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The semiotics of school abductions in Nigeria

Since nothing happens in Nigeria these days without some political undertones, a semiotic analysis of insecurity in the country today cannot be undertaken successfully without recourse to politics. However, since no political analysis in the country is complete without recourse to the primordial factors of ethnicity, language, and religion, any semiotic analysis of insecurity in the country will also be incomplete without recourse to these primordial factors.

Nevertheless, the signs to be analyzed here are not merely the traditional symbolic (linguistic), iconic (pictorial), and symptomatic (correlational) signs. Rather, they are all and more at the same time. The actors speak the language of guns, bombs, and ransom. And they spare no time of day for their activities.

Taken together, the actors, their actions, and the discourses about them are signs of disruption and rupture, indicating a state on the verge of disintegration. At one extreme, the situation beckons the Haiti of Aristide days, when that country was at the height of hunger and devastating poverty. At the other extreme, it smells of Rwanda, Sudan, and the old Yugoslavia, all ravaged by ethnic and other divisions.

Herdsmen-farmers clashes and school abductions are two of the alarming signs of rupture in Nigeria today, The former has led to heated debates between Southern defenders of the victims and Northern defenders of the marauding herdsmen.  School abductions, on the other hand, have revealed the security lapses in the North and, by implication, the nation at large.

When school abduction first occurred in 2014, involving a little less than 300 girls in Chibok, Borno State, it appeared like a one-off event, never to be repeated. However, by negotiating their release with Boko Haram insurgents, President Muhammadu Buhari inadvertently made abductions part of the large-scale scheme of kidnapping for ransom, which has been occurring across the country.

In contradistinction to Boko Haram, which is opposed to secular education, the abductors after them have no coherent ideology beyond money making as they are largely interested in the ransom to be collected.

Although still limited to the North, school abductions are now occurring more frequently.

The follow-up to Chibok took four years: In 2018, over 100 schoolgirls were abducted from Dapchi, Yobe state. However, it only took two years before the third incident occurred in December 2020, when over 300 students were abducted from Kankara, Katsina State.

Since last December, however, school abductions have become even more frequent, involving over 600 captives. Barely two months after Kankara, over 40 students and staff were abducted from Kagara in Niger state.
Less than 10 days later, another abduction took place in Jangebe in Zamfara state, involving 317 schoolgirls.

This short summary opens up various interpretations. First, it would appear that the bandits (a diverse collective, including kidnappers, armed robbers, herdsmen, and rustlers) now find school abductions more lucrative than kidnapping individuals on the highway. Accordingly, at least in the past few weeks, there appears to be a reduction of kidnapping on the highways in the South but a simultaneous spike of school abductions in the North.

Besides, the abductors seem to derive more profit from the publicity attending school abductions, thereby spurring political leaders to take quick action. This is attested by rate and speed at which the recent abductees were released. At least some state governors are known to have at least accommodated the abductors in some way in exchange for the abductees.

Second, recent school abductions have been taking place in the Northwest, where banditry has been going on for years. No state in the zone has been free from banditry in the last few years. In the absence of decisive action by the affected governments, these developments have now snowballed into the school abductions we’ve been witnessing in the last three months.

Third, the combination of Boko Haram’s onslaught on Western education, the rampant school abductions by bandits, and the reactionary closure of schools in several Northern states adds further complications to the already low literacy, out-of-school children, and poverty in the North.

While this may be viewed as a regional problem, it really is a national problem. For years, Northern poverty, illiteracy, and relatively low contributions to the nation’s GDP have been a drag on the entire national economy. So has pastoralism, which some Northern leaders call “the Fulani traditional way of life”, affected agricultural production, especially in the Middle Belt and the South, by causing destruction of farmlands in the hands of marauding herdsmen and their cows.

The critical followup to these developments should be a decisive national action, which the Federal Government has failed to provide. True, the President occasionally talks about these problems, the promised solutions have hardly materialized.

When school abductions are mapped onto other insecurity issues, and the demands for self actualization by various groups, we have a nation truly in crisis and on the verge of disintegration. This is further complicated by an economy further depressed by the COVID-19 pandemic; large-scale youth unemployment and underemployment; inadequate infrastructure; and raging ethnic and religious divisions, we have a nation on the verge of failure. This is the kind of failure the Financial Times recently warned Nigerian leaders to avert.

The present situation in the country does not show that the leaders have heeded this warning. It is now time to do so.

Simple, single solutions, such as  the establishment of state police or even fiscal federalism are no longer sufficient. What, for example, will state police do when the police is grossly under-staffed and under-equipped? How will a state struggling to pay salaries be able to meet these shortfalls in the short term?

A comprehensive solution is now needed that will involve all branches of federal and state governments; traditional and religious leaders; sociocultural organizations; nationalist agitators; civil society organizations; professional groups; university experts; youth groups; and so on. This list immediately points to the need for a national consensus on how best to save the republic.

A body can be set up immediately to review existing documents from the various national conferences and  present the recommendations to the larger body for necessary modifications. Ultimately, the National Assembly should work the ensuing recommendations into law before the 2023 presidential election. The goal should be to make the bill a mandate for the incoming President to implement.


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