A Week in Nigeria: 27 February

Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days

Nigeria expects to receive its first batch of COVID-19 vaccine doses through the COVAX scheme next week

In this week’s round-up: Gunmen kidnap more than 300 schoolgirls, suspected Islamists fire rocket-propelled grenades at northeast’s biggest city, first COVAX vaccine doses to arrive within days, and vice president urges cryptocurrency regulation rather than prohibition.

  • Gunmen abducted 317 girls from a boarding school during an early hours raid in the northwest Nigerian state of Zamfara state. It was the second such kidnapping in little over a week in the country’s northwest, a region increasingly targeted by militants and criminal gangs. Zamfara police said they had begun search-and-rescue operations with the army to find the “bandits” who took the 317 girls from the Government Girls Science Secondary School in the town of Jangebe. “There’s information that they were moved to a neighbouring forest, and we are tracking and exercising caution,” Zamfara police commissioner Abutu Yaro told a news conference. All the abductees remained at large, but the parent of one of them, Mohammed Usman Jangebe, said seven of their schoolmates had resurfaced after escaping the raiders by hiding in gutters. The assailants stormed in at around 1 a.m., firing sporadically, said Zamfara’s information commissioner, Sulaiman Tanau Anka. “Information available to me said they came with vehicles and moved the students. They also moved some on foot,” he told Reuters. School kidnappings were first carried out by jihadist groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province but the tactic has now been adopted by other militants whose agenda is unclear. They have become endemic around the increasingly lawless north, to the anguish of families and frustration of Nigeria’s government and armed forces. Friday’s was the third such incident since December. The rise in abductions is fuelled in part by sizeable government payoffs in exchange for child hostages, catalysing a broader breakdown of security in the north, officials have said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The government denies making such payouts, and President Muhammadu Buhari reiterated on Friday that it would will not succumb to blackmail. In a statement issued late on Friday, he also appealed to state administrations not to reward bandits with money or vehicles. Buhari replaced his long-standing military chiefs this month amid the worsening violence. Last week, gunmen kidnapped 42 people including 27 students, and killed one pupil, in an overnight attack on a boarding school in the north-central state of Niger. The hostages are yet to be released. In December, dozens of gunmen abducted 344 schoolboys in northwest Katsina state. They were freed after six days but the government denied paying a random Islamic State’s West Africa branch in 2018 kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria, all but one of whom — the only Christian — were released. A ransom was paid, according to the United Nations. Perhaps the most notorious kidnapping in recent years was when Boko Haram militants abducted 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state in April 2014. The incident drew widespread global attention, with then U.S. first lady Michelle Obama among the prominent figures calling for their return. Many have been found or rescued by the army, or freed years later after negotiations between the government and Boko Haram, according to sources, but 100 are still missing. Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM Intelligence, said many northern governors were keen to pay to avoid protracted hostage situations attracting international outrage, which in turn gave an incentive for more abductions. “When you have these mass abductions now and you see victims are released relatively quickly, unlike Chibok, the one thing that has changed is money,” Effiong said.
  • In a sign of the growing unrest in northern states, suspected Islamist insurgents pounded the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri with rocket-propelled grenades late on Tuesday, killing at least 10 people and injuring dozens, officials, security forces and residents said. It was the worst attack for a year on Maiduguri, the government’s stronghold in the northeast and the heart of its conflict with Boko Haram jihadists in a shattering, decade-long war. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the latest attack. Nigeria’s northeast is the hotbed of two Islamist insurgencies: Boko Haram and Islamic State’s West African branch, which split from the former group in 2016. “It is a very sad moment for the people and government of Borno state. About 60 persons were affected, among them, 10 have died,” said Babagana Zulum, the governor of Borno, of which Maiduguri is the capital. All of those killed were civilians, according to hospital and security officials. Airborne explosives began to rain down near the University of Maiduguri in the city’s east around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, said a Reuters witness, a resident and security officials. Blasts soon rocked other parts of eastern and northeastern Maiduguri. Insurgents were launching rocket-propelled grenades into Maiduguri from a distance, said Borno’s governor and security officials. One of the projectiles hit a children’s playground, Zulum said, without saying whether anyone was injured. “An explosion killed four people near my house,” said one resident, Ali Ciroma. A policeman and two security officials confirmed the deaths. Highlighting the rising instability, gunmen killed 36 people in two attacks in the northwest, a day after the attack on Maiduguri. The series of attacks by armed bandits occurred over the past 48 hours with 18 people killed each in villages of Kaduna and Katsina states and several others injured. The assailants burnt down houses, displacing the villagers. Hundreds of people have been killed in northern Nigeria by criminal gangs carrying out robberies and kidnappings.
Nigeria’s vice president in a speech said cryptocurrencies in the coming years will challenge traditional banking
  • Nigeria’s central bank and securities regulator need to find ways to regulate cryptocurrencies rather than prohibiting their use, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said on Friday, urging them to come up with a regime that would support growth and innovation. The central bank this month barred banks and financial institutions from dealing in or facilitating transactions in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, warning that banks that fail to act could face “severe regulatory sanctions”. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has meanwhile sought to regulate cryptocurrency investments on the grounds that they qualify as securities transactions. Both regulators said they had identified certain risks within the digital asset sector, without explaining further. Cryptocurrency use has boomed in Nigeria in recent years. But the central bank has argued that cryptocurrencies, which are unregulated and not legal tender, are risky for the user. “I fully appreciate the position of the central bank, the Securities and Exchange Commission and … the possible abuses of cryptocurrencies,” Vice President Osinbajo said. “There’s a role for regulation here and it is the place of our monetary authorities and SEC to provide a robust regulatory regime that addresses these serious concerns.” But addressing top bankers at an online meeting also attended by central bank governor Godwin Emefiele, Osinbajo also said disruption creates efficiency and progress, as has been seen in other sectors. “Cryptocurrencies in the coming years will challenge traditional banking, including reserve banking, in ways that we cannot yet imagine, so we need to be prepared for that seismic shift,” he added. Bitcoin has soared over 60% this year, hitting an all-time high of $58,354 this month as mainstream companies such as Tesla and Mastercard have embraced cryptocurrencies.

Nigeria bureau chief for Reuters. Ghanaian family, British accent. Ex-BBC, before that newspapers.