After years of carelessness and frustration in the parts of our country infested by the kidnap-for-ransom and other criminal rackets, what looks like a glimmer of hope began to shine these past few weeks. States across the North West and North Central took long overdue steps to disrupt criminal gangs’ supply routes and communication lines. Village markets and motor parks were shut down in Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina and Niger States and the sale of petrol in jerrycans was banned. Zamfara went two steps further to close all schools and cut phone connection services throughout the state, with Katsina following suit by cutting of telecommunication networks in 13 of its 34 local government areas. These bold steps are commendable, but they must be supplemented with a massive, all-encompassing, and sustained military onslaught. Otherwise, the gangs will evolve and communities will be pushed to the wall.
There is not one, but two pieces of good news in the actions taken by the states. The first is that, by announcing similar policies around the same period, affected state governments appear to have started working together. No state in the North West can be safe from criminal gangs until all states are safe and, unless governors work together, the enemy will continue to exploit the gaps and inconsistencies to the collective detriment of all. It is good to see, therefore, even after repeated calls and catastrophic costs in lives and property, that governors have woken up to this reality. I hope they will continue to develop close coordination.
The second piece of good news is that the governors have discovered the obvious wisdom in targeting criminals’ and terrorists’ vital supply routes. We know that the gangs lurking in the forest do not manufacture their own food, clothes or fuel. They do not develop the tools they need nor can they spend the huge ransoms they extort in the bush. While some measures have been initiated to block their access to weapons, opioids and motorcycles (with very limited success), nothing was being done to starve them of food, fuel and other supplies. Yet stopping criminals and terrorists’ food and fuel supply is as important as obstructing their access to guns and automobiles. It didn’t need to get this late, but better late than never.
The impact of this blockade policy is already being felt by the criminals. From reports of kidnappers now accepting rice and spaghetti for ransom in the face of biting hunger to stories of rank-and-file bandits scavenging for supplies from village shops to their reported desperate offer to negotiate (rejected by the Zamfara State Governor), to reports of their flight to neighbouring states, it is clear that the beasts are absolutely feeling the heat. But there is another vital component that must be brought in immediately: stepping up the security efforts to rout these repulsive gangs while they are reeling.
There were initial claims of a huge military onslaught in Zamfara, accompanied by graphic clips and photos of the successes recorded by the security forces to the delight of all of us. But then demoralising reports started to filter out. Multiple sources in Zamfara State told this paper that “no serious military operation” is going on in the state and that the images being circulated are old ones. In the absence of phone connections, it is difficult to ascertain what is actually happening on the ground, but several reports that emerged since seem to corroborate that nothing much is being done by the military to confront the criminals while they are on the back foot.
On Saturday, bandits raided an army base in Mutumji, Zamfara State, described as a key site for logistics and reconnaissance for the army, where they killed 12 security personnel, looted their weapons and torched the camp. Gangs facing a major onslaught should not be able to take the fight right to their enemy by raiding a military base. Meanwhile, a Zamfara resident informed BBC Hausa that villages are still being attacked, but they cannot report this because of the lack of GSM service. There were reports that the criminals are being forced by the blockade into neighbouring states like Sotoko, Katsina, Kaduna and Niger. Kano State even announced a new tenancy regime requiring property owners to notify authorities before leasing or selling their houses. It said the policy was in response to security reports that criminals are relocating from Zamfara to Kano.
Thankfully, this paper reported yesterday that a military onslaught has started and there were further reports that the Chief of Army Staff has ordered an increase in number of troops and hardware to Zamfara. But the idea that such operation in Zamfara State alone would work – as claimed by the authorities – is itself utterly absurd. Most of the criminal groups are based in Zamfara forests, but they have been operating across neighbouring states for years. Zamfara shares not only open borders, but also dense forests with its neighbours. Conducting military operations in one affected state while others are left exposed and with no ongoing operation is like trying to catch a rat from a burrow with multiple exits by blocking a single hole. Even a child would be smarter.
Shutting down education and the economy can only be a temporary solution, justified only by intense military action. To successfully rout these lawless groups, there is an urgent need for sustained security efforts that not only encompass all the affected states and their neighbours, but also work with the Republic of Niger to prevent criminal elements from slipping across the border, something that may already be happening. This is not something state governors can do as they have neither the resources nor the authority. It squarely falls on President Buhari’s shoulders, and he cannot continue to be missing in action. Further dither and delay, continued inaction and inactivity, false assurances and empty propaganda are, more than ever before, criminal and unforgivable.
A decisive military action must commence now. If the military does not swiftly pounce on these criminals, they will soon adapt to their new terrain. They will find new ways of getting supplies and communicating. For example, if criminal groups can easily smuggle small and light weapons through our porous borders, it wouldn’t be unimaginable for them to procure satellite phones (Thuraya), which do not require mobile phone coverage. This kind of evolution is not unheard of even in Nigeria. Boko Haram successfully adapted to lack of phone connection, market shutdown and ban on fishing and continues to operate over half a decade after all of these measures were imposed. Our only leverage with bandits is their inexperience with this new terrain, which we must use well before it is too late.
Besides, continued delay would unnecessarily stretch what must be a very short-term measure. It is great that the bandits can’t buy food or communicate, but nor can anyone else. As it is now, people in the affected areas are overwhelmingly in support of the blockade even though it harms them too. But there is a limit to how much they can bear. The majority of farmers are unable to cultivate, mining has been banned and now village markets are closed. This means millions of people are left with no livelihood or even source of their own vital supplies. This can only be extremely brief. Unless the terrorists are degraded within the next few weeks and the economy is re-opened, ordinary Nigerians will be pushed to the wall and unbearable hunger will compel them to revolt against the government or cooperate with criminals.