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Menace of students’ abduction and fear of post traumatic stress disorder in victims

By Chijioke Iremeka
21 January 2023   |   4:15 am
One of the promises made to Nigerians by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari was to eradicate Boko Haram insurgency and other form of insurrections in the country within months of his presidency.

Experts are warning that the widespread abduction of school children across the country, that are usually released after many months or years in captivity, will have dire consequences for the victims, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes on the need to consciously evaluate the mental stability of the children and effectively treat any identified problem to ensure that the nation is not raising incoherent citizens.

One of the promises made to Nigerians by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari was to eradicate Boko Haram insurgency and other form of insurrections in the country within months of his presidency. The promise was made perhaps in response to the abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls during the President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.

Unfortunately, a few months to the end of the eight years of Buhari’s administration, the country has continued to witness the insurgency and other criminal activities that have led to destruction of lives and property of the citizens.

Among the most ravaging fallouts of the insurgency is the killing and maiming of school children, especially primary and secondary school pupils being kidnapped. Many of them were released to the society after being indoctrinated in their captors’ den, maltreated, sexually molested and turned into teenage mothers.

According to experts, the incarceration of these school children is threatening the mental wholesomeness of the country’s future leaders. They warned that the society would be worse off if no remedy is in place to tackle the menace. While some of the victims will forever live with this disorder, others may be plunged into what is psychologically referred to as Stockholm syndrome due to the magnitude of their indoctrination. They may decide to enlist into the armies of the terrorists against the state.

Stockholm syndrome is a proposed condition in which hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors. This is supposed to result from a rather specific set of circumstances – the power imbalances contained in hostage-taking, kidnapping and abusive relationships. 

The Guardian learnt that some of the kidnapped youth might never be salvaged again. More so, the thoughts and mindsets of the accidental mothers among them, who are currently nursing children fathered by the terrorists, are in the direction of the memories of their captivity and those children will continue to remind them of their incarceration.

Dealing with the resultant PTSD suffered by these survivors and others born by the criminal elements, and reabsorbing them into the larger society as wholesome citizens, has become a crucial task. The psychological and psychiatry treatment of these youngsters is fundamental, especially of the boys who may have seen violence as a language of negotiation or have been made to nurse animosity against the state for not protecting them, thereby creating more violent groups.

For better understanding of this situation, a consultant psychologist and surgeon with Epe General Hospital, Epe, Lagos, Dr. Cynthia Obiora defined post-traumatic stress disorder as a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event, either experiencing it or witnessing it, saying that symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

“Most people, who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks,” she explained.

The recent report by a global human rights group, Amnesty International attributed the increasing spate of school abduction to deliberate inaction on the part of the government to prevent the attack.

In a statement released to that effect, Amnesty International said Nigeria was failing to protect vulnerable children, insisting that by refusing to respond to alerts of impending attacks on schools across the country, the Nigerian authorities had failed to prevent mass abductions of school children.

The statistics published by Amnesty reported that a total of 11, 536 schools were closed since December 2020 due to abductions and security issues. The report also states that the school closures have negatively impacted the education of approximately 1.3 million children in the 2020/21 academic year. It noted that this interruption of learning contributes to gaps in children’s knowledge and skills, which may lead to the loss of approximately $3.4 billion in these children’s lifetime earnings.

According to Amnesty International, children in orphanages, schools and places of worship are often abducted and held in captivity for weeks, and sometimes months, depending on when or if the demands of their abductors are met. It noted that children in school buses or those walking to schools are sometimes ambushed and abducted for ransom. 

“No child should go through what children are going through now in Nigeria. Education should not be a matter of life and death for anyone. Nigeria is failing children once again in a horrifying manner,” said the Director of Amnesty International, Nigeria Osai Ojigho.

He noted that school children in some parts of northern Nigeria are constantly at the risk of death or abduction, and that over 1, 500 children have been abducted for ransom since February 2021 during mass attacks on schools or religious institutions, with some of the children killed during the attacks.

It was learnt that parents of the abducted children or the school authorities are sometimes made to provide food and clothing for the children while in captivity. The future of thousands of school children in Northern Nigeria remains bleak, as hundreds of schools in some states have been closed indefinitely due to rising insecurity. Many children have abandoned education due to the psychological trauma of witnessing violent attacks or living in captivity. 

A primary school teacher in the community where 317 school children were abducted on 26 February 2021 in Jangebe LGA, Zamfara State said insecurity had drastically reduced school attendance, as children are afraid of attending school even when forced by their parents. 

A 15-year-old boy who sustained injury while escaping mass abduction in his school told Amnesty International that he would not be returning to school whenever it reopened. “If school reopens, I won’t go back to the boarding school, I will rather become a day student elsewhere. Anytime I remember what happened, I get scared; it’s disturbing me. I want all the children, most especially my cousins, to be rescued.” 

The Guardian observed that when education institutions are targeted or attacked, the damage and consequences could be major and far-reaching. The protection of children’s lives is paramount, and the Nigerian authorities have a duty to ensure that the country’s educational sector is not further threatened by the abductions, intimidation and killing of school children. 

Section 27 of the Child Rights Act prohibits abduction of children. Having ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Nigeria has an obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent abduction of children and to guarantee their right to education. 

“No person shall remove or take a child out of the custody or protection of his father or mother, guardian or such other person having lawful care or charge of the child against the will of the father, mother, guardian or other person,” Section 27 of the Child Rights Act 2003 reads.

Two girls and a boy abducted from the Federal Government College, Birnin Yauri, Kebbi State on June 17, 2021 were found dead days after their abduction. Two of them were shot in their legs while the third was suspected to have died of ill health. 

On June 6, 2021, the body of a three-year-old boy abducted at the Salihu Tanko Islamic School, Tegina, Niger State was found a few kilometers away from the town, while five other children abducted during the raid also died in captivity. At least 136 children between the ages of 3 and 15 were abducted during the raid and freed on the August 26 after months in captivity.  

On February 17, Benjamin Doma was killed while trying to escape during an attack on his school, the Government Science College, Kagara, Niger State. Also, 27 school children were abducted during the raid. 

On September 19, Edeh Donald, a student of Marist Comprehensive Academy, Uturu, Abia State died when their school bus was attacked by gunmen along Ihube road in Okigwe Local Government Area while returning with his schoolmates from an excursion. 

It was learnt that the attack on children by armed groups is deliberate. Using children as shields or bargaining chips is unacceptable and must stop. The Nigerian government must investigate these attacks as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On April 14, 2014, about 276, mostly Christian female students, aged from 16 to 18 were kidnapped by Boko Haram from the Government Girls Secondary School at Chibok in Borno State. About 57 of the schoolgirls escaped immediately by jumping from the trucks in which they were being transported. The Nigerian Armed Forces rescued others on various occasions. Hope was raised that the 219 remaining girls might be released, however, some girls are believed to be dead. Amina Ali, one of the missing girls, was found in May 2016.

 
Barely four years after the attack on Chibok, the insurgents took their onslaught to Yobe. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed confirmed that 110 students were kidnapped after Boko Haram invaded the Government Girls Science Technical College (GGSTC) in Dapchi on Monday, February 19, 2018.

Although most of the students have reunited with their families after they were released on March 21, 2018 by their abductors, Leah Sharibu is yet to be freed by the gunmen for her alleged refusal to convert to Islam.
 
On Friday, December 11, 2020, bandits took 303 students of the Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State into captivity and a week after, the abductors released them. 
 
Less than two days after the kidnapped Kankara students’ release, some gunmen abducted over 80 Islamic school students in the same Katsina State. Security forces quickly rescued the pupils during a fierce gun battle, according to the police. This took place in Dandume, about 64 kilometres from Kankara, the town where the earlier kidnapping of schoolboys occurred.
 
Again, gunmen invaded a school in Niger State on Wednesday, February 17, 2021, kidnapping 41 persons. The attackers raided the Government Science College, Kagara, Shiroro LGA of Niger State, capturing students, teachers, and their family members. About 27 students were among the abductees.
 
Less than 11 days after the bandits raided Kagara, gunmen kidnapped 317 schoolgirls from the Government Girls Science Secondary School, Jangebe in Jangebe, Zamfara State. The incident happened on Friday, February 26, 2021. On March 11, 2021, gunmen attacked Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation, Afaka, Igabi LGA, Kaduna State and kidnapped 39 students, just weeks after a similar attack in Jangebe, Zamfara State. The abducted comprised 23 females and 16 males. Security forces were able to rescue 180 staff and students the next day.
 
On April 5, 2021, the government of Kaduna State announced that five of the 39 people abducted from the Afaka school had been released. On April 8, 2021, another five students were released, leaving 29 still in captivity. On May 5, 2021, the state government announced that the remaining 29 students had been released after spending 55 days in captivity.

 
Next in line was the Greenfield University kidnap, which took place on April 20, 2021 when at least 20 students and two staff were abducted in Kasarami village, Chikun LGA, Kaduna State. The kidnappers demanded N800 million ransom. Unfortunately, on April 23, 2021, the kidnappers killed three of the students. On May 29, 2021, after 40 days in captivity, the remaining 14 students were freed. Their parents also said they paid a ransom of N150 million and eight brand new motorcycles to the bandits.
 
On May 30, 2021, an armed gang abducted dozens of students from an Islamiyya School in Niger State. One of the school’s officials disclosed that the attackers initially took more than 100 children “but later sent back those they considered too small for them, those between four and 12 years old.”
 
On Thursday June 17 heavily armed bandits struck at the Federal Government College, Birnin Yauri, Yauri Local Government Area of Kebbi State. Bethel Baptist School’s pupils were also abducted and released 56 days later.

In the recent times, security operatives have been brought to their knees with the incessant kidnapping of innocent young Nigerians from their schools. The pupils have been exposed to terrorism horror and nightmare at their different formative ages.  

Kidnapping of these underage school children, who have become endangered species, is done with high impunity by their captors, whether bandits, Boko Haram or herdsmen, as the government has not shown enough and genuine interest in confronting this corrosive crime headlong.
 
There is no month that comes and goes without Nigerians hearing the heartrending news of school children being kidnapped from their schools regardless of their ages and how psychologically they are affected and traumatised in and after their captivity.
 
“There is no doubt that there might be cases of suicides and suicide attempts among these children as aftermath of their experiences in the kidnapping hideaway, if they are not properly evaluated and followed up collectively and, perhaps, individually by mental health experts until they are mentally stable,” a psychiatric nurse, Esther Bolanle with the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos said.

 
“As part of their ordeals in the hands of these rampaging terrorist groups, many of these kidnap victims are being indoctrinated, dehumanised, tortured and sexually ravaged by their abductors as evident in some of the released Chibok girls, who, perchance, kidnapped as virgins but returned home as mothers,” she lamented.
 
While their parents may be counting their losses in paying through their nose, selling plots of land, houses and borrowing money to secure the release of their children, the children are paying the greater price, going through the psychological trauma which many of them will live with for the rest of their lives if their systems are not receptive to their recovery therapy.
 
What the children of Salihu Tanko Islamiyya School, Tegina in Rafi Local Government Area of Niger State, who were kidnapped and released a year ago went through in their 88 days in incarceration is better imagined than experienced. The harrowing incident would follow them to their homes.
 
About two of the Islamiyya school’s pupils died directly in the kidnappers’ den while others were freed with different level of mental torture and anguish to fight in their lives after spending about 89 days in hostile destinations.
 
One of the released students, Zuwaira Isa, said the main reason he was still in shock was because he was remembering the way they trekked for over four days in the forest before reaching their final destination with floggings and without food.
 
“We passed different villages, saw people but everyone minded his or her business. No one came to our aid because we could not even shout for help. It’s a crime to talk or cry out for help. The little ones amongst us were being transported on the bandits’ motorcycles throughout the movement,” the victim said.
 
Another released pupil, Hauwa Musa, said: “They usually beat us and threatened to kill us and dump our bodies in the bush if our parents did not pay the ransom. I thought that was the end of my life, especially when I lost my younger brother, Hayatu.” Musa said the bandits were giving them small food and one sachet water to be shared between two persons in a day.

A Clinical Psychologist at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Dr. Charlie Ume earlier described the lives of teenagers released from kidnappers’ den without proper psychological intervention and follow-up as a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

 
According to him, forceful separation of these minors from their respective families leads to threat to their lives, one cannot be tortured without being beaten down emotionally.
 
