At a time when the handlers of Nigeria’s security architecture were seriously looking for solutions to the rising insecurity challenges in the country, the governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle brought in a mixture of shock and comic relief when he declared that “not all bandits are criminals.”
Matawalle who made this known recently at the Aso Villa, Abuja, while on a visit to President Muhammadu Buhari went on to reinforce the initial comment by saying, “Bandits are good and responsible people.”
The governor’s aides are still battling to do some damage control, but many discerning analysts perceive that such a comment can only come from a personality whose views and actions may be generating conflict with his position of high responsibility. The governor further stressed that most bandits are victims of rustlers, and since they don’t have anybody to speak for them, they resort to violence.
It should also be noted that the governor has explained that his statement was taken out of context. What he really said was that “not all Fulanis are criminals.” However, the issue is still generating debates among Nigerians. The governor is reported to be among the top persons in government that negotiated the release of Kankara school boys few weeks ago with bandits. Many Nigerians perceive that the governor is handling banditry with kid gloves, which may encourage more young people to venture into the lucrative business.
The governor however sees his statements and activities as sincere attempts to nip the problem of banditry in the bud. Zamfara has for many years been bedeviled by security challenges, with armed bandits ransacking communities and kidnapping at will for ransom.
After his dramatic electoral victory in 2019, Matawalle promised to pursue a “carrot and stick” approach in addressing the security menace in the state, including dialogue with the bandits.
The approach had drawn sharp reactions from a spokesperson for the All Progressive Forum (APC) when they called for the investigation of “a Northwest governor” for fraternising with bandits. Many believed it was a veiled reference to the Zamfara State governor.
However, latest developments show that views and reactions are changing. The Nigerian Governors Forum recently paid a commendation visit to Governor Matawalle, expressing its total support to his banditry control campaign in the North-west zone.
A statement by Mr Matawalle’s spokesperson, Zailani Bappa, said a four-member delegation of the forum led by its chairperson, who is also Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi, met with Mr Matawalle at the Zamfara Governor’s Lodge, Maitama, Abuja.
The forum said it was completely in support of the efforts being made by Mr Matawalle in the fight against banditry and other criminality in Zamfara State and the North-west at large.
“We note your single-mindedness in this pursuit and we also note the positive results being recorded by your approach in the fight against the menace of banditry in your state and the North-west as a whole.
“All the Nigerian Governors stand as one in your support at this hour, in your total commitment to the liberation of our people from the activities of these criminals in your state and the region”, Governor Fayemi said.
While many Nigerians expressed shock over the governor’s proposed dialogue with criminals, others are of the view that, if that is the best way to end insecurity in the region, the governor should go ahead.
The shock of the chief law officer of a state hobnobbing with dangerous law breakers gradually gets diluted as the governor of Zamfara reasons the convergence of his position and policy towards banditry.
But there are other governors and political leaders who feel that government and bandits should never be seatmates for any reason.
Kaduna State for instance has suffered heavy and persistent attacks from bandits. However, Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, strongly believes there can be no common grounds between governance and banditry. He wants the Federal Government to give the states air and ground forces to fight against banditry, kidnapping and other criminal menace.
El-Rufai made the call while declaring that his administration would not support or recognise any reconciliatory moves with bandits in the state.
His words: “If the Federal Government does not give us the air and ground forces, to invade those forests and ensure that those terrorists are killed at the same time, then we will continue to be in trouble.
“We in Kaduna are cooperating with Niger State. The governor of the state calls from time to time to gather information. We are doing things with them.”
Niger State Governor, Abubakar Sani Bello is another firm believer that government should not negotiate with bandits. But the latest onslaught against his state seems to point towards a change in policy. However, he still stands by the view that ransom must not be paid to bandits.
Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello equally stands with the policy of zero negotiations with criminal elements. He revealed that criminal gangs often take advantage of such official gesture to wreak more havoc as a result of the illusion that government negotiated out of a place of weakness.
Bello spoke on a breakfast show on national television. He cited an instance where a criminal gang was offered amnesty in Nasarawa State following the intervention of a top politician, lamenting that the group however reneged on its agreement with the government as its members have continued to terrorise the people. He pointed out that strong political will was required to tackle security challenges of any type and the steps his administration took in a state bedeviled with security challenges was to deal ruthlessly with crime perpetrators and their sponsors.
According to Bello, the decision of the North Central Governors Forum to establish military barracks in flashpoints within their states was in a bid to further strengthen the existing effective security architecture in the region, adding that such barracks would be a designated training location for military operatives, from where special forces could be easily deployed for operations.
The argument against negotiating with bandits or terrorists is simple. Democracies must never give in to violence, and bandits must never be rewarded for using it. Negotiations give legitimacy to banditry or insurgency and their methods, and undermine actors who have pursued their cases through legal and peaceful means.
Negotiations with criminal elements can undermine the’ political systems, undercut better efforts to outlaw banditry or terrorism, and above all, set a dangerous precedent.
But in practice, can all democratic leaders hold on to these high values without caving in when they collide with hard realities and pressures from different quarters? What have been the results of such negotiations locally and internationally?
With Nigeria’s rising security problems, and pressures mounting on government players both at state and federal levels to negotiate unconditionally, can government rule out the possibility of some vultures seeking to use ‘’amnesty for bandits’’ as means to perpetuate their looting of the public?
The only endurable thing is that even if there must be amnesty for bandits, it should be at no financial cost to the government. They must all be ready to turn in their weapons to the state to show that Nigeria’s nasty chapter on banditry is actually coming to an end.