In this first media interview, Bello Turji, the notorious Zamfara banditry kingpin, speaks on wide-ranging issues at the root of the violent conflict, its drivers and why he is proposing a peace deal.
There is an open letter addressed to the emir, the governor and President Buhari, which has gone viral, said to have been written by you. Is that true?
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Indeed, I am the one that wrote the letter.
Why did you write the letter?
Because of the people that are being killed who have no idea what is going on in the country. There is fake news in the media that we are being defeated. I consider the loss of lives while the people are being lied to that we are being defeated. I pity the lives being wasted, both the Fulani and Hausa; so I thought we should come together and live in peace and that we shouldn’t use the insecurity situation for politics.
You talked about politics, are you claiming that there is politics in the security situation?
That is how we see it.
There is politics in it, that is why people are being killed. If people are to be secure, there shouldn’t be discrimination in protecting the lives of Nigerian people. Unfortunately, the security situation is politicised, that is why we say there is politics in it.
Are there people being discriminated against?
Yes, there are. For instance, even you journalists have never reported the genocide being committed against the Fulani; they are being killed and burnt all over the place. You have never reported it.
Are there such things happening?
Of course, it is not possible for one side to always be victorious; that it is only one side that kills without its own being killed. What is happening in Nigeria is not a secret; it’s nothing new. We have told the government and all the relevant authorities but nothing is done about it. That is why we suspect that the situation is politicised.
There were peace talks in the past, including those you participated in, but they ended up collapsing. Why is it so?
What happened to the peace pacts was that everyone knows how we are: we are human. We cannot guarantee to keep all the promises we made, but the leaders ought to be steadfast and pacify us. We were able to get some of our people to lay down their arms, and there was some level of peace but the government turned its back on us and broke its promises.
What were the unfulfilled promises?
There are so many promises that you wouldn’t expect me to start counting them. Let’s see if they can fulfil them this time around.
What do you want now?
I want them to treat all of us as Nigerians; whether we are Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba or indeed any other ethnicity one may come from.
There is also the Yan sakai group with whom we started all this fight before the government came in. If the government had brought them to order, things wouldn’t have been this bad. Because it’s a volunteer group—they were not established by law.
If a farm is encroached on, one would be taken to the village head or the DPO (Divisional Police Officer) and the person would be fined beyond proportion. That enraged some of our people and some took up arms. What did the government do? The went ahead to legalise Yan sakai group.
You will find a vigilante has become a leader in a town and has armed everyone –the lunatic, the sane person and drug addict. How could they serve justice the same way? In all these happenings, the security agents looked on. They (Yan sakai) will catch and slit the throat of a person in their (security personnel’s) presence. The first time I saw someone slaughtered was on a market day in Shinkafi when vigilantes brought a man close to the abattoir and cut his throat.
When did that happen?
You know I am not educated, so I can’t remember the date, but it must be about seven years ago; the first year they started the Yan sakai. The emir of Shinkafi knows of this.
Were you a bandit by this time?
No, I hadn’t taken up arms by then. I was herding cattle. Then, if my father wanted to sell any of his cows, I would take it to the market for him. After I sell it I’d come to the emir’s compound before returning home in the evening. He (the emir) knows me. He knew me from many years ago. If he is told that Turji would become a bandit he will not believe it because he knew we Fulani cannot become rustlers.
But it was what they were doing to us that became unbearable. Why was it unbearable? He (the emir) knew, over a thousand cattle were taken away from us and taken to Yan Biki through Magarya, and then to Zurmi. They were held by the emir of Zurmi for two weeks. That day, six of our little siblings were killed.
Who took the cattle?
It was the Yan sakai. They took them to the emir of Zurmi and from there they were taken to Maradun where they were held for nine days. Our parents went through all the courts but they couldn’t get back their cows. And they also caught my uncle and slaughtered him. Where then does a common person seek redress?
