Of banditry and a shared sovereignty

In the book The Impact of Banditry on Nigeria’s Security in the Fourth Republic: An Evaluation of Nigeria’s Northwest by Rosenje, Musharafa Olapeju (PhD) and Adeniyi, Oluwatobi Peter, both of the Department of Political Science, Tai Solarin University of Education, first published on 30/04/2021, the authors posited that “Banditry is fast becoming alarming in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic to the extent that it poses a serious security threat not only to the Northwest region but to Nigeria as a whole. The level at which bandits operate within the landscape of Nigeria’s northwest has led to a spree of kidnapping, maiming of people, loss of lives, population displacements, loss of cattle, disruption of socio-economic activities and equally brought about an atmosphere of uncertainty, a situation that has become worrisome to the government and the citizenry.”

The academics have aptly summarised what is happening in the entire country even though their study is for the northwest and north central. They said, “The pervasive banditry and its associated security threats, which have enveloped the Northwest region of Nigeria, particularly, Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Sokoto and Niger states, have become a worrisome national security issue of public concern” and that “reports show the flourishing of bandit groups, whose members were seen displaying automatic weapons, terrorising herders’ settlements, farms, villages and the highways with the mission of killing people, kidnapping and pillaging cows.”

Their thesis went on: “It was reported that between October 2013 and March 2014, 7000 cattle were rustled from commercial livestock farms and traditional herders in Northern Nigeria while about 330 attacks were made by bandits and 1,460 deaths were recorded between January and July 2019.

“In most cases, the bandits killed and maimed the people and raped the women before dispossessing them of their cows (Akowe & Kayode, 2014) while in some instances, they also kidnapped girls or women in the process (Adeniyi, 2015; Yusuf, 2015). Suffice to say that the northwestern region of Nigeria encompasses seven states, namely Kano, Jigawa, Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi. Five of these states, which are Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi, have been most affected by the scourge of banditry. Of these five states, Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara have been the most critical hot spots. It is, however, pertinent to note that the incidences of banditry are not limited to northwestern Nigeria. It is also prevalent in some parts of the north-central region, in states like Niger, Nasarawa, Benue and Plateau which are equally regarded as hotbeds.”

Over the last decade, groups of armed bandits have kidnapped, tortured and killed hundreds of people across northwest and central Nigeria, demanding ransoms and looting citizens, rich and poor. Millions of people have been displaced.

And of late, our country, not only the north, seems to be overwhelmed by insurgents, bandits and separatists. When we take a little inventory, we would see that something needs to be done urgently to save the country from being overrun. For instance, in the space of five months, i.e., between February and July 2021, there were various bandit attacks in Kaduna and Katsina, kidnappings in Zamfara, Afaka and Greenfield University, massacres in Kebbi and Zurmi, and kidnappings in Kebbi and Chikun.

According to the Wisconsin-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), one of the world’s most reliable conflict data aggregators, there were 18 abduction events targeting students across northern Nigeria between January 2018 and April 2021.

ACLED data also show that the bandits killed over 2,600 civilians in 2021, an increase of over 250% from 2020. This number dwarfs that of civilian deaths credited to Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the same year.

In the period between December 2020 and August 2021, over 1,000 students and school staff were abducted. Six months afterwards, 343 people were killed, while 830 others were abducted by bandits between July and September 2021 in Kaduna State alone, according to figures from the state government.

On April 5 this year, in a fight that lasted two hours, bandits that came on motorcycles with heavy weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades, engaged soldiers in a military facility in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna State, killing ten. They had earlier shot down a fighter jet in Zamfara in July last year.

Confidence MacHarry, a security analyst at Lagos-based geopolitical advisory, SBM Intelligence, said the latest attack was “consistent with jihadist terror ideology of destroying established state institutions which the military represents”.

“An attack on a military facility cannot be swept away as the actions of mere bandits,” MacHarry said. “The goal is to capture territory. The government has to recalibrate its counterterrorism strategy in the northwest to factor this into existence. It also has to review the security of its military facilities in the region to strengthen it against future attacks.”

