Why the Bandits Are Still Very Much Amongst Us

Many parts of the country are still experiencing large-scale banditry, even though military operations are beginning to yield expected results. Armed groups have financed their operations through kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, human and narcotics trafficking, among other criminal activities. Recently, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi’s mediatory efforts seem to have yielded some intelligence reports that the Nigerian authorities can use.

Since the return to civil rule in May 1999 till date, Nigeria has been under sustained attacks from insurgents and criminal gangs with terrorist organisations, armed robbers, bandits, attacks from the self-styled Fulani herdsmen, youth restiveness, and other forms of civil unrests.

The most perturbing of all the recent forms of security threats in the country are those orchestrated by the Islamic Jihadist movements – Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the northern part of the country on the one hand; and bandits, and Fulani herdsmen and farmers conflict, on the other hand.

Apart from the challenges posed by these notorious terrorist groups, bandits and Fulani herders, there are other forms of threat that in the past emanated from the minority ethnic groups from the Niger Delta region – the main source of the country’s wealth but one of the most neglected, marginalised, and underdeveloped regions in the country.

The insurgency that emanated from this region was actualised through pipeline vandalism, oil bunkering, and kidnapping for ransom. Also of note is the agitation for true federalism and resource control, which eventually led to the rise of militancy in the sub-region, which, a few years ago, some analysts and observers of the Nigerian political scenario had predicted would happen. This situation has further worsened the security challenge in the country.

Among the most worrisome of all of these security threats in the country currently are the intensified campaigns by the pro-Biafra group, the IPOB, and the Oduduwa Nation for secession from the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Some scholars and political analysts see the regionalisation of security threats in the country as the most worrisome of all the security threats in the country. They are of the view that the regionalisation of unrests and agitations in Nigeria makes it very difficult for the central and regional governments to effectively combat the security challenges. Corruption has also posed a huge challenge to government’s efforts to tackle the insecurity in the country.

These terrorist groups have continued to unleash mayhem in different parts of the country through abductions, killings, armed robbery, arson, to mention a few. In the southeastern parts of Nigeria, security threats are in form of agitations from the secessionist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). For over a decade, the northern part of the country has been under the siege of Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist organisation, ISWAP, bandits, cattle rustlers, and Fulani herdsmen. This region is the most volatile in the country in recent times, having experienced several attacks from these insurgent groups and terrorist organisations.

Past military spokesmen had claimed success in the Nigerian Army’s operations against bandits and jihadists. According to the media, the government had also engaged in talks with certain groups, but with no apparent success. In some parts of the northwest, the term, ‘bandit’, evokes an allusion that stigmatises entire communities and states over a complicated shared history between the Fulani and the Hausa populations.

Competition with Hausa farmers has sharpened over the past decade, with both the intensification of agriculture and a dry climate. The expansion of farms across cattle routes means access to both grazing and water, and these have become issues of lethal contention.

For many years, criminal groups and armed gangs have wreaked havoc and killed many in various parts of the country. The motives for the attacks vary from vengeance, to seeking the government’s attention, and alleged marginalisation. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the violent attacks have claimed 7,347 lives in the seven states that make up the northwest.

Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser on Nigeria at the International Crisis Group, said that banditry, like other security challenges Nigeria is battling with, is caused by the “convergence of failures of governance on several fronts (which) had been mounting over the years, but are now manifesting more viciously amidst serious deficits of will, capacity, and engagement, at all levels of government”.

Authorities, including state governors, had in the past claimed that some of the gunmen referred to as bandits are not Nigerians but foreigners mostly from Niger, Mali, and Senegal, but there has been little evidence to back the claim — until now.

Findings show that while the security challenge is an offshoot of the pastoral conflict that has plagued northern Nigeria, the attacks are buoyed by the lack of security presence at Nigeria’s borders with neighbouring countries, particularly Niger. The borders are so porous that in a Katsina town, residents narrated how herdsmen migrate from Chad and Niger to herd their cattle mostly during the dry season, through Jibia, which is just 50 kilometres from the Nigerian border.

To secure their cattle, locals say the herders often arm themselves with guns in anticipation of confrontations from rural farmers or host communities who accuse them of herding their cattle along farming routes and destroying crops in the process. After years of conflict, and land ownership laws favouring farmers, some herders turned to violent criminal activities, boosted by illegal weapons flows from as far as Libya.

These groups, mainly comprising the Fulani but also the Hausa and other ethnic groups, set up camps in Rugu forest, in Zamfara State. This became the springboard for attacks in neighbouring Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Kebbi, and Niger States. Some have hundreds of fighters and others have just a dozen, according to Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group Think Tank (ICG).

In 2019, the Zamfara State authorities estimated there were more than 10,000 bandits in 40 camps across the state. They mainly target people in rural areas but also carry out highway ambushes, killing those who attempt to resist kidnapping or refuse to pay ransom.

Between 2011 and 2019, up to 3,600 people were kidnapped in Zamfara State alone, while violence has killed 8,000 people and displaced 200,000, according to the ICG. And in recent months, they have targeted schools for boys and girls. Several kidnappings of students have taken place since December.

The gangs are largely driven by financial motives and have no known ideological leanings. But there are fears they are being infiltrated by the Boko Haram terrorists who have waged a decade-long insurgency in the northeast.

The jihadists leapt to international notoriety in 2014 with the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls, sparking the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

Many Nigerians have been asking the question of what exactly these bandits want. The meeting of Sheikh Ahmad Mahmud Gumi, a Kaduna-based Islamic scholar, with over 500 notorious bandits in attendance gave some answers to this recurring question.

At the meeting, the scholar sought to understand and unveil the grievances behind the lingering crisis in the northwestern part of the country, particularly in Zamfara State where a lot of banditry-related issues have been recorded. 

According to reports, the responses of the top commanders of these banditry groups are linked to unemployment and the absence of youth empowerment initiatives in their part of the country. They explained that these factors had driven them into the world of crime; they also accused the government of insincerity in its effort to put an end to the issue of insecurity.

Sheikh Ahmad Gumi can only mediate. It is left to be seen what the authorities will do with the knowledge or intelligence gathered from his mediation.

Banditry has persisted in various parts of the country as armed groups continue to finance their operations through various means. Recently, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi’s mediatory efforts have yielded some intelligence reports that the Nigerian authorities can use to their advantage.

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