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War Against Bandits And Insurgents: A Nation At Its Wit’s End And America’s Troubling Conditionalities

The Tucano fighter jets ordered from the United States of America by government to scale up the fight against insurgency in Nigeria, particularly in the northern Nigeria are here.  But there is a lingering issue on whether bandits are terrorists or not.

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The United States Government has said that the Federal Government of Nigeria is expected to deploy the newly procured Super Tucano aircrafts only in the Northern part of the country where Boko Haram terrorists have engaged the Nigerian State in more than a decade-long insurgency battle. Briefing journalists at a media parley in company of US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, the US Deputy National Security Advisor, Jonathan Finer revealed that the terms of the agreement during the sale of the 12 Tucano aircrafts were explicit to that effect. While reacting to a question on whether the Tucano fighter planes might be deployed against secessionists in the South-East, Finer said the planes would serve as an important military equipment for security, particularly in the North. Expressing pleasure over the conclusion of the deal; Finer said, “We are pleased to deepen our security cooperation with the Nigerian government. I think we made it very clear our expectations about this platform where it would be used and in the right way and we are always raising concerns when we have them, and that it’s true with all our security partners around the world. This is an important platform for security, particularly in the North and we are pleased the transaction is finally concluded.”

The Federal Government had ordered 12 A-29 Super Tucano aircrafts in 2018 at an amount within the region of $500 million to aid its war against Boko Haram terrorists in the North-East. While the jets were being awaited, some members of the National Assembly visited the United States in May 2021 to inspect the aircraft. The lawmakers include Senator Michael Nnachi, Representatives Abass Adigun, Babajimi Benson, Shehu Koko and Abubakar Maki. They were received by the United States officials from Embraer Defence Security Incorporated and the Nigerian Defence Attaché to the US, Air Commodore Jibrin Usman, the Lead Foreign Liaison Office on the A-29, Air Vice Marshal Sule Lawal, among others. The US officials pointed out that the aircraft was designed in accordance with NAF’s specific operational configuration. Also, a total of 64 pilots and maintainers from the Nigerian Air Force were trained in the US standards with the US Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Base in Georgia, United States.

On July 22, 2021 the Nigerian Air Force revealed in a statement that the first batch comprising six of the Tucano aircrafts arrived in Kano. Those who received the aircraft were the Minister of Defence,  Chief of Air Staff, Chief of Army Staff among others. Similarly, on October 18, 2021 the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed said the remaining six had been received and had been deployed to the North-East. The minister said, “All the 12 Super Tucano fighter jets have been received. As at this morning, all the 12 have been deployed to the North-East. We can see that the Tucano jets are actually game-changers. Most of the successes we have recorded in recent times are because of the acquisition of new platforms, not limited to the super Tucano.”

The military, however, have not been able to deploy the Tucano planes to fight the bandits and other criminals elsewhere because the agreement signed with the United States was that the aircrafts bought from the US would be deployed against terrorists and not bandits. Based on the earlier referenced terms of transaction agreements (which is not in the public domain) and complexity of these descriptive semantics, the fighter planes might be permitted to fight only Boko Haram insurgents in line with the confines of international military engagement.

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The complaints by Nigeria’s service chiefs on the negative effect this limitation could have on the effective usage of these fighter aircrafts on other forms of security challenges in the country led to the recommendation to the President by both the Senate and the House of Representatives that bandits should be designated as terrorists so that the planes could be properly deployed against them. The President is yet to speak on the matter as his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu deflected all enquiries to the Ministry of Defence.

The Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai also joined the advocacy and called on the Federal Government to proscribe bandits as terrorists so that the military would be able to deploy full force upon them within the confines of international law. The governor who said he had written letters to the Federal Government as far back as 2017 on the necessity of classifying bandits as terrorists, lamented that no fewer than 343 persons had been killed from July to September in Kaduna while 830 others had been kidnapped in separate circumstances by these criminals.

In 2018 when the Federal Government of Nigeria initiated this transaction with the United States to procure the Tucano fighter jets; the major nucleus of the deal was that the fighter jets would be used to decimate activities of the dreaded Boko haram insurgents in the North-East region. However; as at today, while the Boko Haram insurgency is still much active and wreaking havoc in the North-East; newer forms of security challenges have sprouted, especially in the North-west and North-Central regions of Nigeria in the form of armed banditry. These destructive bandits have been on bloody rampage; culminating in series of abduction which are now a habitual feature of life in the region, senseless bloodletting leading to loss of lives and properties,  a reflection the agony, pain and losses of citizens and communities, alongside fears and anxiety that have created unquantifiable distress.

