Zamfara is no doubt the worst hit state by insecurity in form of banditry, kidnapping for ransom and cattle rustling, although the real issues behind the crisis are either under-reported or largely overlooked.
In rare access to bandits’ enclave, BBC’s investigative team, BBC Africa Eye, explored the real immediate and remote causes of the the problem by speaking to the two main warring sides – the Fulani dominated bandits and the Hausa dominated vigilantes, otherwise known as ’Yan Sa-kai.
The 50-minutes documentary, reported by a law student, Yusuf Anka, discovered that the crisis is gradually taking ethnic dimension between the largely Hausa farmers and Fulani herders.
The production of the documentary is said to take almost three years.
Synopsis of the documentary
In Zamfara, no one is safe from the bandits. Gangs of ultra-violent young men ride into villages on motorbikes, armed with Kalashnikov and machetes, burning houses, raping women, stealing property and killing dwellers.
They appear on the roads without warning, shooting drivers and abducting terrified passengers from their vehicles. Even children are not safe: hundreds of kids have been abducted from boarding schools across the state, forced from their beds at gunpoint and held captive—for ransom—in the forests.
Despite the scale of the suffering, this crisis remains underreported, in part because the terrain is so dangerous for journalists to navigate. Thousands of people have been killed in this conflict across the northwest, and close to a million more are now displaced from their homes.
And so Nigerians’ questions have gone unanswered: Who are these bandits? What do they want? How and why did this violence take hold?
For more than three years, in an attempt to find answers, BBC Africa Eye has been working to gain access to the bandit warlords of Zamfara.
At huge personal risk, Anka has visited bandit leaders in remote encampments across the state—including one of the men who, in February 2021, abducted nearly 300 girls from a school in Jangebe, a mass kidnapping that made headlines around the world. Until now, these bandits have never spoken to the media.
In a series of shocking encounters, the documentary exposes the full horror of the violence that has engulfed the state.
It makes plain that the Nigeria as a state is failing to provide even the most basic security to many of its citizens. It reveals just how lucrative the kindap-for-ransom business has become, and warns the country that this crisis now contains elements of an ethnic war.
Most of those who spoke in it concluded that not much is being done by the government to address the challenge.
Who are the warring camps?
The bandit warlords of Zamfara discovered that the crises started mostly as a fight over land and water between farmers and herder, later got compounded by climate change, corruption and poverty.
The two tribes of Hausa and Fulani have been co-habiting for centuries in Northern Nigeria. However, the recent crisis is on the verge of ending this hitherto kinship enjoyed by the two tribes seen by many as one.
The fight is mostly now between Fulani bandits and Hausa militia vigilantes who said they are protecting themselves on one hand, and the government on the other.
But, the documentary however said the issue has devised simplistic interpretation and remain largely under-reported.
Who are the bandits and what do they want?
Fulanis herders have for decades complained of marginalisation and illiteracy.
Bandits raid roads and villages, killing innocent passengers and inhabitants, making it difficult for people to live in these areas.
“I swear to God, wherever a single Fulani is killed, we shall kill 120 Hausas, we can’t be arrested, only God can catch us, not security. Whosoever dares enter forest is not coming back,” said one of the Fulani bandits in a video obtained by the documentary.
Authorities in Zamfara think there are as many as 30,000 bandits, split into around 100 heavily armed gangs.
Taking up arms is the only language government understands – Aleiro
Ado Aleiro, one of the most feared bandits leaders in Zamfara, whose head the police put a bounty of N5m, sees violence as the only way to attract government attention.
He said, “We only protest with guns. We don’t know where to see journalists or where to protest. Our only protest is to carry arms and storm villages. That’s when the government will wake up to understand our problems.”
‘I don’t kidnap, I only kill’
Aleiro also explained that he has never kidnapped anyone, even though some of his gang members do, he only kills.
“I have lost count of the number of people I have killed so far, especially the vigilantes.”
Another bandit from Aleiro’s camp said, “All our animal routes have been taken over by farmers. We can only ply vehicles’ roads or some rocky roads where our cattle keep falling and some dying in the process, and we are being chased and killed.
“Why has a Fulani herdsman become so worthless in Nigeria? We neither have schools, nor hospitals or where our animals drink. We can’t do without milk or meat.
“We are being marginalised and sidelined, the only way we can respond is by taking up arms. We are not bandits, government is the real bandit,” he added.
However, the documentary discovered that only a fraction of the violence, possibly one with high casualties, is reported, such as when over 200 were killed in Kurbar Danya village, or when about 300 schoolgirls were abducted in Jangebe.
Both Fulanis and Hausas are at fault – Dantawaye
Hassan Dantawaye, one of the first bandits to import AK-47 rifles to Zamfara from Niger Republic said both the Fulanis and the Hausas have faults in the ongoing fight.
He however said the main problem of the Fulani herders is retaliation, while that of the Hausa is lack of proper investigation of the real perpetrators of banditry.
He has however surrendered his weapons in a recent amnesty programme
According to him, “There is government, police and the army, but none of them act.
“Although I have surrendered and live peacefully, I still live in fear. Over the past decade, all our schools have not been functioning, which means in years to come, we will breed generation of illiterates, who cant differentiate right from wrong.
“We have now reached a point where some don’t even know anything like peace, they were born in violence. They don’t know that their is sin in what they do. In fact, some see it as business now.”
However a year after, Dantawaye took up arms again after an attack on his house that saw it completely burnt allegedly by soldiers. More than 40 bags of grains inside his house were also reportedly destroyed.
“In the whole world, nobody listens to us or hear our voices, even when we are invited for talks, what we say is usually discarded and is regarded as thrash,” Dantawaye added.
In February 2021, about 300 schoolgirls were abducted in Government Girls Science Secondary School in Jangebe, including five members of the reporter’s extended family.
But according to Abu Sani, one of the abductors of the girls said they abducted 280 of them to offend the government, saying it was the right thing to do.
“We initially asked for N100m as their ransom, but after negotiations, we settled for N60m. We used the money to buy more weapons,” said Sani.
On why the banditry persists, Sani said it has now turned to a money-making “industry,” both from government and the bandits.
In 2021, Zamfara state government is reported to have the greatest number of loss of lives to insecurity in Nigeria. Much of the military effort in the state is by air, but not all bombs find their targets, as some of them fall on innocent citizens.
The documentary tried to reach out to Nigerian armed forces to comment on the allegations raised, but they did not respond.
Why we gave ‘voice’ to bandits – BBC
Speaking to Daily Trust on why the BBC decided to give ‘voice’ to the bandits by visiting them even in their most dangerous enclaves, the reporter, Anka, said their intention was to give the conflict its much needed attention for everyone to understand it.
He said, “The point is not to give voice to anyone, but to give perspective for people to understand the real issues behind the conflict.
“We approached it from the point of being under-reported, so we decided to dive into it without any opinion.
“The only opinion we formed were those we gathered from our findings and reactions from the victims and perpetrators. Their are victims and innocent people who are affected from both side of the conflict.”
How dangerous was it to travel to bandits’ enclaves?
Asked how difficult and risky it was to travel to some of these deadly bandits camps in Zamfara, Anka said it was an experience he would always live to remember.
He said, “It was extremely difficult. Even travelling on Zamfara highways is risky these days, not to talk of entering forests.
“We had to visit even some of the notorious bandits. There was an experience I will always remember; I was in one of the villages there and military were striking by air. It was only God that spared my life. I would have been killed there.
“Our main objective is for Nigerian government and the people to understand the conflict and the dynamism it is gradually taking. We realised that there is no effort whatsoever from the government to take care of these victims,” Anka explained.