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Nearly 300 Kidnapped Nigerian Girls Set Free — Why They Were Taken & How They Were Rescued

Photo: Richard Juilliart / Shutterstock
Nigerian schoolgirl

A week go, nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped from Government Girls Science Secondary School, a boarding school in northwest Nigeria. They were threatened, beat up, and held in captivity. Now they have all been freed but who took them and why?

The girls are from a town in Zamfara state called Jangebe. The pupils were taken in a raid that occurred after midnight on February 27.

Upon being freed, the 279 schoolgirls were met by their parents and taken for medical checks. Many of the girls shared stories of the harrowing experiences they endured while being held captive.

Who kidnapped the girls and why?

It is unclear who exactly is responsible for the kidnapping, but it appears tied to a growing trend of abductions taking place at boarding schools in the area.

Although the gunmen have not been identified, it is thought they were likely members of one of several local criminal gangs.

This was the second abduction at a boarding school in the region in just over one week, and many Nigerians fear authorities might be making matters worse.

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Some believe government officials pay off kidnappers in return for the children, not only allowing the perpetrators to go unpunished but essentially rewarding them for their efforts instead. Locals worry this serves as a “green light” of sorts for others to do the same.

While Zailani Bappa, a media adviser to the state governor, denied that any ransom had been paid, though he did confirm that the kidnappers were offered "amnesty, as well as assistance to resettle at a site with newly built schools, a hospital and other facilities."

“Those who surrender their arms will be assisted to start a new life," he said. "Since they are herders, they will be supported with a few cows each.”

BBC correspondent Ishaq Khalid explained that negotiations were carried out with the assistance of "repentant armed criminal gang members, those who were in the business of kidnapping before and then they repented under an amnesty program with the government."

This is reportedly not sitting well with officials in Nigeria's central government, where there appears to be a strong opinion that paying a ransom or otherwise providing benefits to those behind such abductions only encourages copycat scenarios and further blackmail attempts.

This “trend” of kidnappings started back in 2014, when jihadist group Boko Haram kidnapped 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. Approximately 100 of the girls who were taken have not been found, although an unspecified number of girls returned home after escaping as recently as January 2021.

Unlike that and other kidnappings at the hands of Boko Haram, which are believed to have been conducted "as a means of intimidating the civilian population into compliance," copycat abductions like this one are thought to be financially and not politically motivated.

Upon being released, the Nigerian pupils were sent to government premises, where they waited to be reunited with their families. The girls were also provided with medical treatment as necessary.

“It gladdens my heart to announce the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe from captivity,” tweeted Bello Matawalle, Governor of Zamfara State. “This follows the scaling of several hurdles laid against our efforts. I enjoin all well-meaning Nigerians to rejoice with us as our daughters are now safe.”

One of the schoolgirls, 15-year-old, Farida Lawali, described some of what unfolded as she and the other girls were taken to a forest by their kidnappers.

“They carried the sick ones that cannot move. We were walking in the stones and thorns,” she said. “They started hitting us with guns so that we could move.”

“They said they will shoot anybody who did not continue to walk,” added Umma Abubakar, another of the young girls taken hostage.

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How were the girls freed and what does it mean for the future?

Despite Bappa's statement saying otherwise, other government officials speaking under the condition of anonymity confirmed to Reuters that "the authorities have made payoffs in the past in exchange for child hostages, creating an incentive for abductions."

According to a Lagos-based geopolitical research consultancy, at least $11 million was paid to kidnappers between January 2016 and March 2020. This is the story that has the government debating about how to deal with the kidnappers.

At the end of the day, the safety of the Nigerian schoolgirls is what matters.

Hopefully, the government will find a way to not only settle similar situations safely while also bringing the criminals to justice, but to prevent them from occurring at all.

"One thing that they're [unanimous] about," Khalid says of his conversations with many of the girls' parents, "is that all of them say that they are willing to send their children back to school despite what happened, but they are calling on the authorities to make sure that security is provided for schools across the country, especially in those areas where insecurity is quite endemic."

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Tomás Diniz Santos is a writer living in Orlando, Florida. He covers news, entertainment, and pop-culture.