Since the exacerbation of bandits’ activities around the far northern part of Zamfara State, which borders the eastern part of Sokoto State, residents became gripped by fear and began to take steps to protect their communities from the encroaching fire engulfing nearby communities. In the past five to six years’ they had witnessed how the rampaging bandits ran down village after another in the neighbouring Zurmi and Shinkafi local governments, like elsewhere in Zamfara State, with some of the displaced persons running to them for cover.
The communities constituted a loosely organized volunteer security outfit, known as Yan Sakai to provide protection and wade off the bandits. But this did not stop the incursion. Soon, the bandits moved from isolated hit and run attacks to more daring raids with members of the community volunteer force as the prime targets. By now, dozens of villages in Isa, Sabon Birni and other neighbouring local governments, in Sokoto State, have been either completely or partially engulfed by the bandits.
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Alhaji Ibrahim Aliyu Gangara, the district head of Gangara, in Sabon Birni Local Government, whose community was sacked by the bandits in September recalls the gradual encroachment into his area of jurisdiction and how the bandits turned the town into a logistic recharging base before they overran it, eventually.
“The problem started some three years ago. They started by coming at night to rob residents then they moved into kidnapping for ransom. They came one day, about two years ago, and killed 37 persons in Gangara town and rustled cattle. After the incident soldiers were deployed to help protect us. That made them (the bandits) to stop coming into the town but were still waylaying people on the way for abduction, and killing those who resisted. The soldiers and vigilantes were patrolling the town.
“Then all of a sudden, they came and launched this massive attack. It was on the Saturday that they sacked the security base in Dama that they came to Gangara. Someone was harvesting cowpea inside his sorghum farm when he cited them discussing on when to launch the attack. He ran to tell the soldiers what was happening and the gunmen came on his trail and engaged the soldiers in firefight. Luckily they didn’t kill any soldier but they killed two civilians.
“Then they returned on Tuesday, at dawn and launched a heavy attack on the town. That day all the people had to leave. They torched shops and rustled animals. They took everything they wanted. The soldiers withdrew also and that made it dangerous for anyone else to remain in the town since our trust was in God and in the protection from the soldiers. This was how for four days they kept coming back raiding house to house and taking whatever they wanted and setting others ablaze.”
But after they had sacked Gangara the bandits realized it was a strategic mistake and now began move to woo the people back. They depended on the locals for many of their daily needs especially provision materials.
“They began calling on people to get back to harvest their farms and they appointed one Hassan Dankwaro to be there to ensure that the people harvested the farms without any hindrance, they said everyone who had any complaint should report to him.”
It was the end of a complete take over.
In Tara district, under the same local government, the district head, Alhaji Rabiu Sarakin Tara, said at least 12 villages under his domain have been sacked by the bandits with displaced persons migrating to places far and near in search of succor.
The experience of villagers in this area, which is consistent with the experiences of other people in other parts of the six northern states of Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Kaduna, Kebbi and Niger, is what made Dr Abubakar Siddique-Mohammed, of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, to liken the banditry menace to malignant cancer. He warned, while the problem was still at early stage seven years ago, that it would go out of control if nothing was done to curtail it.
“I remember when I was making my presentation I had a picture of a tissue attacked by cancer and I said this thing is like malignant cancer, already there are towns and villages on the map of Nigeria that have disappeared because bandits have taken over and driven the people away,” he said.
From petty crimes to mass atrocities
The rural criminality called banditry which is fast evolving has become perhaps the most challenging security threat for Nigeria at the moment, overtaking the insurgency in the North East in terms of human costs for the conflict, especially in recent months.
Aside banditry and the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East, Nigeria is struggling with pockets of other armed insurrections.
In 2021 alone, 9,423 Nigerians were killed in the orgy of violence in different parts of the country with the six states afflicted by banditry recording 4,104 deaths, according computation of data collected by Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker.
