By Sani Sa’idu Baba
My dear country men and women, please permit me to begin today by confessing that Nigeria is under distress. Its woes are most evident in the spate of armed violence and criminality ravaging the component parts. In fact, nothing explains this awry situation better than the apocalyptically volatile situation in the wider northern region.
The northeast is still under the Boko Haram scourge in spite of the counter-insurgency endeavors of the Governor Babagana Zulum’s administration. The north-central area has been afflicted by herdsmen militancy and ethno-religious conflicts, which has plunged the region into crisis. The northwestern region has recently been enmeshed in the rapid upsurge of rural banditry along its international frontiers as well as the forested interior.
But my concern today is particularly the Northwestern region of Nigeria where I come from. For about a decade, the region has been facing insecurity related crises ranging from armed-group violence to kidnappings and banditry, affecting inhabitants of Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto states. Recently, Kaduna and Niger states have joined the fray, and appear to be the central hub of banditry in the entire country. Kano and Jigawa seems to be the only relatively peaceful states in the Northwest today.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian government’s response to the crises in the region has done little to alleviate the security concerns, and the situation appears as if bandits and criminals have overrun our country and effectively taken over its leadership. Any right-thinking Nigerian knows that this is the most burning issue for discourse, especially at a time when a religious scholar, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, by his consistent questionable attitude and baseless ground, adds salt to festering wounds. Having watched his interviews a couple of times, his comments seem unacceptable. I am speaking as a Muslim, Northerner and partly a Fulani.
Nothing is more dangerous than politicizing issues that has to do with the security of the people; but, despite the red flags Gumi have manifested, Northern leaders have obviously done nothing, and what they are doing if at all they are, is not enough to restore sanity in the land. A flashback to some episodes that had happened recently, the efforts of the government so far (military operations and dialogue), and why such efforts are not sufficient enough would be the focus of my discussion today.
We could recall that the recent spate of banditry-related violence began in 2014 with cattle rustling activity, but the matter became worse in early 2016 when the bandits started killing local miners in Zamfara communities. However, the attacks now affect the entire North West region, especially the border areas with Niger. In what has become a recurring tragedy, not only have thousands been killed, but women have been raped, children have become orphans, villages have been sacked and destroyed, farm produce has been destroyed, property has been stolen, and civilians have been kidnapped for ransom. As a result of these, the affected states including Katsina, Kaduna, Sokoto, and Kebbi established a committee headed by Muhammad Abubakar, a former Inspector-General of Police in 2019. He estimated that between 2011 and 2019, 4,983 women were widowed, 25,050 children were orphaned, and more than 190,340 people were displaced in Zamfara due to armed banditry.
Kidnapping for ransom has become a particularly lucrative and attractive business to many in the North West region, especially among the many unemployed youths. Many residents lament how easily the armed banditry groups storm their communities in broad daylight to either rustle cattle or kidnap people. The kidnappers no longer have interested in kidnapping ordinary villagers, however. Rather, they realize that attacking schools and inter-state transportation routes brings in more money.
Apart from the recent attacks that happened till September, 2021, Terrorism Monitor has for example, recorded at least eight (8) mass kidnappings of school children and university students in the past six months, including: One, In December 2020, there was an attack on Government Science Secondary School students in Kankara, Katsina State, where over 300 students were abducted by a group of armed men on motorcycles. The state government insisted that nothing was paid for the release of the students, but some residents confirmed that 30 million naira was released to the bandits. The late Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed his fighters in the North West region abducted the students, although the abductors had already contacted the state government on the issue of ransom payment before Shekau’s faction released an exclusive video from the bandits’ camp featuring the boys. Two, according to Daily Trust publication on January 6, 2021, there was a kidnapping of more than 317 schoolgirls in Jangebe, Zamfara State. This came just a week after a similar kidnapping incident. Three, on December 19, 2020, two days after the release of the Kankara schoolboys, bandits abducted over 80 Islamic school (Islamiyya) students in Dandume, Katsina State. The children were rescued after a vigilante group and volunteers intercepted them while they were trying to cross the forest.
Four, Armed bandits stormed the Federal College of Forestry Mechanization in Mando, Kaduna State in March 2021 and abducted 39 students. The bandits demanded 500 million naira ransom from the Kaduna State government, but after the governor, Nasir El-Rufai, failed to comply, they reached out to parents of the abducted students. The governor declared that no more payments of ransom would be made after the abduction and promised not to negotiate with any armed group. Three weeks after the abduction the kidnapped students were released in a negotiation facilitated by Shaykh Ahmad Gumi’s dialogue committee with support from former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Five, In March 2021, an undisclosed number of primary school students in a village in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna State were abducted. A resident and father of one of the victims revealed that the children were rescued by vigilante groups a few days after the abduction. Six, similarly, on April 23, students of Greenfield University in Kaduna State were abducted by bandits who demanded a ransom of 800 million Nigerian naira. Five students were killed in captivity while 14 were released after a payment of ransom. Seven, on June 10th in the same vein, an armed group invaded Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic in Zaria, Kaduna State. One student was killed and eight people, including lecturers and students, were abducted, which caused the school’s administrators to shut down academic activities immediately. Eight, one week after the Nuhu Bamalli abduction, on June 17, another 102 students of Federal Government College in Birnin Yawuri, Kebbi State were abducted. The governor chose not to negotiate with the abductors and one male and one female student were killed, while five others were rescued after the Nigerian forces operating under Hadarin Daji intercepted the abductors. More than 80 armed bandits were reported killed by the troops with support from Nigerian air force and more than 800 rustled cattle were recovered. However, approximately 95 students remained in the custody of the armed bandits in the forest while vigilantes and volunteers mobilized for another rescue mission.
