Against the backdrop of the resurgence of the mass abduction of pupils, the Federal Government has said schools in 14 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, are at risk of attacks by bandits and insurgents.

The National Coordinator of Financing Safe Schools in Nigeria, Hajia Halima Iliya, confirmed to The PUNCH on Sunday, that the data of at-risk schools had been collected for intervention.

Iliya declined to identify the states, but the Commander of the National Safe Schools Response Coordination Centre, Nigeria Security, and Civil Defence Corps, Hammed Abodunrin, said they included Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Benue, Yobe, Katsina, FCT, Kebbi, Sokoto, Plateau, Zamfara and three others.

No fewer than 465 pupils, teachers, and women abducted in the past week are still in the custody of their captors.

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Fifteen pupils of an Islamiya school in Sokoto State were kidnapped in the early hours of Saturday, less than 72 hours after 287 schoolchildren and teachers were abducted from the LEA primary school and the Government Secondary School both at Kuriga, in the Chikun Local Government Area of Kaduna State.

However, 28 of them were on Sunday reported to have escaped 259 in captivity.

A few days before the Kaduna incident, 200 female Internally Displaced Persons were taken away by terrorists in Borno State.

The women were kidnapped in Ngala, the headquarters of Gambarou Ngala in Borno state while fetching firewood in the bush.

On Sunday, there were reports that nine of them had regained freedom remaining 191 in captivity.

Penultimate Thursday, bandits abducted an undisclosed number of people in the Gonin-Gora community in the same Chikun LGA of Kaduna, prompting residents to barricade the Kaduna-Abuja Expressway in protest.

As a response to the April 2014 abduction of the Chibok school girls, the Safe Schools Initiative was launched by the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, alongside the Nigerian Global Business Coalition for Education and private sector leaders at the World Economic Forum Africa.

Safe schools

The initiative entails a combination of school-based interventions, community interventions to protect schools, and special measures for at-risk populations.

The Federal Government inaugurated the Safe Schools Fund with a $10m contribution and another $10m pledge from the private sector.

In further support for the programme, the Federal Government budgeted N15bn for the SSI in the 2023 fiscal year.

Speaking on the programme in an interview with one of our correspondents on Sunday, Iliya explained that the implementation of the SSI had started in several states.

Responding to questions on what was being done to fortify schools against bandit attacks, she said, “The project has taken off. We commenced implementation in 2023 with the flag off of the National Safe Schools Response Coordination Centre, which we intend to replicate at state and local government levels.

“The states have selected most at-risk schools in each senatorial zone for the implementation of National Plan on Financing Safe Schools Programme (2023-2026).’’

In response to the development, the coordinator explained that state governors had expressed plans to provide funding for the SSI for the protection of pupils and teachers in the identified locations.

She added, “Some states have made provision for the Safe Schools Programme in their 2024 budget in line with the National Plan. We intend to engage the states to guide them through the implementation.

“We’ve communicated to all the states; letters have been written for inclusion of Safe Schools in their budget and for them to select the most at-risk schools. More than 11 states have responded. The budget from states is for them to work on physical infrastructure such as fencing state schools and put other control measures.’’

Iliya further disclosed that the Federal Ministry of Education and the NSCDC had conducted some training for their men, adding that the Nigeria Police had trained senior officers, including all divisional police officers across the country on Safe Schools.

According to her, the security forces have commissioned equipment that would be deployed to various state commands for the operations.

“Data of at-risk schools from 14 states, including the FCT have so far been collected for intervention. The Defence headquarters and DSS (Department of Security Services) are expected to mainstream Safe Schools through capacity building of their officers. N15b was provided and released as takeoff in 2023; utilisation is still ongoing,’’ she stated.

The Commander of the National Safe Schools Response Coordination Centre, NSCDC, Abodunrin, said the four-year project was being implemented simultaneously in all the states but in phases, adding that it began with the sensitisation and training of security personnel late last year.

He condemned the latest abductions of school pupils, noting that the attackers operated in locations with poor telecommunication service.

Abodunrin said, “The attacks are unfortunate. What the attackers do is to look for soft targets. They now go to villages where they feel they can quickly operate before help can come. They also target when communication networks are bad. The cases in Ekiti and Kaduna are examples where community members could not quickly call for help. There is also the need to raise more awareness in the communities.

“There is a need for more cooperation. Schools are to register on detailing their addresses and at least a phone number. Registration is free. Any registered school will automatically be on a database with their coordinates for easy accessibility.

“There are patrols. Global standards do not allow security operatives to be in schools for various reasons. Those who want to target them may kill or injure students and other members of the school communities in the process. There will be more patrols.’’

The commander also said that since security requires personal attention, students and teachers would be given training on personal safety and protection.

“Equipment and platforms are also being developed to facilitate easy communication even without a network. They will be trained on this too. Capacity of various communities are being built in the areas of personal security and information management for effective preventive and response efforts,’’ he disclosed.

