A season of ‘banditry’, By Dele Agekameh


For nearly a decade, the intensity of the Boko Haram insurgency has surged and waned in North-East Nigeria, between periods of keen military action and times of almost criminal negligence by the government. Also, in the last five years, the long suppressed threat of conflict between farming communities and cattle herdsmen took a deadly turn nationwide, and the terror of ‘killer herdsmen’ swept across Nigeria. Now, while the country is reeling from the damage to nationhood and livelihood that these two evils have brought, there is yet another scourge of terror tearing through North-West Nigeria. This time, the perpetrators have been labeled “bandits”.

In the North-West, particularly in Zamfara state, there have been gun-toting marauders wreaking havoc on communities, for unclear reasons. There is no single or clear agenda to their madness. It is reported that over 100 lives were lost to the rampage of the so-called bandits in Zamfara in 2018. For instance, on December 19, 2018, suspected bandits attacked three separate communities in Birnin Magaji Local Government Area of Zamfara State, killing at least 25 people.  The turn of the year saw the situation deteriorate further, with the attacks seemingly taking on fresh fervor, necessitating a revamped military and security campaign against the bandits.

As the military offensive intensified, it is believed that some of the bandits fled to other North-western states like Sokoto and Katsina, where they have been engaged in mindless attacks and kidnapping. In February, it was reported that members of a vigilante group lost their lives in open confrontation with the bandits in Raba Local Government Area of Sokoto State, after a round of attacks by the bandits. According to media reports, the police spokesperson asked people in the affected areas to “keep their fingers crossed” as the police is doing all it can.

Having endured many months of seeming ‘occupation’ by the so-called bandits and the inadequate security response by the government, the people of Zamfara were at their wits end on Tuesday, April 2, when members of what is called the Civilian Joint Task Force from a community in Kaura Namoda Local Government Area of the state marched into the forest hideout of the bandits to engage the bandits. According to the Speaker of the Zamfara State House of Assembly, over 50 persons were killed in that clash. The desperate assault by the civilians caused the military to step up their efforts, through air raids and ground assaults that have caused the bandits to abandon their hideouts and mix with the civilian population.

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After the military raids, the people cried out through media reports that the bandits had abandoned their hideouts and were walking about with arms in broad day light amongst the ordinary people, with the alleged help of some civilian collaborators. It seems like a change in strategy, to prevent air raids by blending in with the local population. The confidence of the bandits is indicative of a region now saturated with arms of all kinds, for civilian vigilantes and the so-called bandits alike. Meanwhile, on the 9th of April, some of the suspected  bandits that had fled to Katsina razed buildings and killed indiscriminately in Sabuwa and Batsari local Government Areas of the state, causing Mohammed Adamu, Acting-Inspector General of Police, IGP, to visit the areas.

In this sordid tale of mayhem and carnage that stretches all the way to Kaduna, and also with the kidnappings on the Abuja-Kaduna expressway and elsewhere in the country, there seems to be a real security crisis on our hands, and one could have made this statement at any time in the past ten years in Nigeria. The country appears to be in a bubble of insecurity that seems resistant to all remedies. Not even the tears of governors and senators from the north-east and north-west have inspired any enduring solution. Benue and Taraba are still hot from continued communal clashes after the violence was likely momentarily diverted into election conflict. Just last Sunday, there were beheadings on the streets of Ajah, in Lagos state. Nigerians no more feel safe.

While the military is doing its bit with the resources it has in fighting the bandits, it faces strong criticism and near opposition by some traditional rulers in the North-West. The native leaders claim that Air-force jets are bombing innocent people, while the military has hinted on the involvement of some traditional rulers with the bandits. This difference of opinion could have been settled by evidence garnered from good intelligence gathering, but like in our other internal  ‘wars’ against terror, there is a serious lack in that department.

The menace of the bandits has also brought to light, the threat posed by the seemingly underground mining and trade in precious stones that are going on in the North-West. This dimension is already causing ripples nationally. It is thought by some that the banditry is not unrelated to the activities of illegal miners who had armed themselves in an increasingly dangerous trade in that region. Others think that the banditry has little or nothing to do with the mining activities. That there are many desperate men with guns, is unfortunately, a real and present danger, in any case.

The saturation of arms in the country generally has been linked to many things, some tracing the origins as far back as the civil war. A more current source has been traced, by analysts, to the activities of politicians who procure arms to distribute to local thugs as part of preparation for elections. With the excess of guns and desperate men for hire in the fallout of conflict in Libya and other places, and with our porous borders, anyone with sinister plans has little difficulty in smuggling arms into the country. The problem may begin there, but continues when the “principals” of the now armed thugs have achieved their aim. The guns and the men remain, left to their own devices.

The security issues bring to question, again, the best model for securing our communities, rural and urban. Community policing is a tried and tested model and the rise of vigilante groups and the many “Civilian Joint Task Forces” is already indicative of a natural gravitation towards that solution. When communities are forced to form unofficial vigilante groups in the face of governmental inefficiency, the results have not always been good. The excesses of the Oodua People’s Congress, Bakassi boys and many more examples show how they can go rogue or become ethnic militias.

Several theories have been advanced for the poor state of security in the country today. The fact is that many of the “major” security problems we now face have only now burst into the open after bubbling beneath the surface, unchecked, for too long. Our authorities have displayed a serious lack of foresight in dealing with security challenges, and the lack of local, pro-active and multi-institutional collaborative effort is at the root of the problem. The Security Council should not be convened in Abuja for internal and local threats, but should be done at state or community level.

The rise of the militant warfare between Boko Haram and Nigerian troops could have been halted if long term consequences were discussed between security agents and moderate religious leaders at local level. The bloody and widespread communal clashing that gave rise to the “killer herdsmen” could have been avoided if the impacts of climate change, population surge and land rights could have been viewed through a local security lens. The banditry that has now gripped the North-West is not a situation that suddenly happened overnight. Men with guns do not just appear in forests.

We cannot continue to ascribe military solution to every threat within our borders, when communities, through the police, are in the best position to develop security plans for protecting themselves. State policing should advance from the stage of idea and discussion and become a reality in Nigeria. Only at the state level can smaller communities organize into security units and departments. We cannot continue in ignorance. We must halt the dangerous drift towards a failed state.

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