‘I am scared of going back to that school,’ says student

Ovioza Ikeme, a student at the Federal University Gusau (FUGUS) in Zamfara State, Nigeria, was sound asleep around 3am on 22 September when a loud bang on her door, followed by a series of gunshots, startled her.

A group of armed men had invaded her hostel in Sabon Gida, a small community next to the university. Overwhelmed with fear, she swiftly sought refuge in the bathroom. However, the assailants forcefully entered her room and dragged her out.

The gang abducted 24 female students from three separate private hostels, as well as 10 males who were construction workers, and a member of staff, it emerged later.

Barely 48 hours after the attack on FUGUS, gunmen on 24 September kidnapped 60 more people and killed eight others in Zamfara and, on 25 September, another female student at Isa Mustapha Agwai Polytechnic in Lafia, Nasarawa State, was abducted in an incident that left three other people dead, reported Sahara Reporters.

Kidnappings are rampant in northern Nigeria, where heavily armed militants, commonly known as bandits, often belonging to the ethnic Fulani group, conduct attacks in communities.

The root of this problem lies in the longstanding conflict between farmers and herders, aggravated by economic crises, inadequate police response, and the government’s hesitancy to take decisive action, according to a study ‘Bandits’ Struggle for Survival and its Humanitarian Impacts in Zamfara State, Nigeria’ published in February 2023.

The attack on FUGUS

This week, some who survived the FUGUS attack spoke to University World News. Pseudonyms were used as they asked not to be identified.

Ikeme, who was violently dragged from the bathroom as she tried to escape the gang of men, recalled the events that followed.

“They [the gunmen] collected our phones and coerced us onto a bush path. As we walked, a fighter jet flew above, prompting the kidnappers to instruct us to lie down to avoid detection. At approximately 6am, we halted at a village to rest briefly. During this break, another group arrived on motorcycles to transport us further,” Ikeme told University World News.

On their way, the kidnappers were ambushed by a group of soldiers, resulting in a gun battle. “The kidnapper whose motorcycle I was on was fatally shot in the head by a sniper. He died instantly, and the motorcycle fell, causing me injuries,” she added.

Fortunately, Ikeme and five others were rescued by soldiers that day. Subsequently, the army rescued a total of 17 individuals, according to local media.

Zainab Sani, another student who was kidnapped, took the risk of running away.

“Those of us who were not fortunate to be rescued by the soldiers kept moving until we reached a primary school around 10am, where we were instructed to rest. The men overseeing us in the classroom where I was asked to lie down, eventually dozed off.

“I took the risk and managed to escape through a window. I found myself in a nearby village, and some villagers provided me with transport fare back to school,” she recounted.

But Abigail Ayeni, the wife of one of the workers at the university who were also kidnapped, is still awaiting news about her husband.

“My husband was bundled out of his room with his hands tied. I have not heard from him since then. The kidnappers have not contacted us,” she told University World News.

A university without fence

This was not the first instance of gangs targeting the university to abduct students. In April 2023, two students were abducted from their hostel and were held for 12 days.

Again, in June 2023, five students were forcefully taken from their hostel, according to local news outlets.

According to a report by the research firm SBM Intelligence, between July 2022 and June 2023, gunmen abducted a minimum of 3,620 individuals across Nigeria, demanding ransoms totalling over NGN5 billion (about US$6.4 million), reported Nigeria’s The Guardian.

Zamfara State, predominantly surrounded by forests, has become a haven for various terrorist groups, leading to assaults on towns, highways, villages and schools.

According to Abayomi Balogun, a student at FUGUS, whose friend was among the kidnapped students rescued by soldiers this week, the lack of a perimeter wall around the university and lack of accommodation on the main campus is contributing to the vulnerability of the university.

“There is no female hostel inside the school, only a male hostel block, which is not enough. Students are forced to rent houses in communities outside the university. The federal government should do something about that,” he told University World News.

Expelled for protesting

Following the attack in June at the university, angry students staged a protest that blocked traffic on a major highway in the state.

According to a report by Premium Times in September, four students have received expulsion letters from the school management, and others were restricted from accessing the registration portal.

“While at home following the end of last semester, I tried to log in to my school profile and I realised I could not. When I resumed school, I received an expulsion letter. My only crime was speaking to the media during the protest,” Rejoice Guga, one of the expelled students, told University World News.

“Silencing the protesting students is not the right approach. But the school and even the security agencies are also frustrated over the situation, with no solution in sight soon,” argued Timothy Avele, a security expert, and the managing director of Agent-X Security, based in Lagos, Nigeria.

In an attempt to curb the violence, some state governments in the north have entered into controversial peace agreements with the bandits. However, experts view these deals, suspected to involve financial incentives, as only encouraging criminal behaviour.

“The best way out for now is for the governors in the north to fight back with advanced and affordable technologies that are readily available,” Avele said.

Ibrahim Baba Shatambaya, a lecturer in the department of political science, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Nigeria, worries that these attacks may ultimately affect students’ academic performance as some “students may opt to leave school to preserve their lives”.

University World News has not been able to contact the institution’s management nor the police to know how they are trying to safeguard the school.

When contacted, the President of the Students’ Representative Council at FUGUS, Bello Aliyu, simply shared a press release with University World News which urged students to remain calm and follow the official communication channels of the university for updates.

For Ikeme, who had returned home, the prospect of returning to school appears dim. “I do not want to be kidnapped again. I am scared of going back to that school,” she said.