But do you think taking up arms is the solution?
Yes. For me, that is the solution because I have gone to the leaders but they didn’t listen to me which implied they are saying I should do whatever I wanted. If they had helped me, how could I have gone into killing people?
We should be understood. We don’t kill people just like that. Aren’t there people living in this village? If we enjoy killing people, we would have killed them all. But if anyone kills our people we will retaliate but then we will be looked on as bad people (for retaliating).
Look at what happened in Goronyo. Colonel Moyi was the first to say that it was Fulani who were first slaughtered in the market. What did they say when it was avenged? He is the Commissioner of Security, he should tell the truth.
The talk of the town now is the vehicle burnt at Sabon Birni. Aren’t all lives the same? I can tell you, being someone from Shinkafi, I know two human abattoirs which the government is not aware of but I know about it because it’s my people who are being killed there, both men and women.
You have access to government officials. Didn’t you tell them what is happening?
We believe they (government officials) think because Hausa people are educated, we can’t lodge complaints against them; because they are the ones who can go to the media to say whatever they want. They have access to government officials and they can tell them what they want. Since we are illiterates, no one will hear our side (of the story).
But, Turji, there are fears that even if a new pact is entered you may not abide by it…?
If the government keeps its part of the agreement (why not?); we are not interested in establishing any religious organisation, we are not aspiring for territory of our own, we don’t have any political aspiration. But we take up arms to protect the lives of our people. Our people are killed, that’s why we take up arms to avenge. It is not just because we are merciless or we are unconscious of Allah who created us.
You’re especially accused of being ruthless, carrying out attacks and killing people and raping women. Why?
People can say what they want. But about rape, there are women here as well. If I am a rapist, I would have started with them. They want the Fulani to be attacked; we don’t know about any case of rape. It’s their fellow Hausa who are the rapists. If for instance, you take the case of Kano State, is it Turji that is responsible for all the rape cases there? If you are sensible you will know what is beyond the common man.
But what about the killing of travellers in Sabon Birni?
They should probe what happened around that area; from the road to Turba to the place (where the killings happened). How many Fulani were killed there? Have they established how many Fulani men and women were killed from Isa up to that place? They should investigate how many innocent Fulani were killed there. Not all Fulani are bandits; not all of them bear arms.
Is that your reason for the killings?
The reason is that they are killing our people, and neither the government nor the security agents did anything; no highly placed person denounced what was being done. That is why we organised boys to go and kill those people, too; so that they will do something about it.
Soldiers were attacked in Sabon Birni and government blamed the Boko Haram faction, ISWAP, but others think you carried out the attack. What is the truth of the matter?
The truth is that soldiers killed our fellow herdsmen. They know about it. Ask them. They killed our people in their houses; innocent people. We informed the army captain at Sabon Birni. At that time, there was peace, and we used to inform them about the situation in the villages. The soldiers, just because of cornstalks, went about killing people. That’s why we organised and took revenge.
So it wasn’t Boko Haram?
No, we don’t have Boko Haram here. We don’t know them and we don’t know what it means.
But it was said that you had some relationship with them…
That is the view of people enjoying in air-conditioned rooms. It is not our concern. We are not a religious movement, we are not after any material gain. We organise ourselves to protect our people who are being killed in Nigeria. We are not affiliated with any other organisation; this is a case of farmers and herders conflict. Are the Yan sakai affiliated with a terrorist organisation? If they are not pro-terrorism, they are pro-government, then we too are pro-government because it is the Yan sakai that are killing our people and we retaliate. The Yan sakai and us are all under the government.
If the government tells them to stop killing our people, we too will stop the killings. Such pact happened in the past. We had a peace pact with the people of Shinkafi, they can confirm it. We agreed to a ceasefire.
When the government introduced containment measures (in September) I was the one who called them (Shinkafi residents). Some later said I asked them to shun the government’s instructions. I didn’t ask them to disobey the government. I told them we should live peacefully, we are their subjects; we live peacefully and it’s not right to deny Fulani entry into Shinkafi; it’s a local government for all citizens.
