Pope Francis has joined the bishops of Nigeria in appealing for the release of 317 schoolgirls who were abducted in northwest Nigeria on 26 February. Speaking during the Angelus last Sunday, he condemned the “vile kidnapping” of boarders at the Government Girls Science Secondary School in Jangebe, Zamfara State. He invited prayers for their safe return. “I am near to their families and to them,” said the Pope. “Let us pray that Our Lady might keep them safe.”
Unidentified gunmen entered the school in the early hours, shooting sporadically, and carried the girls off in vehicles and on foot. Security forces launched a search while concerned parents waited in the school compound for updates. The students were taken into a nearby forest, where they are likely to remain until a ransom is paid, something President Muhammadu Buhari says his government will not do.
“This administration will not succumb to blackmail by bandits who target innocent school students in the expectations of huge ransom payments,” he commented. While the government can deploy force against the bandits behind the attacks, it refrains from doing so for fear of hostages being used as human shields, President Buhari said.
The attack followed on the heels of a similar kidnapping a week earlier. One student was killed and 42 people were spirited off from a boarding school in the north-central state of Niger. Kidnappers released 27 teenage boys last Saturday.
Weakening national unity was denounced by the Nigerian Bishops between the two abductions. They lamented the deteriorating situation in the country, saying: “We are really on the brink of a looming collapse, from which we must do all we can to pull back before the worst overcomes the nation.” They said insecurity and corruption have put into question, “the very survival of the nation.” The government was urged to step up to the challenge of seriously governing.
School kidnappings were first carried out by jihadist groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province but the tactic has now been adopted by other militants in the north-west whose agenda is unclear. The abductions are disrupting education in Africa's most populous country, which already ranks among places with one of the highest number of out-of-school children globally. Zamfara and other northern states have now shut boarding schools to protect students and the federal government is also considered closing learning institutions near the country's borders, Information Minister Lai Mohammed said last week.
The highest profile school kidnapping was that of more than 270 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram from the town of Chibok in 2014. Around 100 girls remain missing seven years later, either remaining with Boko Haram or dead, security officials say.