Militia groups formed initially by youths of Fulani stock have grown into cantankerous gangs engaging in cattle rustling, arson, mass killings and kidnapping for ransom. They are aided by collaborators and soldiers of fortune who act as informants, suppliers of various items of needs, gun runners and marabouts.
The bandits’ attacks and abductions occur at random at places of wish as they move from villages to highways and schools. Some 10 schools were ransacked by the bandits in Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna, Kebbi and Niger states, within a year abducting 1,170 students in 11 raids, in less than a year.
Their indulgence in these crimes is aided by their access to small and light weapons, which, some of them like Auwal Daudawa, the kingpin who orchestrated the first bandits-led school abduction, compared access to weapons with purchasing bread. He also said the arms come from across the border with Niger and from the southern Nigeria, arriving by sea.
These arms range from the more common AK-47 rifle to more sophisticated general purpose machine guns and rocket launchers.
Using these sophisticated arms, the bandits have been terrorising communities leaving trails of blood and toil. Many rural dwellers in the affected states have bitter tales to tell as hundreds of women have been widowed and thousands of kids orphaned. Though researchers lament paucity of data on the human cost of the conflict, in a June 2020 report, a security think tank, International Crisis Group, estimates that since 2011, when the menacing rural banditry began to escalate into a full-blown armed criminality, some 8,000 persons had been killed, mainly in Zamfara State, while about 200,000 were displaced from their homes, with about 60,000 of them fleeing into the neighbouring Niger Republic.
But a researcher on the conflict, Dr Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i of the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto estimated that some 70,000 persons have been killed in about dozen years since the banditry crisis began.
A young girl, Hauwa from Tsafe, in Zamfara State, watched as her parents were murdered in her presence by attackers who looted their home after shooting her father and mother. She escaped the attack but now lives under the care of a man who has become a father to many fatherless victims like Hauwa, Alhaji Muhammadu Bako Sarkin Gabas, in Sunami area of Gusau, the Zamfara State capital.
“I ran away after my mother and my father were killed. Our father was wealthy, they came to him and asked that he gives them money or they would kill him. He said he didn’t have. They killed him along with our mother, and left with my elder siblings,” she said.
Beyond the killings and abductions, the Emir of Bungudu, Alhaji Hassan Attahiru said over 80 percent of the people’s source of income had been cut down.
“We have at least 80% of where the food is grown and where the herders operate peacefully in those days, we have at least 80% of them that have been affected and affected in almost absolute terms whereby they could hardly do anything.”
The roots of the problem
Experts have various explanations for explosion of the security problem in the affected northern state, with Zamfara as the epicenter. At the root, however, is a fierce competition for resources exacerbated by severe impact of climate change on arable land, grazing areas and water points. The contraction of these natural resources and worsening cases of rural crimes of cattle rustling led to what Senator Saidu Dansadau described as “depletion of herds of cattle of the Fulani”, and made many of the cattle owners to go further afield searching for pasture often in conflict with farmers who also desert their farms rendered barren for more fertile grounds.
Added to these are the twin issues of ungoverned or neglected spaces, and vast open borders that make it possible for criminals to move and smuggle arms undetected.
Commenting on the open border, Katsina State Governor, Aminu Bello Masari, said; “it is an open border that is harbouring the same communities with same culture and same religion. So obviously it poses a threat and a big challenge in terms of securing the borders. And you know, cumulations of many problems in Libya, Chad, Mali, so arms and ammunition finding their way into Nigeria. How do they come into Nigeria? They have to come through Niger Republic.
Illicit drugs and intoxicants also find their way into Nigeria through Niger Republic.
“Now, the ungoverned space of Libya, Chad and Mali have become collection and distribution centres of arms and ammunition. When you look at them all, which one has the highest market? Is it not Nigeria? So the target is Nigeria. So, it has put a lot of pressure on border control and intelligence gathering”.
The Emir of Bungudu in Zamfara State, Alhaji Hassan Attahiru blamed foreign herders from Guinea and Mali who moved into Nigeria years ago for introducing violence to the local herders.
