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Kate Bartlett

10 years after Chibok, Nigeria's mass kidnappings return with a vengeance

Gunmen attacked a school in Nigeria's northwest region Thursday morning and abducted between 200 and 300 students, according to authorities, marking the second mass abduction in the West African nation in less than a week. (AP)

JOHANNESBURG — Nigerian security forces are searching for more than 200 children abducted from their school by gunmen on motorcycles Thursday, in the latest mass kidnapping to hit Nigeria.

Officials and witnesses have given varying figures of the number of students taken from the school in Kuriga, a town in northwestern Nigeria, with between 200 and 300 children reported to be missing, some of them as young as 8 years old.

It was the second such abduction in Nigeria in a week, after around another 200 people — mainly women and children — were kidnapped by militants in Borno state in the country's northeast.

If the higher total this week is confirmed, it could surpass the mass abduction in 2014 when Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the village of Chibok.

The West African nation has been struggling to contain the kidnapping epidemic for a number of years now. More than 3,600 people were abducted between July 2022 and June 2023, according to Nigeria based SBM Intelligence group. But the actual number could be far higher, as many people do not report kidnappings for fear of reprisals.

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who was elected last year after running a campaign promising to end insecurity and kidnapping in Nigeria, condemned this week's two abductions in a statement Friday.

"The president directs security and intelligence agencies to immediately rescue the victims and ensure that justice is served against the perpetrators of these abominable acts," the statement said.

Uba Sani, the governor of Kaduna state, which includes Kuriga, said one person had been killed during the raid on the school on Thursday.

While no group has claimed responsibility for the raid, criminal gangs are usually responsible for kidnappings in the northwest, experts say. Islamist group Boko Haram, operates mainly in the northeast.

People gather around an area were gunmen kidnapped schoolchildren in Chikun, Nigeria, Thursday. (AP)

The Chibok kidnappings sparked a global outcry and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. However, while some have since been released, many others remain in captivity as the 10th anniversary of the April 2014 abductions approaches.

Nigeria, with one of Africa's largest economies and its biggest population, with large Christian and Muslim communities, has been beset by unrest for years. The sectarian group Boko Haram, which has been taken to loosely mean "education is sinful," has used kidnapped children as soldiers and sex slaves. There is also an Islamic State-aligned breakaway.

Then, in the northwest and central parts of the country, there are regular clashes between nomadic cattle herders — mainly Muslim — and mostly Christian farming communities.

And then there are the criminal gangs, who kidnap indiscriminately, regardless of income, in a country where abductions have become an industry, kidnappers have grown more brazen and where crowdfunding for ransoms has become common. It is not unusual for kidnappers to hold on to the victims once the ransom has been paid.

One notorious case recently gripped the nation, after the horrific murder of one of six kidnapped sisters close to Nigeria's capital, Abuja. The remaining sisters were eventually rescued in a police raid, a rare end to a brutal episode. But like the mass kidnappings of the past week, the case brought the unraveling security situation under an unwelcome spotlight once again.

Oluwole Ojewale, a Nigeria researcher with the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, told NPR Tinubu's party had failed in the last nine years in terms of ending kidnappings for ransom.

"It's under their watch that this kind of criminality called banditry actually first started and that ... the northwest came under the grip of serious insecurity," he said.

A traffic officer directs three-wheeled rickshaws, known as keke Napep, at Lokogoma Junction in Abuja, Nigeria, on Feb. 3. (Dawali David/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

He explained the difference between the various groups involved in kidnapping for lucrative ransoms.

"I think the unique difference is that where Boko Haram is ideologically driven, bandits are just a group of loose criminals," he said. "But they also have some form of commonality in the form of crimes that they're carrying out and I think that a common denominator is this kidnapping for ransom."

Asked whether much has changed since the Chibok girls kidnapping a decade ago, Ojewale noted the government has had some success in that Boko Haram doesn't control as much territory as it once did, but he said, generally "not much has changed."

"Insecurity in the country has been on the rise, attacks have been on the rise," he said.

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