Developing foresight in the battle against terrorists and bandits, By Jibrin Ibrahim

Indications are that the offensive against the bandits in Zamfara State is making some progress. Hundreds of them have been killed through aerial bombardments and some of those running away are being mopped up by ground forces. We must congratulate our troops for the success so far and urge them to do more. In the Eastern Front, internal fighting within Boko Haram led to the killing of factional leader Abubakar Shekau. There were reports yesterday that the killer of Shekau and leader of the ISWAP faction, Musab Al-Barnawi, has been killed in a revenge attack. These are very positive developments that are bound to create traction in the fight against these terrorists and our troops should seize this opportunity to go for the kill, that is, eliminate the entire movement.

Nonetheless, although the heat is on and the terrorists and bandits are in disarray, the tipping point in the battle against them has not yet arrived. The on-going offensive in Zamfara has resulted in the killing of hundreds of bandits but both the State government and experts believe that there are over 30,000 armed bandits in that State alone so killing a few hundred is not a significant achievement. Close observers have said many of them moved out immediately government announced the offensive and closed down telephone access. There is no doubt about it, they will return when the coast is clear. To remind us all that they are very much alive, they have been attacking villagers in surrounding States such as Katsina and Kaduna. No one is safe as witnessed by the abduction of the Emir of Bungudu a few days ago. Schools, military formations, towns and cities are still being attacked so there has been no significant shift in the dynamics.

The fact of the matter is that they are not really feeling the pinch. They are mobile groups, well-armed, and now, wealthy from the ransom money they have been collecting. When large offensives are announced, they duck. When petrol sales are restricted, they bribe massively to procure necessary supplies. When the GSM network is switched off, the buy Thuraya satellite phones. In other words, the conventional approach our armed forces are using against them have been ineffective. They are ahead of us on the thinking curve. That has been the situation for a long time.

A few days ago, the Katsina State Governor Aminu Masari has said that with the benefit of hindsight, his government should never have negotiated with bandits, let alone grant them amnesty. Today, he has realized that: “They are not pushing for any ideological view; they are not pushing for any religious view. They are simply bandits, criminals and thieves.” Yes indeed and they are making so much money from their criminal activities that State governments simply do not have enough financial resources to compensate them for their proceeds of crime. Analysts have said that from the very beginning but many State governors believed they could placate them. The real question is not why they are discovering this, years after, with hindsight while they refused to listen to those with foresight that had tried to advise them.

Meanwhile, the armed forces are excited that six additional Tucano fighter jets are expected in the country next week to complement the six already on the ground in the fight against insecurity. This would significantly improve both surveillance and bombing capacity of the Air Force. The problem is that bandits and terrorists do live in real fear of air raids and distribute themselves in small groups hidden in thick forests so while a few do get killed in attacks, most of them survive and continue with their destructive attacks on the lives, liberty and property of Nigerians.

The new approach emanating from State governments and community leaders in many parts of the country is to buy guns to fight back. People realise that they have been sitting ducks for too long. They are regularly killed and abducted. Their wives and daughters are raped, their properties and homes destroyed. Increasingly, they are being prevented from engaging in the livelihoods, farming in particular. Many communities are therefore buying weapons for self-help. It seems to be a good idea given the failure of the security forces that have had the monopoly of the means of violence until a few years ago. The problem is with so many arms in circulation and the now widespread knowledge that the Kalashnikov is the fastest path to riches, there is a real risk that rogue elements within communities will turn these arms against the people and loin the looters. In other words, this could be the pathway to Armageddon. For me, the best pathway is for our armed forces to succeed in the battle against terrorism and banditry. Already, reports from communities that have succeeded in killing some bandits indicate that subsequently, the bandits re-organise, return to the community in large numbers, overwhelm them and massacre innocent community members that were only trying to defend themselves. It is difficult for communities to have access to the type and number of sophisticated weapons being used by bandits. There is also a wider risk that if communities have problems with one another in future, they will use the weapons against each other. Currently, there are over six million small arms and light weapons in the hands of private citizens in Nigeria according to former Head of State General Abdulsalam Abubakar. Multiplying the number might just lead to a degeneration of the situation and a move towards anarchy.

The armed forces need to change its approach. Large military operations, announced in advance and focused on one State at a time has not been working and simply cannot work. It requires large budgets which the army command would want to control and the resources simply do not get to the fighting soldiers. Both bandits and terrorists are engaged in a war of movement based on small mobile groups. The armed forces must follow the same tactic. Hundreds of small mobile army units should be established based on the intelligence of where the bands of terrorists and bandits are. There should be a clear definition of success – every attack by bandits and terrorists must be followed by hot pursuit conducted by local units of our armed forces. When they start getting casualties for each and every operation, the fear in them will start to emerge. Currently, they operate with impunity for most of their operations so they have nothing to fear really. They are so confident today that they even steal cattle which they take away on foot with the knowledge that no one will come after them. It would be easy to track their movements by drones and ensure they do not enjoy the booty. That will be the tipping point when the insecurity will start reducing dramatically.