By Murtala Abdullahi
On Friday, A group of armed men on motorcycles stormed a Government Boy’s Science Secondary School in Kankara town of Katsina State, Northwest Nigeria.
Residents and students fled as the militants approached the School compound firing their Kalashnikov rifles.
According to the State Governor, 333 students are still accounted for.
The abduction of the school students is part of a wider security crisis ravaging the Northwest.
What started as cattle rustling and conflict between Fulani herders and Hausa farmers turned into extrajudicial killings, rape and a vicious cycle of revenge attacks.
Amplified by weak law enforcement, unconstrained arms proliferation, neglected and ungoverned spaces the lawlessness led to the growth of criminal gangs, infiltration of jihadist groups, tit for tat kidnapping and kidnapping for ransom.
The insecurity gradually moved from rural areas along the fringes of the thick Savannah forest areas to towns and highways.
The International Crisis Group reports that the violence in the region has killed over 8,000 people since 2011, and displaced over 200,000, some into the neighbouring Niger Republic.
On Saturday, Nigeria’s presidential spox in a statement said the Army supported by the air force has located the group responsible for the abduction at an enclave in Zango-Pauwa forest in Kankara and there was an exchange of fire.
The Zango- Pauwa forest is located along the fringes of the dreaded Ruma-Kukar Jangarai forest reserve popularly known as Rugu Forest or Dajin Rugu in the local Hausa language.
The forest stretch from the Niger Republic through Katsina and Zamfara states
Dajin Rugu and other mutually accessible forest reserves once known for lush savannah grassland, shrubs, earth dams and wildlife populations have become sanctuaries for armed marauders on motorcycles and focus of intense military airstrikes.
The first option for the military, police and intelligence agencies involves conducting a tactical and intelligence-led operation to rescue the Schoolboys before the abductors have time to move them further into the forest or separate them into smaller groups.
This window is short and requires the deployment of specialised tactical units, support units and equipment to safely rescue the boys and reunite them with their loved ones.
Elite operators from the Nigerian Army 707 Special Forces Brigade, Air Force Panthers and Navy Special Boat Service will be instrumental in conducting a large scale helicopter or parachute insertion.
An airborne operation will hasten deployment, reduce the risk involved in sending a ground force to navigate through the terrain and possible resistance from the militants.
The recently inducted Mi-171Es, alongside other the Super Puma, Bell 412, EC-135, A109Es and MI-35Ms will be useful tools for transporting and providing armed escort and close Air support.
The Nigerian Air Force 213 Forward Operating Base Katsina could serve as a staging ground for these units and airborne surveillance missions in support of the operation using the ATR 42MP-500, DA-42 and Beechcraft Super King Air 350i ISR-optimised turboprop aircraft.
While the Army Special Super Camp Faskari located about 70 kilometres from Kankara should support specialist long-range reconnaissance and a standby Quick Response Force equipped with protected mobility, medical support and required capabilities.
However, this option could leave other conflict-prone areas and frontline positions vulnerable to attacks and without helicopters for logistics or close air support missions.
The second option will focus on diverting resources to the area and sending a large number of troops, intelligence and police officers to storm the identified hideout, this approach will remove the element of surprise and require overcoming difficulties related to the terrain and possible ambush.
The final option will be to open a dialogue channel and recover the Schoolboys from the militants using channels that were established a few months ago, during the state government’s previous attempts to tackle the crisis using a soft approach.
However, this option reinforces the lack of red line for criminal groups and could encourage similar or more daring attacks in the future.
Now, more than ever the Nigerian Government must invest in long term solutions to protect schools and address both the symptoms and the root causes of the violence in Northern Nigeria.
Tackling the violence would require aggressive multi-sectorial intervention to revamp the rural economy of the region and provide development for the local population.
Improvement of border security to help curb illicit firearms, and prevent the movement of violent groups would be critical. The government must reestablish the presence of law enforcement, provide justice and humanitarian assistance to victims.
This would go a long way toward rebuilding public trust.
To tackle cattle rustling, smart animal tracking and identification systems run by the ministry of agriculture and departments in the north to oversee certification of cattle and traders, monitor cattle movement, markets and abattoirs. This approach will prevent and disrupt the movement of stolen cattle within or outside Nigeria.
While animal tracking and identification systems are vital to prevent the movement of stolen livestock, it is important to also address deteriorating livelihood and competition over resources through local early warning, mediation, compensation and promotion of sustainable farming and livestock management.