Why Nigerian bandits target school children for kidnapping

Wednesday March 27 2024

Students take notes together during class at Ilorin Grammar school in Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria on March 26, 2021. PHOTO | REUTERS


It is every parent’s worst nightmare: armed criminals attacking their child’s school, kidnapping students and teachers.

In some parts of Nigeria, this scenario is not just the stuff of nightmares – it has become all too common in the past 10 years. The most famous incident was the mass abduction of 276 students from a girls’ school in Chibok, a town in Borno State, north-east Nigeria, in 2014. That incident led to global outrage and the “bring back our girls” campaign.

But it was not the last.

Most recently on March 7, 2024, criminal groups (commonly described as bandits) attacked in Chikun Local Government Area of Kaduna State in north-west Nigeria. They abducted about 286 students and teachers at the LEA Primary School Kuriga. A few weeks later, Kaduna state authorities announced the release of 137 of the abducted students. 

Read: Gunmen kidnap over 200 pupils in Nigeria

My research interests include violence, organised crime, conflict and security governance. In a recent study I analysed the dynamics of violence by bandits against educational facilities in north-west Nigeria. My study captured 52 incidents from 2013 to May 2023.


My findings can assist the law enforcement and security agencies to understand the variations in the spatial distribution, extent and intensity of attacks, and to identify alternative strategic responses.

Why schools and students are targets

The fieldwork part of my research was carried out in Zamfara, Sokoto, Niger, Kebbi, Katsina and Kaduna states from 9 February to 16 September 2023.

I conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with teachers, education officials, residents, victims, bandits and defectors from banditry.

I also used information from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.

Three key reasons emerged for the targeting of schools and students:

  • failure of governance

  • large forest zones

  • children’s vulnerability.

Failure of governance: The strategic targeting of educational facilities and students should be viewed and analysed in the context of pervasive failure of governance and diminishing presence of government. This enables a surge in violence against civilians generally.

Read: Kidnapping of five sisters sparks outcry in Nigeria

In remote villages and towns, state security agents are virtually non-existent, and surveillance remains very poor.

A few of the security officials I interviewed confirmed that the situation had degenerated due to negligence by the government. Schools in most of the communities were not guarded.

Large forest zones: Schools are vulnerable to bandits in the north-west where large forest zones have become safe havens for armed groups.

Most schools are located at the outskirts of villages and in remote parts of the forests where bandits operate freely. The bandits keep the abducted students in the nearby forest.

Children’s vulnerability: Their physical and mental immaturity, limited abilities and dependence on adults makes students vulnerable. Kidnappers are known to demand ransom payments.

The bandits also carry out mass attacks and kidnapping of students to foster a climate of fear and propaganda. The large-scale kidnapping captures significant media spotlight, painting the government as incapable and emboldening the bandits.

Real and potential impacts of banditry on education

Attacks and kidnapping for ransom by bandits affect learning and students in three principal ways:

  • loss of lives

  • increasing burden of fear and sexual violence

  • forced displacement and decreasing school enrolment.

Loss of lives: My study showed violence against educational facilities and students by the bandits began to rise from 2020. From 2013 to 2019, attacks against students and educational facilities by bandits were intermittent. They surged to 25 incidents and 25 fatalities in 2021.

Read: Bandits abduct 39 children in Nigeria

There were 15 reported incidents and three fatalities in 2022. The focus of bandits remains illicit profit from kidnapping and not necessarily the killing of victims. That is why incidents are often higher than fatalities. A total of 51 people have been killed as a result of attacks against schools and students from 2013 to 19 May 2023.

Burden of fear and sexual violence: School girls are becoming victims of rape by bandits. They bear direct physical harm, trauma and social ostracism as a result. Some lack access to healthcare services.

Forced displacements and decreasing enrolment in school: These developments raise very serious concerns among most residents in the north-west. They confirmed hundreds of students dropped out of schools due to the activities of bandits in their communities annually.

Others who decided to enroll changed their minds, thereby increasing the population of out-of-school children in those communities. Some school children were forcefully displaced into Kaduna, Zaria, Kano, Sokoto and other cities. They become homeless children living in public spaces.

Out-of-school children could become a recruitment pool for violent extremism groups and criminal gangs, creating another security challenge in years to come.

Read: Kidnapping, the industry bringing Nigeria to its knees

Strategic options for resilience

Addressing the challenges of attacks against educational facilities and students requires at least three strategies:

  • security sector reform

  • safe school initiatives

  • social support and healthcare delivery to victims.

The forest areas and other unregulated spaces that serve as sanctuaries for the armed groups must be made secure. This would be part of the holistic solution government can find by partnering with the affected communities.

The government can revitalise the Safe School Initiative programme, which was launched by the federal government in 2021, to rebuild, rehabilitate and restore a conducive learning environment.

The initiative failed as originally conceived and implemented between 2014 and 2018 because of the misplaced coordination of the task. It should be led by the education ministry, not the finance ministry.

For the Safe School Initiative to be truly effective, communities must be at the heart of its execution. They possess invaluable knowledge and situational awareness about the dynamics of insecurity in their areas.

Lastly, the state must update its current approach to countering armed banditry to include preventive methods of psychotherapy and primary healthcare support to female students who have become victims. 

By Oluwole Ojewale - Regional Coordinator, Institute for Security Studies