Who are the bandits behind Nigeria’s woe?

Who are the bandits behind Nigeria’s woe?
Charles Nwoke, Abakaliki, Nigeria
March 8, 2021 

Image courtesy of local sources. Fair use. 

For more than ten years, criminal gangs have been terrorizing communities in northwest Nigeria, raiding villages, pillaging, raping, stealing cattle, ambushing travelers, abducting and killing people.

These notorious criminal groups have equally turned to mass kidnapping, seizing hundreds of school children in a thread of attacks on citadels of learning, probably mimicking the Islamic terrorists’ style of operations hundreds of kilometers away.

The crisis today witnessed in northwest Nigeria originated with communal clashes over ownership of farmlands and resources, a situation that has degenerated with the suspected impact of climate change.

On one side of the controversy are predominantly Fulani herders and mainly Hausa farmers on the other side of the pogrom.

After so many years of violence, and land ownership laws favoring farmers, some herdsmen resulted in violent criminal activities, boosted by an illegal inflow of weapons from Libya.

These gangs consisting of mainly Fulanis and ignorable few Hausas and other ethnic groups, set up camps in Rugu forest, in Zamfara State. This, therefore, became the springboard for attacks in neighboring Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Kebbi, and Niger states respectively.

According to security sources within the area, some of the miscreants have hundreds of fighters, while others have just a dozen.

The Zamfara State Government in 2019, estimated that there were more than 10,000 bandits in 40 camps across the state.

The criminal elements usually target people in rural areas but also carry out highway attacks, killing those who attempt to resist abduction or refuse to pay ransoms.

Between 2011 and 2019, up to 3,600 persons were kidnapped in Zamfara alone, while violence has killed 8,000 people and displaced 200,000, according to the ICG.

These groups have equally stepped up attacks on workers in the informal gold mining sector. And in recent months, they have targeted schools for boys and girls. Since December, four mass kidnappings of school children have occurred.

In the recent attack, 279 girls have whisked away from their boarding school in Zamfara last Friday. As in other abductions, the girls were later released, in conditions that remain unknown to the general public after much deliberations and negotiations between the hoodlums and the State Government.

The criminal gangs are mainly driven by monetary value and have no known ideological leanings nor tangible reason for their nefarious activities. But there are fears they are being infiltrated by Islamists who have waged a decade-long insurgency in the northeast, holding the entire region on the jugular.

The terrorist group grew to international notoriety in 2014 with the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, which sparked off the #BringBackOurGirls movement all over the world.

Security experts said, some bandit groups have declared their loyalty and allegiance to Abubakar Shekau, notorious Boko Haram kingpin, while some militia from the rival Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) group have deserted the Jihadist war and fled to northwest Nigeria.

On December 11, no fewer than 344 boys were seized from a Government Science School in Kankara, in Katsina state. Initially blamed on bandits, the kidnap incident was later claimed by Boko Haram in a video.

The schoolboys were set free a week later after a negotiation between the criminals and local authorities who rejected that Boko Haram had anything to do with the ordeal.

The Nigerian army deployed military troops to the northwest in 2016 and launched airstrikes in 2018 but incessant attacks on innocent villagers have persisted.

In November 2020, the air force struck camps along the Abuja-Kaduna highway, a key axis to the Capital Territory where kidnappings have become rampant and a continuous thing. But the military is largely concentrating efforts on the northeast, where insurgents have killed at least 30,000 people over a decade today.

Zamfara State Government have attempted to negotiate with bandits, offering amnesty in return for disarmament and laying down their weapons, yet attacks have continued unabated.

A peace pact was signed in 2019 but remains fragile and futility.

In a statement credited to the presidency last Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari urged state governments “to review their policy of rewarding bandits… warning that the policy might boomerang disastrously.”