Residents who had grown up alongside Fulani settlements in these areas say the herders lived a cordial life with them for years, inviting them for their social events and even storing their harvested grains in the towns occupied by mainly Hausa farmers.
Senator Saidu Dansadau whose community forms the epicenter of the rural banditry recalls with nostalgia: “When the Fulani settle in an individual farm, if they are having naming ceremony, they invite the indigenous farmers to the naming ceremony, we used to spend the whole day in the ruga of the Fulani drinking fura with nunu, eating the kind of rice they cook, normally when they cook rice they put milk inside it, very nice, very unique, so it was quite a smooth and cordial relationship.”
But researchers and followers of the conflict say the seed of the violent uprising today was sowed from those days of seeming peace as injustice by local leaders eroded trust and bred disaffection.
Dr Siddique-Mohammed recalls one instance of such injustice which occurred over 40 years ago, around Batsari area of Katsina State where herders were arrested for coming through a sold off cattle path which was converted to farmland.
“They didn’t know, but they were arrested, charged for trespass and thieves were hired to go to their hamlets and steal whatever they had. This happened around 1976-77,” he said.
Experiences like this and years of neglect of the hard-to-reach rural communities over years, experts say, further compounded the situation.
A 2019 report commissioned by Zamfara State Government identifies many remote and immediate factors that created the atmosphere for the conflict. Some of the identified factors include: Unemployment due to non-functional education system, abject poverty and lack of jobs; Passive and ineffective criminal justice systems; Over-bloated population growth all over the country and most especially in Zamfara state at the rate that far outstrips its resources and other socio-economic facilities; unchecked influx of settlement of illegal aliens from neighboring countries; Lack of proper and adequate measures in dispute settlement mechanisms at all levels; general declined of values/morals of society at all levels; outright violation of Land Use Act
Othe factors identified by the report include deliberate institutional failure and blatant betrayal of trust by various political leaders, traditional rulers, security officers, judicial officers as well as high ignorance and low level of education of members of public; outright violation of human rights by illegal arrests and detentions of innocent people by unscrupulous members of Government Security Agencies and other non-state security actors (vigilantes, Yansakai and civilian JTF) and ethnic rivalries.
The report which was produced by a committee headed by a former inspector-general of police, Mohammed D. Abubakar, also blames unlawful forfeiture and confiscation of properties; corruption and unaccountability of government institutions such as the judiciary, security agencies, traditional rulers, civil and public servants in conducting their duties; rampant injustice, suppressive, oppressive treatment with impurity by some traditional rulers; and breakdown of Intelligence and intelligence failures for the conflict.
Most of the issues highlighted in this report, according to researchers like Dr Murtala Ahmed Rufai of the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, are more pronounced among the largely itinerant pastoral communities, the Fulani.
One of the oldest bandits operating out of Zamfara State, Shehu Rekeb re-echoes some of these issues.
“This whole agitation is caused by lack of education. None of us here is educated. Only in isolated cases do you have someone who would go and settle in another place and go to school. They are very few. Anyone you see that has gone to school, it is possible it was because a minister or someone important is married to his sister and brought him close. The rest of us in the bushes are not educated. But there is also adult education and other trainings for trade. The law says they should empower the citizens and secure them and their property. None of that happens. We are not being secured. We don’t have anything to depend on; it is only us and the trees that are here, and the gun we are wielding.
“We are also deprived of keeping cattle because of lack of grazing areas. They have taken over the grazing areas; even the grazing routes are no longer there. Soldiers would take over our cattle, vigilante would confiscate, and gunmen would rustle. We have been rendered poor.”
While older bandits like Shehu Rekeb and a few others were engaged in low scale criminal activities, mostly cattle rustling and armed robbery, the communities evolved a self-help measure to contain the criminals.
“Vigilante groups sprang up in those areas to deal with the armed robberies. Initially what they did was to identify ‘thieves’ in those areas and killed them. After killing them, they then moved into the bush and attacked Fulani hamlets; people had nothing to do with the conflict. The only crime they committed was to be Fulani, they attacked them and many of them were killed.