It is clear that Nigerians are paying ransom to the kidnappers and banditry groups because they have seemingly lost interest and confidence in security intermediates. However, the paying of ransoms is motivating more bandits to join the kidnapping business even as government has remained clueless. Some have even accused the government of sponsoring insecurity indirectly by paying ransoms. According to this perspective, a government serious about tackling the issue would not pay any money to criminal armed groups in the form of ransom for kidnappings because it is an offence against citizens that require proactive and prompt security operatives to curb. Based on the aforementioned, the laxity of the government in restoring sanity in the affected places is obvious. You can imagine the hidden places of those bandits in the forests that extended through the length and breadth of northwest including Rugu, Kamara, Kunduma, and Sububu forests known to the government and all have since become strategic strongholds for banditry groups to carry out their attacks. They retire to those places and live peacefully and fearlessly after their operations. This is depressing to Nigerians.
In response to that however, Nigerian government has launched multiple military operations in the North West region to curtail the menace since 2019, including Operation Harbin Kunama and Exercise Sahel Sanity. The military operation, Exercise Sahel Sanity, headquartered at the Special Army Super Camp IV in Faskari, Katsina State, led to the killing of 220 bandits and the rescue of 642 kidnapped victims from captivity. The troops also destroyed 197 bandits’ enclaves, killed the notorious armed leader called “Dangote” of the eponymous “Dangote Triangle” in Katsina, and arrested 335 suspected bandits and 326 illegal miners in Kebbi, Kaduna, Niger, Zamfara and Katsina states. In July 2020 as gathered by media outlets including Premiumtimes.ng of July 3, 2020 and TheCable.ng of July 7, 2020, Mustapha Inuwa, the Secretary to the Katsina State Government, announced that his state had spent about 30 million Naira on an amnesty programme for repentant bandits and cattle rustlers before it collapsed. Inuwa further stated that the reason for the collapse of the peace deal was that the bandits kept reneging on agreements and betraying their promises to the government. However, based on my understanding, the efforts of Katsina State government solely depended on dialogue with the bandits which has since failed. The recent discovery of some bandits in Katsina State payroll is enough to inform some hidden fruitless agreement.
Moreover, Katsina and Zamfara governments also employed the services of non-state actors, like vigilante groups and Security Volunteers often called Yan Sakai, to curtail the conflict. Although they possess knowledgeable insights and understanding of the local conflict, they have their own disadvantage. For example, some of the vigilante members have seized on the opportunity stemming from the conflict to attack perceived enemies.
My other concern today is about the interference of the controversial Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Gumi on the issue of banditry. He was recently reported to have said that military onslaught would worsen banditry in Nigeria. His utterances has caught my attention on several occasions. I sometimes wonder whether the Sheikh is conscious of the embarrassment he is causing the entire north. I see no reason why criminals should be protected or sympathize with. He even sometimes confer some sort of legitimacy on their nefarious activities. But my surprise is that no governor in the north has ever called him to order or pointed an accusing finger to him against the dangers surrounding most of his actions. Honestly, the intervention of Ahmad Gumi is only doing more harm than good to the country because of the belief in many quarters that he is colluding with the bandits. And that is a threat to the already weakly united Nigeria. The bandits are also seemingly encouraged by his actions. The criminals even requested the President to come and negotiate with them personally. I don’t know what type of negotiation apart from what Katsina and Zamfara states governors earlier considered. I must commend Nasir El-rufai’s in refusing any form of negotiation.
Regional banditry in North West Nigeria will be difficult to resolve if the government continues with its current strategy. In the first place, explosive population growth and climate change in Nigeria are exacerbating economic anxiety and fomenting lawlessness, especially in communities bordering Niger. Moreover, there is unchecked border crossings between herder tribes, as there is virtually no restriction on movements in these border areas. Anyone in Niger Republic can come to Nigeria, commit any crime, and go back to Niger.
Furthermore, corruption plays a significant role as some security agencies allegedly collect bribes from Nigeriens and grant them access to Nigeria without proper investigation. The suggestions of Kano state governor on how to arrive at a lasting solution must be considered. Our governors and stakeholders in their respective states, especially the religious leaders must work in synergy and stand united. They should also stand against Gumi and teach him that those criminals that invaded the north are mostly none-Nigerians, but used the advantage of porous borders and laxity of laws to invade the country. They came to Nigeria from different parts of West Africa, roaming dangerously and violently in and out of the country unchallenged.
Why then would Sheikh Gumi be protecting people that do not belong here on criminal matters? It is not surprising if our Southern counterparts accuses the Nigerian Fulani herders for causing troubles in the land, probably because they could not decipher. But the truth is, not all are Nigerians and our Northern leaders must as a matter of urgency do the needful.
I strongly support the anti-grazing law enforced by the Southwest governors, and I never consider their stand as an effort to humiliate the North. We cannot continue in the old ways in spite of several transformations the world has experienced in recent years.
Peace shall be restored in Northwest and other parts of the country.