The most worrisome angle to the banditry in Northern Nigeria is the new alliance between the bandits and Boko Haram insurgents, which started in 2019. Bandits help recruit members for the terror group and in return Boko Haram provides assistance to the bandits in form of the supply of fighters and equipment. It was believed that even though the terror group claimed responsibility for the abduction of 300 Kankara boys..the operation was accomplished with the help of bandits
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, who 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 fertilised the ground for all the criminal activities. The literacy rate in the region stood at an abysmal 17 per cent and economic activity was negligible. All these gave rise to a high unemployment rate, with an estimated sixty per cent of the region’s five million people 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 the neighbouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Between the time of Pakistan’s independence from the British in 1947 until 2018, the 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 North-West region has become a lawless territory where gangs of armed bandits operate and control swathes of land, with little or no challenge from government authorities. What began as communal rivalry in 2011 between the nomadic Fulani herders and sedentary Hausa farmers, has now morphed into garden varieties of lethal militia groups and organised crime syndicates, with multinational dimensions. 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 Protect, 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 have 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 called Buharin Tsoho. Nicknamed Buharin Daji by the locals or General by thousands of his lieutenants, he formed the group, 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 of Zamfara State, Alhaji Ibrahim Wakkala Muhammad in December 2015, Buharin Daji, with his gang of over a thousand-armed bandits, surrendered their arms. He gave his reason for taking up banditry as self-defence. At the time, there existed a local vigilante group known as ‘Yan Sakai’, which he accused of unjustifiably killing innocent Fulani herders, and with the government failing in its duty to protect his people or bring the culprits to book. Another complaint he lodged was that politicians and traditional rulers had turned all the grazing routes and reserves into farmland, making it difficult for nomadic herdsmen to earn a living.
By 2016, banditry had assumed an international dimension, with members recruited from the border countries of Niger Republic, Mali and Chad. The entry of foreign bandits added a different flavour to the situation, as more lethal weapons flowed in and fighters trained in modern guerrilla tactics joined the ranks. The dominant gangs graduated from the use of AK-47s and AK-49s to deploying rocket launchers, RPGs…
Those are hardly the reason for the existence of thousands of bandits that currently operate throughout the North-East 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, which this article draws heavily on, 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 North-West by 2021.
The gangs have become so organised that in order to reduce the incidence of inter-gang fights, the entire North-West was partitioned into 17 bandits’ camps, with each area/zone allocated to a particular leader. Under each main leader are a large number of mini gang leaders. They have even devised a means of conflict resolution amongst themselves, utilising 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 help them install CCTV cameras for surveillance and intelligence gathering.
By 2016, banditry had assumed an international dimension, with members recruited from the border countries of Niger Republic, Mali and Chad. The entry of foreign bandits added a different flavour to the situation, as more lethal weapons flowed in and fighters trained in modern guerrilla tactics joined the ranks. The dominant gangs graduated from the use of AK-47s and AK-49s to deploying rocket launchers, RPGs and even anti-aircraft guns.
The activities of illegal miners from China, Russia and even South Africa 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 development-starved Zamfara. Oftentimes, helicopters are seen in areas of the State dropping off weapons in exchange for gold. The frequency of violence there subsequently 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 in Northern Nigeria is the new alliance between the bandits and Boko Haram insurgents, which started in 2019. Bandits help recruit members for the terror group and in return Boko Haram provides assistance to the bandits in form of the supply of 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 is 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 can, at best, be described as tepid. Just like the issue of Boko Haram in the North-East, banditry in the North-West 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.
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 gains thus far made. Our national borders need to be better secured to arrest cross-border arms proliferation.
If a University department with very limited resources has been able to gather such a treasure trove of information about the organisational structure and operations of bandits in Northern Nigeria, we can only imagine what is known to the Department of State Services (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 perversely utilised in the procurement of more deadly weapons to deepen the instability in the region.
President Buhari’s lackadaisical handling of the scourge of armed banditry before now and his silence over issues concerning the killer herdsmen, which has grown to the level of a national crisis, offers 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 on 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 gains 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 equally 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, which is an issue that has posed an existential threat to nomadic headers. The big men who own these herds need to realise 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, have proved beneficial and need 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 North-West is that the feeling of oppression, systemic injustice, alienation and denial of the source of livelihood of a people, inexorably leads to revolt. The revenge by Fulani herders for perceived wrongs gave birth to the monster of armed banditry in Zamfara. That monster is gradually swallowing up the whole of northern Nigeria and spreading down 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.
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