By Williams Faruq
Whenever it seems that the nation is getting some respite, another disturbing news emerges. The last one happened in Niger state, Nigeria. A gang of heavily armed gunmen dressed in military uniforms overran the all-boys Government Science College (GSC) in Kagara Town, Niger State, between Tuesday night to Wednesday morning.
Dozens of school children, teachers and their relatives were abducted by the gunmen. A spokesperson for the Niger State government said 27 students, 3 teachers and a dozen family members of school staff, 42 people in total, were taken.
In the words of Governor Abubakar Sani Bello of Niger State, “these people are cult groups that have no one controlling them, even their parents cannot control them. We call them bandits, but these are common criminals. In fact, they are armed robbers”.
Earlier this month, armed bandits abducted more than 20 passengers from a bus in the town of Zungeru, 50km from where the school boys were taken on Wednesday. In a video released by the gang, according to local reports, distressed victims were surrounded by assailants with a rocket-launcher and rifles. They were made to plead with the government to pay 500m naira in ransom.
The lack of rural security and the protection offered by a vast, thick forest has provided conducive conditions for bandits and armed gangs to thrive mostly in North Central and North-western Nigeria.
The problem of armed gangs and banditry seems to be expanding. Initially, it was limited to Katsina/Kano axis. Then it moved into Zamfara and Kebbi. Now the main trouble spot is Niger State.
However, there are pockets of attacks in other North Central states. Wherever they move, killings, sexual violence and mass kidnappings for ransom are sure to follow.
Ease in the purchase of firearms, financial gains from kidnappings, breakdown of the family system, and gains from drug distribution have all helped to fuel the growth of armed gangs and banditry across different regions of the country.
The immediate past Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai said there are too many ungovernable spaces and unpatrolled forest in the North that creates safe-heavens for bandits and kidnappers. Buratai who stated this during his screening at the National Assembly for an ambassadorial position also lamented that some of these bad elements have made so much money, that they have won the heart of communities they operate from.
With this kind of tentacles that armed gangs have spread across the country, it shows that the country is indeed in mortal danger. Disturbed by their height of influence, some governors, especially in Northern Nigeria have been negotiating with armed gangs and bandits.
In an interview last year, Katsina Governor, Aminu Bello Masari explained why his government is negotiating with bandits.
His words: “In 2016, we started amnesty programme for the bandits. That programme was officially launched in 2017. As a result of that, over 400 AK 47 and other assorted arms and ammunition were surrendered and over 36,000 cattle were returned to the owners apart from ruminants, donkeys, camels and horses.
“It was a very successful programme and it lasted for about two years but because there was no similar programme in Zamfara, Kaduna, and Niger states that share borders with Kastina, other people became vulnerable and banditry escalated. The forest area is contiguous to Kaduna, Zamfara, Kebbi and Niger. It was when the current Zamfara State Governor came in that his state joined in this negotiations.
Even a strong proponent of negotiations with armed gangs, the Governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle, has accused his Niger Stare counterpart, Abubakar Bello, of refusing to take his advice to negotiate with armed bandits in the state. The Zamfara governor probably thinks the recent kidnapping in Niger State would not have happened if there were ongoing negotiations with bandits there.
Matawalle, who made this remark last Wednesday after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari at the State House in Abuja, insisted that only negotiations with bandits and armed gangs by governors will bring an end to cases of criminality and kidnapping.
The Zamfara governor added that negotiation was not a sign of weakness but part of peace efforts because he has now seen that “not all bandits are criminals”.
According to Matawalle, “It had been in Zamfara for almost eight years before I came. Following the dialogue, I initiated with the bandits, Zamfara is now very calm.
“I have advised the Governor of Niger State to meet with all stakeholders and find out the root cause of the crisis so as to initiate dialogue and ensure reconciliation. But he refused to take my advice. That is the only way to achieve what I have been able to achieve in my state.
“Most of the criminals that caused trouble in Zamfara were not from my state. Two months ago, we had some repentant bandits who surrendered their weapons. One gang leader was from Yobe, two from Kaduna, two from Niger; so, you see, it is a gang.”
In Jos, Plateau State, Governor Simon Lalong, says he is working with security agencies and stakeholders to ensure that the ugly incidences are tackled. During a church service to mark the 2021 Armed Forces Remembrance Day, he said his government has passed laws in which anyone convicted of kidnapping will be sentenced to death, while cultism and other violent crimes attract various terms of imprisonment.
He also said that he has also inaugurated 595 Community Police Constables, who were trained and deployed to the 17 local government areas. They are expected to assist law enforcement agencies, particularly the police, in intelligence gathering and other security operations.
“Things may not be as good as we desire at the moment, but we have to remain hopeful and work for a better tomorrow”, the governor said as he rounded off his speech.
At this stage, whatever line of action it would take, all hands must be on deck to pull the country away from this siege by armed gang. Allowing it to grow to the level of insurgency will be too costly.
It is even a very strange omen for governors to openly propose negotiations with armed gangs and bandits. Very soon we might also find rapists, armed robbers, ritualists, and cyber-crime perpetrators lining up to seek negotiations with the government. The situation should not be allowed to degenerate to that level.
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