It was dusk and raining heavily in March 2019 in Madaka, a village in Rafi Local Government Area of Niger State, when familiar sounds of gunshots again seized the air. Dust and gun smoke rose over the village above the heavy downpour as everyone fled to the bush. Zulaiha Isah, 27, was pregnant but ran too, as hard as other villagers.
Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES, Mrs Isah said she had lost two brothers and two in-laws in a previous raid by bandits on the village two weeks earlier.
In that latest attack that March 2019 evening, Mrs Isah went into premature labour while wading through the bush between Madaka and Kagara, headquarters of the local government area which is the safest in the area. She was delivered of a baby girl, who she named Shukuriyyah (meaning Thankfulness), by other women fleeing with her.
Since the birth of Mrs Isah’s baby over a year ago, Madaka and adjoining villages have come under regular raids by bandits who steal, kidnap and kill without restraint. Until her village was caught in the mayhem, Mrs Isah was a trader in foodstuff and herbs. Her husband too had a shop, aside from being a barber.
“But now, they have stolen everything,” she said in Hausa. “They stole from me seven cattle, ₦10,000 and my phone. They have stolen everything, including my clothes, and burnt down all our stores.”
“Life is very tough now. It hasn’t been easy. We don’t have food, no shelter and nothing at all. We are paying rent and buying firewood here,” she said.
Killing for fun, kidnapping for ransom
Mrs Isah’s case exemplifies the ordeal many residents of Madaka go through in the hands of the armed persons.
On June 6, 32-year-old Hussein Idris left for his farm while his aunt, Jamila Gambo, and foster son, Rakibu Saidu, were away at the market. They normally returned home before him, but by evening, long after he was back home, they had not returned. By nightfall when he still had not seen them, he knew they had either been kidnapped or killed.
For two days, there was no confirmation of the fate of his family members until his elder brother, who would become the intermediary between the bandits and the community, was told by the criminals that they had abducted the two and four other villagers – Jummai Dantani, Ibrahim Garba, Hassan Gizo and Mai’anguwa Kure. They asked for a ₦15 million ransom for the release of the six.
“Where would we get that money? Even if we sold all our property, we couldn’t get it,” Mr Idris said. “They said we must pay the money, else they would tell us where to pick their dead bodies.”
In the end, the two parties agreed on ₦600,000 and the kidnappers gave a deadline of 2 p.m. June 13 for the payment of the ransom.
“Those with ₦50 contributed; those with ₦30 also contributed; and those with more gave what they had,” he recalled.
The ransom was delivered in a polythene bag to the gun-wielding kidnappers. All communication was through one of the captives’ phone. After the payment, the captives were freed a week later.
A similar scenario played out last December when Madaka district head, Zakariyau Hakimi, two of children, and three others were kidnapped for ransom. They were to pay ₦4 million as ransom, “and it was not negotiable.”
“They were there for four weeks before the ₦4 million was paid and they were released,” Mr Hikimi’s secretary, Idris Zakari, told PREMIUM TIMES.
These are some of the cases in the rising wave of kidnapping in Nigeria.
“The sudden uptick in fatalities per attempt coincides with the increase in attacks by bandits on villages especially in Zamfara and Katsina states, a situation which has gradually extended to Kaduna and Niger states,” the report wrote.
“These bandits have also been involved in kidnapping besides attacking villagers and travellers, or doing both at the same time. As these kidnaps are less targeted at specific persons, the bandits are less deliberate in avoiding the deaths of their victims compared to earlier kidnap attempts which appeared to have specific targets in mind.”
Banditry has been a scourge for residents of Zamfara, Kaduna, Niger, Sokoto, Kebbi and Katsina states. About 21 million people living in these states have been exposed to insecurity from the activities of bandits.
What began as a spate of reprisal attacks triggered by the scramble for resources among farmers from the sub-humid middle belt Nigeria and herders from the semi-arid northern Nigeria has exacerbated into a lethal mix of kidnap for ransom, sexual violence, smuggling and killings. The bandits build their hideouts in Nigeria’s unmanned forests from where they operate almost at will.
“Kidnap syndicates who operate out of the north rely on big forests as their staging areas,” the SB Morgen report noted. “For example, Rigasa and Birnin Gwari are areas in Kaduna with large forests that have been used as hideouts.”
As of March, more than 210,000 people have been internally displaced by the criminals. In 2019 alone, data generated by the National Early Warning System (NEWS) showed that over 1,058 people died from armed banditry.
Between mid-2011 and June 2020, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker, 17,283 have been killed by armed militants in the country.
In Niger State, Nigeria’s largest state with a land stretch of 78,363 km², over 582 people were killed in the attacks within that period, a conservative estimate based on press reports.
In November 2019, about 4,000 people were displaced in Shiroro LGA of the state. By December, over 34 people were killed in the state.
Madaka palace authorities said within a year, over 1,000 cows had been stolen, more than 100 motorcycles had either been burnt or stolen, and because most of the residents are unbanked, cash worth of ₦10 million stolen.
Dozen more have suffered serious injuries, some of whom died eventually in the General Hospital, Kagara, or IBB Specialist Hospital, Minna
Women counting losses
Mardiyya Aliyu is 30, but she has 14 children to care for. Only seven of the children are her’s. The other seven, all females, became her responsibility when her elder brother was killed during an attack in their village, Kukoji, in 2019.
She recalled how she too was ambushed by the bandits. She was lucky – all they wanted was her money and her phone. But when her farm was burnt down early this year, she knew she fled to Kagara, many kilometres from Kukoji.
“We used to farm in the village, but now we are begging and our children are also begging for food,” she said in Hausa. “Whenever normalcy returns, we are going back to our village to resume farming.
