AnalysesArmed Violence

Why Are Terrorists In North West Nigeria Targeting Female Undergraduates?

Even if the armed groups are not actively seeking to drive girls out of schools, their operations still have this effect.

In a new turn of events, terrorists in North West Nigeria are repeatedly kidnapping female university students, which may be their way of demanding the attention of newly-elected political leaders. Experts say if unchecked, the trend could further widen the gender enrolment gap in these schools.

Between September and October, terrorists abducted dozens of female undergraduates in northwestern Nigeria, a region that is now gripped by activities of non-state actors who engage in kidnap for ransom and cattle rustling. 

On Sept. 23, terrorists raided private hostels occupied by students of Federal University Gusau and abducted 22 female students. While eight were rescued and two escaped, according to the university authorities, the rest are still in captivity. 

Barely ten days later, terrorists also abducted five female students of Federal University Dutsin-ma in Katsina. 

On Oct. 14, armed assailants again launched an attack on a private hostel used by university students in Gusau but were repelled by soldiers under Operation Hadarin Daji. The soldiers said they blocked all the routes after they got a distress call. They engaged in a gun duel that led to the escape of two students and the rescue of two others: one boy and one girl.

Similar attacks have been recorded in the past two months at Mustapha Agwai Polytechnic in Lafia and Nasarawa State University — both in North-Central Nigeria. 

Students have repeatedly protested the insecurity around the campuses. Some were even sanctioned by the authorities of the university in Gusau, although it denied knowledge of the development despite evidence to the contrary. 

Nigeria’s northern states have particularly grappled with terror attacks over the past decade. The country’s ungoverned spaces give wide corridors for the armed groups to operate without fear. Some communities have resorted to paying ‘protection money’ to non-state actors to spare them from the attacks and grant them unfettered access to their farmlands. 

A lot of the violence is driven by economic desperation and the prospect of financial gains. The terrorists frequently attack civilian settlements, pillaging and abducting residents in exchange for ransom. There have also been attacks on military bases, secondary schools, and other targets.

The focus on female undergraduates, however, seems to be a recently unfolding development, indicating a possible shift in strategy.

Attacks on female students were first popularised with the 2014 abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, by the Boko Haram extremist jihadi group. Four years later, the Islamic State affiliate group, ISWAP, abducted over 100 female students from a school in Dapchi, neighbouring Yobe state.

The terror groups are notorious for their staunch opposition to Western education, believing that girls should only receive religious lessons and be married off at an early age.

Borrowing from the Boko Haram template, terror groups in the North West also targeted schoolgirls. Infamous examples include the 2021 abduction of hundreds of girls in Jangebe, Zamfara, and the abduction of dozens of schoolgirls from Birnin Yauri, Kebbi, months later.

There have been several instances of collaboration between terrorist groups in the North West and jihadi groups in the North East. However, while terror leaders in the former region sometimes justify their actions through religion, there is little ideological affinity between both groups.

Still, it cannot be ruled out that one of the motivations behind the kidnapping of female university students may be to discourage women from going to school. 

Jesse Attah, who leads Risk Operations and Intelligence Analysis at Beacon Consulting, said the trend points to a new strategy by terrorists to draw the attention of the public — or public office holders, some of whom assumed office following Nigeria’s recent general elections. 

“Given the degree of sensitivity and complexity of abduction situations, particularly those involving vulnerable students, public outcry prompts extensive societal scrutiny of government responses, particularly its rescue efforts,” the security expert explained. 

“Threat actors exploit these situations to project a sense of strength and dominance, which offers a strategic advantage against security kinetic rescue attempts.” 

He added that the terror groups may have found that it is easier to get the victims’ families to pay ransoms and do their budding when they pick up young girls rather than men. They may also just see women as easy targets. 

Another way armed violence in these areas specifically affects women victims is through sexual violence. Women have been raped in their own homes and communities or while in captivity. There have also been cases of forceful marriages. Multiple schoolgirls seized from the Federal Government College in Birnin Yauri were raped and gave birth during their abduction.

Meanwhile, even if the armed groups are not actively seeking to drive girls out of schools, their operations still have this effect.

Several studies have found wide gender gaps in enrolment rates at tertiary educational institutions in northern Nigeria. Observers fear that if the trend of targeted attacks continues, it may worsen the participation of girls in higher education, as many families would prefer their children to be out of school if it would guarantee their safety. 

The trend would severely discourage female participation and generally disrupt education for everyone. This is demonstrated by the region’s efforts to promote education being reversed, as evidenced by the closure of academic programmes and schools due to insecurity — reflecting a similar disaster in Borno in the North East, where more than half of schools closed down due to the Boko Haram insurgency. 

Attah said the assault on education with an emphasis on female students combined with the weaponisation of poverty and religion is fuelling illiteracy, subordination, and the exploitation of women and girls. 

Many parents in the North West are already hesitant about sending their children to school after repeated cases of terror attacks affecting pupils.

“I won’t allow him to go back to a boarding school. We will look for any school nearby and enrol him. I’ll never forget the pain and agony I went through during this trying period,” one parent said after over 300 schoolboys were kidnapped from a school in Kankara, Katsina state, in 2020.

Now, the recent spate of abduction of students of tertiary institutions in the region may force some parents to make similar decisions.

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Mahdi Garba

Mahdi Garba covers development, security, conflict, climate & disinformation at HumAngle. He heads the Humanitarian Desk at HumAngle. He tweets regularly @MahdiGarba.

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