Between Katsina, Zamfara, parts of Kaduna and Niger states; there are about 150 bandit camps and hideouts. Though they have no recognised or centralised form of leadership, these bandits have organised themselves into deadly and well-coordinated cells strategically placed in key locations within these regions. They get money from ransoms paid for kidnapped hostages, profit from gunrunning arms trade, leasing of weapons to other criminal groups, proceeds from joint operations with other criminal groups, protection levies imposed on farming communities and individuals, among others. These bandits purchase commercial motorcycles and vehicles for informants who remit proceeds to them, even as they recruit informants who manage businesses on their behalf and remit profits to them. The money made by these bandits is expended mainly on purchase of more arms and ammunition, food, logistics, medical aid, narcotic substances, payment of informants and accomplices. So worrisome is the surge in their dastard activities that the governments of Zamfara, Sokoto and Kaduna had to disable telecommunication networks in certain parts of their respective domains; in a bid to limit the rate bandits pass information and coordinate their operations. This effort has achieved little in reducing the spate of their activities; as the criminals have continued to attack markets, palaces of traditional rulers, places of religious gatherings, farms, public gatherings, homes and roads; killing many, abducting others and inflicting misery upon residents of the region. The bandits have acquired weapons far more assorted than AK-47s, boasting larger-capacity advanced weaponry and they have recently shot down a fighter jet deployed by the Nigeria Air Force to conduct reconnaissance operations in the troubled region. In August this year bandits breached the Nigeria Defence Academy in Kaduna killing two officers and abducting others, including an Army Major. At least, three military bases have also been raided in Sokoto and Zamfara within the past few months.

While the easy answer to the conditions placed by the US on usage of the procured military equipment will be to just proscribe the bandits as terrorists so that they may fall under the category of criminals that military force can be descend upon, it however, becomes disconcerting that the US is being overtly meddlesome and trying to place conditions, telling Nigeria how to handle its internal security. It can be summarised bluntly as “do it our way or risk having no military equipment sold to you again”. It is further suggested that this stance is based on the opinion that the banditry operations is distant priority for the US policy makers who are only focused on Boko-Haram and its ISWAP affiliates hence they are less bothered about the bandit’s horror-reign. But it is important to note that the interests of the US are secondary in this case; as Nigeria is the one bearing the agony and anguish occasioned by the acts of these bandits. Besides, the US will be uninformed if it is still downplaying the potential metastasising that this gang of bandits can undergo in the next couple of years and the ugly consequences it portends for the country and sub-Saharan Africa at large if nothing is done to arrest this menace as soon as possible.

Moreover, this military equipment is not freebies, Nigeria paid to procure these items; a whooping sum of $500 million which is the highest single arms purchase deal in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the US Department of Defence. This payment in particular put the integrity of the current administration to test among local opposition; having decided to pay upfront for the equipment in 2018 and then get it three years later in 2021; many at the time questioned the logic and rationale behind this form of transaction and even doubted the sincerity of the funds expended. But all well and good, the equipment is here but we cannot use them unless we satisfy certain conditions based on sobriquets? Does that mean if any form of serious security challenge posing grave threat to human lives and properties emerges; and the military deems it fit to deploy this equipment as part of its response; the perpetrators will first have to be publicly proscribed and labelled as terrorists to satisfy this US stipulations? What if it is a situation that demands swift military offensive within which time is of the essence, should the military start worrying about nomenclature of whether these criminals fall under armed bandits or Boko Haram insurgents or otherwise? Or should we worry about regions?  As all the 12 fighter jets are currently domiciled in the North-East now, does that mean the Nigerian Air Force canno deploy them on any other region with security disturbances that need urgent response like what is currently obtainable in large portions of the North-West? It is a fact that both regions share close proximity and as such, the murderous acts of these groups of insurgents are clearly interwoven between these two regions and even beyond as they cannot be totally limited to just one or two. There have been local and international reports uncovering how Boko Haram terrorists operating in the North-East have been collaborating with armed bandits terrorising communities across the North-West; what then is the difference betwixt them?

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While the furor by the US on designation of which murderous group is terrorist or non-terrorist is doing more harm than good to the Nigerian security project; the reluctance of the Federal Government to do the needful and designate these armed bandits as a terrorist group can no longer be reasonably defended. There have been lingering suspicions in certain quarters that due to the semblance or nexus between bandits and herdsmen; the Federal Government is not fully committed to clamping down on them in totality. But even though they have no publicised political or religious agenda; armed banditry has assumed frightening dimensions putting it on the path of Boko Haram footprints in reach, barbarism, sophistry and impact if not stopped immediately. There is no need to mince words about these killers; they are barefaced terrorists. It defies logic when the speed the government used in proscribing IPOB as a terrorist organisation is compared with its hesitancy to do same with the bandits within the context of fairly juxtaposing the public impact of the activities of both groups on the safety of human lives and properties.

Before the arrival of the Tucano fighter jets; the military and other security agencies had commenced wide-scale conventional and unconventional operations against these bandits.  These operations are degrading bandits in bits but they are not yet simultaneous across all the affected states in the North-West region, and which gives these criminals the luxury of time to recover, regroup and re-strategize with stronger capabilities and resilience in fighting back. This reflects fundamental drawbacks, including shortages of armed personnel and other resource deficits by the security agencies. There have been reports of bandits overrunning security formations; or using more advanced ammunitions to repel that of the military and make incursions into areas where they hold bases. This simply implies that there are not enough firepower and boots on the ground; and further highlights the exigency of deploying effective military response in forms of air onslaught on bandit hideouts and shanties. Banditry has grown into a bigger monster and there is a burning need to have substantial military deployments in place to protect communities, deter crime and purge these regions of this criminal infestation. Lives are being lost almost on a daily basis and another region is at imminent risk of being turned into a crisis zone with lots of internally displaced persons due to the heightened acts of these marauders. The US and the Federal Government of Nigeria cannot afford to dwell on nugatory semantics at this point; the fighter jets are here, the situation is dire and as such, the military response must be swift and decisive against any and all forms of criminal activity within the country.

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