Parents of pupils of a government secondary school who were kidnapped on Friday by bandits in Nigeria’s northwestern Katsina State, hit the streets on Sunday, demanding the immediate recovery of their children.
Moments after the protest rocked Kankara town, about 100km from state capital Katsina, Governor Aminu Masari confirmed that 333 of the 839 pupils of the school are still unaccounted for.
The presidency, however, assured Nigerians on Sunday that the rescue of the pupils would not be long as troops have surrounded the kidnappers in their hideout.
“Military commanders on the ground have the coordinates of where they believe the bandits are, and whoever they are holding. They have surrounded all of that area,” a presidential spokesman, Malam Garba Shehu, told the BBC, stating that President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from the state and is currently there on a private visit, is being briefed hourly on efforts to rescue the children.
“The criminal elements, bandits, will be crushed. They will be eliminated,” he said.
The bandits were said to have kidnapped hundreds of the school children, triggering an outrage in the state on Friday, with protesters – including family members of the pupils – marching on the streets, demanding that the government expedites actions to rescue the pupils.
Some of the parents and guardians also converged on the school to seek more information about their children and wards, as well as to pray for the safe return of the pupils.
The federal government, which launched a rescue mission on Saturday, stepped up efforts to free the pupils as a contingent of security personnel were said to have surrounded the forest where the bandits are believed to be hiding.
The Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, has already relocated to Kankara to supervise the rescue mission.
Besides, Buhari sent a delegation, led by the Minister of Defence, Maj-Gen. Salihi Magashi (rtd.), to commiserate with the government and people of the state over the abduction.
Some 600 pupils were initially feared kidnapped, but the government said many of the 839 in the boarding school had been accounted for while hundreds of others were thought to have escaped from the bandits during a gunfight between the criminals and troops on Saturday.
Masari, while briefing the delegation, including security chiefs, on the sympathy visit, urged parents to assist the state government in accounting for the pupils by finding out from home if they had returned.
On the entourage of the minister were the Director-General, Department of State Security Service (DSS), Mr. Yusuf Bichi; Director-General, National Intelligence Agency, Mr. Ahmed Rufai; Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Ibok-Ekwe Ibas; Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu and Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, among others.
Masari said the children kidnapped cut across the state, because the school is a boarding school that houses children from all parts of the state and from outside the state.
He said: “The school has a population of 839 and so far, we are yet to account for 333 students and we are still counting because more are still coming out of the forest.
“We are also calling on parents, those parents that have phone numbers, to find out whether their children have gone back home because we have discovered that in so many local governments, the children have gone back but based on the records that we have, we are still searching for 333 children through parents and forests in order to ascertain the actual number that has been kidnapped.
“As a government, we are yet to be contacted by any group or person. We prefer not to discuss this because we can be emotional.”
Earlier, Magashi assured the governor that the armed forces, police and other security agencies were working to rescue the pupils.
He said security agencies had intelligence information about the movement, whereabouts and methods of operations of the marauding bandits and would soon dislodge them and rescue their captives.
The minister charged security personnel in the state to immediately commence operations in flashpoints within Kankara Local Government Area and other adjoining forests in order to rescue the school children.
“The armed forces, police and other security agencies must move very fast to ensure that the students are rescued,” Magashi said, adding: “We are doing this on the belief that if this kind of people are allowed to rest for a moment, it means we are equally condoning this kind of activities and the conclusion within most of the security agencies is that it is high time we declared this kind of people terrorists.”
He said the commanders on the ground, including the commissioner of police, GOC, brigade commander, air officers, DSS and other security officers have been briefed on what to do.
The minister said he was optimistic that the captives would be rescued shortly.
Magashi said: “With their briefing, this task is going to be very simple for us because in the next few hours, we will ensure that the students are back. We have strategised and I believed we can do it without any collateral damage on the people of Katsina State.
“We have intelligence information about their movement, whereabouts and methods of operations and we find out that this task will be very easy for the armed forces and the police to accomplish, but we need prayers so that there will be no collateral damage.”
Scores of protesters on Sunday marched on the streets of Kankara, seeking an earnest rescuing of the school children.
The protesters were led by a woman, who described herself as a mother to one of the pupils.
The protesters bore placards conveying various messages, among which are ‘Government must speak out,’ ‘We want our children back’ and ‘We want security in Kankara.’
They chanted songs seeking the rescue of the abducted students.
Some of the parents also said they had heard little or nothing about the fate of their children.
Reuters reports that Mr. Abubakar Lawal came from Zaria, a city 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Kankara, after learning that two of his three sons at the school were among the missing.
“From yesterday I was here, praying that the Almighty Allah should rescue our people,” he said.
