The kidnap of scores of students in Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s home state over the weekend has thrown a spotlight on the ex-general’s handling of national security, as violence afflicts every region of Africa’s most populous country.
Armed bandits abducted an unknown number of pupils from a boys’ high school in Katsina state on Friday night in what has become a familiar occurrence in Nigeria, where kidnapping-for-ransom is rife.
Mr Buhari condemned “the cowardly bandits’ attack on innocent children” in a statement on Saturday. He said the military had located the kidnappers in a forest and engaged them in a firefight, aided by air support. A spokesman for Mr Buhari did not respond to a request for comment.
Aminu Masari, Katsina governor, told reporters that 426 of the 884 students in school that day were safe, but authorities did not yet know the total number who had been kidnapped. Some of the students had escaped during a shootout at the school between the bandits and police, according to a statement from local police.
Mr Buhari has faced widespread criticism over increasing violence in Nigeria. Motorcycle gangs wielding AK-47s and machetes operate with seeming impunity across the country, ransacking villages, kidnapping busloads of travellers and rendering highways all but impassable. Such violence has killed at least 8,000 since 2011 in the north-west, the heart of the bandit crisis, according to the International Crisis Group, a think-tank.
Friday’s attack came as Mr Buhari was visiting his home village about 200km away from the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara in northern Nigeria. The abductions occurred days after the president cancelled an appearance before a joint session of the National Assembly, which had invited him to brief legislators on national security after jihadi group Boko Haram massacred scores of farmers in northeastern Borno state last month.
“Buhari’s national security record is abysmal,” said Cheta Nwanze, partner at Lagos-based consultancy SBM Intelligence and a critic of the administration. “Unfortunately, on his watch . . . kidnapping has become Nigeria’s biggest growth industry, police brutality has grown and all six geopolitical zones of the country now have active non-state actors, up from three when he came in.”
According to the ICG, bandit violence has displaced more than 200,000 people in the north-west. Killings in Katsina have doubled this year compared to 2019.
“Northern Nigeria has never been hit this hard in the history of the country — on a daily basis, citizens are kidnapped, gruesomely murdered, raped,” said Idayat Hassan, head of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. “Life has become nasty and brutish under the Buhari administration.”
The government has sought to defend its record. Mr Buhari declared Boko Haram “technically defeated” in 2015 and the administration has argued that it has taken back control of the north-east from the jihadi group despite continued attacks.
Mr Masari has been at the forefront of efforts by some northern governors to offer amnesties to bandits, even going into the forest to negotiate with them and promising to address grievances over hospitals, schools and land. But the violence has continued despite the deployment of the military in 35 of the country’s 36 states.
The Senate on December 1 passed its third bill this year calling on Mr Buhari to sack the armed forces chiefs in the face of worsening insecurity. But the president has resisted, after himself appointing the heads of the air force, navy, army and the chief of defence staff in 2015, when he was swept into office on a pledge to crush the Boko Haram insurgency.
The jihadis at that point controlled territory the size of Belgium and in 2011 bombed the UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja. But while its territory has shrunk, the group continues to terrorise northeastern Nigeria.
On Friday, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said she would probe possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by both Boko Haram and the security forces.
The World Bank last week linked the insecurity to growing dissatisfaction among young people after warning that Nigerian incomes could fall back to 1980 levels because of the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown. More than half of Nigerians are unemployed or underemployed, while food prices and inflation are soaring.
“There is a sense of hopelessness in rural Nigeria and even the capital city,” said Ms Hassan. “As young people watch the politicians flaunt their ill gotten wealth, they become not just hopeless but vicious. A hungry man is an angry man, [and] the reaction of the young one is to pick up the guns against the state and their fellow citizens.”