Gunmen raided a boarding school in northwestern Nigeria early Friday and kidnapped more than 300 girls, marking the third mass abduction of children since December in Africa’s most populous nation.
The assailants struck the Government Girls Secondary School in Zamfara state in a predawn ambush, teachers and residents said, waking up the town as shots rang out.
By daylight Friday, community members tallied the missing while security forces scoured the area, which has been plagued by kidnappings in recent months. Mohammed Shehu, police commissioner of the Zamfara State Command, said in a statement that 317 girls were taken. He urged parents to “be calm” as “heavily armed” search teams were assigned to track down their daughters.
No one has asserted responsibility for the attack, but criminal gangs known as “bandits” are increasingly seizing groups for ransom — a menace that has prompted some Nigerians to call for a national state of emergency.
The latest high-profile targets across the country’s north: schoolchildren.
One of the girls’ guardians, Saidu Kwairo, said he watched from his window as pickup trucks roared into the town of Jangebe. The gunmen were firing their weapons into the air.
“We could hear the helpless voices of the girls screaming,” he said, “amid the sounds of dangerous rifles.”
The kidnapping comes nine days after attackers stormed another boarding school in north-central Nigeria, abducting more than 40 people, including 27 students. The Niger state victims all remain in captivity as authorities attempt to negotiate their release.
Taking hostages is a growing business in the country.
Between 2011 and 2020, Nigerians paid at least $18 million to liberate themselves or loved ones, according to a report from SB Morgen, a consulting firm that crunched data from open sources.
Sixty percent of that amount was spent in the last half of that period, reflecting a troubling acceleration, the authors noted.
Kidnappers formerly focused on wealthy people or foreigners — targets that promised bigger rewards. Over the past three years, though, the pattern has shifted: Practically anyone can be ripped out of their dwellings or off the streets in a string of northern states. Gunmen have even stopped public buses.
“Bandits have realized that the authorities cannot protect the people,” said Isa Sanusi, spokesman for Amnesty International in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. “That is lucrative. Ordinary people will give up all they have to save their families.”
Striking boarding schools in poor areas is seen as a savvy financial move.
“The schools are almost always in a squalid state without much fencing,” Sanusi said. “Kidnapping the children gets them worldwide publicity, and governments are always looking for a quick way of rescuing them. Ransom payments are one of the only options.”
In December, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for capturing more than 300 boys from a school in the northwestern state of Katsina. The children were released days later under murky circumstances. Officials rarely say how they negotiate abductees’ freedom.
The extremist group garnered notoriety for kidnapping more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014, sparking a viral social media campaign calling for their safe return: #BringBackOurGirls. More than 100 are still missing.
Although Boko Haram normally operates in the country’s northeast, analysts say gang members hundreds of miles away maintain relationships with fighters. The group has killed at least 36,000 people and displaced millions over the past decade from its stronghold in the Lake Chad Basin.
Authorities are not sure whether the recent abductions were carried out by co-conspirators or copycats.
Nigeria’s defense minister, Bashir Salihi Magashi, set off outrage this month after advising people not to “be cowards” and to defend themselves against kidnappers.
“In our younger days, we stand to fight any aggression coming for us,” the retired army major general said in a statement. “I don’t know why people are running from minor things like that.”
But in Jangebe early Friday, residents said they feared for their lives.
The eruption of gunfire seemed intentional, several said. Perhaps the attackers wanted people to hide inside their homes.
And no one had firearms to strike back.
“We thought they had come to attack residents as they usually do, but this time, unfortunately, they aimed at the students,” said a neighbor, 52-year-old Bello Maikusa Jangebe, who was startled awake by the gunfire. “We’ve noticed that only a few of the students were left behind.”
Garba reported from Kano, Nigeria. Ismail Alfa in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed to this report.