Niger State is in the North Central region of Nigeria but shares boundaries and the plague of banditry with some states in the North-west. The state has recorded high profile cases of abductions of students from schools this year, the latest being of 91 pupils from an Islamiyya school in Tegina on May 30. The bandits are believed to have collected N60 million and five new motorcycles as ransom before releasing the kids 88 days later. Aside from the abductions, bandits routinely raid rural communities, killing people, stealing livestock and burning down houses and grain silos.
One of the victims was the Niger State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Muhammad Idris, who was kidnapped on August 9 at his hometown of Baban Tunga village in Tarfa Local Government Area of the state. Our reporter, Ahmadu Maishanu, met Mr Idris in Minna, the state capital, and he spoke on his own experience and how the government is confronting the insecurity challenge in the state.
PT: Niger is one of the states where bandits are very active. How is the government addressing the menace?
Mr Idris: Those behind insecurity in Niger State, as the governor, Abubakar Bello, has rightly said, are not people of the state. Niger has a record of being one of the most peaceful states in Nigeria until the infiltration of some elements changed the situation. In Niger State, you hardly see groups fighting each other. The state is blessed with arable land; it has about 10 per cent of the landmass of Nigeria – as large as six other states. We have many forests, streams and creeks which criminals are now using as hideouts. Armed bandits are also using the state’s forests as their base for kidnapping, terrorising residents and causing unrest.
The Niger State Government has been talking with the governments of our neighbouring Kaduna, Zamfara, Kebbi and Katsina states. The states always meet to review their strategy for addressing the problems of banditry collectively. Recently, our governor visited Mariga town which was under the control of bandits until the security forces chased them away. This allowed the lawful residents to return to their homes and to their normal livelihood of cultivating their farmlands. This was achieved through the cooperation among the neighbouring states. The government is committed to ending the menace. People will soon feel the impact of the cooperation between the states. We are doing all this without resorting to much publicity for security reasons.
PT: Why did it take the governors so long to realize they have to work together?
Idris: Yes, initially, there was no agreement on how to address the problems. But now having realised the gravity of the problem, the governors agreed to work together, unlike before where each state used its own strategy in fighting the criminals.
PT: What is the position of your state on peace dialogue with the bandits?
Mr Idris: I can’t speak on this now.
PT: You were also a victim of kidnapping, how did that happen?
Mr Idris: This is what God destined to happen to me. The bandits came to my house in the village and went away with me. Many people asked why I am staying in the village despite the risks. But my answer to them is that I hail from the village and, as a public servant, I derive pleasure from being among my people, engaging them on their needs and briefing them about government’s plans. These keep me in touch with the people at the grassroots. I see myself as their messenger and I cannot stay in the city away from them.
PT: What was your experience with the bandits in the forest?
Mr Idris: The experience was bad. You cannot wish for your enemy such experience. They invaded my matrimonial home and whisked me away to a difficult and strange environment. From the experience, I know that the bandits in the forest cannot kidnap anyone in the town without the support of an informant who lives in the town and feeds them with information. We should not be afraid of the bandits in the forest but of those bandits living with us and helping their accomplices in the forest. The problems is more of community-based, all hands must be on desk to fish out the bad elements within us. The bandits also are suffering in the forests, lacking virtually all basic things of life, running away from the law and living in pains in the bush like their abductees.
PT: But they received millions as ransom. Where is the money going?
Mr Idris: They are being used by others. I don’t know where the money is going to but the truth of the matter is that the bandits themselves are suffering in the forest. No adequate foods to eat despite the huge amount of ransom they reportedly collect.
PT: How much did you pay as ransom?
Mr Idris: All I know is that we started negotiating ransom with them, but I didn’t pay anything. Later, they told me that I would be reunited with my family.
PT: Did someone, somewhere pay the ransom for you?
Mr Idris: I don’t know whether someone paid for me but I am aware that the Niger State government will not intervene in that because it has a policy of not paying ransom to bandits.
PT: How much ransom did the bandits request?
Mr Idris: Initially, they told me that the government budgeted huge amounts of money for me as the commissioner for Information and Strategy, thus, they wanted N200 million as ransom or they would kill me. I told them to bring my phone so that I could show them my bank statements. Since I assumed office as commissioner, there was no time I deposited up to a million naira. Even my monthly salary I share within my families and needy people in my community and other places I can reach.
PT: After your release, you made a statement that you had forgiven the bandits.
Mr Idris: In that statement, two things are involved. As a Muslim, I believe that whatever happens to me is my destiny that cannot be changed. I suffered cruelty from them but I hope that God will change them for good. Also, as a government official and a leader, I am like a father to all, I cannot curse any of my children because that would later manifest negatively in the community. That is what I meant by forgiving them. However, their actions violate the law and the wrath of the law will one day catch up with them.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...