If anyone was under any illusion about the serious threat the brutal groups in the North West pose, last weekend alone should be enough to cure them. With their murdering of 13 policemen, an attempt on a military camp and the shooting down of a military jet – all within hours, the so-called bandits have declared an all-out war on Nigeria. And this is only the latest evidence that the groups in the North West have transitioned from organised crime to outright terrorism.
The weekend saw a string of horrific attacks led by a notorious kidnapper called Gudda Turji on more than half a dozen villages in Zamfara, razing them, killing many people and abducting over 150 others. The kidnap kingpin unleashed his terror as a retaliation for the arrest of his father days prior, which he blamed on intelligence from the villagers. Meanwhile, the security forces knew that he was going to attack unarmed civilians in response. It has been bandits’ practice for some time. But no plan was put in place to protect the communities which may have provided the tip that led to the arrest. That is criminally reckless and it is precisely what is discouraging civilians from cooperating with security and intelligence agencies. Why will they provide information when they know they will be abandoned to the criminals?
This was followed on Sunday by another milestone when 13 police officers were killed in an ambush and five were injured in Zamfara. As if killing and grievously wounding a dozen and a half cop is not a red flag enough, a Nigerian Air Force jet was shot down hours later in the same area. Thankfully, the pilot escaped unhurt by ejecting from the jet and escaping into a community, but the fact that bandits have acquired anti-aircraft weapons turns my stomach. It is clear from the activities and statements of these groups that they have transitioned from criminality to terrorism.
From last December when they launched their mass kidnapping of students, bandits’ demands have expanded from ransoms in cash or kind, to the release of fellow gang members in detention, to stopping military operations against them, to scrapping vigilantes. In some videos, they said they picked up weapons because they were excluded from development and demanded the building of schools, return of grazing reserves and other infrastructure. This is precisely the definition of terrorism: the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal.
But it is not just their statements and demands: even their methods scream ‘terrorism’. They have completely razed hundreds of villages in Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Niger, Sokoto and Kebbi, killing thousands including children. They have kidnapped thousands and extorted billions of naira in ransom. Over the past eight months, they have abducted more than 1,000 students and their teachers from schools across five different states in eight separate incidents. More than 300 of these children are still in their grip. These are the 136 students seized from Tegina, some as young as five, who have now spent 52 long days in the hands of their captors; the more than 50 boys and girls taken from Birnin-Yauri who remain in custody 33 gruelling days on; and the 121 of Bethel Baptist School student who have spent their 16th day in captivity today.
Where on earth, other than Buhari’s Nigeria, could this happen? Over 300 students spending weeks and weeks in the hands of some of the most horrific beasts on earth? The gang leader responsible for the abduction of the Birnin-Yauri children was recorded in a phone call threatening to marry off the girls and train and absorb the boys into his gang; there are reports that he has now started doing this. If the groups responsible for these atrocities are not terrorists, I don’t know who qualifies. In an astounding interview for Democracy Day last month, President Buhari said he was overwhelmed by the situation in the North West but that “we are treating them as criminals now”. Treating them like criminals now? What was he treating them as before? Innocent merchants? Well, the fact of the matter is that they are not mere criminals. They are terrorists.
To find the justification for this contention, you don’t need move further than Section 1 of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011. The gist of subsection 2, a rather verbose provision, is that anyone who kills, kidnaps or destroys property in order to coerce or intimate government, international organisation or the public into doing or abstaining from something is a terrorist. One does not need to be a lawyer to see that the criminal gangs in the North West qualify to be terrorists under each and every one of the above accounts: they massacre, abduct and destroy to extort ransom, secure the release of their members or press for other demands. In recent evolution, they have stopped negotiating ransoms with parents, so that they could focus their demands on governments. In several of the recent mass kidnappings including of the 38 Afaka students and the Birnin-Yauri ones, the abductors insisted that they would only talk to the government, not parents.
To sum it all, the groups we call bandits have moved on from mimicking and aligning with Boko Haram into terrorism in their own right. This is true in law and common sense. So what is stopping the Buhari administration from declaring and treating them as terrorists? Instead, what we get from the government is ‘warning’ preceded by empty and hollow qualifiers as “severe”, “serious” or “last”. What kind of leader keeps advising repugnant criminals as they unleash terror?
If Nigeria can pursue and repatriate Nnamdi Kanu back home (an action I commend) why on earth is it impossible to bring gang leaders operating with utter impunity within our own territory to their knees and then to justice? If we can stop Sunday Igboho on his way to Germany and arrest him, why on earth are we unable to stop Gudda Turji, Sani Dangote, Dogo Gide and their like? After every mass kidnapping, the federal government uses a now-familiar line: that it won’t use force for the safety of the children, and then leave state governments to buy the abductees’ freedom. But what is stopping the federal government from using sufficient force after one set of children is freed before another is abducted?
A theory has been flying around that nepotism is the reason the presidency is treating the terrorists in the North West with kid gloves: that Buhari is simply playing soft because the culprits are fellow Fulanis. I have dismissed this theory in the past and I do so again now. But there is not even the weakest explanation for his reluctance to act. It is time for Buhari to declare these beasts as the terrorists that they are and deploy all available resources to fight them. There can be no ifs, no buts, no equivocation. Failure to do so will lead to more horror in the North West, and history won’t be so kind.