Jihadists in northeastern Nigeria have long outraged the world with mass abductions of schoolchildren but now armed gangs in search of income are using the same tactic in other parts of the country, sparking warnings that no school is safe.
More than 300 schoolgirls were snatched from dormitories by gunmen in the middle of the night in northwestern Zamfara state on Friday, in the third known mass kidnapping of students since December.
Until lately, such attacks were the hallmark of jihadists who have waged a decade-long insurgency in the northeast, and where the kidnap of 276 girls in Chibok in 2014 sparked global outrage.
But mass abductions of civilians -- including schoolchildren -- for ransom are now on the rise in northwest and central Nigeria.
"The easiest way to get money from the government is now to kidnap schoolchildren," warned Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development think tank, after the abduction of 27 students last week in Kagara in the central Niger state.
- 'Blackmail by bandits' -
"When kidnappers see they are not being sanctioned, that they are given amnesty in a grand ceremony, it becomes a good opportunity for them," said Yan St-Pierre, consultant with the Berlin-based Modern Security Consulting Group.
He referred to the case of a gang leader behind the kidnapping of more than 300 schoolboys in northwestern Katsina state in December. He gave himself up, with officials saying they had struck an amnesty deal and denying a ransom was paid.
But "whatever the government says", St-Pierre argued, "ransoms are paid, whether it is by families of victims or the authorities".
"The government wants to avoid a second Chibok and so they do everything they can to facilitate the release of those kidnapped."
President Muhammadu Buhari insisted in a statement on Friday that the government would not "succumb to blackmail by bandits... in the expectations of huge ransom payments".
One of the problems is that there is a lack of coherent strategy, said Nnamdi Obasi, Senior Analyst for Nigeria for the International Crisis Group (ICG).
"The president talks about crushing armed groups but then some governors call for dialogue and amnesty," he said.
Another problem is that kidnapping for ransom is already a widespread national problem, with businessmen, officials and ordinary citizens snatched from the streets by criminals hunting for ransom money.
At least $11 million was paid to kidnappers between January 2016 and March 2020, according to SB Morgen, a Lagos-based geopolitical research consultancy.
Organised gangs in the northwest could be receiving kidnap money from other parts of the country, Obasi said, enabling them to purchase weapons and vehicles to stage large-scale attacks and mass kidnappings.
- Jihadist infiltration -
Northwestern Nigeria has been wracked by years of insecurity involving armed groups from rival communities who clash over land and resources.
"No one has an accurate count of these groups," Obasi said, but they "have grown in numerical strength".
Another key factor to the groups' increased capabilities has been the "availability and cross-border flow of arms from Libya and other countries experiencing violence", analyst Chitra Nagarajan pointed out.
The Nigerian military deployed to the area in 2016 and a peace deal with bandits was signed in 2019 but attacks have continued.
Security analysts have further warned of possible infiltration by jihadists from the northeast -- Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province.
While links between jihadists and the northwest remain uncertain, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said his group were behind the abduction of 334 students from a school in Katsina state in December.
- Out of school -
The consequences of the school abductions are already being felt in the region.
"No school is safe," said a history lecturer at Gusau University in Zamfara, Murtala Rufai, father of six children living in Sokoto state.
"More and more students are dropping out from school because of fear... we don't know which school will be next."
Despite its mining resources and economic potential, the northwest has the highest poverty rate in Nigeria, with officials warning recent progress in convincing parents to take their children to school was now at risk.
According to Rufai, many parents in the conservative Muslim region are already against "western education".
"This gives them (parents) another excuse to take their children out of school, to marry girls at an early age and make boys work."
These mass kidnappings could also play into the hands of the jihadists, warned Obasi.
"Now they can point to this and say: look, the state, the democratic state, isn’t capable of protecting you, let’s join hands."