have been carried out by suspected armed groups known as “bandits” that have reigned terror across north-west and central Nigeria in recent years. The groups have launched marauding attacks from forest havens which span across north-west Nigeria into neighbouring Niger, terrorising vulnerable rural communities left helpless by a dearth of security.
Killings, sexual violence and mass kidnappings for random have risen sharply, including on schools.
“Bandits went into GSC Kagara last night and kidnapped hundreds of students and their teachers,” a government official told AFP on condition of anonymity. Army and air force patrols are scouring the region and a headcount was under way at school, which has approximately 1,000 students, to determine how many were missing.
Government officials in Niger state said they would give details soon, after gathering information about the abductions. The state governor on Wednesday ordered the closure of all boarding schools in areas at risk from bandit attacks.
A spokesperson for the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, who is increasingly vilified for rising insecurity after he in January replaced all the armed forces chiefs, said: “Our prayers are with families of the victims of this attack. Following these reports, the president has directed the armed forces and police, to ensure immediate and safe return of all the captives.”
The attack in Niger State follows a similar attack in December when about 300 schoolboys were abducted in Katsina, north-west Nigeria, sparking outrage at rising insecurity in recent years. The boys were later released, while the government denied widespread reports that the gunmen, who were associated with Boko Haram, were paid a ransom.
The frequency and ease with which armed groups have staged attacks in north-west Nigeria have caused growing dismay.
Despite several air raids and army operations the groups remain a potent threat in many parts of northern Nigeria. Some local governments have signed controversial and obscure “peace deals” with the groups, with some admitting to having paid or offered assistance to insurgents. Yet attacks have remained commonplace. In recent years, attacks have also increased over Nigeria’s porous border with Niger, with refugees fleeing further and further into the country.
The lack of rural security and the protection offered by a vast and mineral rich forest expanse has provided the conditions for armed groups to thrive.
While “banditry” encompasses a range of criminal activity allied to various non-ethnic and ethnic factors, many of the recent large-scale armed attacks are suspected to have been carried out by Fulani assailants. According to Amnesty International, 1,126 people were killed by bandits between January and June last year.
The attack in Katsina in December appeared to be the worst recorded assault by suspected bandits, according to Audu Bulama Bukarti, an extremism expert and analyst at the Tony Blair Institute. “It’s another major point of escalation in the rapidly deteriorating security situation of the north-west,” he said.
The threat from banditry has grown complicated by increasing associations with jihadists, still waging an 11-year insurgency in the country’s north-east. Many fear jihadists are increasingly active in north and central Nigeria, courting associations with thriving armed groups.
In December, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the abductions in Kankara. While the attack was carried out by bandits, the association between the two armed groups caused widespread alarm.
In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from their school dormitory in Chibok, in north-eastern Borno state. About 100 of the girls are still missing. The group has also carried out kidnappings of other schoolchildren as well as thousands of people across north-east Nigeria.