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Article: Shadows of Kankara, Pt. II

Shadows of Kankara, Pt. II

Shadows of Kankara, Pt. II

BY BODHI S.

 

Rumors about how the gunmen managed to abduct close to 400 kids varied from use of school buses and flatbed trucks, but locals say around 100 men on motorcycles stormed the dormitories around 9 p.m. wielding knives and AK-47s and the school was under siege for an hour. The boys were then marched into a very thick nearby forest where they hid out overnight. The forests in this area are incredibly thick and span multiple states. Finding a group of people inside them, even a group as large as this, would prove difficult. I remembered a video one security officer in the Abuja airport proudly shared with me “of his friend” who was a part of a similar group who conducted a kidnapping similar to this just a week or so earlier, where a village elder and 20 other people were taken hostage. Their ransom was promptly paid, and they were released.


In the video there were several families huddled together in a wooded area he said was in the north. Not dressed in any way that would lead him to believe I was affiliated with the government, I befriended the man, and we exchanged phone numbers. For some reason, it seems people just want to tell me things – and this wasn’t the first time. Thinking there was something to gain from the metadata of the video I asked him to send it to me on WhatsApp. Running the file through a commercial, “off the shelf” digital forensics suite allowed me to extract a geolocation that, while not of pinpoint accuracy, gave me an estimate of where that group had been hiding.


Before I could reach out to this man to see if he knew of or was sent anything regarding the Kankara incident, local police exchanged fire with the kidnappers, and this gave us a great starting point for ISR. Some gunmen were shot in the exchange, as were some police officers. A few of the kids managed to escape and the rest retreated deeper into the forest. This area of Nigeria had not only thick forests but granite rocks with caves and other places you could hide hundreds of people, especially if you split them into groups.


Katsina’s governor Aminu Bello Masari said he was contacted by the kidnappers on December 14th, and on his Twitter account he posted “Talks are ongoing to ensure their safety and return to their respective families.” He never identified the group responsible nor gave details of the ransom amount. On December 15th the leader of Boko Haram Abubakr Shekau sent an audio message to The Daily Nigerian claiming responsibility for the abduction. “I am Abubakr Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina.” A video of the boys was released shortly after showing the Boko Haram logo and boys between the ages of 14 and 16 pleading for their life.


Boko Haram is not known for conducting any kidnap for ransom operations but would likely radicalize the boys and force them to join their ranks as fighters. Boko Haram also doesn’t operate in the Northwest of the country often, and despite many attempts to absorb loose groups of bandits in the region, tend to stay to the Northeast where they can operate without fear of government intervention. Either this attack was not conducted by Boko Haram, or the Nigerian government’s fears that they have finally decided to begin operating in the Northwest were realized.
Our six-man team barely slept from December 12th to what was now the 16th. We controlled overlapping ISR platforms 24/7 and received intelligence updates from the Nigerian Army via WhatsApp. WhatsApp is not at all the preferred means of communicating when it comes to matters of national security or the wellbeing of kidnapped children, but… this is Africa. Eventually we had to seek help running ISR from our counterparts in Niamey, but the bulk of the operations were still under our purview. In the early morning hours of the 16th, we had narrowed down the area the kids were being held. The Nigerian Army began planning a rescue.


The attack took place in the home state of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari while he was visiting. The timing, albeit coincidental, gave residents of Kankara and the families of missing children a perfect opportunity to protest what they considered his ineffective rule. Many thought his visit was the only reason he even made a statement regarding the incident, and had he been in Abuja at the time, he would have been silent. Though he issued a declaration closing the remaining schools in the state down, and condemning the incident, he never once visited the families of the victims.


Around the time the Army was about to launch its rescue operation, governor Masari was announcing the unconditional release of the kids. We were now simply providing ISR overwatch on the delivery of the boys back to the local government for medical follow up. Pictures of the rescued boys in the back of trucks were sent by our Nigerian counterparts. As a father of three who knows what it's like to be away from his kids for long periods of time, seeing the smiling faces on the boys and the excitement of their parents brought me to tears. These are the kind of operations that give careers purpose and meaning.


There was no mention of the incident until March 2021 when the leader of a gang named Auwalu Daudawa and his fellow bandits admitted they conducted the attack and surrendered 28 AK-47s to the government in neighboring Zamfara State, the same state the boys were held in. With their hand on the Quran they repented and swore they would turn away from banditry. Since July of 2020, under the governance of Bello Matawalle, Zamfara state had offered two cows per AK-47 if bandits turned them into the authorities. Daudawa had already received full amnesty from the Katsina government by the time he surrendered his weapons, and despite swearing on Allah, he returned to a life of crime and died in May of 2021.


According to the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, Nigeria’s kidnapping problem has roots in an economy that continues a downward spiral. A kidnapper by the name of Chukwudi Dumeme Onuamadike told police after his arrest that his operations netted him 4,000,000 USD from only four of his higher profile kidnapping victims between 2015 and 2016. When 1USD equals just over 1500 Nigerian Naira, and brand-new homes are for sale under 50,000 USD, this is a huge amount of money. In an economy this poor in a country this corrupt, anything is for sale – and anything goes. The Nigerian government officially has no plans to stop kidnapping in any meaningful manner, and in the case of the Kankara schoolboys where it seemed that local governments were in on the kidnapping, the federal government may well be in on the operations for a cut of the ransom. By the time I left Nigeria, over 1200 more people were kidnapped across the country. Kidnapping, corruption, cattle for AKs, and money above all things – this is Africa.

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