The Wild Wild (North)West, Nigeria’s Waziristan

By Osmund Agbo

The volatile region of Waziristan, an area often referred to by the western press as Pakistan’s lawless territory represents one of the seven districts that border Afghanistan called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). FATA, part of Pakistan’s colonial inheritance came to be as a concession by the British Raj to the Pashtun tribes. Pashtuns had long resisted being controlled from the outside and so were granted autonomy to run their internal affairs. They operated outside of state control and provided a refuge for fugitives and criminal gangs whose stock-in-trade were drug trafficking kidnapping, gunrunning and terrorism.

Of course, there were socio-economic factors that fertilized the ground for all the criminal activities. The literacy rate in the region stood at an abysmal 17 percent and economic activity was negligible. All these, gave rise to a high unemployment rate with an estimated sixty percent of the region’s 5 million population living below the poverty line.

The militancy emanating from the area was long considered a serious security threat to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but for many years successive administrations in Islamabad were not quite sure how to handle the issue of FATA. The people were unpredictable and every military or political action, seemed like a risky bet.

It was not until 2018 that the region was merged with neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Between the time of Pakistan’s independence from the British in 1947 until 2018, FATA existed as a semi-autonomous tribal region, governed through a special set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulation.

Like Pakistan’s Waziristan, Nigeria’s northwest region has become a lawless territory where dens of bandits operate and control swaths of land with little or no challenge from government authorities. What began as a communal rivalry in 2011 between the nomadic Fulani herders and sedentary Hausa farmers, has now morphed into garden varieties of lethal militia groups and organized crime syndicates with multinational dimension. In Zamfara alone, over 10,000 armed bandits operate across different parts of the state.

According to the data supplied by the Global Center for the Responsibility to Projects, about 1,600 people were killed during the first half of 2020 with an additional 300,000 civilians displaced in the states of Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Niger and Kebbi, over the past year alone. 950 children had been kidnapped since December 2020. The sheer magnitude of criminal activities and the audaciousness of the bandits is mind-boggling.

The man credited to have formed the first criminal gang in Zamfara was named Buhari Tsoho. Nicknamed Buhari Daji by the locals or General by thousands of his lieutenants, he formed a group called kungiyar gay (meaning an association of young guys) with another guy called Kundu. Both were Fulanis and gang members considered themselves freedom fighters, bonded by the need to liberate the Fulanis from oppressive security agents, traditional rulers and politicians.

Following a peace talk led by the then deputy governor, Alhaji Ibrahim Wakkala Muhammad in December 2015, Buhari Daji with his gang of over a thousand-armed bandits surrendered arms. He gave his reason for taking up banditry as self-defense. At the time, there existed a local vigilante group known as ‘Yan Sakai’ whom he accused of unjustifiably killing innocent Fulani herders and the government failing in its duty to protect his people or bring the culprits to book. Another complaint lodged by him was that politicians and traditional rulers turned all the grazing routes and reserves into farmland, making it difficult for nomadic herdsmen to earn a living.

Those are hardly the reason for thousands of bandits that currently operate throughout the Northeast today. Instead, lots of young Fulanis now see banditry as a very lucrative business, far better than having to log in thousands of miles in unfriendly forests with herds of cow.

According to a study commissioned by the history department of the Usman Dan Fodio University where this piece drew heavily from, banditry grew from that single cell, operating mainly in Zamfara in 2011, to well over one hundred and twenty gangs operating across six states in the northwest by 2021.

The gangs have become so organized that in order to reduce the incidence of inter-gang fights, the entire Northwest was partitioned into 17 bandit’s camps with each area/zone allocated to a particular leader. Under each main leader are large numbers of mini gang leaders. They have even devised a means of conflict resolution amongst themselves, utilizing the services of older influential members. Some of the camps are so sophisticated that they use drones and even employ the services of local IT experts who helped them install CCTV cameras for surveillance and intelligence gathering.

By 2016, banditry had assumed an international dimension with members recruited from border countries of Niger Republic, Mali and Chad. The entry of foreign bandits added a different flavor with more lethal weapon flowing in and fighters trained in modern guerrilla tactics joining in the ranks. The dominant gangs graduated from use of AK-47 and AK-49 to deploying rocket launcher, RPGs and even anti-aircraft guns.

