Nigeria: Families of missing train passengers bemoan govt silence

Relatives of the abducted passengers say government inefficiency led to the attack and is delaying rescue efforts.

A train departs from Rigasa station in Kaduna, Nigeria
A train departs from Rigasa station in Kaduna, Nigeria [File: TJ Benson/Al Jazeera]

Almost two weeks after an attack on a Nigerian passenger train killed eight people and left more than 150 remain missing, families say they are yet to get updates from the Nigerian government.

On March 28, suspected bandits detonated a bomb on the tracks and opened fire on the train just outside the northwest city of Kaduna, stopping the train on its tracks. The missing passengers are believed to have been abducted by the armed group.

Families of abducted passengers say they have been in anguish since and accuse the Nigerian government of neglect and an information blackout.

“An answer is all we have always wanted,” Amriah Sani* who asked for her real name to be withheld to avoid endangering the safety of her two family members in captivity, told Al Jazeera.

She was one of those who organised a small protest in Abuja at a Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) event, to demand answers from the government about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

“Ever since this started, there has not been one single government official that has called any of the family members to say have you heard from family members or to even ask us for intel,” she said. “The abductors have reached out to us and [let] our family members speak with [us]. You might expect that this might interest the government right, even [if] they are not going to help us.”

In the past decade, there has been an escalation of violence and attacks on civilians and recently, the military in Nigeria’s northwest. The attacks are credited to a medley of criminal groups known locally as bandits, who use forests as operation bases to launch attacks across mostly rural parts of the region.

According to the Kaduna state government, at least 343 people were killed in bandit attacks between July and September 2021, while 830 people were kidnapped within the same period.

Who are the suspects?

In the northeast, Boko Haram, an armed group seeking to topple the Nigerian government and institute an Islamic caliphate has also been masterminding attacks since 2009. The group has now been joined by bandits and amorphous groups that have spread across central and northwest Nigeria.

Recently, the attacks have spread into urban areas typified by an earlier attack on Kaduna Airport which killed one – and the train attack.

Two days ago, a video surfaced on the internet. In it, four men clad in full military gear and sporting heavy ammunition including an RPG, stand with another man whom media reports identified as the Managing Director of the Bank of Agriculture, Alwan Ali-Hassan.

The armed men announced Ali-Hassan’s release as a “Ramadan gesture” because of his age but according to Reuters, his family said an undisclosed ransom was paid.

The men in the video also announced that they have told the government what they want but families of the victims say they have no idea which group was behind the train attack.

Bulama Bukarti, a senior analyst with the Extremism Policy Unit at the Toni Blair Institute for Global Change said the men also spoke Kanuri, the main language of Borno, the birthplace of Boko Haram’s operations.

Earlier reports had credited the attack to suspected bandits but researchers monitoring insecurity in the north say there is emerging evidence the attack might have been carried out by Boko Haram.

“There are three broad reasons why this could be Boko Haram,’’  said Bukarti. “When you look at the video closely, the language used mimics that of Boko Haram. In the beginning, they started with [a] religious opening which is typical of jihadist groups and there was no time bandits opened with that kind of opening as we saw in their videos.

‘’Second, they kept using religious terminologies throughout. Also, the two speakers in the video do not have the Fulani accents because we know that bandits are overwhelmingly Fulani. And more generally their appearance, they dress in full military attire. Bandits don’t look as professional terrorists as these ones do.’’

The group in the video did not directly state their affiliation but there have been concerns about the possible expansion of Boko Haram or any of its factions, Ansaru or ISWAP, the the Islamic State in West Africa Province, to the region. The latter has since allied itself with ISIS (ISIL).

In October, Kaduna state governor Nasir El-Rufai had said that “the biggest fear we have in the northwest is that they [Boko Haram] are relocating to the northwest because they are being chased out from the northeast by ISWAP.”

“It has been absolutely mute from the government and we are all in the dark and we are all just making assumptions,’’ Sani said of the families’ plight. “Today, we think it is Boko Haram, the next we think it’s bandits, the next we think it is Ansaru. And we really do not know what is going on.’’

Despite the emerging evidence, others have called for caution in making presumptions.

‘’We can only be very hypothetical at this stage,” Vincent Foucher, a research fellow with the French National Centre for Science Research who also researches Boko Haram, told Al Jazeera. “It could also be bandits demanding the liberation of some of their own.”

“We cannot sleep”

Aisha Mohammed*, a 43-year-old woman whose two siblings were among the abducted passengers, was among those who led the gathering yesterday in Abuja. She also wanted her real name withheld for fear of angering the government and endangering security of her relatives.

She bemoaned the scarce attention given to the families at the event, claiming an official called their presence “an embarrassment to the government”.

They continue to wait but say the pain they feel is even more crushing because of government inaction.

“There is food [but] we cannot eat,” Mohammed said in a teary voice. “We cannot sleep. Our minds are only imagining things, where are they? What situations are they in?”

For commuters along the ever-busy Kaduna-Abuja routes which are links between the capital city and the economic powerhouse of the north, there are no safe alternatives. All forms of transportation have come under attack in recent months, leading to fatalities and abductions.

“This train belongs to the federal government and the government makes us believe that the train is the safest mode of transportation [along the routes],” she lamented. “We cannot go to Kaduna by air and by road. We decided to join the government’s train and here we are.”

Source: Al Jazeera