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College kidnappings in Nigeria triggered by cattle feuds, not extremism, officers say

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Rescued Nigerian schoolboys sit together in the government house in Katsina

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By Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS (Reuters) – The kidnapping of 344 high school students in northwestern Nigeria looked like a militant Islamist attack. There was even a video allegedly showing some of the boys with members of Boko Haram, the extremists behind the kidnapping of more than 270 school girls in the northeast in 2014.

Four government and security officials familiar with negotiations to secure the boys' release told Reuters that the attack was the result of intercommunal feuds over cattle theft, grazing rights and access to water – without spreading extremism.

The mass kidnapping of children in Katsina state would mark a dramatic turn in the clashes between farmers and shepherds that have killed thousands of people in the most populous nation in Africa in recent years, a challenge for authorities that has also been against a decade fighting Islamist uprising in the northeast.

Officials in Katsina and neighboring 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 shepherds, who turned to the crime after losing their cows to ranchers .

"They have local conflicts that need to be resolved and they have decided to use this (kidnapping) as a negotiating tool," said Ibrahim Ahmad, a security advisor to the Katsina State government who participated in the negotiations through mediators.

Such groups are better known for armed robbery and minor kidnappings for ransom.

Ranchers in the northwest are mainly Fulani while the farmers are mainly Hausa. For years, farmers have complained that shepherds let their cows roam their land to graze, while shepherds complain that their cows are stolen.

NEGOTIATIONS

Dozens of armed men arrived on motorcycles at the Government Science Secondary School in the city of Kankara, Katsina on December 11th. They marched the boys into a huge forest that stretches from Katsina to Zamfara.

Officials in both states told Reuters that they had contacted the kidnappers through their clan, a ranchers' association, and former gang members who participated in an amnesty program in Zamfara.

The mediators met the kidnappers several times in Ruga Forest before agreeing to release the boys, according to Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle and security forces including Ahmad.

The gang accused vigilante groups formed to defend farming communities from banditry, killing Fulani herders and stealing their cows, Matawalle and Ahmad said. They also made similar allegations against members of a Katsina state committee set up to investigate cattle theft, Ahmad added.

He said he was unaware of any such incidents, but said a police investigation has been opened. According to officials in both states, no ransom was paid for the boys' release.

Reuters could not reach the gang for comment. A spokesman for the shepherds' association, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders & # 39; Association of Nigeria, declined to discuss the negotiations.

BOKO HARAM?

Gangs like these have carried out attacks in the northwest, making it difficult for locals in some states to farm, travel, or develop abundant mineral deposits. According to the rights group Amnesty International, they were responsible for more than 1,100 deaths in the first half of 2020 alone.

Northeastern Boko Haram has tried to forge alliances with some of them and this year released videos claiming they received letters of loyalty, said Jacob Zenn, a Nigeria expert at Jamestown's U.S.-based think tank Foundation.

A man who identified himself as Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau assumed responsibility for the kidnappings of the students in an unverified audio recording. Soon after, the video was spread on social media.

A boy who later spoke in the video told Nigerian television Arise that he didn't believe the kidnappers when they told him to be held by Boko Haram.

"Sincerely, you are not Boko Haram … You are just little boys with big guns," said the boy, who did not reveal his name.

Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed also denied Boko Haram's claim at a December 18 press conference, saying, "They just want to say that they are still a strong force.

"The boys were kidnapped by bandits, not by Boko Haram," said Mohammed.

Independent security experts said the hijackers appeared to have taken inspiration and possibly advice from the militants, but most were skeptical of direct involvement.

Cheta Nwanze, a senior partner at Lagos-based risk advisory firm SBM Intelligence, said Boko Haram's direct involvement was unlikely due to the "logistics of getting into an area they are unfamiliar with".

"It's beyond your current capabilities," he said. "The northwest is an unregulated area controlled by other groups."

SECOND KIDNAP

Tensions between farming and herding communities have increased in the northwest, where population growth and climate change have increased competition for resources, analysts said.

The day after the boys returned to their families in Kankara and other cities, another gang briefly abducted around 80 students returning from a trip organized by an Islamic school.

The kidnappers released the children after an exchange of fire with the police and a local vigilante group, the state police said.

"All the bandits were Fulanis and are over 100," said Abdullahi Sada, who headed the vigilante, told Reuters.

He said some of his men were armed with bows and arrows, while others had weapons made by local blacksmiths.

He denied any knowledge of attacks by guards against Fulani shepherds and said, "I have no idea anything like this is happening in my area."

Nastura Ashir Shariff, chairman of the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), an influential civil society group, blamed a lack of police for such clashes, saying the communities had taken law enforcement into their own hands.

Whoever was responsible for the Kankara kidnappings, Ummi Usman, whose 14-year-old son Mujtaba was among the prisoners, said she was not sure about sending him back to school.

"He's still extremely scared when he remembers what they went through at the hands of their captors," she said. "Some of them threatened the students that they would come back."

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