ABUJA, Nigeria—Days before gunmen stormed a secondary school in Nigeria's northwestern Zamfara State and kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls, school authorities and local security agencies had been warned that there was danger looming in the town, particularly in the area where the school is located, according to local residents.
On Friday, heavily armed militants seized at least 315 girls who were staying in the Government Girls' Secondary School in the town of Jangebe. The militants arrived on motorcycles at about 1:30am local time and marched the kidnapped girls into the nearby forest, leaving family members of the victims distraught and anxious. Residents said “strange men” had been patrolling the school area and intimidating local community members in the school’s vicinity days before the kidnappings took place.
“All of a sudden we saw strange men on the street [leading to the Government Girls' Secondary School] at night acting as if there were vigilantes,” Danlami Umar, who lives near the school, told The Daily Beast. “They were stopping passersby and questioning them about where they were going.”
The men had been occupying the neighborhood around the school for two days prior to the incident, harassing pedestrians and prompting residents to alert police officials of their activities.
“As soon as we reported them, they disappeared from the area,” said Umar. “We then told police officials to beef up security around the school area but that wasn't done.”
But those living close to the school weren't the only ones to express concern about the security situation in the area. Some family members, The Daily Beast learned, had asked school authorities to close the boarding house and allow the girls to attend classes as day students because of growing reports of criminal activity in nearby areas. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
“People were complaining that their homes were being raided at night by gunmen and that their children are constantly being harassed by these hoodlums, so some parents asked that the school closed the boarding house just in case these criminals decide to one day visit the school,” Jibril Abubakar, whose niece attends the school but isn't among those missing, told The Daily Beast.
“Unfortunately, someone in the school said the authorities couldn't close the dormitories on their own, claiming they needed to get approval from the state education ministry before doing so,” Abubakar added.
Concerns about the safety of their children had forced some parents to prevent their kids from returning to their dormitories, instead having them attend the school as day students, according to Abubakar. The move might have saved more girls from being abducted on Friday.
“Some parents saw this coming and did what was right by keeping their daughters away from the boarding house,” said Abubakar. “If not, we would have had more than 500 girls from the school missing today.”
No group has yet claimed responsibility for Friday's abductions, which came more than a week after 42 people, including 27 schoolboys, were kidnapped in a similar attack on a government school in Nigeria's north-central Niger State. The boys have not yet been recovered.
Nearly 24 hours after the Jangebe schoolgirls were seized, a joint operation involving the police and army has so far failed to identify their location. “There's information that they were moved to a neighbouring forest, and we are tracking and exercising caution,” Abutu Yaro, Zamfara State Commissioner of Police, said at a press conference late on Friday.
Growing insecurity in parts of northwest and north-central Nigeria, especially after hundreds of schoolboys were kidnapped in Katsina State last December, has forced state governments in two regions to close boarding schools in vulnerable areas. The Zamfara government waited until Friday's abductions before taking similar actions. But for many in the troubled town of Jangebe, the move came too late.
“If they had acted on time, the girls would have been with their families and no one would be begging the military to find their daughters,” said Abubakar. “This nonchalant attitude of government must stop.”