This is the second part of a series on how banditry affects the lives of poor people in the North-west states. Read the first part here:
Saratu Lawal, 29, looks at this reporter, her smile dry like the parched earth she was standing. Her smile, a porous veil of the anguish she bore.
“If you’re alive, God will give you a way out of every problem. We eat but not every day and we’re not even sure of where it will come from. But we eat,” she said, the crusty smiles that lingered on her lips as a reluctant apprentice.
It was after gunmen, who are described as bandits by the Nigerian media, sacked Kauran Rama, her village, she was forced to flee to the relative safety of nearby Talata Mafara, where she stays with a kind-hearted lady. Even here, she laments that the government, which could not protect her from the bandits, has also abandoned her to starve.
What started as farmers-herders clashes snowballed into cattle rustling before access to small arms emboldened the criminals to raid villages. Widespread endemic poverty, illiteracy and porous borders with the Niger Republic have combined to complicate the insecurity in the region.
The attacks have now become routine in the north-west. In Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto, Kaduna and Kebbi, as well as in Niger State in the north-central, attacks on rural communities, travellers and farmers occur daily.
The activities of these bandits have disrupted farming, the principal occupation of the area. These assailants burn farmlands, and they regularly sack farming communities. The bandits ask those who are lucky to pay levies before they can farm. Those who have resisted or could not raise the levies on time have either been killed or prevented from harvesting their crop.
Last November, following an application by the Nigerian government to proscribe the activities of the groups, the Federal High Court in Abuja declared the activities of bandits’ groups as acts of terrorism.
The International Office on Migration said the bandit crisis in the north-west between 2011 to 2021 has displaced 695,914 individuals. The number could be more.
When bandits attacked her community, Mrs Lawal was one of those who escaped with their lives with gunshot wounds, which she said has made her unable to work.
“By nature, I’m not a lazy person,” “By this time, I would have made N100 from what I do in the village. But look at me,” she said turning her back to reveal a bandage around the upper part of her back and left shoulder. “They mercilessly shot me here. How could I do any reasonable work now?”
Mrs Lawal, who earned N100 daily de-husking millet and sorghum, now completely relies on charity to survive.
Even before her situation became worse by the bandits that attacked her village and displaced her, Mrs Lawal was already living in extreme poverty. According to the United Nations’ poverty line, an adult individual needs at least N790 ($1.90) to survive daily.
Attack on Kauran Rama
Bakura, Mrs Lawal’s local government area of Zamfara State, is swarming with bandits. Her village, Kauran Rama, was attacked three times and each time, the bandits left a trail of blood and anguish behind.
Even with the repeated attacks, Mrs Lawal did not plan to leave her village but after the third attack, when the bandits attacked her village in batches, killing many and leaving her to nurse a bullet wound, she decided she has had enough. She left with the other villagers.
Mrs Lawal said her husband has been missing since the attack but she believed he was still alive. She hinged her hope on the news that some people who escaped from her village are hiding in relative safety at Bakura, a town about 30 kilometres from Talata Mafara.
“He will find me,” Mrs Lawal says. “He doesn’t know that I was shot because. He would have certainly come here looking for me.”
“We were lucky,” Zaliha Abubakar, her neighbour, interjected. “I even brought two pieces of clothes that were on the bed when the attackers entered the town. Most of them don’t even know where their children are not to talk about their property.”
On the day of the attack, Mrs Abubakar says she was sitting with her co-wives and her mother-in-law when she heard the gunshots. She thought the gunshots were made by vigilante members protecting her community, but when the bandits fired again, she knew there was trouble.
As it’s the rule, whenever there’s an attack, the men run for the bush while the women hide in their rooms because the bandits “rarely kill us.”
“But that day was different,” Mrs Lawal takes over. “I was under my bed with my three children when they (bandits) came into the house and started going from one room to the other, taking all our belongings”
After the bandits tried and could not open the door she and her children were hiding, they fired a couple of shots that hit her. Her daughter, Maryam, was shot. She was still receiving treatment for her injuries at a nearby general hospital.
“The bullet hit her. It could have been worse,” she says.
Escape to Mafara
Jummai Shehu, who was standing nearby, joined the conversation. She explained that the journey to safety in Talata Mafara was toilsome. She said she trekked for over three hours with her children before she could reach the main road the morning after the attack.
“We waited for our husbands in the morning after the attack,” she says. But it seemed everyone was on his own. I asked my children to follow me and we got out of the village because the women all leaving in numbers. If they (husbands) had come back, we would have stayed.”
She said usually, immediately after attacks from bandits, the men of the village would return to count their losses and bury the dead, but this time around, none of the men returned.
“We met at the main road and came here.” Mrs Shehu said she came come to Talata Mafara because she used to work there for her host.
Despite the relative safety of Talata Mafara, the women said they would rather return home if their safety can be guaranteed.
“Who would want to stay in somebody’s house as an Almajiri (beggar)” Mrs Lawal says, looking at the others. “We all want to go home and continue with our shattered lives like that. We all want to go back and be managing our poverty.”
Mrs Lawal said they rely on providence to survive in Talata Mafara. “He doesn’t forget his creatures,” she said.
Theirs is a story of survival of the fittest. It is a story of uncertainty. They are lucky if they can get leftovers from their host. They are entirely reliant on the goodwill of people to survive.
“Like this morning, Hajia helped us with yesterday’s leftovers. I had to leave my share to the children because they had been crying. On other days, some of them who are able (she looks at her bandaged wound) go out and beg for food for us. We thank God for life, others are dead,” she says.
But food, she says, is not her immediate problem. What distresses her the most is the bullet wound that has effectively made it impossible for her to work.
“We eat when there is food, Mrs Shehu says. “But first, we give to our children. Even before this (the attack) we were living from hand to mouth, but we were at least sure that we would still eat twice a day, but now, only God knows how and when we eat.”
Things were difficult for people like Mrs Lawal but the activities of bandits have worsened their condition. The women say when things become hard for their husbands to go to their farms, they (husbands) mostly started moving up to the southern part of the country to search for greener pastures.
“But the attacks have disrupted everything,” she said. “In all the attacks, they (bandits) made sure they rustle domestic animals and take away our properties. If you go to that place, you’ll not see anything of value because they took even our clothes.”
She says even before the last attack forced them out of the village; the community was almost deserted.
“The medical workers said I was lucky that I didn’t lose my life (from the bullet wound) but I don’t know how lucky I’m,” she says, her voice clouded by sadness. “Who knows whether I’ll die of hunger, “Mrs Lawal said.
WATCH: Governor Yahaya Bello's Roadmap to Hope 2023