A notorious bandit, Bello Turji, has opened up on his past, leading to his becoming one of the most dreaded bandits terrorising communities, especially in the northwestern part of Nigeria.
Bandits like Turji have been terrorising villages in northern Nigeria for years, killing thousands of people and displacing a lot more. They also engage in isolated and mass abductions, including students in at least 10 schools in less than a year.
In a recent report, Daily Trust chronicled how hundreds of thousands of villagers had been displaced from their settlements, with many of them seeking refuge in Niger Republic and other Nigerian cities as governments in the affected states fail to provide camps for displaced persons.
In an exclusive chat aired as part of a Trust TV documentary, tagged ‘Nigeria’s Banditry: The Inside Story,’ Turji, who hails from Fakai village of Shinkafi Local Government in Zamfara State, however, said it was unbelievable to people who knew him that he strayed into the criminal activity.
In separate clips streamed at an event to premier the documentary in Abuja on Friday, Turji said his first experience of slaughtering a human being was on a market day at Shinkafi.
“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 sold it I would come to the emir’s compound before returning home in the evening.
“The Emir of Shinkafi knows me. He knew me from many years ago. If he is told that Turji would become a bandit he would not believe it because he knew we Fulani could not become rustlers. But it was what they were doing to us that became unbearable.”
Turji’s claim was in reference to the activities of community self-help volunteer force called Yan Sakai, whose ruthlessness, he said, made him and some other Fulani youths to become bandits.
A researcher in the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Dr Abubakar Siddique-Mohammed, interviewed as part of the 29-minute documentary, acknowledged that the activities of the volunteer force inflamed the banditry problem across the affected states.
In the ethnic tension brought out by the documentary, both sides of the conflict had engaged in ruthless killings over the claim of self protection or vengeance.
Speaking on restrictions placed in September last year to suppress the activities of the bandits, Turji said, “It is 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?
“If you buy just a measure of maize, they confiscate it; or if you buy a loaf of bread they will say you are buying it for Turji. Is it only Turji who eats out of all the people here?
“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?”
The bandits’ leader recounted an attack on his family, saying, “Over 1,000 cattle were taken away from us. On that day, six of our little siblings were killed.
“Our parents went through all the courts, but they couldn’t get back their cattle. They also connived with Yan Sakai and slaughtered my uncle. Where then does a commoner seek redress?”
He also accused Yan Sakai volunteers of connivance with security agents to harass and extort the Fulani.
“They arrest innocent people and lock them up, and if you ask, they say it is because of corn stalks. You will be fined N500,000, and you must pay, for fear of incarceration.
“I will swear with the Qur’an that the Emir of Shinkafi knows about this. My father was involved in a court case for seven years over corn stalks. Just for corn stalks!”
Turji denounced connections between bandits liking him with Boko Haram elements, saying they have no political agenda.
“We are not interested in establishing any religious organisation. We are not aspiring to have a territory of our own, and we don’t have any political aspiration. We took up arms to protect the lives of our people that are being killed, it is not just because we are merciless or we are unconscious of Allah who created us.”
Some of the victims recalled horrendous experiences from bandits who attacked their communities.
Zainab Ibrahim from Zurmi, whose child was killed and she was abducted and held for two months, recounted her experience.
“Three of them picked my husband and left with him. I was surrounded by six men with their AK rifles and headlamps
“I was sleeping when they grabbed me and my son. They were told he (my husband) had escaped and they said there was no problem since they had us
“My son and I held tight to each other. One of them said, ‘Bring him here so that we slaughter him or we shoot two of them.’
“They snatched him from me. He was crying, I was crying too. By the time they seized him I passed out. They laid down him and slaughtered him.”
A young girl identified as Hauwa said her parents were killed when the bandits stormed their house to rob her father.
Speaking during the screening of the documentary in Abuja, experts and stakeholders called for genuine dialogue and the involvement of the traditional institutions to tackle banditry in parts of the country.
The event, organised by the Media Trust Limited and the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), featured a panel discussion and open mic conversation on the banditry problem
‘Abuja solutions not enough’
A panel discussant and lecturer from the Usman Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Dr Murtala Rufai, maintained that solutions being proffered in Abuja, the seat of power would not end banditry in the North-West.
Rufai disclosed that bandits see themselves as freedom fighters who have an axe to grind with the government.
The university don called on the federal government to ensure that traditional institutions are empowered to oversee their domains as it was in the past.
He said, “The problem of rural banditry in Zamfara and other places in the North-West is actually a fundamental and basically a local problem. In my opinion, it is a local problem that actually requires a local solution.
‘Reveal funding sources’
On its part, the Kaduna State Government insisted that the bandits were criminals hell-bent on destroying peace in the country.
The Commissioner for Internal Security and Home affairs, Samuel Aruwan, who was part of the screening, reiterated the state government’s position that it would not negotiate with the criminals.
He said it was high time the economic activities of the bandits were probed to know how they are being funded, which gives them easy access to arms and ammunition.
Dialogue with hardened criminals a waste of time – Dambazzau
In the same vein, a former Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Dambazzau, faulted claims made by the bandits’ kingpin, Turji, saying dialogue with hardened criminals is a waste of time.
He explained that the criminal groups had links, and they should not use their situation to victimise innocent travellers or motorists if they have genuine cases.
“I think there is the need to distinguish between those criminals and those who are genuinely struggling for whatever is happening to them.
“There is a need to distinguish between them if you say there should be dialogue. This is because you can’t dialogue with hardened criminals.
“If people have genuine cases you can sit down and dialogue with them and know precisely what their problems are and how to sort them out,” he said.
A Media Trust director, Mannir Dan Ali, in his welcome address, explained that the documentary was meant to understand the issue of insecurity, particularly banditry across the regions.
“This is something that has been there for quite a while. And we are still grappling with its implications and what it means for not just Nigeria, but the Sahel region as well. And probably Africa at large,” Dan-Ali said.
He also commended the CDD for the collaboration with MTL, comprising the newspapers and the Trust TV, the television arm of the MTL.
Also, the Deputy High Commissioner, British High Commission (BHC), Gill Atkinson, represented by the conflict adviser, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Sophie Stephen, said the FCDO had been supporting the CDD and partners in this project.
She noted that they were collaborating with the CDD on a project called Strengthening the Delivery of Peace and Security. She said the project aimed to counter misinformation and promote evidence-based sensitive discussions, public discourse and reporting to try to promote peace and social cohesion in Nigeria.
“I am representing a foreign government, which is very happy to be a close partner in Nigeria and others. And on behalf of the UK, I want to express first our deep sympathy with some of the events of this documentary,” she said.
According to her, as a human being she stands with the country, and is often saddened by some of the events being witnessed.
She also commended reporters who risked their lives to get these stories.
“I really hugely respect and admire your work and that of others here who are doing that to try and find the truth of some of these very complex and multi layers of situations.
“My hope is that it would inspire new approaches, ideas and ways that would ultimately bring peace to the people affected,” she added.
Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, Abbas Jimoh & Idowu Isamotu