The Karachi Boys have been rescued! However, all is not well.
On Friday, 18 December 2020 over 300 boys who had been kidnapped from the Government Science secondary school in Kankara, Katsina on the 11th of December were re-united with their families. My father and I watched in silence as the children walked out of buses, barefoot and dishevelled. Many of them looked to be as young as 11, and that shook me.
When I first heard the story of their kidnapping on the 11th of December, I had imagined that they would be older, on the cusp of manhood, not on the brink of adolescence. I suppose it was my mind trying to protect itself from the true nature of the horrific incident.
I didn’t want to believe that something so awful could happen to people so young. The pictures aired live on Arise Television corrected that delusion. Even still, I was glad; everything had worked out.
The children’s parents were thrilled at the good news.
“I couldn’t believe what I heard until neighbours came to inform me that it’s true” said one amazed mother to the Reuters news agency.
I couldn't believe it either. I had thought the boys lost, that it would take years before even a third of them saw their families again. I assumed that the tragedy would follow the script of the Chibok girls kidnapping in 2014.
For those unfamiliar with the tragedy of Chibok here is a short summary.
Boko Haram kidnapped 276 school girls were from their school in Chibok, Borno State on the night of the 14th of April in 2014. It has been six years since the incident but 112 of the girls remain in captivity. The wait has been brutal for their loved ones.
In an interview with the Voice of America, Allen Manasseh, the media and communications director of the Chibok Community said, “It has not been easy waiting for one day, two days, three days and then down to six years… That is why some of the parents died as a result of complications that have to do with blood pressure, heart failure, kidney failure and the rest… the first woman that died after the abduction was my aunt, who had two of her twin girls abducted and ’til today they are still part of those missing.”
The loss of a child is a sorrow that has no end. No apology, promise, or act of kindness; no potion can cure that poison. It cannot be fixed. It can only be endured. It is a heavy weight to bear.
I was happy when I saw that they had been returned. The sheer feeling of relief nearly robbed me of my senses. For a moment all I could think was, God Bless President Buhari, God bless the Nigerian army, and God bless the kidnappers. All of my anger at the consistent failures of Nigeria’s government disappeared and all that was left was pride. My eyes were fixed to the television like glue, watching as the boys trailed out of the buses.
But after the high, came the low, and once I saw the lows I could no longer see the highs.
Did Nigeria’s Government act in the best interests of the Kankara boys?
After the boys were rescued, they were taken not to their parents, or to a hospital, or to any kind of centre that could deal with the trauma they’d suffered, but to a media circus to meet Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and other government officials. It was a callous move that showed that Nigeria’s government is more concerned with its image than the welfare of the country’s citizens, its actual job. They did not even think to provide the children with shoes, or the opportunity to change out of the clothes they’d been wearing when they were abducted, clothes they had worn for a week. They marched them straight from the bush into a press conference - a government photo op. They didn’t even think to blur out the faces of the children - a clear violation of media ethics and guidelines.
How many boys are missing?
The boys were kidnapped from the Government Science secondary school in Kankara Town, but till this day, nobody knows how many of them were taken. 800 students are registered at the school. John Eneche, a spokesman of the Nigerian army, told Channels Television on the Monday after the attack that 333 boys were kidnapped. Aminu Bello Masari, the Governor of Nigeria’s Katsina State says 344 of them were freed but that others remain missing. Lawal Bosa a local government official said the rescue operation had, “secured all the kidnapped students. There is no single student left and no single death is recorded.” Eye witnesses claim that more than 500 were abducted. There are reports of hundreds escaping into the surrounding wilderness. With all these inconsistencies and no official report of the missing students from the school, it is possible that we’re celebrating too early.
Who did the kidnapping?
Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the mass kidnapping. In a voice message released on the Tuesday following the attack a man says, “I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina.” On the Thursday after the attack (17 of December), Boko Haram distributed a video which appeared to show several of the kidnapped boys clustered under a tree. In the video, the boys were pleading, begging. One of them stepped out to speak. He appeared to be doing so under coercion. According to the BBC, he said they were kidnapped by Abubakar Shekau’s gang.
Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the terrorist group Boko Haram.
The Nigerian government insists that it was local bandits that carried out the violent crime, not Boko Haram.
Abdul Labaran, a spokesman for the Governor of Katsina State said to the BBC, “It wasn’t Boko Haram… The local bandits we know about all along were responsible. These are people we know very well, I met some of their leaders. That is why an umbrella body of cattle breeders’ association was used in contacting them. So the negotiation was made through this umbrella body of cattle breeders.”
