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Banditry: FG declares Zamfara no-fly zone to stop ‘gold for arms swap’

The federal government on Monday declared Zamfara State a ‘no-fly zone’ to halt the swap of gold for arms by armed bandits, other criminals and…

The federal government on Monday declared Zamfara State a ‘no-fly zone’ to halt the swap of gold for arms by armed bandits, other criminals and illegal gold miners in the state, the Presidency and security sources told Daily Trust Tuesday night.

It also banned gold mining in the state even though this is not the first time it is taking this decision on mining.

In the last decade, bandits have been terrorising Zamfara State and its environs, leading to the killing of hundreds and kidnapping of thousands, the latest being the students of Government Girls’ Junior Secondary School, Jangebe.

A no-fly zone, or a no-flight zone (NFZ), or air exclusion zone (AEZ), is a territory or area established by a military power over which certain aircraft are not permitted to fly.

Aircraft that violate a no-fly zone may be shot down by the enforcing state, depending on the terms of the NFZ.

The National Security Adviser (NSA), retired Major General Babagana Monguno, on Tuesday announced President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive to declare Zamfara as a no-fly zone.  He made the announcement after a quarterly meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) presided over by President Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.

“His Excellency, the president has approved, based on our recommendation, the imposition and enforcement of a ban on all mining activities in Zamfara State with immediate effect, until further notice.

“He has directed the Minister of Defence and the National Security Adviser to deploy massive military and intelligence assets to restore normalcy to that part of the country. He has also approved that Zamfara State be declared a no-fly-zone with immediate effect,” Monguno said without giving further details about the declaration of the no-fly zone.

Why FG takes action on Zamfara skies

When contacted last night, a presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, told Daily Trust that there are strong suspicions that gold was being swapped for arms by criminal elements operating in the state.

Shehu, in a phone interview, said: “Even in Zamfara, there is a strong suspicion that some of those choppers are being used to ferry arms for bandits and also to evacuate gold and illegally smuggled out of the country, so the country loses everything in the mining.

“As you are aware, Nigerian gold market is a big business and the government wants to do two things at the same time by doing this; end  banditry and economic sabotage through the smuggling of gold.”

Shehu also said that a big market in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is called ‘Nigerian Gold Market’.

Sources with knowledge of the on-going conflict in the North West said Tuesday’s declaration was targeted at non-state actors, including those taking advantage of the crisis for material gain, including short-changing the government.

Non-state actors include nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); private sector entities such as international business associations; philanthropic foundations and academic institutions.

One of the sources said though the federal government is in the best position to open up further on why it slammed the restriction of flight through Zamfara skies, he said could only give two or three reasons for declaring Zamfara a no-fly zone.

“The first is the strong allegation that there is correlation between the ongoing banditry and mining. You know Zamfara is rich in gold and other mineral resources. Illegal miners are partly responsible for the instability in the area in order to get the minerals almost free after diverting the attention of government and locals through insecurity.

“The mineral mongers cashed on a minor disagreement between farmers and herders long ago and the government did not handle the matter the way it should. The truth is while the farmers have been chased away from their fields, and by extension chased from prospective goldmines, the herders, who are mostly carrying out most of the abductions and raids, are getting arms for free from illegal miners and sadly, they don’t even know the implication of what they are doing.

“That is why most of the bandits, apart from the peanuts they are getting as ransom, have nothing to show for their atrocities except the sophisticated weapons in their possession.

“The issue is a big franchise involving criminal Nigerian businessmen and their foreign collaborators,” he said.

He said the second reason for declaring Zamfara a no-fly zone might likely be the non-kinetic approach of the government.

“For those who cared to listen, the bandits have repeatedly said they will not drop their arms until fighter jets stop hovering over them. I am not sure, but I think while deploying force, the government is also exploring the dialogue option.”

Another security source, who noted that the declaration was long overdue, said there are suspicions that arms are being swapped for gold in the state.

The source, an air force officer who does not want to be named, said, “Likely, there are people flying in bringing weapons or some people are flying in to take out precious stones.

“People may argue that there are no helipads or airport in Zamfara but there are in surrounding states. Also, the presidency may be privy to information that you and I may not have. The Americans are fully based in Niger Republic and have a big drone unit there, so it is possible that this is not just an isolated decision but advice that came from them.

“The Americans may be aware that there are so many nefarious activities going on there. I do not think the decision was made without some genesis. Even if there is no helipad or airport, they may have landing areas in the surrounding which might have been used to either bring in arms or carry some of those precious items out. Also, helicopters can land in any place and not until you have a helipad.”