If you deny Fulani entry, where are they supposed to go? Since the government has given access to all Nigerians, they should allow us entry too. They closed the markets and petrol stations. We are not going to prevent them from being law-abiding but they should allow the poor to buy what they want.
If you buy even a measure of maize, they confiscate it; or if you buy a loaf of bread they will say you’re buying it for Turji. Is it only Turji who eats out of all the people here? This is heartless. And when we kill these people we’ll be labelled as heartless. Are those who are doing worse than us also not heartless? If you buy a measure of maize, they will say it is for Turji.
Let me ask you, isn’t this a gun? Is it those who failed to prevent the circulation of arms in Nigeria that will prevent us from buying petrol, which even a little kid knows where it can be obtained? And they closed the markets and stopped the selling of animals. By that those who aren’t bandits will easily follow them (bandits) since they are getting easy money. Isn’t that so?
To tell the truth, this is all politics. If we are to be truthful and set politics aside, you won’t have anyone killing people when that person has no intention of establishing a religious or political organisation. You kill people just like that and you aren’t scared, and you aren’t tired just because you are called Turji the heartless. That is not the truth because if we are just after killing people, you should go to Kware, there are a lot of people there; they farm and rear their animals. They were told we relish killing people. When they razed our settlements, they said we killed over 100 people there. Go there and inquire now. It is said there is no place more peaceful than the village now. Why didn’t we kill them all?
But, Turji, there are reports you impose taxes on villagers. What is the justification for that?
Yes, for example, some of our people get intercepted while travelling by vigilantes or corrupt policemen. They place a heavy levy on them that they must pay. For that, I must also impose a tax on other people.
Whatever we do, we are only copying the Yan sakai. It is not for nothing. How did the Fulani in the bush learn about kidnapping for ransom if not because he was shown the way?
Who taught them?
Those who kidnap our people and made to pay ransom.
Who are they?
The Yan sakai snitch us to the security agents who extort us. They arrest innocent people and lock them up and if you ask they say it is because of cornstalks. You will be fined N500,000 and you must pay for fear of going to jail.
I will swear with the Qur’an that the Emir of Shinkafi knows about this. All the district heads in Shinkafi know this; the district head of Fakai too knows this. My father was involved in a court case for seven years over cornstalks. Just cornstalks! And he went through all the courts, including the one in Abuja.
I swear to Allah that in our household we had over 100 cows, but we were left with just 20. You can confirm all that I have told you from the traditional rulers. I can bring the defendant (in my father’s court case); the case dragged on for years, since I was small and lasted till my adulthood. There is also nowhere that our parents did not go to get justice over the confiscation of our lands.
All these are known to the Emir of Shinkafi. He knew our parents for years and they were not bandits. There was never a case of rustling reported to him. But they rustled our cows and killed our brothers and rendered us worthless. There is no authority to complain to, no one to seek redress from. Would you forever be crying? You will get tired of crying and seek for solution. And this is our problem in this country. We don’t have any demand other than stopping the killing of our people.
It is also said that you even have your traditional rulers; that you remove district heads at will and appoint. Is that true?
Let them say where I removed any traditional ruler. Let’s not politicise or joke with this issue; there is a district head in this town, let them ask him if Turji has tried to remove him. As for the claim that I removed the district head of Gangara, is the person I appointed in Gangara living in the town or somewhere else? All those saying that are stupid; they are politicians who shamelessly say whatever they want; they aren’t helping the people with this.
If Turji has removed the district head of Gangara and appointed a new one, where is the new district head? Who is he? And who attended the turbaning? Who was there when the new one came to the palace?
