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‘Dining with the devil’: How villagers co-habit with bandits

Villagers in states ravaged by banditry have learnt to co-exist with the murderous gangs, leading to the evolution of relationships from symbiotic to existential.

For years, residents of Shinkafi, in the far northern part of Zamfara State, are known for business. Merchants from here travel to places like Kano, Gusau and Sokoto almost daily buying all forms of provision items and other condiments which they, in turn, distribute to nearby towns and villages.

Besides the local businessmen, Shinkafi is important as a gateway town for traders and other travellers from Sokoto going to or returning from Kano or Gusau.

For generations, Shinkafi had defined its place as a major socioeconomic melting pot attracting itinerant traders from all over the country as well as Niger Republic and Mali.

About ten years ago, this age-old tradition of trade came under threat. Local Fulani youths, who were notorious for wanton destruction of farmlands and petty crimes had begun acquiring guns, waylaying travellers.

Very soon, they moved from armed robbery to kidnapping for ransom, as they build up gangs and stockpile arms. The once peaceful and busy Shinkafi – Sokoto road soon became a dangerous route with travellers routinely getting abducted, released only after payment of ransom.

“These are known, local young men. We all know them,” says a Shinkafi resident, Alhaji Murtala Wadatau.

Every time someone is kidnapped, the bandits –who are themselves very much familiar with the residents– would reach out to a prominent person or a relative of the victim to make ransom demands.

Members of the community also know exactly who to contact when someone is abducted by determining the exact location where the act takes place.

There are quite a number of gangs encircling the axis; from Maradun to the south and Zurmi to the north; or from nearby places as close as Moriki, Badarawa, up to Galadi, on the boundary with Sokoto.

Villages like Magami in Maradun LGA in Zamfara State survive in constant fear for attacks

The initial reaction to the escalation was to plot a counterforce. A vigilante group was formed to confront the unruly bandits and for years it was turmoil and bloodbath. Villages were sacked and farmers chased away from their fields. Travelling in or out of Shinkafi at any time was like a suicide mission. It became a ghost town.

With the mayhem becoming quite frequent and disruptive, major stakeholders in the town decided something should be done in unison, and the traders, who are the major targets decided to form a committee through which they engage the bandits. Through this platform greater window of interaction was opened.

In ensuing years, Shinkafi negotiated peace with major gang leaders nearby, notably Halilu in the western Galadi Forest and Turji who commands a large army of young men in the eastern part of the town. It is in a symbiotic arrangement in which hostilities were ceased and protection, in a covert or overt manner, is now being given to each other.

Under this arrangement, the bandits, who are still armed and living in the forests nearby have ceased hostilities and do not allow others to launch attacks on their neighbouring communities who, in turn, relate well with the established leaderships of the gangs.

“Honestly, we are enjoying peace,” Alhaji Murtala says, adding that if not for isolated instances where some young armed men sometimes commit some crimes, the area is now generally peaceful. “If not for those their leaders,” he says, “the young men would be uncontrollable”.

To demonstrate how this marriage of inconvenience works, this source cites how only a few days ago, a bandit leader, Turji, ordered the slaughter of nine cows belonging to one of his own men to compensate a farmer whose field was vandalized by the bandit who drove the cattle in.


Money for safety

The story of Shinkafi resembles that of many other communities in places where rural banditry has taken roots; Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara, Kebbi and Niger.

With security agents often overwhelmed and incapable of fully providing protection to vulnerable communities, residents continue to submit to the antics of bandits and other armed groups operating in the vast forests around them. Aside from the everyday tales of kidnap for ransom, bandits routinely place wholescale ransom on the entire community as a precondition for safety. These demands come in form of either cash or items of needs such as foodstuffs, fuel and motorcycles.

In Niger, like in communities in Zamfara and Kaduna states, farming communities increasingly negotiate with armed groups for them to have access to farms. Last year, many communities in Zamfara and Niger were taxed by the bandits before they could harvest their produce. Those who did not oblige had their farms destroyed

With planting season setting in, bandits are beginning to reach out to communities near them, laying conditions for allowing farming activities. While some of them are placing monetary demands, in new twists, others are issuing an instructions for villagers to farm for them before they allow them till their own lands. Last week, Daily Trust reported how communities in Zamfara State mobilised to till the farms of two notorious bandits; Dogo Gide and Black.

“The bandits are government because they are in charge, they charge tax and lay their own rules,” says a security analyst, Umar Yakubu.

In February, Daily Trust reported how an insurgents’ leader in the Kuduru forest in Kaduna State, Mallam Abba, used the people’s vulnerabilities to emerge as a ‘leader’ by providing protection to villages around his area of operation. Mallam Abba and his team have territorial ambition and do not want to antagonise locals who they see both as potential recruits and a shield against the aggression of security forces.

In many villages where there is peace accord between the locals and the armed groups, Daily Trust learnt the locals give information to the bandits about movement of security forces so they could take cover or flee. The locals are often compelled to reveal such information because bandits often retaliate against security raids on local communities.


Antic of Informants

When this reporter travelled to Zamfara State in mid-February to report on banditry, one warning from persons familiar with the Zamfara situation was to be cautious of informants.

Bandits have cultivated local residents who supply them information on potential targets and movement of strangers, and travellers.

Alhaji Hassan Ali, a resident of Mayanci, in Maru Local Government, Zamfara State, had his house under the watch of bandits for many months. Though he was still using the house, the family stopped sleeping there for fear of abduction.

“They came to the house from a wedding, around 10 pm. It was late, so they decided to sleep. In about two hours, the gunmen came and went away with them. Evidently, someone must have informed them” he speaks on the abduction of his two wives in late February.

Police have in many operations arrested such informants, in places like Niger, Kaduna and Katsina.

A recent outing of an informant in Sabuwa Local Government in Katsina State drew the ire of the bandits who attacked a village in retaliation, warning residents to desist from blowing the cover of their ‘friends’. They needed to, because, as a Zamfara resident, Ibrahim Mohammed told Daily Trust, “informants are the air fanning this unrest”.


Their fortune, others’ misfortune

When this reporter interviewed notorious bandit, Auwal Daudawa, he said something striking about life in the forests for bandits like him. “There is nothing that you can buy in the city which I cannot get if desired from the bush,” he had said.

Daily Trust gathered that merchants of fortune are latching on the restrictions on movements for the bandits to make brisk business on all manner of things; from vehicles and fuel to foodstuffs, mobile phones and other gadgets, clothes and food.

This class of people, though not directly involved in operations of the bandits, help keep the flame aglow, security experts say. They benefit from it because they deliver logistics to the bandits at prices many times above the market price.

When security agencies banned Honda ACE 125 motorcycles, commonly preferred by the bandits, the suppliers devised means to bypass the watch of the security men, including by repacking.

By far the biggest beneficiaries of the ravaging banditry are the gun runners who explore corruption and porosity of the Nigerian border to move weapons from across the border in the Niger Republic to villages in Sokoto, Zamfara, Kaduna, Niger and Taraba States. There are also suppliers, according to sources familiar with the illicit trade, who bring the contraband from the southern part of the country.

“It is a governance gap that is breeding this issue,” says Yakubu, “if you allow ungoverned space as we see in Chad and Libya, some people will rise to fill the gap”.

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