Even though in its bid to contain them, the government has declared them “terrorists”, bandits have continued to wax stronger and bolder in their fight against the people and state, giving rise to security reports that they are the same as Boko Haram.

On November 1, 2021, writing under the title, “Of Wachakal Airport, Wastage and the Bandits in Government”, we had said: “Now one can see how both those who, through corruption, have brought insecurity upon us and the innocent, who find travelling between Abuja and Kaduna safer through the trains, are now jittery because the products of wastage have turned their evil towards the rails.”

In October last year, they failed to stop a train after they laid explosives on its tracks. Witnesses say that time, the train hobbled on to its destination afterwards. But five months later, they hit the bull’s eye. On the same route, on Monday, March 28, this year, they stopped one heading for Kaduna from Abuja by bombing its tracks and shooting sporadically into it, forcing it to come to a halt. They killed many passengers and abducted dozens. Less than a week earlier, they had stormed the Kaduna airport, killing an official on the runway. Monday’s train attack was the second in six months last October.

Since its launch in 2016, the train has presented an alternative means of movement between Abuja, the nation’s capital, and Kaduna as the “bandits” had taken over the roads along the route. It was not surprising to see military and police rednecks, top government officials and political holders being driven to the railway stations in convoys of well-armed security men for the 200-kilometre journey by train or being picked up after arrival.

These bandits-cum-Boko Haram number in the tens of thousands but go around in dozens, sometimes more. Unchallenged, they invade towns and villages mostly on motorcycles – and sometimes on horses, and always well-armed.

Just last week, contributing to a debate on establishing a national task force to combat insecurity, the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, Idris Wase, cried out over how kidnappers and bandits have taken over his constituency, Wase Federal Constituency of Plateau State.

“Virtually every day in my constituency, I have one kidnap report or the other — every day,” he lamented.

But even Abuja, the nation’s capital, is itself not exempt. In the same November 1 article, we pointed out that “bandits operating in Niger State to the West, Kogi to the South, Kaduna to the North and Nasarawa to the East have sandwiched Abuja and there is a need for a clinical onslaught against them. The Fulani settlements in these areas have to be forensically combed. Quite a few of the rugas around Kuje, Lugbe, and close to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport are alleged to be used by bandits to store weapons.”

Within the town itself, you move at your own risk because hoodlums have taken over major spots. Robbery attacks are recurring decimals in dark places, especially on bridges, wooded spots and pedestrian crossings. The ever-busy Apo-Maitama expressway and pedestrian bridges and roundabouts at Area One and Wuse Market area to Zone 7 down, to Berger and up to the Abuja-Kubwa-Kaduna expressway are some of the major areas frequented by criminal elements, and from City Gate to Gwagwalada is one dangerous habitat of these criminal elements.

To show that no one or nowhere is safe, in May 2019, they kidnapped the district head of Daura, President Muhammadu Buhari’s hometown. He was in their dungeon for two months. That incident made Garba Shehu say that Daura was not receiving preferential treatment, and that insecurity was a national problem.

These people now operate as if they are above the law. There are many villages under their control and they have even become the law, levying taxes on the locals regularly. But who are they?

“The bandits are [now] a motley mix of the displaced”, Ayisha Osori, director at Open Society Foundations and former chairperson of Open Society West Africa, told Al Jazeera. “Those displaced by the over decade-long violence in the northeast and those displaced by climate change – unable to farm, fish, trade.

“[There are] also herders who – tired of their cattle being rustled and the fights with farmers – have found a more lucrative revenue-generating operation: kidnapping for ransom and trading terror for community payoffs.

“The bandits also include the opportunistic – so criminally minded men, who may, or may not, be supported by some members of the Nigerian security force who, in a gradually collapsing economy, also find this a lucrative way of exploiting Nigerians.”

There is also the possibility that some bandits are remnants of the Abubakar Shekau faction of Boko Haram in the northeast who have been dislodged by the group’s other faction, ISWAP, which is affiliated with ISIL.