Armed ViolenceFeatures

Residents Of Sokoto Village In Agonising Wait After Almajiri Children’s Abduction

On March 8, terrorists attacked Gidan Bakuso, a remote community in North West Nigeria, kidnapping 17 schoolchildren and Umaru Tsoho’s wife.

It was late Saturday evening, a little after 5 p.m. Umaru Tsoho, 57, sat on a broken piece of mudbrick, leaning on the wall of the only tsangaya (Qur’anic learning centre) in the area. He was worn out and visibly broken. 

Last year, when terrorists laid siege on Gidan Bakuso, a sleepy village in the Gada area of Sokoto near the border with Niger Republic, Umaru and other members of the community rose valiantly to defend their homes. Some of them picked stones and knives. Some went as far as wielding Dane guns. Others who couldn’t face the dreadful group ran as far as their legs could take them out of the village.

Shortly after the shoot-out started, a bullet hit Umaru close to the neck, piercing through a web of nerves and paralysing his left arm. He fell.

For nearly two hours, the terrorists pillaged the agrarian village and looted food items without any pushback from security agents. It was not the first time the terrorists would attack. During such attacks in the past, they only took valuables and rustled livestock. 

But this time around, when they raced out of the village, something else caught their interest. The terrorists saw some pupils and made a stop-over at the tsangaya towards the exit of the community. They abducted eight almajiris (school children).

That marked the beginning of a series of abductions, most of which went unreported. Gidan Bakuso lies at the extreme end of Gada and is filled with sand dunes that make the village inaccessible for many, including officers of the nearest security post — approximately 40 minutes away.

So, terrorists often have a field day anytime they attack Bakuso and neighbouring villages.

On Saturday, March 8, they returned for more children. It was a few days after terrorists abducted 287 pupils of primary and secondary schools in Kuriga, Kaduna State. They abducted 17 almajiris, mostly children between the ages of 8 to 12, from their school in the early hours. The pupils were sleeping outside when the roar of the smoke-puffing motorcycles of the terrorists jolted them back to life as they scampered for safety. 

Umaru’s wife, Atika, was also taken alongside the school children.

Man in traditional clothing standing in front of a house, with children in the background.
For the past two years, Umaru Tsoho has seen the worst of times.  His wife was also taken alongside the Almajiris. Photo credit: Abiodun Jamiu/HumAngle

“When the incident happened, l was not in the house. We were outside, going around the village to ensure everyone was safe,” Umaru said, shaking his head in despair. He told HumAngle that as the clock struck 12 a.m., they heard the first gunshot. Before he realised that the fires had hit close to home, his wife, Atika, had already been whisked away.

“They were the ones who shot me more than a year ago and kidnapped eight children, including my son, and they have now come back and abducted my wife in my house again. Even if l didn’t say anything, it is obvious that I’m in distress,” he said.

The Almajiri system is an age-old tradition in northern Nigeria where parents send their children, mostly young boys, to distant locations to acquire Islamic education. Many rural and poor families who are unable to afford formal schools choose this path.

While Umaru is aware of his wife’s abduction and while he runs from pillar to post to raise the ransom, the same cannot be said of the parents of the school children. Many of them are still in the dark about their children’s abduction, says Mallam Liman Abubakar, head of the school. 

“We’ve not been able to reach some of the parents. They don’t stay around here and have no means with which to get in touch,” he explained.

At the tsangaya, the atmosphere was unusually calm. The pupils stared into the distance. Mallam Liman was lying outside a block of classrooms when he received a phone call on Tuesday morning from the terrorists demanding a ₦20 million ($12,800) ransom before they could release the abducted school children and Umaru’s wife.

Kidnapped victims are often freed after a ransom is paid to the terrorists, mostly by families who have to sell their possessions or seek donations in mosques and public spaces.

It is, however, unclear how the poor parents of the almajiris, who couldn’t even afford to enrol their children in public schools, would raise such a huge amount of money.

“I told them that l don’t have money. I’m only taking care and teaching them Islamic knowledge. Some of the parents don’t have a penny or a means of livelihood. Where do we get such a huge amount of money to secure their release?” Liman said, directing the question to no one in particular. 

The police spokesman in the state, Ahmad Rufa’i, told HumAngle that the force is aware of the ransom demanded by the terrorists and is doing everything within the ambit of the law to secure the release of the almajiris and other kidnapped victims.

Abduction of school children has become a norm and one of the many revenue streams for armed groups in the region, especially after notorious terrorist Auwal Daudawa staged the massive Kankara abduction, taking a leaf out of the infamous abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno State, by Boko Haram about 10 years ago. 

Daudawa stormed the Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, in Katsina and abducted over 300 pupils. 

Analysts argue that the huge ransom paid by the authorities to secure the release of the pupils and the publicity such abductions guarantee may have informed other criminal gangs that student kidnapping is a lucrative business. 

“There’s often a strong copycat effect in banditry, with attacks coming in waves,” said James Barnett, a specialist in Nigerian politics and security at the U.S. think tank Hudson Institute. 

“Bandits never really targeted schools until Auwal Daudawa staged the massive Kankara abduction in December 2020. When he received a big payday, other bandits immediately started to target schools across the northwest in the subsequent weeks.”

Therefore, terrorists calculate that communities or even the government will be involved in negotiations and pay handsomely for the release of schoolchildren because of the uproar that such abductions cause.

“Even when the government doesn’t pay, the bandits may calculate that parents will do anything in their power to get their children back, and so school children are therefore lucrative targets,” James added.

Nigeria would need to address the security gap in rural communities to tame the tide of the raging wave of abduction in the country, he warned. 

“The government needs to improve its capacity to police and govern the large rural lands that constitute most of the country’s landmass. Security forces are typically concentrated in urban areas and around certain key infrastructures, while in many parts of the countryside, non-state actors have begun to hold sway. Any solution to the kidnapping crisis needs to address the lack of state presence in much of the countryside.”

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Abiodun Jamiu

Abiodun is an investigations reporter at HumAngle. His works focus on the intersection of public policy and development, conflict and humanitarian crisis, climate and environment. He was a 2022 Solution Journalism Fellow with Nigeria Health Watch under its Solution Journalism Africa initiative project.

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