Nigeria's 'guns for cows' offer backfires with spate of kidnapped schoolchildren

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A group of schoolboys after a mass kidnapping in 2020 
A group of schoolboys after a mass kidnapping in 2020

As a gangster, arms dealer and kidnapper extraordinaire, Awwalun Daudawa looked like a character beyond reform. Last December, he masterminded one of Nigeria's biggest-ever school kidnappings, abducting more than 300 boys in Katsina, the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari.

A week later, the boys were freed, amid widespread rumours that Mr Daudawa had been paid a hefty ransom. But having carried out the kidnapping on the President's home turf, many expected him to then be hunted down with a vengeance.

Instead, last month, he took advantage of a controversial amnesty scheme, handing his weapons in to officials in nearby Zamfara state and pledging to renounce violence.

“I am a changed person now and my plan is to go back to school and become a normal person,” he declared to local journalists, as he and four fellow bandits swore a public oath on the Koran.

The amnesty scheme is one of several out recently across north-west Nigeria, with local governors arguing that they are the only way to stem a wave of banditry that has seen 8,000 people killed and kidnapped in the last decade.

A parent waits outside the Government Science Secondary school in Kankara
A parent waits outside the Government Science Secondary school in Kankara

Critics, however, claim they are simply emboldening the bandits. Just a fortnight after Mr Daudawa vowed to mend his ways, gunmen elsewhere in Zamfara state kidnapped 279 schoolgirls from a boarding school in the remote village of Jangebe.

The hostages were released last Tuesday, with Zamfara's governor, Bello Matawalle, saying that he “thanked Allah" for their freedom. Once again, though, many believe it was not the hand of God, but the handover of money, that secured the girls' liberty.

"No matter what the government says, there are ransoms that are paid and these kidnappings have become lucrative," said Yan St Pierre, who runs the Modern Security Consulting Group, a Berlin-based security consultancy that operates in Nigeria. Amnesties, he added, "only encourage gangs to commit such crimes, because there is a total absence of sanction."

The spate of school kidnappings - 27 students were also taken from a school in nearby Niger state last month - has echoes of the notorious Chibok kidnapping of 2014, when 276 girls were abducted by the Islamic terror group Boko Haram.

Ransom of around three million euros bought the freedom of around 100 of the Chibok girls, which some say alerted other Nigerian armed groups to the rewards of kidnapping.

While Boko Haram operates mainly in north-east Nigeria, the recent kidnappings have all been in the north-west, where the finger of blame is pointed mainly at bandit groups and nomadic Fulani herdsmen. Many of the latter have turned to crime in recent years, claiming that shrinking supplies of grazing land have made an honest living impossible.

The leader of one of the Boko Haram group's factions, Abubakar Shekau
The leader of one of the Boko Haram group's factions, Abubakar Shekau

Mr Daudawa, 43, typifies how crime in the area has evolved. A former cattle thief, he is said to have diversified into arms dealing, supplying weapons from Libya to both criminal and jihadists, including Boko Haram.

The amnesty he received was what is known locally as a "guns for cows" deal, whereby militants are offered three head of cattle for every weapon that they hand in when they surrender.

Zamfara's governor has defended the amnesties, saying that in the years before they were enacted, the violence was even worse.

"Those who willingly surrender their arms will be pardoned, but those who say they will not surrender their arms will continue to be hunted by the military," Mr Matawelle's spokesman told Nigeria’s Punch newspaper last month.

Sceptics, though, doubt whether the likes of Mr Daudawa are really serious about returning to the classroom, pointing out that "peace deals" in neighbouring states have often faltered.

In late 2019, governor Aminu Bello Masari of Katsina state - where Mr Daudawa carried out last December's kidnapping - visited local bandits' forest hideouts to strike peace deals.

The wreckage of a car hit by an attack led by Boko Haram
The wreckage of a car hit by an attack led by Boko Haram

Photos of him holding court with armed bandits outraged many locals. He insisted the talks were to end the "incessant wanton destruction of lives and property", and that many of the gunmen were ordinary Fulanis who had suffered police harassment.

Such tactics pose a dilemma for Mr Buhari, who came to power on a pledge to restore law and order to Nigeria's north. So far, he has given mixed messages on whether he thinks ransoms and peace deals are part of the solution, or part of the problem.

In the wake of most recent kidnapping, he criticised governors who “rewarded bandits with money and vehicles”. But last month, his spokesman, Lai Mohammed, said he could understand why regional governors offered peace deals.

"If granting amnesty to one notorious kidnapper is going to give me peace in my state, I might take that decision," Mr Mohammed said.

Yet Katsina's governor, Mr Masari, now regrets starting his peace program - which he cancelled last year after attacks simply continued.

“In the forest, a lion kills only when it is hungry," he said. “But here, the bandits come to town, spray bullets, and kill indiscriminately for no purpose. For me, there are no longer innocent persons in the forests.”

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