Is this how we are supposed to treat criminals?
Nigeria’s authorities say the boys were released in Tsafe, a town in Zamfara state, 61 kilometres away from Kankara, Katsina where they were kidnapped. Bello Matawalle, the Governor of Nigeria’s Zamfara state said that no ransom was paid to secure the release of the children. He said the students were freed after 3 separate negotiations.
Mr. Matawalle said the kidnappers raised various grievances during the negotiations. “Among their complaints was how people kill their cattle and how various vigilante units disturb them” the Governor said. He also revealed that the government made promises to look into the complaints of the criminals. He did not say anything about justice.
We hear of violence in Northern Nigeria so often that it is no longer shocking. It has become part of our culture, part of the Nigerian way of life. According to Amnesty international, 1,126 people were killed by bandits in Northern Nigeria between January and June this year. People say bandits are known in the area and operate freely with little or no resistance from security forces. If the criminals are known, then why are they left alone? If the Governor of Zamfara State knows who they are and where they are, then why have they not been arrested? What happened to justice?
12 States in Northern Nigeria operate under Sharia Law, but not even those laws would be so forgiving as to describe promising to look into the complaints of kidnappers as justice. Much of the banditry, violence and terrorism in Northern Nigeria could be described as Hirabah especially when murder is committed and property is seized. The penalty for that crime (hirabah - where murder is committed and property is seized) according to Sharia law is crucifixion in Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara, death by impalement in Bauchi, and just death in Kano and Katsina. Kidnapping of a person over the age of 7 is punishable by 3 years in prison and 40 lashes, and in Bauchi, Kano, and Katsina it is punishable by Hadd - the amputation of a limb.
There is no good reason why the kidnappers and criminals still roam free.
Are Nigeria’s Security Forces stretched too thin?
Residents who live near the boarding school in Kankara say they heard gunfire at about 11pm. They say the attack was carried out by over 100 armed gun men on motorbikes. It isn’t the first time Katsina’s Motorbike bandits have made the news either. Between the 30th and 31st of May earlier this year, around 500 of the motorcycle riding criminals attacked a village (villages) in the state. They killed 18 villagers and made off with thousands of livestock.
The Sultan of Sokoto, sums the problem here brilliantly. “How can one explain the movement of bandits in their hundreds on motor cycles. What happened to the intelligence gathering that this heinous plan was not uncovered before it was hatched. How come the bandits took their time, gathered the school boys… and whisked them away without being rounded up by the security agencies?” He asked in a statement decrying the kidnapping.
Are Nigeria’s security forces so overwhelmed that they cannot detect the roar of over a hundred motorcycles accelerating in tandem, often trailed by thousands of cows, and occasionally hundreds of children on foot?
Kayode Fayemi, the Governor of Nigeria’s Ekiti State believes that this is the case. During a visit to Borno State on the 2nd of December 2020 after Boko Haram insurgents killed as many as 110 farm workers in Kwashabe (November 28 - November 30 2020), Mr. Fayemi said, “personally as a security scholar, the reality I can see is that our military is overwhelmed. Our military is no longer in a position to single-handedly tackle this menace effectively.”
The Nigerian army does not agree. Thisday, a Nigerian newspaper, asked Nigeria’s Military what they thought of Mr. Fayemi’s statement. A reply was made to Thisday anonymously, “He’s on his own. He is entitled to his own opinion. We do not want to take issue with political officeholders.”
The statement from the military is so mind boggling that I hope it is fake news. If the Nigerian Military is not overwhelmed, then it must mean that the current state of security in the nation is ideal, and that everything is going according to plan. And if this is the case then the all of the violence, the banditry, the terrorism, is state-sponsored. It is a frightening thought to have.
On Thursday the 17th of December, the Kankara boys were picked up from Tsafe, Zamfara and taken to the Katsina government house. The following day they were marched out in a single file, in the same clothes they’d been kidnapped in a week before.
In the end, what can anyone be but glad? Three hundred and forty four boys were returned to their families just in time for the holidays - a Christmas miracle!
After their release, one of them said to the Guardian, “Honestly I don’t know how I will express my appreciation to the government for rescuing us from these horrible people. I thank God now that we have regained our freedom.”
The sentiment is shared by most of us. It is something good to hold on to as we continue to grapple with the failures of Nigeria’s past and present governments. The truth of the situation is much grimmer. Nigeria as we know it is failing. We are watching it happen right before our eyes.