Schools groan under kidnappers’ siege

In April 2014, a terrorist group, Boko Haram, stormed the hostel of Chibok Government Secondary School, Chibok in Borno State and abducted almost 300 schoolgirls who were preparing for their final West African School Certificate Examination (WAEC) exams. / AFP PHOTO / BOKO HARAM / HO

In the wake of Boko Haram terrorists’ abduction of about 300 pupils from Chibok, Borno State, kidnappers have found schools as soft targets and, at best, the country’s security agencies have only been reacting to the frightening phenomenon, writes Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal.

The scene was chaotic. The looks on parents’ faces were pensive. Young schoolchildren were seen clutching bags of various sizes and shapes to their chests and heads and their parents in tow as they quickened their steps out of the school premises.

The school authority had a hectic time ensuring that no criminal took advantage of the situation to ‘go away’ with a pupil that was not his. On the school premises and its surroundings were tough-looking security agents, totting lethal weapons in their hands.They came too late as the kidnappers had fled with their victims. Last Thursday’s kidnapping of some young children from their school has added to the traumatic statistics of schoolchildren abductions.

In April 2014, a terrorist group, Boko Haram, stormed the hostel of Chibok Government Secondary School, Chibok in Borno State and abducted almost 300 schoolgirls who were preparing for their final West African School Certificate Examination (WAEC) exams.It has become the most dramatic and traumatic kidnapping experience ever known in the world as to date negotiations for the release of the girls – though some have been freed – continue. Eighty-two more of those girls were released last month.

Apart from the abduction of the Chibok girls in Borno, schoolchildren in Lagos State seem to be favourite choice for kidnappers – as they even struck twice in a particular school.On Monday, February 29, 2016, Babington Macaulay Junior Seminary, a school on the outskirts of Lagos was thrown into pandemonium when some schoolchildren were abducted.

It was around 8:00pm when pupils of the school were busy studying for their upcoming examinations that a gang of 12-armed men struck and kidnapped three schoolgirls.
They would later demand for a ransom to release the girls.

A joint security team went out and gathered information from everyone in the area. Soon, the operatives were able to find out the direction the kidnappers went. Later, they found the individual who registered the phones the kidnappers were using for negotiations. They traced family members of the kidnappers and used them to force the abductors to release the girls.

In about a week, some of the kidnappers were apprehended and the girls were rescued.It was however learnt that was not the first time the school would be threatened by the kidnappers. Sometime earlier, the wall of the school had been breached and a pupil abducted.One of the apprehended gunmen said that the group had previously attempted a kidnap in that same school but were unsuccessful when the girl they abducted managed to escape.

Few months later, precisely October 6, 2016, at 7:30am, some armed men stormed Igbonla Model College in Epe and kidnapped the school’s vice principal, a teacher and four pupils, during the school’s general assembly morning devotion. While the perpetrators were arrested and the victims rescued, Igbonla schoolchildren were again kidnapped last Thursday as rescue efforts for the release of the abducted students continue.

Are these kidnappings happenstances?
A United States of America-trained security expert, Tanwa Ashiru, does not think so.“These successful kidnaps reveal that school (children) kidnaps are fast becoming a trend and a major threat. It is pivotal that the government collaborates with schools to increase policing and protective measures, so as to be better prepared in case of any future attacks. Residences, estates, workplaces located near the waterways or surrounded by heavy forestation are particularly susceptible to these abductions,” Ashiru said in her online post.

According to her, the increasing kidnapping rate both in Lagos and across the country can be viewed as a law enforcement failure, as security operatives have failed to send out a forceful message on the repercussion of such crimes.

However, some have argued that the rising spate of schoolchildren abduction is due to the current economic hardship in the country. Others have claimed that it is because many of the abductors often get away with the crime. Yet, others still said it is because schools pay the least attention to security matters and that the nation’s security operatives are anything but proactive.

This year, on January 13, pupils of the Nigerian Tulip International College (formerly Nigerian Turkish International College), Isheri, Ogun State, was the next school to be attacked by armed kidnappers. Isheri is a border town of Ogun close to Lagos and with waters surrounding the environs. Through its waters, the gang of kidnappers dug a hole through the school’s fence and gained entry from the back of the NTIC. Upon entry, they fired shots into the air and took away three pupils and five employees of the institution.