The activities of illegal miners from China, Russian and even South Africans are also alleged to be a big source of illegal arms supply. This contributes significantly to the crisis at least in the resource-rich but developmentally-starved Zamfara. Oftentimes, Helicopters were seen in the area dropping off weapons in exchange for gold. The frequency of violence skyrocketed and criminal activities graduated from cattle rustling to the raiding of villages, kidnapping for ransom and widespread rape.

The most worrisome angle to the banditry is the new alliance between the bandits and Boko Haram since 2019. Bandits help recruit members for the terror group and in return Boko Haram provides assistance to the bandits in form of supplying fighters and equipment. It was believed that even though the terror group claimed responsibility for the abduction of 300 Kankara boys in the evening of December 11, 2020, the operation was accomplished with the help of bandits led by one Auwalu Daudawa, now deceased. A certain Alhaji Shehu Shingi from Zurmi was identified in the Usman Dan Fodio University report as the one facilitating the unholy alliance between the two groups.

In all these, the response from Abuja in the midst of the ensuing wanton killing and massive displacement of Nigerians before now can best be described as tepid at best. Just like the issue of Boko Haram in the Northeast, banditry in the northwest had taken roots way before May 2015 when Buhari was sworn in. For someone who dislodged his predecessor on the strength of his military credentials as a retired general and a no-nonsense persona, it’s quite ironic that both problems mutated under his watch and turned into hydra-headed monsters.

If a university department with very limited resources was able to gather such a treasure trove of information about the organizational structure and operations of the bandits, we can only imagine what is known to the DSS and our other security agencies. Yet, these hoodlums have been left to operate so brazenly for years. More shocking is that in many instances, the government was even willing to doll out millions in ransom to the criminals, some of which were utilized to fund the procurement of more deadly weapons.

President Buhari’s lackadaisical handling of the scourge of armed banditry before now and his silence over the killer herdsmen issues which has grown to the level of a national crisis, writes a perfect script for those who label him an ethnocentric and religious bigot. In every single issue involving the Fulanis, the President tends to see his nomadic tribesmen as victims. Such also applies to a lesser extent with the Kanuris, his mother’s people who constitute the balk of Boko Haram terrorists.

This thinking to a large extent dictates the policy direction of this government from top to bottom and everyone around the president seems to have gotten the memo. The recent deployment of more troops and the escalation of attack against bandit positions is, however, a very welcome development and President Buhari deserves some credit for that. The prayer is that the current tempo is sustained.

Curbing the scourge of armed banditry requires a multi-faceted approach. After the soldiers are done dislodging bandits from their hideouts in the forest, the government must increase the funding of and deployment of more police officers as well as security personnel in order to build on the gain thus far made. Our national borders need to be better secured to arrest cross-border arms proliferation. Wining the confidence of the affected communities is crucial to intelligence gathering.

Any peace move that fails to address the key economic factor that initially pushed young Fulanis to banditry is a non-starter. Population growth with the expansion of farm settlements means that access to both grazing reserves and water resources will continue to be increasingly restricted, an issue that has posed an existential threat to nomadic headers. The big men who own these herds need to realize that the season of open grazing is over. The time to fully embrace ranching, a form of animal husbandry that is practiced in other climes is not tomorrow but now. That is the only sustainable alternative.

Local peace commissions, such as the type established in Kaduna, Adamawa, and Plateau states to mediate inter-communal tensions has proved beneficial and needs to be replicated in other high-risk regions. Above all, social factors such as poverty, illiteracy, youth unemployment, corruption, poor governance, inequality that leave young people without options need to be addressed.

Perhaps, the biggest lesson to be learnt on the evolution and proliferation of armed group in Nigeria’s northwest is that the feeling of oppression, systemic injustice, alienation and denial of source of livelihood by a people inexorably leads to a revolt. A revenge by Fulani herders for perceived wrong gave birth to the monster of armed banditry in Zamfara. That monster is gradually swallowing up the whole of northern Nigeria and spreading further south. It also offers a sober lesson on how the feeling of exclusion and neglect by a sizeable chunk of the country watered the ground for the rise of Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho. Injustice of any kind, anywhere is a threat to peace and justice everywhere.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]