Ban not the first

The ban on gold mining is not the first time by the Buhari administration. On April 7, 2019, the government, through the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced a total ban on mining activities in Zamfara State and its environs.

The IGP, who addressed State House correspondents after a security meeting at the time, said the decision was part of fresh measures to restore peace.

Adamu said government took the decision because it found out there was a relationship between the bandits and illegal miners.

Mr Adamu also announced that “all foreigners within mining sites are to leave immediately.”

He said all the sites would be taken over by a special task force comprising of relevant security agencies.

‘Security Council not well informed about Zamfara issue’

Reacting to the National Security Council’s decision to ban mining, Governor Bello Matawalle said the decision might not be from an informed perspective. He said this when he hosted the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF), Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, who alongside Governor Atiku Abubakar Bagudu of Kebbi and the deputy governor of Sokoto State paid him a sympathy visit over the release of Jangebe schoolgirls.

“It seems the security council doesn’t understand the nature of the security problems in Zamfara State but if they decided to take such action let them go ahead. I am not afraid of anybody and the problem of insecurity in the state predates my administration.

“Nigerians are waiting to see the outcome of the security council resolution; to see if these bandits would be crushed. If the federal government fails to crush them after this resolution then Nigerians will understand that they only sat and served themselves tea, nothing more,” he said.

In an interview with Daily Trust last week, Governor Matawalle said the federal government had approved the engagement of 10 indigenous mining companies to work on the gold mines.

“Some of them are ready to come but for the COVID-19 restrictions;  they have all registered their willingness to participate,” he said.

Matawalle under pressure to name abductors’ sponsors

Meanwhile, Governor Matawalle is under intense pressure to disclose the sponsors of the abduction of the students of Government Girls’ Junior Secondary School, Jangebe.

Matawalle had said, “Many people will be surprised to hear those people behind the abduction of these innocent children.”

Reacting, the Yoruba sociocultural group, Afenifere, said on Tuesday that it is a matter of “urgent national importance” for the Zamfara State governor to name the sponsors of banditry in his state.

Spokesman of the group, Mr Yinka Odumakin, in a chat with Daily Trust, stated that banditry has become a huge business venture for those behind it and that the earlier the sponsors were unearthed the better for the state and the nation.

He said, “It is a matter of urgent national importance for the governor to name those people, but we know that Nigeria is becoming a failed state because there is no law and order otherwise he may be doing more danger to the security of his state by confronting the bandits’ leaders.

“But it is a national security duty on him to ensure that we know who those criminals are.”

He said the federal government has not done enough to flush out the criminals behind banditry in the North-West.

Also, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) has called on security agencies to prevail on Matawalle to reveal the identities of kidnappers terrorising the country. ACF’s National Chairman, Chief Audu Ogbe, made the call in a statement issued in Kaduna on Tuesday. He urged the governor not to protect the identities of the kidnappers.

“We ask the governor to reveal their identity and let Nigerians be shocked or even the heavens fall.

“We also ask the security agencies to question the governor on the identities of the criminals he is trying to hide. If he refuses to disclose their identities, he must be treated as an accomplice to the criminal act of kidnapping.

“The ACF has been embarrassed by the spate of kidnappings, especially of school children spreading like wildfire all over the North.

“People in positions of authority that will help us out of this mess, like Governor Matawalle, must stop embarrassing the North and the country with careless statements on a serious issue like the kidnapping of school children.

“Zamfara State and the North are way behind the rest of the country in educational development. The serial kidnappings of school pupils in the North will only worsen a bad and unacceptable state of education in the North,” he added.

Why Zamfara gov must name sponsors – Lawyers

Speaking on the matter, Dayo Akinlaja (SAN) maintains that it would be viewed as proper and patriotic for Governor Matawalle to name the senior citizens behind the bandits to help the security agencies invite them for questioning. He, however, advised that the governor must substantiate his claim to avoid being sued for defamation.

“Nonetheless, whether or not any senior citizens are named, the irreducible fact is that the good people of Nigeria know that there is more than meets the eye to the issue of effortless kidnappings and ease of facilitating releases of late,” he said.

In the same vein, Dr Sam Amadi Esq said there is nothing wrong in releasing the names of the sponsors of the bandits so long as it is backed by evidence. He noted that such releases will be seen as intelligence for the security agencies to work on and to prosecute them in court.

But it is only when there is no evidence that the issue of slander, libel, and defamation would come in, he stated.

By Ismail Mudashir, Muideen Olaniyi, Idowu Isamotu, Faruk Shuaibu, John C. Azu (Abuja), Lami Sadiq, Maryam Ahmadu-Suka (Kaduna),Shehu Umar (Gusau) & Abdullateef Aliyu (Lagos)

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