Oftentimes, kidnapping cases along the waterways are associated with “Ijaw militants” who use speedboats and are adept at navigating the waters.Kidnapping in Lagos is said to persist because the Nigeria Police do not have any counter-kidnapping strategy. Hard hit by the kidnap menace in its domain, the Lagos State House of Assembly passed a bill that is expected to curtail the rising cases of kidnapping.

Kidnapping now attracts a death penalty.“Although passing the bill can be seen as the government taking a step in the right direction of tackling the scourge, a more holistic approach involving addressing socio-economic factors facilitating kidnapping is required to completely eliminate this security threat. “Until these aforementioned underlying factors are resolved by the government, the issue of kidnapping will continue to remain one of the biggest security challenges in Nigeria,” Ashiru noted.

It is no wonder then that armed kidnappers, again, stormed Igbonla college, this time around carting away six pupils, including two principals. The gunmen abducted the principal of the junior secondary school, simply identified as Mr. Oyesola and Mr. Akirinmade who is the principal of the senior secondary school.Earlier in the week, the kidnappers had written to the school, informing the authorities of their plan to strike. The school management promptly notified the police, which sent its men to take strategic positions around the school.

According to reports, the policemen were outnumbered by the armed gang. It was learnt that the criminals had lurked around the school’s environs for some weeks. Residents said for about three days, they had suffered continuous strikes from the gunmen, adding that two people including a poultry farmer, who notified soldiers of their activities, was killed.

They were said to have been patrolling the waterways and even challenged security operatives to a gun duel. Prior to Thursday kidnap, residents said the armed men had made unsuccessful efforts to kidnap schoolchildren in the school on Wednesday. They later returned on May 25, around 6:00am, and abducted 10 students.The kidnappers had enough time to profile the students on their way out and eventually released four of them, who said their parents, were farmers, poor, late or phone numbers unknown.

Agitated and angry parents flooded the school, insisting on taking their children home. They said their kids would not return to the school until there is improved security. The parents claimed they had asked the school to clear bushes around and erect a formidable fence, have a police post by the creek and also station an armoured tank there, which were ignored by the authorities.

While the police force have since swung into action to rescue the victims, spokesman for the Lagos State Police Command, Olarinde Famous-Cole, assured that “investigation and rescue operation have commenced. It was found that the criminal elements used the Imeru/Iji waterway to access the swampy forest bordering the school, bore a hole on a part of the fence to gain entrance.

“The trauma being endured at this difficult moment by parents and guardians and relatives of the innocent children can be imagined. We, however, appeal for calm to enable security agencies focus on rescue operations and apprehension of the suspects.”Last November, head teachers from 114 institutions including 100 schools in the Northeast attended a workshop by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on security to help them handle the instability caused by extremists of the Boko Haram insurgency, which has been disrupting education in the area.

Participants from primary, junior and senior secondary schools in the three states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe were given 1,350 Safe School kits for their establishments. The kits were developed by a non-governmental organisation, Exam Ethics Marshal International, in collaboration with Nigerian security agencies.

A “safe school programme” was drawn up to provide teachers, parents and students with comprehensive information on safety skills; empower school communities with appropriate guidelines; provide schools with the information and skills required to conduct customised risk and threat audits of their establishments; and, finally, give schools templates for emergency response plans and the establishment of School Emergency Response Teams and Incident Command Systems.

The last has not been heard of the recently kidnapped pupils, as their abductors have demanded N1bn ransom for the schoolchildren’s release. Infact, the police claimed to have arrested two categories of suspects concerning the kidnapping but the students are still nowhere to be found.

In recommending what should be done to forestall future kidnap, Ashiru said, “Students need to be taught on how to respond in case of emergencies. The schools also need to toughen their security arrangement to make them less attractive targets. Having well-lit compounds at night and the use of solar-powered CCTV cameras could be beneficial.

“Unarmed security guards within the premises should have periodic drills and have the ability to quickly contact the nearest police response team at all hours of the day and armed security operatives can carry out random patrols and inspections outside the school walls to ensure there are no breaches.”

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