Four years ago, in the early hours of February 24, 2014, extremists suspected to be Boko Haram elements invaded the premises of Federal Government College (FGC), Buni-Yadi, in Gujba Local Government of Yobe State, killing at least 29 students. Another five students went missing and have not been seen or accounted for since then. All the students killed and those who disappeared were teenagers in whom their parents and communities invested considerable hope. The government then failed them desperately and their country has still not redeemed itself nor memorialised them properly.
FGC Buni-Yadi is one of 104 Unity Schools operated by Nigeria’s Federal Government around the country. In Yobe State, it was the only co-educational Unity School and it co-existed alongside Federal Government Girls College (FGGC), Potiskum, as one of two Unity Schools in the entire State.
Buni-Yadi itself is about 70 kilometres from Damaturu, the Yobe State capital. At the time of the attack, the school had been in existence for just about two decades, during which it had produced quality human capital for Yobe State and Nigeria.
The attack on FGC Buni-Yadi was the fourth prominent attack on secondary schools in Yobe State within one year. Prior to that, Boko Haram had attacked and destroyed Government Secondary School (GSS), Damaturu, Government Secondary School (GSS), Mamudo and the College of Agriculture in Gujba. There was a clear pattern of attacks designed to sack decent educational institutions in the neighbourhood. It was easily predictable that FGC Buni-Yadi would be next. Despite this, it was left unprotected. A lightly manned military post at the nearby Local Government Headquarters was all that stood between the school and destruction.
The assault on the school began after lights out. The students had retired for the night and were mostly asleep. The attack began shortly around 11:09 midnight. No one knows how many Boko Haram operatives actually participated. The survivors recount that they arrived in what looked like a military convoy, so they did not initially arouse suspicions. They drove through the school gate, into the premises and, in the four hours that ensued, unfolded a massacre in slow, methodical, motion.
They set upon the hall where the students did their variety and leisure activities and set it on fire, destroying all the instruments of leisure. In the hostel area, Niger House was the first (male) hostel to be attacked. They attacked the school with explosives and assault weapons. As confusion ensued, they went from bed to bed methodically killing sleeping, male students. As they killed the students, they lined up their dead bodies in front of Niger and Benue Houses.
Those who woke up to the realisation of what was happening could not believe themselves. Some managed to make it out alive and raised an alarm with the students in the other hostels. Pandemonium naturally followed as the children, not knowing exactly where the attack originated from, did not initially know in what direction to flee for safety. Many more would be injured as this tragedy unfolded.
From the male hostels, Boko Haram proceeded to the female hostel. There, they reportedly asked all the girls out and instructed them to leave the premises, forget going to school and go and get married. As the girls left, they watched their hostel set alight. It was burnt.
All buildings in the school were destroyed – offices, laboratories, hostels, staff facilities; nothing was spared. The only thing that they somehow forgot to destroy was the crest at the entrance of the school which remains a lonesome monument to the memory of the investments, dreams and memories that were so violently extinguished here.
No one fully knows how many children were killed. In the immediate aftermath of the killings and still smarting from untold trauma, the students and their teachers counted 29. But another five students disappeared and have not been found till today.
The federal government then issued a statement calling the attack “callous and senseless.” These same words could, however, easily have described the reaction of the government. After the statement, government went into business-as-usual mode. The teachers and students received no support. No one checked to find out the identities of the children who were killed or to locate the parents whose young ones returned from school in body bags. There was no inquiry or investigation. How was it that in over five hours that this massacre lasted, our country could not mobilise any assistance or reinforcement to help save these kids?
Parents who could still not be consoled because their children who were in FGC Buni-Yadi on that night have not been accounted for. Government behaved as if it did not care about their lives and as if their deaths did not matter.
Government behaved as if it did not care about their lives and as if their deaths did not matter. We kind of accepted that it was normal for children who go to school to be massacred in their beds with explosives and assault weapons. Politicians went about the business of canvassing for our votes. The official response was quite simply irresponsible and inexcusable.
Under pressure from various quarters, the Federal Government shortly thereafter evacuated five Unity Schools in the three states most affected by Boko Haram attacks. The schools were in Lassa and Monguno in Borno State; Buni-Yadi and Potiskum in Yobe State and Michika in Adamawa State. But it could easily have done more. If government had taken firmer steps to safeguard schools in the affected states and shown that it cared, with hindsight, the massacre of innocent, young learners at FGC Buni-Yadi four years ago was unquestionably one of the most significant developments in the Boko-Haram insurgency. It crystallised the failures of the administration and the limits of its imagination and emotional intelligence. Four years later, it is important today, as always, to remember the victims, their families and their communities. Even more, the successors of the government that behaved so abjectly in the face of that assault on its most vulnerable must heed the lessons from that day “government that behaves like it can’t care forfeits any claim to habitual obedience or support from those for whom it doesn’t care.”
May their gentle souls rest in perfect peace.