“Life was good until the terrorists forced us to be on the run,” she said wistfully. “Nobody dares live in the village again because of the incessant killings.”
When Amina Abdullahi, mother of seven, went to pay a condolence visit to her neighbour whose son was murdered by bandits in Madaka, she had no inkling that she too would be grieving the death of her son the same day.
Her slain son left behind 12 children, all of whom are now her responsibility. Earlier in 2019, bandits had killed her husband too.
In early July, this year, another of her sons was violently robbed and died from the injuries three weeks later. “Since his death, I’m left all alone to take care of my children and grandchildren without any support,” the sexagenarian said.
Madaka, also called Kakuri ward, is one of the largest villages in Rafi LGA, Niger State, with about 17,000 people. But the once bubbling agrarian community is now deserted as residents no longer sleep in their homes. Schools have been closed since 2019, and COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problems for farming.
Early this year, bandits imposed a 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew on the community, the secretary of Northern Youth Ambassadors of Nigeria, Yusha’u Ibrahim, told PREMIUM TIMES. At other times, they rape women or force residents to cook for them, he said.
“Our people are dying every day, every hour, every minute, and nothing has been done. We have been in this situation for over a year,” Mr Ibrahim said.
“They are burning our houses in every attack. They are robbing us day and night because the inlet and outlet of the town were blocked by them, killing us everyday and kidnapping (for ransom).”
Why the challenges persist
Adamu Goggo, 61, a former chairman of Shiroro LGA (2008 to 2009), has stayed in the community almost all his life. But the attacks since 2019 have forced him to leave his ancestral home.
For those still clinging to the community, “whenever they hear or sense danger they run,” he said.
He said trouble began to brew in the communities about six years ago. He said the bandits moved to Niger State after they were flushed out of the Kaduna side of the vast Birnin Gwari forest, which connects Niger to Kaduna. The criminals have since established their base in the part of Niger that the forest covers.
Of the 15 wards in Shiroro LGA (which borders Rafi LGA), for instance, seven are under the siege of bandits. The other eight, residents say, are less rattled because they are located across River Kaduna, making crossing difficult for the bandits.
Largely communities of low-income earners with little governmental aid, Mr Goggo said the criminals have a ready-made population to recruit from, especially from children, whom he said “are separated from their parents,” and have to beg to eat.
In Niger, seven in ten earn below ₦350 daily ($0.97 at ₦361 July exchange rate), according to the 2019 poverty and inequality report by Nigeria’s statistics bureau. Only Sokoto, Taraba, Jigawa, Ebonyi and Adamawa have a higher rate of poverty.
“Those that are educated are jobless,” he said, adding that frustration is triggered when “there are no jobs. If there is an enabling environment for everybody, there would be peace.”
The Nigerian military has reported a series of air and land onslaught on the militants, but Mr Goggo and four other residents said the bandits’ attacks have not abated.
As a recourse, the communities form vigilante groups, armed with only crude ammunition and the knowledge of the terrain. At times, they suffer brutal casualties in reprisal attacks.
Mr Goggo said requests to have military bases in the communities have been ignored. He said the militants always escape before the arrival of soldiers and security agents.
“In every election, security gets to the rural areas but after elections they do not,” the former chairman told this newspaper.
Niger East senator, Sani Musa, through his aide, Zanan Pandogari, said the displaced people were not neglected as he had sent relief packages to them thrice. He added that he had also moved five motions on the crisis in the zone at the Senate.
This reporter made repeated calls to the defence headquarters‘ spokesperson, Onyema Nwachukwu, for three days but got no response.
Meanwhile, the spokesperson of the police in Niger State, Wasiu Abiodun, said the police have bases in both Rafi and Shiroro LGAs.
“There are deployments in Kagara, Allawa, Pandogari, Erena, but the challenges we face is the terrain of these areas. Most of the villages around these areas are not accessible,” he said.
Madaka road is the only link between Kagara, Madaka and six other villages (Magwa Magaba, Kompani, Rubo, Nafsira, Shikira, Wayam), but it is in a terrible condition. It has not been repaired since it was constructed in 1985, residents said.
Mr Abiodun said the police “use motorcycles to patrol some of these villages,” which are far from each other and have poor communication networks.
He said this is why security agencies carry out joint patrol operations to rid the areas of bandits.
However, the director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, said “the impunity with which people get away with committing crimes” will continue to fuel the unrest.
“The bandits know the government will negotiate with them as done previously or at most nobody will arrest them,” she said.
Nigeria’s security architecture needs reforms, especially in the areas of training, discipline, motivation, equipment and intelligence sharing, a conflict and security expert, Azeez Olaniyan, said.
“The youth must be engaged in productive activities,” he added. “As long as we have massive unemployment, militia movement will be an attraction to them. It will become a source of employment. All these boil down to good governance at all levels of the country.”
For Ms Hassan, it is important to focus on community policing by using vigilantes who will prioritise intelligence sharing.
Told the communities have vigilantes, but they are poorly armed, she said, “firepower is not it, more intelligence is.”
Meanwhile, in July, the chairman, House of Representatives’ committee on agriculture, Muktar Dan-Dutse, proposed a stiffer law that provides for the death penalty or life sentence for bandits and killer herdsmen.
But Abdullateef Lawal, a youth development advocate from Madaka, said while a legislative move is welcomed, the communities need aid from the government and international bodies, because “what is happening in Rafi LGA is terrible and less heard.”
In spite of her harsh experience, Mrs Isah still craves to return home to properly raise her child. She said she does not want to live the rest of her life away from home chasing shadows. But until security is restored in the troubled communities of the Niger, her longing will remain a mirage.