Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days

Nearly 300 schoolgirls were freed by an armed gang who abducted them from their boarding school in the northwest Nigerian state of Zamfara

In this week’s round-up: Gunmen release nearly 300 schoolgirls in northwest Nigeria, vaccine rollout launched after first COVAX doses arrive, and pandemic spawns banking agent boom.

  • Gunmen who kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from a boarding school in northwest Nigeria last week beat them and threatened to shoot them during a forced march into captivity, victims said after they were set free. The pupils from Jangebe, a town in Zamfara state, were seized in a raid just after midnight on Friday. All 279 had now been released by the gunmen, Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle said. Dozens of girls in Muslim veils sat in a hall in a state government building before being taken for medical checks. A few parents arrived, and one father wept with joy after seeing his daughter. Farida Lawali, 15, told how she and the other girls had been taken to a forest by the kidnappers. “They carried the sick ones that cannot move. We were walking in the stones and thorns,” she said, covered in a light blue veil. “They started hitting us with guns so that we could move,” she added. “While they were beating them with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time.” Another of the girls, Umma Abubakar, told Reuters they were forced to walk although many had injuries: “They said they will shoot anybody who did not continue to walk.” Relief at their return was tempered by concern over the circumstances of their release. A series of similar school abductions in recent months has led many Nigerians to worry that regional authorities are making the situation worse by letting kidnappers go unpunished or paying them off. Zailani Bappa, a media adviser to the state governor, denied that a ransom had been paid, but said the captors had been offered amnesty, as well as assistance to resettle at a site with newly built schools, a hospital and other facilities. But the state’s apparent conciliatory approach was at odds with the central government. President Muhammadu Buhari called for the captors to be brought to justice and said that if ransoms were being paid, this would make future attacks more likely. His national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, said the president had ordered a massive military deployment to Zamfara, banned mining and imposed a no-fly zone in the state. The central government “will not allow this country to drift into state failure,” Monguno said. “We are not going to be blackmailed.” But the military is already stretched, and it was difficult to assess whether the flight and mining bans would have much impact in a state with no major airport, and where many mines already operate illegally. Boarding schools in northern Nigeria have become targets for mass kidnappings for ransom by armed criminal gangs. The trend was started by the jihadist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014, around 100 of whom have never been found. But recent months have seen a sudden escalation of similar attacks, including the abduction of 344 boys in December.
  • The moment when the girls were reunited with their families was marred by violence. Our team in Jangebe reported that cheering children had lined the street as buses brought the girls, grinning and waving, back to their school from the Zamfara state capital Gusau, where they had been cared for in the wake of their release. Less than 40 minutes later, pandemonium broke out. As government officials in a hall were giving lengthy speeches in front of the girls, impatient parents burst in and grabbed their children to take them home. The officials ran out and shortly afterwards, reporters heard gunshots outside the school gates. They saw police firing tear gas at a group of protesters outside the school, and soldiers shooting into the air. At least three people were hit by bullets, but it was not immediately clear by whom. A Reuters journalist’s video showed hundreds of people fleeing down a side street. Two girls grabbed hands, ducked — and then ran as the soldiers fired. Elsewhere, people threw rocks at government officials’ and reporters’ cars hurriedly leaving town. The chaos drives home the desperation of the situation in the northwest Nigeria, where banditry has festered for years, rendering large swathes of the region lawless. Authorities in Nigeria’s Zamfara state declared a curfew and shut market activities after the violence.
  • A doctor who has spent the past year treating COVID-19 patients on Friday became the first person in Nigeria to be vaccinated against the disease, kicking off a mammoth campaign that aims to inoculate 80 million people this year. Vaccinating all of Nigeria’s 200 million people and those in other developing countries is seen as key to stemming the global spread of the coronavirus. “I am happy to be the first and I am happy I am not the last,” the doctor, 42-year-old Ngong Cyprian, told Reuters. “I want everybody to be vaccinated.” Two other male doctors and one female nurse were also inoculated in white tents draped in green, the colours of the national flag, while cameras rolled and officials clapped and cheered. Nigeria, with more than 150,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and around 2,000 deaths, has not been as hard hit by the pandemic as initially feared, but is aiming to vaccinate 40% of its people this year, and a further 30% in 2022.

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