UPDATE: Hundreds of schoolboys who were kidnapped a week ago from their dormitories in the northwestern Nigerian town of Kankara, in Katsina state, arrived back home on Friday, a day after the government secured their release. No ransom was paid, according to Katsina state Governor Aminu Masari. As he received the 344 students at the government house on Friday, Masari said that security agencies and the local cattle breeders association “were all involved in the negotiation.” for their freedom.
“When we established contact with [the kidnappers], I persuaded them to release them unharmed. And so they did tonight. This is not the first time we facilitated the release of our people without payment of ransom,” the governor told the Daily Nigerian, a local newspaper, shortly after the schoolboys were freed on Thursday night. “Ask anybody, we don’t pay bandits a dime. What we do is to extend olive branch to them because they also want to live in peace.”
Looking worn-out but in high spirits, the boys—many of whom were in their school uniforms and clutching blankets—arrived on buses to meet with the governor, who said they “have suffered physically and psychologically” and assured they would be medically assessed before they are reunited with their families.
ABUJA, Nigeria—“This country continues to fail its people,” Bello Muntari cried out on Thursday as his brothers remain missing, six days after the two boys were kidnapped along with hundreds of other male students from their school in northwestern Nigeria.
Muntari’s siblings, Muhammad and Abdul, were among over 300 boys kidnapped from the Government Science secondary school in the Kankara district of Katsina state. Over 100 gunmen stormed the premises on motorcycles, forcing students and their teachers to flee into the surrounding bush.
“They were the unlucky ones,” said Muntari. “Many students ran away when the gunmen arrived but my brothers were seized.”
A local vigilante told The Daily Beast via telephone that the attackers seized mostly students at the junior secondary school who were between the ages of 14 and 16.
“Their dormitories are located close to the entrance of the school,” said Umaru Musa, who's part of a local vigilante group that secures the area around the school every night. “The attackers just went straight to those dormitories as if they knew the school so well.”
The attackers, who arrived at the school at about 9 p.m. Friday, were armed with knives and AK-47 assault rifles and threatened students who tried to leave their dormitories, according to local residents who said the abducted boys were divided into groups and marched into a forest.
“We believe they were taken to the nearby Ruga forest,” local resident, Idris Abdullahi, told The Daily Beast via telephone. “The boys were moved towards that direction.”
Shortly after the incident took place on Friday, the police said they exchanged fire with the attackers, allowing some students to run for safety. The Katsina state government then announced on Monday that 17 more students had been found, but 320 were still missing.
Military officers, according to the government, have combed the Ruga forest—one of the largest forests in Nigeria, which sprawls hundreds of miles over three states—for clues as to the whereabouts of the students, but the boys are yet to be found.
“The abductors of our children have made contacts with the government and talks are ongoing to ensure their safety and return to their respective families,” Katsina state governor, Aminu Bello Masari, said on Twitter late on Monday.
“We are making progress and the outlook is positive,” Masari later told reporters after meeting President Muhammadu Buhari, who was visiting his home state.
But as the search goes on, families are fearing that the boys may be held for years in the same way more than 270 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok were kidnapped by jihadists in 2014. Most of them are still being held by their captors.
“If the military couldn't find the Chibok girls that the whole world was talking about, what's the guarantee that they'll find the missing boys,” said Muntari. “I don't want to lose hope but I want the government to act faster than it did in 2014.”
The government initially blamed the incident on armed bandits who have been involved in robbery and kidnappings for ransom in the region that's increasingly becoming restive. A rescue operation was quickly initiated over the weekend by a joint team of the police, air force, and army. But a recent development indicated that the government may have been fighting the wrong group.
On Tuesday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the abduction in an audio message sent to Daily Nigerian, a local newspaper. In the clip, he said his group abducted the schoolboys because Western education is against the tenets of Islam.
“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” the Boko Haram leader said in a voice message.
A video then emerged on Thursday showing the schoolboys crying for help and pleading with Nigerian authorities to respond to the demands of their captors, including paying ransoms so they could be released.
In the video, which lasted for six minutes and 30 seconds, one of the students—who spoke in both English and the local Hausa language—said 520 schoolboys were kidnapped but some of them were killed because the military tried to rescue them. The boy pleaded with the government to negotiate with their kidnappers and cautioned against using the armed forces to intervene. A voice could be heard in the background telling the student what to say.
“We have been caught by the gangs of Abu Shekau (referring to the leader of Boko Haram). Some of us were killed,” the student said, as dozens of other young boys—all covered in dust and appearing to be in a forest area—gathered close to him.
“Dissolve vigilante gangs and close down all types of schools, excluding Islamiyya [Qur’anic schools],” the student said.
The incident in Kankara shows Boko Haram has made a huge expansion beyond the northeast of Nigeria, where it is mainly based. In a number of videos released early this year, the sect had said that a number of groups in the northwestern region had pledged allegiance to it.
The kidnapping of the schoolboys is only the latest of Boko Haram's increasing attacks in and around northern Nigeria. Late last month, the group kidnapped and then slaughtered about 70 rice farmers in the agrarian village of Zamabari in the country's northeastern Borno state. Last week, Boko Haram militants killed 28 people and razed nearly two-thirds of homes in a town across the border in southern Niger.
Since the kidnappings took place, the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys, which references a similar one used after Boko Haram jihadists abducted the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, has been trending on social media. The Chibok attack gave rise to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which went global, but even with the strong international solidarity, only about half the girls have been found or freed six years after the incident occurred. Families of the missing schoolchildren in Kankara who've gathered at the all-boys boarding campus since the kids were abducted now fear history could repeat itself.
“The last time a thing like this happened in Chibok, families waited in vain.” Aminu Shema, whose nephew is among the kidnapped schoolboys, told The Daily Beast. "I pray things turn out different this time."