Hundreds of Nigerian pupils are missing, with many feared to have been abducted, after gunmen attacked a secondary school in north-western Katsina State. A large group of men armed with AK-47s overran the all-boys Government Science secondary school in Kankara on Friday night, shooting local security, said government officials.
The attack is suspected to have been carried out by “bandit gangs”. Katsina’s governor, Aminu Masari, said officials were combing through the nearby forests for 333 students, and contacting parents “to ascertain the actual number that has been kidnapped”.
He said: “We are still counting because more are coming out from the forest,” adding that no group had claimed responsibility.
Police engaged the attackers “in a gun duel which gave [some of] the students the opportunity to scale the fence of the school and run for safety,” said a police spokesman, Gambo Isah.
“The police, Nigerian army and Nigerian air force are working closely with the school authorities to ascertain the actual number of the missing and/or kidnapped students,” said Isah. “Search parties are working with a view to find or rescue the missing students.”
The attack sparked anger in the largely poor and rural region towards the country’s government, which is under mounting pressure following deepening insecurity. Distraught families demanded answers as parents converged on the school over the weekend begging authorities to save the boys.
Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, himself from Katsina and in the state on a private trip, released a statement condemning the attacks. “I strongly condemn the cowardly bandits’ attack on innocent children at the Science School,” he said. “Our prayers are with the families of the students, the school authorities and the injured.”
Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu said the army and air force had located the bandits’ enclave and an operation was ongoing.
Yet there was growing anger from anguished parents and locals who witnessed attackers taking some of the students away, and who have been beset by bandit attacks for years.
On Saturday Masari met parents who demanded answers on the whereabouts of their children. Police fired teargas at groups of parents before government officials left the scene, witnesses told BBC Hausa.
Several operations have been conducted against armed groups in recent years, while mass killings and kidnappings by bandits have grown commonplace across much of the north-west.
The rise in bandit gangs has caused growing terror across northern and north-west Nigeria. There are often ambushes to kidnap people on main expressways, and armed and often fatal robberies targeting cattle and food supplies.
Most vulnerable to attacks have been towns close to forests stretching across north-west Nigeria and into Niger. Amid a dearth of rural security, armed criminality has surged.
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 this year.
The attack in Katsina is likely to be the worst recorded assault by suspected bandits, according to 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.
Many in Nigeria had grown dismayed at the government’s failure to secure vulnerable communities, Bukarti added. “The Buhari administration has not responded to this situation with the urgency, seriousness and tact it requires. Different military operations have been launched, but it’s clear that all of them are understaffed, underskilled and underfunded.”
Experts have warned of the increasing capabilities of bandit groups in the region and the potential for prolonged terror similar to the jihadist insurgency in north-east Nigeria, now in its 11th year.
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 kidnaps of other schoolchildren as well as thousands of people across north-east Nigeria.
Causing further alarm is the fact that north-west Nigeria and the region’s porous border with Niger is gradually reconfiguring into a nexus for armed groups. In many cases the groups are more heavily armed than local police forces.
Experts have said alliances with jihadist groups in the north-east could widen the reach of armed groups and inflict more terror.