One of his missing sons, 17-year-old Buhari, was named after the president. Anas, 16, was also missing.
Lawal said the school principal addressed parents, telling them to pray.
Ms. Murja Mohammed, whose son was also taken, begged authorities for help.
“If it’s not the government that will help us, we have no power to rescue our children,” she said.
More security personnel have been deployed in the state as the federal government steps up efforts at rescuing the school children, THISDAY gathered on Sunday.
Helicopter gunships of the Air Task Force of Operation Hadarin Daji and police helicopters intensified aerial patrol to ensure the exact location of the abductors.
THISDAY gathered that the military and intelligence agencies have tracked the location of some of the pupils and their abductors and are considering strategies to adopt in view of its delicate nature.
Police sources told THISDAY that the tactical teams under the office of the Inspector-General of Police, notably personnel from the police tactical squads and crack detectives from the Force Intelligence Bureau, expected to provide investigative support to the Katsina State Police Command, who were deployed in Katsina weekend had made contact with the school authorities and parents of the abducted students.
THISDAY further gathered that ground troops are already a few kilometres to the location of the abductors but await instruction from commanders before advancing further.
A source said: “This operation is a joint one. The military and all security agencies are involved. All assets are deployed and focused in that direction.
“All options are on the table because of the delicate nature of the operation. There are reports of an exchange of fire with the kidnappers. How do you exchange fire now when children are involved?
“Many of them have been rescued. Others are with those boys (abductors) and they are in sight and cordoned off. They know they have no place to go. There is no escape route. But all options are on the table. We have to be circumspect for the sake of the lives of the children.”
Police sources also told THISDAY that parents of the abducted children made contact with some of the students.
“During the attack by the bandits, there was a deliberate firing cover designed to allow some of the students to escape. One of our operatives was shot.
“Some of the parents have made contact with the children and they are reunited with them,” a senior police officer said.
The abduction is also viewed in some security circles as a ploy to force the president to sack the service chiefs after he rebuffed calls to retire them.
THISDAY checks showed that the military chiefs gave directives to commanders to ensure that the president’s directives to rescue the students were carried out with little or no collateral damage.
“This is too much of a coincidence. The president goes to rest in his state and they stage a big kidnap.
“This is the design of those who want to embarrass the president and force him to sack military chiefs. The children will be rescued anyway,” an intelligence source said.
Meanwhile the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on Sunday criticised the federal government for firing tear gas canisters at parents of the kidnapped students who protested.
The PDP described as disturbing that such callousness could be meted out to the grief-stricken parents after the president, who had gone holidaying in the state, failed to protect their children from bandits.
In a statement by the National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, the party said it is sad that instead of going after terrorists and insurgents, the state apparatus of power is being used to inflict further pain on the victims.
The PDP said: “Such display of insensitivity further foregrounds the lack of empathy by the Buhari-led All Progressives Congress (APC) administration and serves as a sad reminder of how it also blamed the 43 farmers recently slain by terrorists in Borno State, instead of taking steps to apprehend the assailants.
“Indeed, our party shares the pains and sorrows of these parents who have been under serious torment since President Buhari arrived Katsina for his needless holidays.”
The PDP called on the president to apologise to Nigerians and the parents of the kidnapped students as well as take steps to ensure disciplinary actions against those who ordered the tear gas attack on the parents.
“Our party also restates our call on President Buhari to go in search of and rescue the students, who were kidnapped while his security machinery was in charge of the state,” the party added.
Meanwhile, the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) on Sunday said the spate of killings, kidnapping and other nefarious activities bedevilling Katsina State had turned it into a house of horror with an alarming rate of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The coalition added that the security challenges orchestrated by bandits, kidnappers and cattle rustlers have constituted a threat to the economic growth and sustainable development of the state.
The North-west Zonal Chairman of the Coalition, Mr. Jamilu Aliyu, while addressing journalists on the abduction of the school children, explained that the incident has exposed the weakness of the state government.
Aliyu, while describing the attack on the boarding school as inhuman, barbaric and regrettable, stated that the bandits now roam local markets in the state with AK-47 rifles slung on their shoulders.
He urged the state government and security agencies to rescue the students within the shortest period of time or face massive protest by members of the coalition.
He said: “Failure of the government to rescue the missing students within the shortest period of time, CNG will not hesitate to mobilise hundreds of thousands on the streets of Katsina State for a continuous protest, until the students are fully rescued, even if it is going to cost us our lives.
“While we commend the efforts of Katsina State Government for its immediate response, we equally condemn in the strongest term, the inability of the president to visit the scene, despite being in the state.”
Chuks Okocha, Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja and Francis Sardauna in Katsina