LAGOS: The kidnap of 344 schoolboys in northwest Nigeria had the appearance of a militant attack. There was even a video purporting to show some of the boys with members of Boko Haram, the extremists behind the 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeast. But four government and security officials familiar with negotiations that secured the boys’ release said the attack was a result of inter-communal feuding over cattle theft, grazing rights and water access — not spreading extremism.
The mass abduction of children in Katsina state would mark a dramatic turn in clashes between farmers and herders that have killed thousands of people across Africa’s most populous nation in recent years, posing a challenge to authorities also battling a decade-long insurgency in the northeast. Officials in Katsina and neighbouring Zamfara, where the boys were released after six days, said the attack was carried out by a gang of mostly semi-nomadic ethnic Fulanis, including former herders who turned to crime after losing their cows to cattle rustlers.
“They have local conflicts that they want to be settled, and they decided to use this (kidnapping) as a bargaining tool,” said Ibrahim Ahmad, a security adviser to the Katsina state government who took part in the negotiations through intermediaries. Such groups are known more for armed robberies and small-scale kidnappings for ransom. Cattle herders in the northwest are mainly Fulani, whereas farmers are mostly Hausa.
For years, farmers have complained of herders letting their cows stray on to their land to graze, while herdsmen have complained their cows are being stolen.
Dozens of gunmen arrived on motorcycles at the Government Science Secondary School on December 11 in the town of Kankara in Katsina. They marched the boys into a vast forest that extends from Katsina into Zamfara. Officials in both states said they established contact with the kidnappers through their clan, a cattle breeders’ association and former gang members who participated in a Zamfara amnesty programme.
The intermediaries met the kidnappers in Ruga forest on several occasions before they agreed to release the boys, according to Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle and security sources including Ahmad.
The gang accused vigilante groups, set up to defend farming communities against banditry, of killing Fulani herders and stealing their cows, Matawalle and Ahmad said.
They also made similar accusations against members of a Katsina state committee set up to investigate cattle theft, Ahmad added. — Reuters