“It is a pattern we were able to establish across North West. We interviewed many people, it is the same pattern; Yan sakai taking the laws into their own hands. They happen to be the police, they happen to be prosecutors and they also happen to be the judges. It is the trigger for this violence we see,” Rekeb said.
Most of the things outlined by Rekeb resembles the views expressed by a notorious kingpin, Bello Turji, who recounts his victimhood in an interview with Daily Trust on Sunday.
The escalation of the current wave of violence, however, is traceable to the 2011 murder of the Fulani community leader, Alhaji Ishe at Chilin Village of Dansadau district in Zamfara State.
“The murder of Ishe was not one of the causes but like you said it inflamed the situation, it inflamed it there is no doubt about that because Ishi was like a Fulani activist and to be fair to him, he was a fairly honest person because whenever there was misunderstanding between Fulani and farmers, he used to go and assess the situation.
“If a Fulani is wrong, he will tell the Fulani you are wrong and he made the Fulani to pay compensation to farmers and if farmers are wrong, they also tell the farmers they are wrong and if the farmer is notorious, Ishi will lead the victim from the Fulani to court to the extent that sometimes he will go and hire lawyers in order to protect the Fulani.
“Not only that, if a traditional ruler is also oppressing the Fulani, he also confronts him and in fact investigation of recent has shown clear insight into what actually led to his murder. It was this his activism, confronting traditional rulers that led to his murder.
“People are blaming the vigilante group; in fact the truth of the matter is that the vigilante groups were hired. The vigilante groups in my village were offered N600,000 to murder Ishe and they declined, they refused and some others were hired elsewhere and they came and they murdered him.”
In the aftermath of Ishe’s murder and retaliatory attacks by Fulani youths armed with sophisticated guns, the murderous uprising spilled into all the states neighbouring Zamfara: Katsina in the east, Kaduna and Niger in the south, Sokoto in the north-west and Kebbi in the west.
Some of the bandits have also established presence and sleeper cells in places far away from Zamfara; as far away as Taraba and Adamawa states.
“It keeps on moving. It is a moving conflict,” says Dr Rufa’i.
The volunteer force called the Yan Sakai, armed ostensibly to protect communities from the bandits’ aggression, became a balancing force for the carnage, combining with the bandits to create something of a Hobbesian state, with bloodbath increasing every day.
With fingers pointed at traditional rulers as alleged enablers of the early conflict and persons with potential solutions in their hands, the Emir of Bungudu, Alhaji Hassan Attahiru, says the allegations against the traditional rulers was exaggerated as their powers were long eroded following the local government reforms in mid 1970s.
The emir reputed for his role in reigning in the violence in his domain experienced the menace first hand when he was abducted from a scene of a highway kidnapping by the bandits along Kaduna-Abuja Road in August, 2021.
The emir, who goes by the title of, Sarkin Fulanin Bungudu, admits that bad eggs abound in all sections, including the traditional rulers and accused the Yan Sakai disregarding the authorities.
Chairman of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria in Sabon Birni Local Government, Adamu Muhammad (aka Bulaki) said the acts by groups like his own were in direct response to atrocities committed by the bandits who he accused of being callous and disproportionate in their use of fire power.
For many years, security forces are engaged in operations to root out the bandits, including through aerial bombardments, with mixed results.
Several bandits and their collaborators were also arrested at different times.
With results from military operation taking long coming, governments in the affected states adopted various approaches to containing the violence
The Zamfara and Katsina state governments went into dialogues with some of the key bandits and offered amnesty in exchange for ceasefire. But all the past talks have collapsed for what experts attribute to the bandits’ erratic nature and lack of diligent processes and sincerity on the parts of the governments.
Last year the federal government declared the bandits as terrorists following a court order to that effect, but experts argue that tackling the menace would require a more holistic approach, by addressing some of the issues at the root of the crisis.
Research for this story was supported by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD)