Among the early visitors of President Bola Tinubu after he was sworn in was a former Zamfara State governor, Ahmad Sani (popularly known as Yarima). His advice to the president, he said, was to see how he could give amnesty to terrorists.
“The major causes of this problem are poverty and ignorance. So, I believe that as Nigerians, if they are called upon or if the government now comes up with a rehabilitation programme, I am sure we will have a successful end to this crisis,” he told State House correspondents after his meeting with the president.
Terror gangs operating primarily in the North-west and North-central regions have sacked several rural communities, killing and abducting thousands of people.
Despite efforts by state governments in the region and security agencies, the gangs have continued to attack communities, killing and abducting travellers and residents. Their activities have also led to the displacement of millions of people.
The former senator and ex-governor of a state ravaged by the violent activities of the terrorists is not alone. Several people, including those in positions of authority, have similarly advocated dialogue.
A recent PREMIUM TIMES exclusive story revealed how the federal government made secret deals with terrorists in the North-west. The Zamfara State governor, Dauda Lawal, also accused the federal government of negotiating with terrorists in his state.
Despite that the North-west is not a stranger to negotiations between the government and terrorists, many still assume that such peace deals are the masterstroke of the solution to the security challenges.
Previous negotiations by different state governments in the North-west suggest this is unlikely to bring an end to banditry especially because two of the most vocal supporters of making peace with terrorists, Aminu Masari and Bello Matawalle (immediate-past governors of Katsina and Zamfara, respectively), vowed never to enter into any peace deal with the bandits again after previous truces collapsed.
Negotiation, not magic wand
Negotiating with the terrorists could result in a reprieve for residents of rural communities and motorists plying dangerous roads, but that will not bring an end to the security challenge.
Bandits, unlike other terrorists who believe they are prosecuting a holy religious war over the years, have no clear-cut ideology and no known leader. Each terror group has its leader. That has remained a puzzle yet unsolved. Who is the government negotiating with?
A negotiation with one or more terror groups does not apply to all terror groups. That played out in Katsina State in 2016 when terrorists who were against the negotiations killed those who participated in it.
A few days after the meeting between officials of the federal government and terrorists in Faskari of Katsina State, 24 students of the Federal University Gusau were abducted. It shows that the peace meeting left a wide gap to fill with a newspaper report suggesting that the abduction was staged by one of the sidelined terrorists to register his anger.
Negotiation with top terrorists encourages leaders of smaller terror groups to scale up their activities to gain attention from the government.
The terrorists in the North-west have over the years shown how cunning they could be. Both Messrs Matawalle and Masari have said some of the reasons their deals with terrorists failed was betrayal of agreement by the terrorists.
“The armed bandits have betrayed our trust in them, following a peace agreement earlier negotiated with them, in our quest to find a lasting peace in the state…..We chose peace dialogue for peaceful coexistence in the state and we have done our best; yet, the attacks continue,” Mr Masari said in an interview.
“They have deceived us,” the then-governor said, adding, “Some of them did not follow what we agreed with them. We thought it was something we could continue with them, but we later realised that they had deceived us.”
Ado Aliero, one of the most dreaded banditry kingpins in the North-west, accepted peace deals twice, including accepting a traditional title as Sarkin Fulanin Yandoto but has continued to mastermind attacks in Zamfara State and some parts of Katsina State.
Auwalun Daudawa, who masterminded the abductions at Government Science Secondary School Kankara in Katsina State, also took up arms after his dialogue with the Zamfara State government.
The terrorist and his gang members were housed in government quarters before a house was bought for him and his family in the state capital. His upkeep was also taken care of by the state government. Despite the overtures, Mr Daudawa returned to his old ways insisting he was not “properly engaged”. His repentance and return to banditry did not last more than three months.
Impediments to successful negotiation
Terrorists operating in the forest believe they stand a better chance of getting more money through kidnap-for-ransom, cattle rustling, levies on rural communities and gun running.
A peace deal without genuine counselling and rehabilitation as it has been seen during previous negotiations will be a waste of time. The fact that the government’s financial reward to terrorists is usually far less than the proceeds of the crimes is an incentive for them to return to crime.
Another reason why negotiations with the terrorists have failed to bring lasting solutions is the fact that in most cases, it was the government that reached out to the terrorists and not the other way round.
Security analysts believe it would be better for the government to send a strong military statement to the terrorists before negotiating. This appears to be the right strategy because the terrorists would continue to see negotiations as a sign of weakness from the government’s part.
“What you need to do is to go hard on the military side of things and then after you have used enough military power on them, you may then open the door not for negotiation, for amnesty because you don’t negotiate with terrorists, you don’t negotiate with criminals.
“That is the process, it is not about negotiation, it is not about dialogue; it is a question of using military force against them to show them that Nigeria has the might to crush them and then you allow them to repent and defect if they want to,” Bulama Bukarti, a security expert told Channels TV in July.
Military operations should be done differently
But for them to achieve the intended results, military operations should be done differently.
Most of the offensive operations conducted in the North-west against banditry were not collective in the four most affected states of Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and Sokoto. In 2021, then Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal, lamented that military operations in Zamfara and Katsina states were not being undertaken in his state which pushed the terrorists into Sokoto.
Mr Tambuwal’s views tally with the findings in two exclusive stories by PREMIUM TIMES of how notorious banditry kingpins, Bello Turji and Halilu Sububu relocated to Sokoto State to continue perpetrating atrocities.
“Fighting terrorism shouldn’t be an on-and-off affair as it’s being done now. Soldiers should be provided with everything they need and sent into the forests where the terrorists are to live with them. You can use battalions or even companies to achieve that. When soldiers go into the forest to fight, they shouldn’t be returning home or to their bases as we are seeing now. Sustainability is what we lack in the fight against terrorism today. The fight should also be an all-inclusive one that will be done simultaneously,” a retired army captain, Abubakar Ibrahim, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Ibrahim, who was a commander of the Presidential Brigade of Guards during Sani Abacha’s military government, said the federal government should undertake a “massive” military offensive that would cover all the affected states by using Brigade Commands in the North-western states.
Part of what Mr Ibrahim believes can bring an end to banditry is cooperation among governors of the affected states which he said has been lacking. “It affected past efforts because there was no synergy between the governors. For instance, throughout his eight years, Kaduna State governor (Nasir el-Rufai) was making his own decision of not having a peace accord with the terrorists. The Katsina State governor was on his own, likewise the Zamfara governor. The current governors need to be united with one voice.”
Many security analysts are also of the opinion that security agents should be proactive in the fight against banditry.
“Law enforcement agencies, including military and police personnel, must re-evaluate and improve their security measures as current strategies seem ineffective. To achieve this, they must adopt a proactive approach, which includes better intelligence gathering, surveillance, quick response teams, and stronger border controls. By doing so, they can prevent security breaches before they occur rather than waiting to react to them after the fact,” Malik Samuel, a conflict researcher at the West Africa Office of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told PREMIUM TIMES.
He also noted that the government must tackle the root causes of the security challenge especially unemployment and illiteracy to avoid terrorists recruiting more uneducated youth into banditry.
“Building trust, gathering information, and gaining the support of local communities are essential in the fight against banditry. This requires awareness about the dangers and consequences of such activities,” Mr Samuel, who has been to dozens of communities affected by terrorism in the North-west, said.
He stressed the importance of getting and using reliable local informants in the fight against banditry, hence, the need for “educating local communities about the negative impact of banditry on the communities is necessary,”
He also advocated an efficient criminal justice system “to ensure each crime is promptly and effectively addressed”, and effective cross-border collaboration with the Niger Republic to fight insecurity.
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