Adamawa, Kebbi

On the states that have been identified to be at risk of attacks, Abodunrin said, “Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Benue, Yobe, Katsina, FCT, Kebbi, Sokoto, the Plateau, Zamfara.

“These are the states where the state governments have submitted the list of vulnerable schools to Safe School Financing and some of them have already donated Response centres to NSCDC for coordination.

“Some commit to including Safe School in their budgets for the centre to commence operations. Note that all states’ commissioners for finance were addressed by Safe School Finance for cooperation. You may still seek further clarification from Finance (ministry).’’

Continuing, he noted, “Those selected (states) are where concentration is. What the centre is doing in conjunction with NSCDC is to be proactive by making the sensitisation and community engagement national.

“All states of the federation now have Safe School Desk Officers/Coordinators. These attackers would look for soft targets that they think the government is not considering at present.’’

Meanwhile, the state commands of the NSCDC in Gombe, Kano, Osun, Taraba and other states said they were involved in the SSI implementation.

The Gombe State Commandant, Muhammad Bello, noted that his officers were ensuring that no school child was abducted in its safe school project.

He said, “We are ready to face the problem even though we are dwelling in a serious challenge in the area of logistics, and transportation but I will not allow it to impede securing schools and our children. We are doing our best, shortage of mobility will never impede safeguarding children.’’

In a statement, the spokesperson for Osun NSCDC, Kehinde Adeleke, said the Safe School Programme was operational in the state but identified mobility challenges in covering all local government areas in the state.

The Taraba State Commissioner for Education, Dr Augustina Godwin, on Sunday, said the state government had beefed up security around schools, especially in areas prone to banditry attacks since November last year.

In a telephone interview with our correspondent in Jalingo, Godwin said the state government had embarked on the building of perimeter fencing of most schools in the state as a first layer of security.

Godwin said, “We have credible intelligence regarding the plans by bandits to carry out massive school children abduction in the state, and so, the sad incident in Kaduna did not come to us as a surprise.

“The government has engaged personnel of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, and the state security outfit- Taraba Marshall to provide security in our schools.

“We have also formed the Safe School Security Committee as requested by Unicef. We have also identified schools with serious security needs based on their location and we have fortified such schools with more security.

“Just last week, I embarked on supervision of schools to see the level of security presence in our schools and I was impressed with what I saw on the ground.

“For the schools that are yet to get security personnel, we have provided dedicated phone numbers for school principals and teachers to call in case of any incident,” she said.

Sub-regional forces blamed

Meanwhile, the Presidency has described the recent cases of kidnapping across the country as efforts by ‘’sub-regional geopolitical forces conspiring to undermine the government of President Bola Tinubu.’’

Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Ajuri Ngelale, affirmed this when he spoke on TVC’s Politics on Sunday monitored by The PUNCH.

On the programme titled ‘Counting the Cost of Presidents Tinubu’s Reforms,’ Ngelale revealed that the Federal Government was already receiving support from the United States government for the release of students kidnapped in Kaduna.

“I will say this: across the north, we understand that some of the sub-regional geopolitical forces that are currently at play are actively conspiring against the stability of Nigeria,” said the President’s spokesman.

Ngelale assured Nigerians that the Federal Government was on top of the situation and had received support from the US government to secure the release of the school children and address the regional forces at play.

“We understand that and we are not sleeping. We are responding to it and we’re doing it in a concerted way, with our neighbours.

“And it is worth noting that the United States Government has also pledged its assistance to ensure that there is a full return of all of the schoolchildren who were kidnapped recently in Kaduna.

“But the point is we are going to continue to intensify our collaboration not just within the region, but internationally to make sure that some of the regional actors that are conspiring against our nation are brought to justice and ultimately silenced in the future,” he explained.

The Presidential spokesman lamented that with increased security in major communities in the South-East and South-West, the government was working to extend coverage to vulnerable far-flung settlements in the north.

“First of all, the President has been very clear that this is an administration of no excuses. If you look at other parts of the countries that were in flames before he took office, such as the South-East and parts of the South-West for example, you will know the level of work that has gone into securing our nation.

“Where we still have some challenges is in the North-Central in the North-West and to a lesser extent in the Northeast. There’s still a lot of work to be done along the Kaduna axis. Remember the time when you could not travel by road on the Abuja-Kaduna highway? Now, you’re able to do that.

“Now the problem is when you have these far-flung communities, we do have these hit-and-run incidences of not just violence and killings, but kidnappings and hostage-taking,” Ngelale explained.

He toed the line of the First Lady, Oluremi Tinubu, proposing capital punishment for kidnappers, saying, “I think that there’s going to have to be some sort of robust legislative reform that makes it clear to every citizen of our country that if you kidnap anybody, you will be killed by the justice system.

“There will be a death penalty attached to it. I don’t see how this can be solved if we don’t do this and see to its implementation.”

 Additional reports: Justin Tyopuusu, Tunde Oyekola, John Charles, Bola Bamigbola, Tukur Muntari and Chima Azubuike