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More than 280 students were abducted by gunmen from a school in northwest Nigeria

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nigerian officials say more than 250 students have been kidnapped in the northwest of the country. The children are between the ages of 8 and 15. A witness told the BBC they were taken from school Thursday morning by dozens of gunmen on motorbikes. This mass kidnapping, of course, echoes another abduction a decade ago when Boko Haram militants abducted hundreds of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. We're joined now by Alexis Akwagyiram the managing editor for Africa at the news website Semafor. He spent years reporting from Nigeria. Mr. Akwagyiram, thanks so much for being with us.

ALEXIS AKWAGYIRAM: Thank you.

SIMON: What more can you tell us about this mass abduction?

AKWAGYIRAM: First of all, nobody's claimed responsibility for this mass abduction, although some people in various quarters are blaming Ansaru, which is a breakaway faction of the Boko Haram militant group. What we do know is that students were taken, along with a teacher. Parents say that local vigilantes tried to repel the gunmen but had been overpowered. In these situations in the northwest, where there are lots of these criminal gangs carrying out kidnap for ransom, you do often see vigilante groups springing up because these things are happening in vast ungoverned spaces, and so the police can't necessarily intervene. But in this case, the vigilante group were unable to repel the gunmen. And this is effectively the largest mass abduction that we've seen in Nigeria for about three years. I mean, the last one on this scale was in the summer of 2021, and around 150 children were taken then.

SIMON: How is the Nigerian government responding to this abduction?

AKWAGYIRAM: Well, President Bola Tinubu said he was confident that the victims will be rescued, and he's directed the security forces to find the students. As well as that, there's a system of state governors as well. The Kaduna state governor, where this happened, has also visited the town, and he's promised to get the students released.

So the security forces have these directions. But, I mean, it's going to be tough for them to respond. And to be honest, this is the typical response from the Nigerian government in this situation. They always say they're confident, and they always say that they're going to do their best to rescue the children.

SIMON: And yet we, I guess, have to remind ourselves, many of the girls who were taken in the Boko Haram kidnapping are still missing. How common are mass abductions like these?

AKWAGYIRAM: So mass abductions have become less common, but there was definitely a spate of them in northern Nigeria around four years ago. And there were these copycat attacks, and schools were being hit with hundreds of children being taken. But you're absolutely right. The abduction of the Chibok girls, which is almost to the day a decade ago, which sparked this. And as a result of that, clearly criminal gangs saw that there was an opportunity to make money for kidnap for ransom.

Now, even though mass abductions are becoming less common, kidnap for ransom has become a lucrative industry for criminal gangs in Nigeria, and it's become a problem at a lower level whereby these gangs, who are mostly concentrated in the northwest of the country, will kidnap ordinary people and shake down the families for money. And if it's a high-profile series of attacks, then maybe the state government might get involved as well.

As I mentioned before, these are vast swaths of land that are effectively ungoverned spaces. And so these criminal gangs set themselves up in forests, and they rove around different parts of the region on motorcycles, and they're heavily armed. And it's very, very, very hard to stop them.

SIMON: Mr. Akwagyiram, what's it like to live in Nigeria? It's the most populous nation in Africa. And yet, in your description, large parts of it are essentially lawless.

AKWAGYIRAM: I think it's very difficult for Nigerians at the moment. It's a massive country. It's got more than 200 million inhabitants, and security forces are overstretched. So at the moment, they are tackling different challenges simultaneously. So in the northwest, you get these bandits who kidnap ordinary people. In the northeast, you've got a long-running Islamist insurgency that's lasted for about 15 years. And then in various other parts of the country, there are issues. In the southeast, there's an insurgency in terms of separatist movements, and it's just hard. Wherever you are, there is likely to be some kind of issue, and it's hard for the security forces to keep on top of all of it.

SIMON: Alexis Akwagyiram from the news site Semafor. Thank you so much for joining us.

AKWAGYIRAM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.