It was perhaps billed as the eureka moment in the continuing but less than satisfactory tackling of our myriads of crippling security challenges by the federal government. Except that it was not. No one solves a problem by hanging a label on it. But this was what the federal government did last week, perhaps driven by the desperation to re-assure the populace that this house, although violently shaken by its cocktail of security challenges, is not about to fall. It is good to know.
The government released Gazette No. 212, Volume 108 on January 5 “…declaring the activities of Yan Bindiga Group, Yan Ta’adda Group and other similar groups in any part of Nigeria as terrorism and illegal.” These groups are bandits who have held parts of the north, particularly the north-west geo-political zone, hostage for more than two years now. They are, to be sure, a terror to the government and the state governments that have no solution to their banditry, kidnapping and the wanton slaughter of innocent people, men, women, and children. They have acted with impunity and made the Nigerian state and its security forces look inept and impotent.
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It is important for us to interrogate this decision. What does the government intend to do about the group by hanging the official label of terrorists on them? Take them on and wrestle them to the ground? Are we confusing terrorists with local criminals?
Groups that terrorise communities are not necessarily terrorists. Armed robbers have terrorised every part of the country since the end of the civil war in January 1970. No one thought to label them terrorists. Same with kidnappers. We are not that strange to terrorism. Military politicians terrorised civilian politicians for more than 30 years. Majority ethnic and religious groups terrorise minority ethnic and religious groups.
Terrorists do much more than force communities to sleep with both eyes open. What distinguishes them from mere criminals is that they take on the state intent on changing the current order or narrative to a more radical order in their own image. They mouth radical mumbo-jumbo and try to recruit innocent but misguided people to their cause or causes against the particular state they are fighting. They are non-state actors.
It does not seem to me that the bandits fit this basic description of terrorists. They are not driven by ideology; they are not driven by their disagreements with the Nigerian state; they are not motivated by the need to change the system. They are motivated and are in it entirely for the lucrative financial gains from the ransoms paid for the freedom of their kidnap victims. They are common criminals who are exploiting the weaknesses in our security system for individual financial gains.
The government needs no one to tell it that it has an obligation, both moral and legal, to stop these criminals. It cannot do so by hanging a new label on them. Criminals are criminals. They need no new label to so identify them. Only a day before the gazette was published, the bandits invaded four villages in Zamfara State where they killed more than 200 people, torched their houses and destroyed their property – and then, as usual, vanished into thin air.
In February last year, bandits invaded Government Girls Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara State, and kidnapped 317 girls. In his reaction to the dastardly act, President Buhari made four takeaway points worth remembering, namely: a) “No criminal group can be too strong to be defeated by the government; b) The only thing standing between our security forces and the bandits are the rules of engagement; c) We have the capacity to deploy massive force against the bandits in the villages where they operate, but our limitation is the fear of heavy casualties of innocent villagers and hostages who might be used as human shields by the bandits; and d) Let them not entertain any illusions that they are more powerful than the government. They shouldn’t mistake our restraint for the humanitarian goals of protecting innocent lives as a weakness or a sign of fear or irresolution.”
He promised it would be the last. It was not. Since then, students from other secondary and primary schools in Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kaduna states have been kidnapped. I am sure the president was not unaware of the new kidnappings and killings. Nor, I am sure, is he unaware that as you read this, students from Federal Government College, Birnin Yauri and Bethel Baptist High School, Kaduna, have been held in captivity by bandits for some six months now. Still, he has not deployed the massive force to deal with the bandits. While he feels restrained by collateral damages on innocent people consequent on the massive deployment of forces, the bandits do not care; they continue to kidnap and kill the same innocent men, women, and children.
Sometime in May last year, Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture, told a news conference: “Usually, the location of the kidnappers is not unknown to the security forces, but they still must exercise caution in order not to hurt the same children they are trying to rescue. Despite these inhibitions, the security forces have the wherewithal to decisively tackle the challenges.”
It is all very strange. I have said this in this column before and I say it again with a heavy heart. No government has to debate with itself the option it must take to save the people. Its inaction is as much a problem as its action. Both have consequences for innocent people. But the option is for the government to sacrifice a few innocent people in a collateral damage in order to save the many, many more and end the reign of bandits, kidnappers, and a host of other criminals in the land. The massive force is useless if it is not deployed to protect the people and make them safe in their own country.
The new label will change nothing because a label is just label. It may have the force of law but it would not make bandits think more than twice before they kidnap or kill or maim their next victims. The bandits are laughing rather loudly in the face of the Nigerian state. Because it says it can, but it knows it can’t.