A psychologist, Marchardy Joel, affirmed that Nigeria would be gradually grooming mentally unstable young people if proper measures are not put in place to evaluate the mental health of these children kidnapped and released at will.
 
“We cannot emphasise enough how important it is to follow up the lives of these children being kidnapped and released from kidnappers’ den. Now, they are with their parents after being released and the burden of what they went through will be on their parents. But in future, the burden will be on the society and Nigeria, if nothing is done to rehabilitate them.
 
“These parents may not know the necessary steps to take to ensure that these children’s mental health is well taken care of. What the children went through is not normal. It’s forceful separation; it’s incarceration of minors and this leads to threat to lives.
 
“One of the consequences of these abnormal treatments on the children is PTSD. One of the situations that would occur in the future if these children were not helped to live with the sadness is that the trauma can become anger in future. 
 
“It can lower their level of functioning. The bottled up anger may lead to blaming themselves, asking themselves questions like why me? Why did society and the government not protect me? If I’m not safe in my country, what is my future? 
 
“Answers to these questions can set these children off more into depression (and then suicide). Some may grow up with this anger wanting to get back at the society, which abandoned them. We pretend that all is well because these children have been released, but that is where we are wrong.
 
“Some of these children may not get over what they went through in the near future. Many of them will wake up in the middle of the night with seizures and traumatised dreams. Some may recoil into a shell never to come out and this will affect the society in future,” the expert explained.
 
“One way or another, these children would want to find happiness and may end up depending on hard drugs to be able to face their situation and believe they cannot function without drugs, which would eventually make them drugs addicts,” Joel added.
 
The Guardian learnt that there might be high cases of mental disorders among young people if something were not done to follow up on their mental health.

“Some may have lower self-esteem, which may degenerate into depression and then suicide. Some may get aggressive and fall into crime, thereby giving up on the morals their parents instilled in them before being kidnapped. My advice is that these children should be identified by the government and assigned professional psychologists to follow up on them until they are mentally stable,” he added.  

The Deputy Director, Medical Social Services, Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), a social worker and psychologist, Titilayo Tade said the children must get enough help because quite a number of them might have been indoctrinated into the beliefs of some of their captors. 
 
“They may be back with their families but their minds are somewhere else. You may find out that a child that was not overly religious before he or she was kidnapped may start being overly religious. So, if they do not get enough help, they may one day get up and look like minded people to set up another bandit group,” she said.
 
Tade also pointed out that the longer people stay in captivity, the more they develop what is called Stockholm syndrome whereby the person or people start relating with their abductors, captors or kidnappers. They may start believing that their abductors are fighting a good cause and may be brainwashed into joining them.

“Being kidnapped comes with a lot of hopelessness and helplessness. While some will resign to their fate, others may continue looking for an escape route. The ones constantly looking for a way out are the ones likely to get into trouble and no one knows what their punishment would be.

“Some may feel guilty, others may feel sad and very depressed. Some may recoil into their shell. Some may have feelings of numbness – ‘oh, it has happened, it may happen again’. There is nothing special in this life. If they come tomorrow, we have no option than to follow because no one can save us. These children will have to do a lot of therapy.

 
“While group therapy will work for some, others may require individualised therapy. There are those that might need years of therapy to recover. Some may feel more comfortable speaking with other children that went through similar situations.
 
“This is where the government can create a support group for these children to talk and get healed from what they went through. The support group will be for children who are willing because some of the trauma can reoccur as simple or aggressive events can trigger it.

“You see someone that has been doing well because of therapy relapsing. This may be because he or she witnessed a robbery attack or heard a gunshot. Any event can trigger the trauma and the person goes back to square one.”

A parent of one of the survivors, Hadiza Isah, who is worried about the children’s mental and physical state, said most of them could stay up to two or more hours without muting to anybody.

The Proprietor of the Islamiyya School, Mallam Idris Musa, who lost an abducted child, said the trauma of his other kidnapped children was more. He expressed fear of health problems.
 
“I’m sure their shock is when they remember how their brother, Hayatu, died without help in the camp and they could not do anything. It is obvious they behave strangely,” he added.