“Write it down,” he said. “Leader of the terrorists operating on the northern flank,” Halilu, middle-aged, fair-skinned commander of some 1,000 bandits located in Zamfara State told Daily Trust reporter.
He wanted to be properly introduced, in what was his first encounter with journalists.
“Kachalla Halilu Sububu Seno, leader of all terrorists. He is the leader,” a lieutenant slinging an AK-47 rifle emphasised in smattering English. Halilu had detailed him to dictate to the reporter.
It was in the middle of nowhere, in the afternoon of Monday, February 22.
In what is the first media access, Daily Trust had an on-the-spot interview with some of the most vicious bandits operating in the country’s far northern corner, close to the border with Niger Republic.
The trip was an independent undercover that had no official or security involvement.
The rendezvous was the western part of Shinkafi, in Zamfara State. The bandits’ hideout is the expansive Sububu Forest known for its infestation with well-armed militants who for years terrorised communities in Zamfara’s Shinkafi, Zurmi, Maradun, Maru and Talata Mafara local governments.
From the same place, and adjoining forests, armed men on motorcycles also launch attacks and kidnap villagers and travellers in Sabon Birni, Rabah and Isa local governments in Sokoto State. The bandits also access local governments in Katsina like Jibia, Sabuwa, Faskari, Dandume, among others.
Yet, from the same forest, as the bandits told Daily Trust, they could connect to places like Katsina, Kaduna, Niger and southern Nigeria.
To the north, Sububu also connects to places as far-flung as the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Cameroon and Chad. Typical of the terrain, Sububu Forest is thin, with mostly dry arid shrubs and scant trees.
The gang, called locally as daba, in Hausa, visited by our reporter is headed by Halilu; a notorious middle-aged Fulani man. He is called Kachalla, an honorific for gang leaders among the bandits.
Halilu was not just a kachalla. He is among the most dreaded bandits anywhere in Nigeria. Having spent years building an army of young men and stockpile of weapons, he is said to be well connected, making him still invincible despite the rise of other dreaded bandits notably Kachalla Turji in nearby Kagara forest, and Jumo Smoli who leads another gang sheltering around the Bakalori River.
Locals in both Gusau and Shinkafi spoke about Halilu with some dread. He is infamous for his ruthlessness and shrewd mien.
Two years ago, a peace deal was struck between Halilu’s gang and communities in Shinkafi, leading to relative peace in the area.
Shinkafi’s gain is however other communities’ woes. While Halilu provides security for Shinkafi area, warding off marauding thieves, the arrangement, according to locals, provided Halilu and his gang a haven from where they launch attacks on other places.
In praising the current peace accord in Zamfara State, Halilu told Daily Trust that for two years he and his men have not been attacked, except in isolated negligible incidents.
Shadowy, deadly Shehu Rekep
While Halilu is a household name among bandits, villagers and security agents in Zamfara and beyond, Shehu Rekep is known by a few. Yet, those who know him call him the most important person in the gruesome trade.
A source familiar with Rekep said the lanky man in his forties was among the first to introduce armed banditry in Northern Nigeria.
Shehu Rekep himself confirmed his long association with guns, which is evident from some scars and galls in his right hand. He first picked up arms, he said, some 21 years ago and has since then traversed the length and breadth of Nigeria and most of the countries neighbouring it.
Thus, Rekep’s influence transcends the shores of Nigeria, with deep links with fellow bandits in neighbouring French-speaking countries.
“From here I can show you routes that you can go to Mali or Senegal. I can give you directions to Burkina (Faso), or Cameroon or Central Africa.
In the interview conducted in Hausa, Rekep attributed the uprising by the Fulani bandits to long-term neglect by successive governments especially since the return to democracy.
“The reason is neglect. We have been neglected. This country is a rich nation with natural resources but we (the Fulani) have not been educated, we are not protected, we get killed but we’re always reported as the aggressors. We are never considered in anything; we only get killed.
“Just look around, these are people bearing arms and they have nothing to do. Many of them have lost their loved ones, parents of some of them have been killed,” he said.
He said years of encroachment into grazing areas and foreign reserves, as well as confiscation of cattle by security agents and members of local vigilante groups, have rendered most Fulani in the forests poor.
“We are 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.”
Demands and past peace pacts
Rekep said for the Fulani to lay down their arms, the government would have to roll back the alleged injustice and neglect and treat them like every other Nigerian.
“What we demand is that the way they give jobs to their children and enrol the young ones in schools, we should be treated the same way. The Hausa, Yoruba and the Fulani should be treated equally,” he said.
The bandits’ leader alleged that government refused to honour agreements reached during previous peace pacts.
Daily Trust reports that the previous government in Zamfara State entered into a peace pact with the bandits on two occasions which however collapsed.
“There was a peace accord and we stated our grievances and what should be done, but we were abandoned.
“You have asked for an armistice and that was agreed but you left that person in the forest with a gun and nothing to substitute. What do you expect?
How do you want that person to survive? All the promises made to us were fulfilled,” he stated.
“The people you see here, some have spent up to 10 years away from their homes. They are only in the forests with guns. You say you have made peace with him but left him in the bush with a gun and ammunition. What do you expect from him?”
‘Governors can’t address security challenge’
Tackling the ravaging menace of banditry in parts of northern Nigeria cannot be accomplished by governors from the affected states, he said.
According to him, the problem of rural banditry, in which his Fulani stock is a major factor, is one that could not be put out through the use of arms.
Rekep said the Nigerian security forces do not have the capacity and wherewithal to defeat the bandits who, he said, are in their thousands and located all over the country.
He said people are being killed daily because of the availability of arms and ammunition in the hands of civilians and security forces.
“There is no day that someone is not killed between Zamfara, Niger, Kaduna, Sokoto and Katsina,” he said.
According to him, the killings affect all Nigerians, irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds.
“There is no tribe that is not affected. Bandits kill, soldiers kill, and vigilantes kill too. Anyone you see with a gun what he does is kill. Every day people get killed. You may not know but if I were to tell you the situation of things in this country you will cry. Even the president will cry.”
He said addressing the agitations of the armed bandits would require direct participation of the president.
“This issue is beyond any governor. Even the president himself if he knows the true situation in the forests and the condition people find themselves in as a result there is no way he would have left this responsibility to the governors or any individual. This problem cannot be surmounted by a governor, even the president would have to seek help from other countries to tackle the problem,” Rekep said.
Justifying why President Buhari should lead the search for peace, the bandits’ leader said since the president toured the country during campaigns there was no reason why he should not do the same in finding a solution to the problem of the rural banditry.
“When he was campaigning he travelled all over, why would he not do it now? He does not take these peace talks seriously and everyday people are being killed,” he said.