By Emeka Omeihe
Even with the release of 344 abducted students of Government Science Secondary School, Kankara in Katsina State, those familiar with surrounding villages and communities still wonder how bandits were able to kidnap the boys and vanish into the thin air. They find it increasingly difficult to come to terms with the reality that such a huge number of boys could be ferried out of the area without the authorities noticing. The story that they were taken away from their school on motorcycles made the entire episode more perplexing. How many motor cycles were involved and how many of the students the armed cyclists were able to carry at a time, are puzzles that perhaps, only time will entangle.
If 344 students were taken away in motor cycles, there is everything to suspect that close to that number of cycle-riding armed bandits would have been deployed into active duty that ill-fated night. That should have been more than enough disturbance to alert the security agencies if actually they maintain some presence around the areas they passed through. But it appeared the bandits operated without being noticed or resisted.
The initial story by the presidency was that the military supported by airpower had located the “bandit’s enclave at the Zango/Paula forest in Kankara and there have been exchange of fire in an-ongoing operation”. But five days after the kidnap, Governor Bello Masari of Katsina State told the BBC Hausa Service that the kidnapped students “are in Zamfara. We have got the information. We are negotiating with the kidnappers to ensure the release of the abducted students”.
The disclosure by Masari further injected some confusion and puzzle into the entire episode. Which of the two accounts do we now believe: the tale by the presidency or the account of the state governor? And since Masari’s was the latest, we were led to the assumption that his account was the real position at the moment he spoke. So the narrative that the bandits were holed up in an exchange of fire power with the military in the Zango/Paula forest in Kankara was after all a hoax. Not also with the disclosure by Masari that the abducted students were in Zamfara with negotiations going on to free them. Their eventual release in Tsafe, Zamfara State proved very conclusively that there was no iota of truth in the claim by the presidency that the bandits were holding the boys in a Kankara forest.
Apparently rattled by the contradiction in the two accounts, the Nigerian military was quick in dissociating itself from any negotiation reaffirming its committed to militarily dislodge the bandits. How they intended doing that with the negotiations entered into by Masari is left to be conjectured. But it leaves the unmistakable impression that at least one of the parties is not telling us the truth about the efforts to rescue the poor students.
Incidentally, Masari while claiming that no ransom was paid for the release of the students, named the military, police operatives and Miyetti Allah as those involved in the negotiations. So, we are left to form opinions on some of the issues that have been traded. But in all, it appears the facts of the matter are not as clear as they were presented. This may be the first negotiation entered into with organized criminals without some conditions. So, what was the negotiation all about if the bandits did not get anything in return? The issues are still hazy.
There is also the additional matter arising – that the bandits were able to ferry their victims from Katsina across to Zamfara State. In which case, they did not only beat the security in Katsina State, they totally outsmarted whatever security presence there exists in Zamfara State. That says a lot on the security situation in that part of the country.
Not unexpectedly, conspiracy theories have for good reasons, resonated. There are speculations that the kidnap could not have been possible without the connivance or active participation of security personnel, traditional rulers and community leaders. How come hundreds of motor cycle-riding bandits carrying many passengers were able to pass through the villages and communities without village heads, traditional rulers, security agencies or even ordinary residents raising an eyelid?
This puzzle further gives credence to the growing feeling that some powerful interests are behind the debilitating insecurity in parts of the north possible for financial or political gains or both. The stunning manner in which a security summit organized by civil society groups in Kaduna was sacked by sponsored armed thugs who stormed the venue and attacked the distinguished audience with dangerous weapons seem to corroborate this theory. Somebody somewhere must be benefitting from the spate of heightened insecurity that has reduced the worth of life in that part of the country in particular.
This requires very thorough investigation by the federal authorities to fish out those behind the recurring mass kidnapping of students. First was the Chibok girls’ incident of 2014 that is yet to account for the lives of many of the students. That was followed by the Dapchi abduction of 2018. The latest incident at Kankara would seem one abduction too many.
Like the two previous abductions, the Boko Haram insurgents have claimed responsibility for the incident. They showed a video footage of some of the presumed abducted students with their spokesmen pleading with the government to negotiate with their abductors and avoid force to secure their release. Though the Nigerian military and Masari have sought to diminish the weight of this claim, the fact that the abduction bears the imprimatur of Boko Haram’s weird ideological prompting, weakens any attempt to dissociate them from the attack.
At any rate, who are the so-called bandits and which territories do they occupy? If the so-called bandits could muster such a huge force to diminish and beat our security architecture hands down, they must have a strong operational base. So, who harbors the bandits and why has it been impossible for the security agencies to flush them out if they are an ad hoc and rag tag criminal as they are being painted?
On the contrary, the bandits from what we have seen, maintain a large and strong army comparable to what we know of the Boko Haram insurgents. The Kankara abduction bears the footprints of the Boko Haram insurgents both in planning, surprise and manner of execution. Not only does Boko Haram have grouse with western education, its agenda is to discourage school attendance by selectively marking out students for frequent abduction. When this ignoble mission is weighed against the campaigns by northern governors to substantially get more pupils enroll in their schools, the correlation between students’ abduction and the campaign to discourage education by the insurgents becomes very glaring. It is little surprising that many state governments in the north had in the wake of the Katsina showdown, shut down boarding schools within their domain
So, there is everything to link the abduction to Boko Haram. Or are we really talking about the same people by using the terms bandits and Boko Haram interchangeably? The sooner we untangle the puzzle surrounding the seeming invincible bandits, the better we are in resolving the debilitating insecurity that has reduced life in the north to a verity of the Hobbesian state of nature.
If bandits have now ventured into the mass kidnap of students for either pecuniary or other gains, then there is no difference between them and the Boko Haram insurgents. They are clearly terrorists and must be confronted the same way the terrorists are being fought.
But the relative ease with which the negotiations progressed leading to the release of the 344 students unharmed meant the leaders of the so-called bandits are known. They are known to Miyetti Allah otherwise they would not have been part of the negotiations. They are also known to the Katsina State government that had in the past entered into an amnesty program with their leaders.
So, what happened to the peace agreement Masari signed with the leaders of the bandits even to the extent that he posed in a photograph with some of them clutching sophisticated riffles. What happened? And what is the link between Katsina bandits and the ones in Zamfara? Many puzzles!