It is said that you want peace because of the military onslaught which is wiping out your members; it was also said that you were arrested, or you were seen crying and your armoury was destroyed…
If our armoury is destroyed, these are guns not sticks, and you didn’t meet me crying. These are not cows you see here, they are human beings; do you see them crying? Whoever said that should be arrested and asked where he saw Turji crying. The government should arrest and jail him. Whoever said he has arrested Turji should be arrested.
Is it true that your house was burnt down?
How could my house be burnt down when I don’t have one? I live among trees and under the rocks, how could my house be burnt? I don’t even have a hut. You can ask anyone.
The settlements of our innocent parents were burnt down, and the people can confirm that children were burnt in there, and old people. I can swear, and I know the greatness of Allah and the Qur’an, I can tell you since they started the airstrikes it was only once that it killed one young man, in all these years. But there are countless pregnant and breastfeeding mothers killed in the air raids.
Turji lives under rocks, sleeping here today and there tomorrow, when the fighter plane comes where is it going to target me? I don’t stay in one place and I have no chip on me they can detect, so how can it see me? All this is all vain talk.
But it’s said that because of the sustained military strikes you are pushing for peace, being on the verge of defeat and that the heat is telling on you?
How can we feel the heat when we have not been hit or harassed? We want peace because security agents are killing innocent people; Yan sakai too kill people and so do we, all with no just reason. We have realised that they have politicised the security situation. But it’s not true that we are overwhelmed (by the attacks). It’s all fake news.
They should be honest and treat all citizens equally. But if they think we want peace because of their attacks, we can withdraw (from the peace pacts) and leave them with the boys to see what happens in the next three years.
Why should you kill someone when you are not his maker? If you could eliminate all gunmen, Libya would have been stable by now; the Taliban wouldn’t have defeated America (in Afghanistan). Gun is not the solution. Boko Haram has done worse to the security agents (than us); yet they couldn’t defeat them, let alone us who are scattered.
How could the fighter plane kill us? It would only kill the innocent. I won’t lie down to be killed. All this while the fighter jet has never struck close to where I am; I only hear it fly by.
But what about the ground offensive?
Where are they? I don’t see any soldier.
You have never fought with them?
We fought once with Mai Rago [an army officer], for a whole day, from eight in the morning to five in the evening. He gave up and turned back. Since that day I have never encountered any security personnel; unless I go to their base; but they have never come to my place, save if they fly over; which I cannot stop. I fear Allah over human beings.
What do you want so as to end this problem?
What we want is to remove politicians from the issue of security. There should be fairness in protecting the lives of innocent people who are being killed, and to ban the Yan sakai. When they are banned, leaders should then step in to end banditry and let the security agents take control of the situation under the laws of the country.
One concern is that you don’t have a central leadership; if a peace pact is signed with one group, it may not be applicable to all. What is the scope of this group you’re leading?
I assure you that I have some influence over all bandits groups from Jaja road up to Gangara area. I have already started talking to them to ceasefire but it’s being said that they are fighting with security forces in some places, which is not true.
I prevailed upon them, I begged them (to stop) but they’re not my children and I wasn’t the one who gave them arms; I didn’t put them up to this. I have consulted their leaders just like Nigerian leaders do. I asked them to consider the innocent people being killed and let peace reign.
They (the leaders of other bandit groups) cooperated and asked me to contact the government for a peace treaty, disband the Yan sakai and the security agents be prevailed upon, and others who work alongside them who are responsible for arresting our people. If that is done, we will stop the killings, no matter how heartless we are. Do you understand?
This is why I wrote the letter and sent it to a malam because I want everything to be done transparently without deceit. The letter was sent to the imam of Shinkafi and the emir for him to forward to other imams including Sheikh Ahmad Gumi and then to the Sultan of Sokoto. We’ve resolved to lay down our arms and stop banditry in our area; we can’t guarantee other areas.
You referred to other areas bedevilled by banditry. You see, even among us, there is intra-group fighting. Some group rustled the cattle of another and we fight. It happens. And for that you can’t decide for other areas; just like the governor of Zamfara can’t decide on behalf of Katsina State governor. We can only speak for our area but we can’t stop them from contacting other areas.
The poor should be helped as well as both the Fulani and the Hausa; the killings should stop and we should live in peace.
It’s claimed that whenever a Fulani is killed, even if he’s not a bandit, you carry out revenge attack. Why is it so?
Because he has no one to complain to. We are forced into banditry. Before, we only carried sticks and rear our cattle. We didn’t care about (western) education, or indeed any other education, but we were educated enough to know how to pray. We don’t claim to know what people are doing, we know how to rear our cattle, and we have Islamic education. That is what our parents taught us. Because of that, we are being killed. They were innocent. That is why we carry out reprisal attacks on their behalf.
Why did you take up arms, in the first place?
My fellow Fulani were killed and over one thousand cattle rustled and taken to Zurmi from where they were taken to Maradun. The emir of Shinkafi is aware of this, the emir of Zurmi too is aware and all security agents at the time knew that. When I realized that I have no one to complain to, and no authority will help us, there was no option when Fulani are being massacred. We will not allow the Fulani to be wiped out. That is why I picked up arms.
You are said to be responsible for the burning of travellers, including children and pregnant women, alive but surprisingly I am surprised you claim not to be aware of that (or responsible).
I swear to God I am not responsible and I am not aware of it.
And you don’t know who is responsible for the attack?
It’s the people (who are responsible). People have been attacked there every now and then, why wouldn’t they take revenge? Turji is not responsible for all that’s happening in Nigeria. I am not the only gunman. Turji is blamed for everything.
There is only one Turji, not 10. If something happens in Sabon Birni, Turji is blamed; or in Maradun, Turji is also blamed. If something in Shinkafi or Isa happened, Turji is blamed. Turji is not a spirit.
Politicians cannot pin it on anyone other than Turji. He signed a peace pact with them; that is why his name is mentioned and is being unfairly blamed.
But that attack is alleged to have been carried out by you in retaliation for the bombing of the family home of one of your lieutenants, Danbokolo…
I don’t have a hand in it. I leave that (the killing of Danbokolo’s family) to God for what was done to them. They are not involved in this (banditry). They are not interested in it. You can ask the local leaders who know them, they will tell you.
If I insist on carrying out reprisal attacks, does it mean I can also protect them from what Allah has decreed for them? I have never said I will kill anyone on their behalf, or carry out any reprisal attack. I leave it to their Lord, He brought it upon them. I leave it to Allah.
Turji, there is word going around that an Islamic scholar has said you are a nominal Muslim; that you don’t pray and don’t follow the teachings of Islam, and that you were once in the same detention centre….
Well, whoever said that we don’t follow the teaching of the religion, there is a verse in the Qur’an which says “true religion in the sight of Allah is only Islam”. Every Muslim knows this verse, it’s in chapter 50 (of the Qur’an). Every scholar, whether in Nigeria or anywhere in the world knows this verse; they know what it means. Who doesn’t know it can’t quote it (from memory).
He said I don’t follow the teachings of Islam, but he doesn’t own the religion; it’s Allah who does. Even if we pray he wouldn’t know. You are meeting me now in a mosque after I have prayed. I have prayed not for myself, but for the sake of Allah. I am afraid of the day I will meet my Maker.
Bello Yabo wants to engage me; he lied that we were held in the same police cell. Even if he is a true scholar who has never lied against anyone, he has lied against me and I leave him to God.
I was never arrested or held in police custody by any Nigerian security agencies. How could Bello Yabo see me in police custody? He lied, this is all lies, whoever he is.
If he says Turji doesn’t pray or he is a thief, he is only saying his opinion. Turji knows what he is doing; he doesn’t worship him (Bello Yabo) but Allah, his maker, so he doesn’t need anything from Bello Yabo.