DAKAR – Joyous, tearful Nigerian parents tightly hugged their sons, upon being reunited with them following their week-long abduction in the country's northwestern area.
The boys, however, appeared traumatized and exhausted. After their days of captivity, including forced marches and hiding from gunfights, they were then paraded barefoot in front of officials and the press.
Usman Garuba, one of the freed boys, described the horror of their six days walking through the forest and being beaten.
“I feel so bad, honestly, at that moment I preferred to be killed because it was a terrible experience and I felt I was better not to be alive at all,” he told The Associated Press.
Boko Haram, Nigeria's jihadist rebels, claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, but the government later said the abduction was carried out by bandit groups rampant in the northwest.
Just two days after the freed boys were brought to Katsina, 80 other students were kidnapped in a nearby area, but then were quickly rescued by police and local self-defense groups.
While President Muhammadu Buhari's government is credited with quick action that succeeded in getting the boys released, many in Nigeria are criticizing the government's ineffective response to the deepening insecurity in the northwest and failure to protect civilians from the insurgency as well as criminal violence.
“This incident shows the security deficit in the region as communities, schools, hospitals and government infrastructures are still very vulnerable,” said Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group.
That the gunmen were able to move hundreds of boys through the night without challenge shows security in the area is inadequate, Obasi said. He warned that the successful negotiation resulting in the release of the boys may not be easy to repeat if there are more abductions in the future.
“The northeast has so many armed groups, reaching an agreement of good conduct with one of them does not guarantee that others may not embark on such a venture in the future especially when certain concessions are made,” he said.
Buhari should not be congratulated for the boys’ release when his government has allowed the insecurity in the northwest, creating the conditions for the boys' abduction, former Minister of Education, Obiageli Ezekwesili, told Channels TV in Nigeria.
“For us to congratulate a government that created a problem and said it solved it? We shouldn’t be doing that,” she said. “Society should learn how to hold people accountable. The president should be disgusted with what happened, not commending himself.”
Ezekwesili helped lead the #BringBackOurGirls movement after the 2014 kidnapping of more than 276 girls from their school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. About 100 of those girls are still missing.
“He needs to tell us exactly what happened with the Kankara kids,” she said. “There is a problem. This country should not be taken for a ride.”
Buhari began his time as president in 2015 by concentrating on combatting the country's jihadist rebels. He declared victory against Boko Haram in 2016, but many say that was a premature announcement as the insurgency continues.
There are many reasons the government has failed to stem the insecurity in Nigeria's north, ranging from overstretched and underequipped security forces to failed strategies and a weakening multinational force, said Bulama Bukarti, a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at the Tony Blair Institute.
Nigeria’s military and police forces, with the backing of local self-defense groups, are outgunned, outnumbered, underfunded and underpaid, he said.
Katsina state’s government, where the kidnapping took place, in August had appealed for more forces, saying there were only 30 police officers for every 100 villages.
“Soldiers have lost morale, defending themselves in impossible scenarios,” Bukarti said. Many soldiers say they are exhausted after being in the north for nearly six years, with no rotation out, he said. Many also complain the shoes issued to them are not replaced for years.
Experts and Nigerians charge that rampant corruption means that funds allocated to the military do not reach the troops on the ground.
Security forces also must contend with vast, ungoverned territories that they do not know, but which are familiar ground to the criminal gangs and insurgents living there.
More than 800 security forces were killed in 2019, one of the deadliest years since Boko Haram’s establishment more than 10 years ago. The military responded by creating super camps — gathering about 1,000 soldiers together in a large camp.
“It succeeded in reducing military fatalities, but it gave Boko Haram freedom of movement,” Bukarti said, calling it a failed strategy.
The joint regional force in which neighboring countries sent troops to help Nigeria combat the jihadists, has also weakened. Chad, a key partner which once had more than 1,000 soldiers on Nigerian soil, withdrew their troops early this year, saying their mission wasn’t renewed by Nigeria.
While focusing on the insurgencies in the northeast, Nigeria's government paid little attention to the deteriorating situation in the northwest, where armed gangs killed more than 1,000 in the first six months of this year alone, according to Amnesty International. Seeing an opening, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau formed alliances with the bandit groups, believed to have been the gunmen who staged last week’s attack on the boarding school.
President Buhari was in his northern hometown of Daura when the boys were abducted, which some said highlighted the growing assertiveness of the bandit groups.
Meeting with the freed schoolboys in Katsina Friday, before they were reunited with their families, Buhari seemed to downplay the trauma they suffered.
“This little difficulty you have faced in life should not deter you," he said, encouraging them to continue their education.
A mother of one of the boys, Bilikisu Abdulrazak, wishes her son never had to experience what he did.
“He has never suffered like this before in his life ... he had to trek … in the bush," she told AP. "He had to depend on leaves, on seeds and drink from the pond water. It is really disturbing.”
AP journalists Lekan Oyekanmi in Katsina, Nigeria, and Sam Olukoya in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed.