Hopes fade of finding survivors of Nigeria high-rise collapse as toll rises

By Fikayo Owoeye

LAGOS (Reuters) – Hopes are fading of finding survivors four days after a high-rise apartment block building under construction collapsed and trapped scores of people in the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos, officials said.

Ibrahim Farinloye, head of the national emergency unit in Lagos, said the death toll stood at 36. The Lagos state emergency agency put the casualty number at 29 and said eight people had been critically injured.

Large crowds, including anxious family members, have been gathering daily near the site of the collapse, now a pile of broken masonry and mangled steel.

Lagos governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu on Thursday said a six-member panel of engineers, architects and town planers had been appointed to “bring closure to this event and ensure that justice is served”.

The panel has a month to present its findings.

Building collapses are frequent in Africa’s most populous country, where regulations are poorly enforced and construction materials often substandard.

Phone numbers for the project owner, main contractor, project manager, structural engineers and architects listed near the collapsed building could not be reached when Reuters called on Thursday.

The collapsed building, in the affluent neighborhood of Ikoyi, was one of three planned high-end apartment blocks.

Moshood Adesola, a witness who works in a nearby office, told Reuters that more than 50 people worked at the site daily.

(Additional reporting by Lanre Ola in Maiduguri; Writing by Chijioke Ohuocha; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Several workers trapped under collapsed high-rise in Nigeria -witnesses

By Nneka Chile

LAGOS (Reuters) – A luxury residential high-rise under construction in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos collapsed on Monday, trapping several workers under a pile of concrete rubble, witnesses said.

Two workers at the site in the affluent neighborhood of Ikoyi, where many blocks of flats are under construction, told Reuters that possibly 100 people were at work when the building came crashing down.

Building collapses are frequent in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where regulations are poorly enforced and construction materials often substandard.

There were heaps of rubble and twisted metal where the 20-story building once stood, as several workers looked on. One man wailed, saying his relative was among those trapped.

It was not immediately clear what caused the collapse.

The building was part of three towers being built by private developer Fourscore Homes. In a brochure for potential clients, the company promises to offer “a stress-free lifestyle, complete with a hotel flair.” The cheapest unit was selling for $1.2 million.

Calls to the numbers listed for Fourscore Homes and the main building contractor did not ring through.

The Lagos State Emergency Management Agency said it had activated its emergency response plan. “All first responders are at the scene while heavy duty equipment and life detection equipment have been dispatched,” the agency said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa, writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe, editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)

Nigerian state to shut camps for people displaced by insurgency

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigeria’s Borno state, the epicenter of an ongoing Islamist insurgency, will shut all camps that are holding thousands of internally displaced persons by the end of the year, its governor said on Friday, citing improved security in the state.

The conflict between the insurgents and Nigeria’s armed forces has also spread to Chad and Cameroon and has left about 300,000 dead and millions dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.

Borno, which shares a border with Niger, Cameroon and Chad has for more than a decade been the foremost outpost of an insurgency led by Islamist group Boko Haram and later its offshoot Islamic State for West Africa Province (ISWAP).

Speaking after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Borno governor Babgana Zulum said security had improved in the state so much that those living in camps in the state capital Maiduguri could return home.

“So far so good, Borno State government has started well and arrangements have been concluded to ensure the closure of all internally displaced persons camps that are inside Maiduguri metropolis on or before 31st December, 2021,” Zulum said.

But humanitarian groups say most families are unwilling to return to their ancestral lands especially in the northern parts of Borno, which they deem unsafe.

Buhari has in the past months claimed his government was gaining ground on the insurgents. Last week the country’s top general said ISWAP leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi was dead, without giving details.

Zulum said Borno state authorities would continue to repatriate Nigerian refugees from a camp in Cameroon.

Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau died in May and Nigeria says hundreds of fighters loyal to the Islamist group have been surrendering to the government since then.

(Reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by David Gregorio)

Joy as parents reunited with kidnapped Nigerian students

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Ninety children abducted from a school in Nigeria were reunited on Friday with their parents after being held captive for nearly three months, part of a wave of mass kidnappings by armed gangs that have spread fear across the north of the country.

“Today is the happiest and most joyful day for me and my family,” said Ali Gimi, whose five children were among those kidnapped from an Islamic school in Niger state on May 30.

“We had lost our joy and happiness. This is like a dream, after I had started losing hope,” he said. “As I am speaking to you, the whole of our family has gathered at my house to celebrate their safe return.”

Authorities say 136 children were initially seized at the school, though some later escaped. One, a five year old boy, died during captivity. The kidnappers had initially said six had died, but this proved to be a lie to scare parents into paying the ransom.

“We suffered terribly in their hands,” one child, Ahmed Mohamed, told journalists. “They tied us up from morning till evening.”

Mass kidnappings of schoolchildren, once a notorious tactic by Islamist militants to intimidate the population, have become a money-spinning industry for armed gangs demanding ransom payments. Authorities say 1,000 children have been abducted since December in northwestern Nigeria.

The 90 schoolchildren, along with two other abductees who were not identified, were released late on Thursday. Parents had sent a total of 65 million naira ($160,000) and six motorbikes as ransom, three parents told Reuters.

In a separate incident on Friday, kidnappers also released 15 students and four staff members who were taken earlier this month from an agricultural college in Zamfara state, a school source told Reuters.

The government has implored states not to pay ransoms, but desperate parents and communities often raise the funds themselves.

“We will do whatever it takes to bring them to justice,” Niger state Governor Abubakar Sani Bello said of the kidnappers. “We have put in place all necessary measures to hunt down and prosecute those involved in this heinous act.”

($1 = 411.0000 naira)

(Reporting By Maiduguri newsroom; Writing by Libby George; Editing by Peter Graff)

Desperate Nigerians sell homes and land to free kidnapped children

By Abraham Achirga and Libby George

TEGINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – After armed men snatched seven of Abubakar Adam’s 11 children in northwestern Nigeria, he sold his car and a parcel of land and cleaned out his savings to raise a ransom to free them.

He sent his 3 million naira ($7,300) into the bush, together with payments from other families in his town of Tegina. The kidnappers took the money, seized one of the men delivering it and sent back a new demand for more cash and six motorbikes.

“We are in agony,” the 40-year-old tire repairman told Reuters, still waiting for any sign of what happened to his children three months after the mass abduction. “Honestly I don’t have anything left.”

Kidnappers have taken more than 1,000 students since December amid a rash of abductions across the impoverished northwest. Around 300 of the children have still not been returned, according to a Reuters tally of reports.

President Muhammadu Buhari has told states not to pay anything to kidnappers, saying it will only encourage more abductions. Security agencies say they are targeting the bandits with military action and other methods.

Meanwhile, hundreds of parents are facing the same quandary: do everything they can to raise the ransoms themselves, or risk never seeing their children again.

“We are begging the government to help,” said Aminu Salisu, whose eight-year-old son was taken in the same daylight raid on Tegina’s Salihu Tanko Islamic school in May, alongside more than 130 students.

Salisu cleared out his own savings and sold everything in his shop to raise his contribution. The owner of the school sold off half the grounds. Together, with the help of friends, relatives and strangers, the people of Tegina said they raised 30 million naira.

But that still wasn’t enough for the bandits.

Kidnappers collected more than $18 million in ransom from June 2011 to March 2020 in Nigeria, according to an estimate by Lagos-based analysts SBM Intelligence.

That flood of cash brought a flood of new kidnappers, said Bulama Bukarti, an analyst in the Extremism Policy Unit of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He estimated there were currently around 30,000 bandits operating in the northwest.

“It’s the most thriving, the most lucrative industry in Nigeria,” he told Reuters. Kidnapping has become a tempting career choice for young men at a time of economic slump, double-digit inflation and 33% unemployment.

“From December, we saw the Pandora’s box open. They saw it was possible. They saw that nothing happened to the attackers,” Bukarti said.

In December, gunmen kidnapped 344 boys from the Government Science Secondary School in the northwestern state of Katsina during a night-time raid. The kidnappers released the boys a week later, but it set off a spate of similar kidnappings across the region.

The bandits took a page from the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which seized more than 200 schoolgirls from the northeastern town of Chibok in 2014. That group had ideological aims and forced some of the girls to marry fighters.

The armed kidnappers in the northwest are motivated by money, experts say.

“A LIFE-AND-DEATH MATTER”

The abductions have piled more pressure on President Buhari, who promised to tackle insecurity at his inauguration in 2019.

They have also tested the security services. The military – pitted against the kidnappers in the northwest, Islamist insurgents in the northeast, separatists in the southeast and piracy in the Delta – is deployed to at least 30 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed, in an interview with Reuters, defended the strategy not to pay ransoms.

Instead, he said, the government had destroyed multiple bandit camps and tried other approaches to tackle banditry.

He declined to give details, citing the need for secrecy around ongoing operations, but said all levels of government are working to free the children.

“We are winning the war against insurgency and we are winning the war against banditry,” Mohammed said.

The government of Niger state, which includes Tegina, declined to comment. Officials working with the governor said they needed to keep their efforts secret.

Meanwhile, the challenges keep mounting.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO, tracked a 28% increase in violence nationwide in Nigeria in the first six months of 2021, compared with the previous six months.

Reported fatalities from violence nationwide rose 61% to 5,197, it said.

It all explains, Bukarti of the Extremism Policy Unit said, why Adam and other parents are willing to sell everything they have to pay ransoms themselves.

“They cannot afford (it) by any means. But it’s a life-and-death matter. And they know security agencies cannot free their loved ones.”

(Reporting By Maiduguri newsroom and Abraham Achirga in Tegina and Libby George in Lagos; Additional reporting by David Lewis and Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Nigeria receives 4 million doses of covid-19 vaccines from U.S. government

By Felix Onuah

ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigeria has received 4 million doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines donated by the United States government, its health minister said on Monday, as the West African country battles a third wave of infections.

Osagie Ehanire said the vaccines, which arrived on Sunday, are undergoing validation by the country’s drug regulator. He said the doses will be distributed to the local states once they are certified fit for use.

The U.S. government last week shipped nearly 10 million doses to two of the most populous African countries – Nigeria and South Africa.

“Vaccination in Nigeria should soon begin with the arrival … of Moderna vaccines, thanks to the United States government,” Ehanire told a coronavirus briefing in Abuja.

He said Nigeria would receive over 40 million doses by the end of the year, without providing details.

The primary healthcare agency said last month that Nigeria had exhausted an initial supply of nearly 4 million shots and expects to receive nearly 8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of August, including the U.S. government donation.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has seen a rise in coronavirus cases since mid July. Some 174,315 cases and 2,149 deaths have been recorded since the pandemic began in early 2020, official data shows.

It recently detected the highly contagious Delta variant, with the health minister warning that the country was going through a third wave of the infection.

Resident doctors in Nigerian public hospitals began an indefinite strike on Monday over grievances that include the delayed payment of salaries and allowances, the doctors’ union said, as coronavirus infections rise.

(Writing by Chijioke Ohuocha; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Police in Nigeria secure release of 100 kidnapping victims

LAGOS (Reuters) – Police and government authorities have secured the release of 100 people, including women, children and nursing mothers, who were kidnapped from their village in northwestern Nigeria over a month ago, a local police spokesperson said.

Nigeria is battling an increase in armed robberies and kidnappings for ransom, mainly in northwestern states, where thinly deployed security forces have struggled to contain the rise of armed gangs, commonly referred to as bandits.

The released captives had been abducted on June 8 from Manawa village in Zamfara state, Mohammed Shehu, the state’s police spokesperson, said in a statement sent to Reuters on Wednesday.

He said their release had been secured “without giving any financial or material gain.”

“They will be medically checked and debriefed before (being) reunited with their respective families,” the statement added.

While northeastern Nigeria has faced a decade of insecurity, including attacks by Islamist militants including Islamic State-allied Boko Haram, the current wave of kidnappings is primarily financially motivated.

Lagos-based consultancy SBM Intelligence estimates that kidnappers took 2,371 people across Nigeria in the first half of this year, demanding ransoms totaling 10 billion naira ($24.33 million).

The bulk of those were abducted in the northern states of Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger. SBM said it could not accurately assess how much has been paid in ransoms.

Over 200 students as well as scores of others taken in kidnapping raids are still being held captive.

($1 = 411.0000 naira)

(Reporting By Libby George, additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom and Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Joe Bavier)

U.N. agency says 41 million on verge of famine

By Maytaal Angel

LONDON (Reuters) – Some 41 million people worldwide are at at imminent risk of famine, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warned on Tuesday, saying soaring prices for basic foods were compounding existing pressures on food security.

Another half a million are already experiencing famine-like conditions, said the WFP’s Executive Director David Beasley.

“We now have four countries where famine-like conditions are present. Meanwhile 41 million people are literally knocking on famine’s door,” he said.

The WFP, which is funded entirely by voluntary donations, said it needs to raise $6 billion immediately to reach those at risk, in 43 countries.

“We need funding and we need it now,” said Beasley.

After declining for several decades, world hunger has been on the rise since 2016, driven by conflict and climate change.

In 2019, 27 million people were on the brink of famine, according to the WFP, but since 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic has been added to the mix.

World food prices rose in May to their highest levels in a decade, U.N. figures show, with basics like cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar up a combined 40% versus year ago levels.

Currency depreciation in countries like Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe is adding to these pressures and driving prices even higher, stoking food insecurity.

Famine-like conditions are present this year in Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen, as well as in pockets of Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

But Beasley warned against “debating numbers to death” as happened in Somalia in 2011 when 130,000 people – half the eventual toll from starvation – had already died by the time famine was declared.

The WFP, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, says around 9 percent of the world’s population, equivalent to nearly 690 million people, go to bed hungry each night.

(Reporting by Maytaal Angel; editing by John Stonestreet)

Nigeria urges U.S. to move Africa Command headquarters to continent

ABUJA (Reuters) – The United States should consider moving its military headquarters overseeing Africa to the continent, from Germany, to better tackle growing armed violence in the region, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said on Tuesday.

Nigerian security forces face multiple security challenges including school kidnappings by armed gangs in its northwest and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea as well as the decade-long insurgency by Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which also carries out attacks in neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

West Africa’s Sahel region is in the grip of a security crisis as groups with ties to al Qaeda and Islamic State attack military forces and civilians, despite help from French and United Nations forces.

Buhari, in a virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, said U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), should be relocated to Africa itself.

“Considering the growing security challenges in West and Central Africa, Gulf of Guinea, Lake Chad region and the Sahel, weighing heavily on Africa, it underscores the need for the United States to consider re-locating AFRICOM headquarters… near the theatre of operation,” said Buhari, according a statement issued by the presidency.

He spoke a week after the death of the longtime president of Chad, Idriss Deby, in a battle against rebels.

Deby was an important Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants and under him Chadian soldiers formed a key component of a multinational force fighting Boko Haram and its offshoot, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

“The security challenges in Nigeria remain of great concern to us and impacted more negatively by existing complex negative pressures in the Sahel, Central and West Africa, as well as the Lake Chad Region,” said Buhari, a retired major general.

AFRICOM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Additional reporting and writing by Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Gunmen abduct 30 students in northwest Nigeria as payoffs ‘boomerang’

By Garba Muhammad

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Gunmen kidnapped around 30 students in an overnight raid on a forestry college in northwest Nigeria, an official said on Friday, the fourth mass school abduction since December in a country where violence is on the increase.

An armed gang broke into the Federal College of Forestry Mechanization, located on the outskirts of Kaduna city near a military academy, at around 11:30 p.m. (2230 GMT) on Thursday, Kaduna state’s security commissioner, Samuel Aruwan said.

After a distress call, the army rescued 180 people in the early hours of Friday but “about 30 students, a mix of males and females, are yet to be accounted for,” he said.

“A combined team of army, air force, police and DSS (Department of State Services) troops are conducting an operation to track the missing students.”

The city is the capital of Kaduna state, part of a region where banditry has festered for years. Hours before the kidnapping, Nigeria’s federal government said it would “take out” abductors after earlier criticizing local deals to free victims.

Kaduna resident Haruna Salisu said he had heard sporadic gunshots at around 11:30 p.m. on Thursday from the area of the compound, where the concrete perimeter wall had a large hole in it on Friday.

“We were not panicking, thinking that it was a normal military exercise being conducted at the (nearby) Nigerian Defense Academy,” he said by phone.

“We came out for dawn prayers, at 5:20 a.m., and saw some of the students, teachers and security personnel all over the school premises. They told us that gunmen raided the school and abducted some of the students.”

On Friday morning, relatives of students gathered at the gates of the college, which was surrounded by around 20 army trucks.

RANSOM

The trend of abduction from boarding schools was started by the jihadist group Boko Haram, which seized 270 schoolgirls from a school at Chibok in the northeast in 2014. Around 100 of them have never been found.

Armed criminal gangs seeking ransom have since carried out copycat attacks.

Within the last few weeks, 279 schoolgirls were freed after being abducted from their boarding school at Jangebe in northwest Nigeria’s Zamfara state. In the north-central state of Niger, 27 teenage boys were released after being kidnapped from their school, along with three staff and 12 family members. One student was shot dead in that attack.

Military and police attempts to tackle the gangs have had little success, while many worry that state authorities are making the situation worse by letting kidnappers go unpunished, paying them off or providing incentives.

In Zamfara, state government officials said they had given ‘reformed bandits’ access to land for cattle grazing, while also building schools and medical facilities. They do not specifically identify the recipients as kidnappers.

In late February, the presidency said President Muhammadu Buhari had urged state governments to “review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles, warning that the policy might boomerang disastrously.”

Buhari held talks with security officials and traditional leaders on Thursday to discuss the country’s multiple security challenges. The national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, after the talks said the government would take a tough stance on criminal gangs.

“The new direction of government is to come out with full force. We have decided to apply the full weight of the law. We will come down on them wherever we locate them and take them out,” he told reporters in the capital, Abuja, without providing further details.

The unrest has become a political problem for Buhari, a retired general and former military ruler who has faced mounting criticism over the rise in violent crime, and replaced his long-standing military chiefs earlier this year.

(Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa, Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos, Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Maiduguri Newsroom; Writing by Kevin Liffey and Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Philippa Fletcher)