A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest to urge authorities to rescue hundreds of abducted schoolboys, in northwestern state of Katsina, Nigeria, December 17, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
December 17, 2020
By Afolabi Sotunde and Ismail Abba
KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Parents of some of the more than 300 students abducted in northwest Nigeria gathered at the school after a video was circulated on Thursday that purportedly showed Boko Haram militants with some of the boys.
The video, featuring Boko Haram’s emblem, showed a group of boys in a wood begging security forces to leave the area. Reuters was not able to immediately verify the authenticity of the footage, the boys shown, or who released it.
Parents fear time is running out to bring the boys home. The Islamist group Boko Haram, which has said in an unverified audio message that it was behind their abduction from the school on Dec. 11, has a history of turning captives into jihadist fighters.
Four parents who had watched the video said they did not see their children in the clip. But one of them, Auwal Maimanja, said someone in the video had been recognised.
“My friend’s son who escaped said he recognised the boy who spoke on the video and gave his name as Sani,” Maimanja told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Maimanja, whose 14-year-old son is still missing, spoke while waiting at the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara town, Katsina state, where gunmen who arrived on motorbikes carried out the raid on Friday night.
Shuaibu Kankara, whose 13-year-old son, was among those missing, described feeling unsettled after watching the footage but also hearing reports of talks between the abductors and Nigerian authorities.
“We were told they made a ransom demand, though we do not know how much. We pray they resolve it with the government and release our children in good health,” he said in a phone interview, speaking from the school where he and other parents had gathered.
Spokesmen for President Muhammadu Buhari declined to comment on the video. Around 320 boys are still missing, the Katsina state government has said.
If its claims are true, Boko Haram’s involvement in northwestern Nigeria marks a geographical expansion in its activities.
Earlier on Thursday, protesters marched in the northwestern city of Katsina under a banner reading #BringBackOurBoys as pressure mounted on the government to improve security.
The demonstration was called by the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), a civil society group that focuses on the welfare of northern Nigerians. Some chanted “Save northern Nigeria”.
The hashtag #BringBackOurBoys has been trending on Twitter and echoes a campaign that was launched to bring home more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014.
“Northern Nigeria has been abandoned at the mercy of vicious insurgents, bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers, rapists and an assortment of hardened criminals,” said Balarabe Ruffin, CNG’s national coordinator.
He said there was a “huge vacuum in the political will and capacity of government to challenge” the kidnappers.
Late on Wednesday, Katsina state Governor Aminu Bello Masari told the BBC Hausa service the missing boys were in the forests of neighbouring Zamfara state.
An aide to Masari said soldiers and intelligence officers had been combing the vast Rugu forest in search of the boys.
Security experts say the boys could be taken over the nearby border into Niger, which would make finding them harder.
Armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom, widely referred to as “bandits”, carry out attacks on communities across the northwest, making it hard for locals to farm, travel or tap rich mineral assets in some states such as gold.
Criminal gangs operating in the northwest have killed more than 1,100 people in the first half of 2020 alone, according to rights group Amnesty International.
In the northeast, Boko Haram and its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, have waged a decade-long insurgency estimated to have displaced about 2 million people and killed more than 30,000. They want to create states based on their extreme interpretation of sharia law.
The attack is awkward for Buhari, who comes from Katsina and paid a private visit last Friday hours before the kidnapping. Buhari has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.
A former military ruler, Buhari was elected in 2015 in large part due to his pledge to crush the insurgency. Under his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, Boko Haram grew in strength and controlled territory around the size of Belgium.
(Reporting by Afolabi Sotunde and Ismail Abba in Katsina; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan)