Interviews with locals, security agents, aviation experts, government officials, community leaders, an ex-bandit and persons involved in mining gold in Zamfara State have revealed that the claim that helicopters and jets fly in arms in exchange for gold in Zamfara State is not true.
A Daily Trust reporter who visited some mining communities in the state and interacted with locals and security personnel reports that a number of persons who should know about such flights described the claim as laughable, even as no witness was found to corroborate the claim made by the National Security Adviser (NSA), Major General Babagana Monguno (Rtd) at the end of the quarterly meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) earlier this month.
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Evidence also showed little or no connection between the activities of the bandits operating in the state and gold mining. A senior security source, who pleaded anonymity, told Daily Trust that bandits did not engage in mining because of the labour and expertise required.
The closest to gold mining the armed men come, according to multiple sources, were occasional raids of sites for money and other valuables from the miners.
At the end of the NSC meeting which was presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari on March 2, 2021, Gen Monguno announced a declaration of Zamfara State as a no-fly zone to stop “arms for gold” deals going on, which further fuel banditry in that part of the country.
A no-fly zone or a no-flight zone (NFZ) or Air Exclusion Zone (AEZ) is a territory or area established by a military power over which certain aircraft are not permitted to fly.
Aircraft that violate a no-fly zone may be shot down by the enforcing state, depending on the terms of the NFZ. Aviation experts also said international airlines avoid the area because of safety concerns.
Gen Monguno told newsmen at the end of the meeting that, “His Excellency, the president, has approved, based on our recommendation, the imposition and enforcement of a ban on all mining activities in Zamfara State with immediate effect until further notice.
“He has directed the Minister of Defence and the National Security Adviser (NSA) to deploy massive military and intelligence assets to restore normalcy to that part of the country. He has also approved that Zamfara State be declared a no-fly-zone with immediate effect.”
Presidential spokesman, Mallam Garba Shehu, later told Daily Trust that the decision to declare no-fly zone over Zamfara was because private aircraft were being used to supply weapons to criminal gangs in exchange for gold.
Mallam Shehu said, “Even in Zamfara, there is a strong suspicion that some of those choppers are being used to ferry arms for bandits and also to evacuate gold and illegally smuggle out of the country. So the country loses everything in the mining.”
An old theory
The claim that planes are being used to ferry arms to criminals is not a new one. For many years, the rumour had gone on in many parts of Northern Nigeria afflicted by security challenges such as the Boko Haram in the North East and banditry in the North West.
Security experts who spoke with Daily Trust wondered how what started as heresy would now get official acceptance at the highest security body in the country without any of the alleged perpetrators being netted in or any of the planes shot down.
The earliest mention of this theory was from the North East where a group of Borno and Yobe elders led by a former Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Vice Marshall Al-Amin Dagash (Rtd) addressed a press conference in 2014 under the aegis of the Borno, Yobe Peoples Forum (BYPF). The group lampooned the then government of President Goodluck Jonathan, alleging that Boko Haram was allowed to flourish to the extent of having helicopters aiding its operations.
In March, 2014, the Senator representing Katsina South, Abu Ibrahim, reported during a Senate plenary that helicopters were being used to bring in bandits and arms to some parts of Katsina State to attack villages.
Contributing to a debate on a motion brought to the senate by Senator Barnabas Gemade on the violence in several northern states, Senator Ibrahim revealed that attackers of some of the affected places were not local people but were air-dropped from somewhere else.
Sen Ibrahim said, “We have reports that helicopters were used to ferry the people who carry out attacks. They landed in the forest and dropped the attackers.”
In January, 2015, some residents dislodged from Monguno town told reporters that they witnessed instances of helicopters dropping boxes containing supplies allegedly meant for the insurgents.
In August, 2019, a bandit arrested in Katsina, Aliyu Musa, told journalists that his gang got their weapons delivered to them by a helicopter.
Twenty-year-old Musa told journalists that he once saw a helicopter drop weapons for his boss inside Dinya Forest in Kankara LGA of Katsina State.
Musa said, “I once saw an aircraft with fans on its head (helicopter) drop weapons for my boss while we were inside the forest at Dinya.”
The theory is not unique to Nigeria. In 2018, AFP Fact Check delivered a verdict on a 2015 blog post on a helicopter allegedly downed in the northern part of the country on its way to deliver arms to Boko Haram. The picture was widely circulated in Cameroun and other parts of French West Africa.
A number of persons spoken to in Gusau, Maru, Shinkafi, Bukkuyum and Anka LGAs, some of the areas famous for gold mining, as well as banditry, said they were unsure of the use of helicopters and jets for delivery of arms or picking up of gold. Some of them described the insinuation as outright falsehood.
A senior security source in the state capital described the allegation as “mere conjecture being peddled by conflict entrepreneurs.”
He said there were no formal or informal reports confirming the arrival or departure of any suspicious aircraft in any part of the state.
A police officer described the allegation as funny, saying, “It is not true. I never heard about it, and even outside the police; we work as a team, DSS, police, army, air force, no one has mentioned it to me. If this was happening I could have known, but to be honest with you, I have never heard this issue being mentioned.”
He also faulted claims that bandits are engaged in mining activities proceeds of which they exchange for arms.
He said, “Bandits cannot do this work. You need to go and see how this work is done; you will pity them. A bandit who is used to cool cash cannot afford to suffer that much for what you are not even certain of.”
A resident of Shinkafi, Abdullahi Labbo, said the forest area which was infested with bandits had never witnessed suspicious movements of aircraft.
Labbo said, “We have heard that, but I can tell you it is not true. We have never witnessed it here in reality.”
A leader of the bandits in Zamfara, Shehu Rekeb, told Daily Trust from his Sububu Forest base that they had banned mining activities in all the areas they operate.
Rekeb said, in the past “white people” went to the mines with security escort to work, but that they had stopped going, adding that herders in the forests were not involved in mining.
He further said, “We only stopped the government. We have banned it, but herders do not know how to mine. The only persons we allow are the villagers who are poor and have nothing to live on. We allow them into some places to get what they can survive on.”
A motorcyclist in Kanoma in Maru LGA, Yunusa Ali, told Daily Trust that he routinely used to see an aircraft on Mondays going West of the village where a den of bandits was located to deliver supplies to them.
But a local leader in the town, Adamu Wakili, said he was not aware of any aircraft going to the area other than the military jets.
Wakili said, “What comes around here is the military jet and it usually comes as reinforcement, and anytime it comes the bandits get scared and run away.”
He further said the area was now enjoying peace following a recent peace pact with bandits.
A member of the disbanded vigilante group in the state who pleaded anonymity said although he never witnessed the landing or taking off of planes, he had heard the accounts of some persons who said they had had seen unauthorised choppers.
He explained that, “About two months ago a relative of mine who lives in a village called Gobirawar Kwaca told me, and he swore by God that he saw a plane land on a mountain called Bagana. He said a few days later a Fulani man came to them with a new rifle which he confessed was brought by the plane.”
The Public Relations Officer of Zamfara Gold Buyers and Sellers Association, Alhaji Ayuba Ahmad Muhammad, said there is no correlation between banditry and mining activities in the state.
Claim untenable – NAMA source
A senior official of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) who spoke to Daily Trust on condition of anonymity, said it was impossible for planes to come in and out of Nigeria without being sighted by any of the country’s airspace radars.
The NAMA official said, “My first reaction when I heard that was that they are indicting themselves.”
According to him, there was never a time that any security outfit in the country reported suspicious movement of any alien plane in that area.
The source explained that from its Kano station, NAMA had total view of the whole of Northern Nigeria and parts of Niger Republic.
He said, “Our radar in Kano covers 600 kilometres. We have a facility in Zamfara feeding the Kano radar. We have a radar in Maiduguri, another one in Abuja and also in Kano. They all feed the system in Kano. With these it is not possible for any aircraft to move unnoticed. It must pass through any of our radars.”
The official further explained that with the primary surveillance radar stationed in Kano, NAMA officials could detect movement of aircraft even if the moving plane had no transponder for communication.
He said, “In addition to these, there are three surveillance helicopters stationed in Katsina and some others in Sokoto. Their job is to patrol these areas, from Katsina to Zamfara and Sokoto. Should there be anything, they are expected to report. I can tell you authoritatively there was never a time we got any report of something like that from them. Never!”
Pronouncement shows failure of intelligence – retired Air Force chief
Group Captain John Ojikutu (Rtd) said the revelation by the NSC exposed failure of intelligence on the part of responsible entities.
He said if any unauthorised aircraft was getting access into an area, it should be failure of intelligence, not failure of aviation.
Ojikutu said, “If there is a problem, it is the job of the national intelligence to inform the Nigerian airspace management or the air force, but from what I gather, they did not inform anyone before bringing out this no-fly zone order.
“If they have credible intelligence, they can share it with the agency responsible for managing the airspace. But unfortunately, this thing is now being mismanaged over the airwaves. If you have intelligence, pass it to the people who will work on it, but you don’t have intelligence and you just release instructions on the pages of newspaper. It is not done that way.”
No-fly zone may be costly for Nigeria
An aviation expert who pleaded anonymity told Daily Trust that declaring no-fly zone over any part of the country could affect the nation adversely in the global aviation industry; with attendant loss of revenue.
He said, “If a territory is declared no-fly zone, what that tells the operators is that that area is not safe for airplane movement.
“I understand the people at NCAA and NAMA have worked out 12,000 feet as mark for the ban of aircraft movement. Long distance aircraft can actually pass over the area, but for safety concerns many may have to cancel these routes; which will mean a loss for Nigeria in terms of revenue.”
‘How arms come’
Locals and security sources who spoke to our reporter offered hints on how the bandits operating in the state acquire weapons.
A local in Shinkafi who pleaded anonymity said it was an open secret that majority of weapons came in through Niger Republic via Sabon Birni in neighbouring Sokoto State.
A senior police officer who also spoke on condition of anonymity said smuggling weapons into the country was easy because of the vast and porous Nigerian border with Niger Republic.
An ex-bandit who spoke with our reporter dismissed the allegation of the use of planes to deliver arms, saying the “government knows the truth and we all know how these weapons come in,” adding that a lot of weapons came in through Niger Republic.
In a recent interview with Daily Trust, a repentant bandits’ leader, Auwal Daudawa, said getting weapons was as easy as buying bread. He said weapons came in from Niger Republic and southern part of Nigeria.
Ban will not end banditry – Commissioner
The Zamfara State Commissioner for Environment and Solid Minerals, Dr Nuraddeen Isah, said the no-flight zone would not bring about the expected change in the security situation in the state because it was off the mark.
Dr Isah said it was ridiculous for anyone to draw such conclusion, noting that such things could only happen in a banana republic.
He said, “This is even an attack on us as a country. Are you telling me our sovereignty and integrity as a country is being breached? How will the rest of the world take us? Are we saying, as a nation, we don’t have record of movement of planes which come in and go out? In this state we don’t have an airport, we don’t have an airstrip. We only have a helipad which is within town.”