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REFILE-Nigeria school abductions sparked by cattle feuds, not extremism, officials say

CommoditiesDec 24, 2020 10:54
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* Nigerian authorities say 344 boys freed after six days
* Security experts sceptical Islamist militants directly
* Northwest Nigeria riven by banditry and cattle rustling

By Alexis Akwagyiram
LAGOS, Dec 24 (Reuters) - The kidnap of 344 schoolboys in
northwest Nigeria had the appearance of an Islamist 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 told Reuters 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 Islamist 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
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 Dec. 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 told Reuters 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.
He said he was not aware of any such incidents, but said a
police investigation had been launched. No ransom was paid for
the boys' release, according to officials in both states.
Reuters could not reach the gang for comment. A spokesman
for the herders' association, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders'
Association of Nigeria, declined to discuss the negotiations.

Gangs such as these have carried out attacks across the
northwest, making it hard for locals to farm, travel or tap rich
mineral deposits in some states. They were responsible for more
than 1,100 deaths in the first half of 2020 alone, according to
rights group Amnesty International.
Boko Haram, based in the northeast, has sought to forge
alliances with some of them and released videos this year
claiming to have received pledges of allegiance, said Jacob
Zenn, a Nigeria expert at the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation
think tank.
A man identifying himself as Boko Haram leader Abubakar
Shekau claimed responsibility for the schoolboys' kidnappings in
an unverified audio recording. Soon after, the video started
circulating on social media.
However, one boy who spoke in the video later told Nigeria's
Arise television that he did not believe the kidnappers when
they told him to say he was being held by Boko Haram.
"Sincerely speaking, they are not Boko Haram... They are
just small and tiny, tiny boys with big guns,” said the boy, who
did not give his name.
Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed also dismissed
Boko Haram's claim at a Dec. 18 news conference, saying: "They
just want to claim that they are still a potent force.
"The boys were abducted by bandits, not Boko Haram,"
Mohammed said.
Independent security experts said the kidnappers appeared to
have drawn inspiration from the militants and may have received
advice, but most were sceptical of any direct involvement.
Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at Lagos-based risk consultancy
firm SBM Intelligence, said direct Boko Haram involvement was
unlikely because of the "logistics of getting to an area that is
unfamiliar" to them.
"It's beyond their current capabilities," he said. "The
northwest is an ungoverned area controlled by other groups."

Tension between farming and herding communities has been
growing in the northwest, where population growth and climate
change have increased competition for resources, analysts said.
The day after the boys were returned to their families in
Kankara and other towns, another gang briefly abducted some 80
students who were returning from a trip organised by an Islamic
The kidnappers released the children after a gunfight with
police and a local vigilante group, state police said.
"All the bandits were Fulanis and are over 100 in number,"
Abdullahi Sada, who led the vigilantes, told Reuters.
He said some of his men were armed with bows and arrows
while others had guns made by local blacksmiths.
He denied any knowledge of attacks by vigilantes against
Fulani herders, saying: "I have no idea of any such thing
happening in my area."
Nastura Ashir Shariff, who chairs the Coalition of Northern
Groups (CNG), an influential civil society group, blamed a
scarcity of police for such clashes, saying communities were
taking law enforcement into their own hands.
Whoever was responsible for the Kankara kidnappings, Ummi
Usman, whose 14-year-old son Mujtaba was among those captured,
said she was not sure whether to send him back to school.
"He is still in extreme fear whenever he remembers what they
went through at the hands of their abductors," she said. "Some
of them were threatening the students that they will be back."

Chaos and jubilation as freed Nigerian schoolboys reunite with
family is Boko Haram? ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>

REFILE-Nigeria school abductions sparked by cattle feuds, not extremism, officials say

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