“Maigida ya iso!” Someone in the crowd facing the small rusty fence gate announced the arrival of “the master”.
I turned my attention to the entrance but could not see anything or anyone conspicuous in the perceived calibre of the man we were waiting for. All I saw was a nondescript man in non-elaborate grey military fatigue and a green camouflage turban walking in. He had a long black rifle clutched in his left hand and two small carry-on khaki bags dangling from long strips slung from his left shoulder.
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“Ga Turji ya iso” (Turji has arrived). My guide, seated to my right, said as if to clear my confusion.
The arriving man, rather than come straight, veered to his left and greeted the persons he met one after the other. By the time he reached the shade – the porch by the mosque’s entrance – some of the senior gunmen, who were allowed to sit on the plastic mat spread out along the patio, stood up to greet him. But the majority remained seated and exchanged greetings with him in emotionless handshakes. These were largely independent gang leaders (singular: kachalla) who were more like friends and partners in crime rather than subordinates of the man.
We stood up as he approached, my brain dazzlingly busy with the thoughts of being around a man whose infamy precedes him and reverberates all over the land.
He made to sit in some corner but was told to come to the middle so that we could do what we were there for.
But before he sat, he invited others to line up along with him. For some reason, however, he excluded some of the more elderly persons from the lineup, except for Ummaru Na-Gona who I had not heard of prior to that time, but I would later learn from residents of villages in Sabon Birni Local Government Area of Sokoto State how much of a nemesis he is.
Realising I was going to video-record the session, someone advised that they lined up their sophisticated guns, and a call was made for the young boys waiting outside of the mosque to bring in some of the weapons. Eleven General-Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG) and at least one rocket-propelled grenade were brought in.
It was now time for self-introduction, and they went: Kachalla Bingel Birnin Kagara, Yelon Emir Kagara, Auta Bubayi, Bello Kagara, Ummaru Na-Gona, Yalo Danbokolo, Baleri Fakai. The man sitting between Danbokolo and Baleri Fakai introduced himself thus: “My name is Kachalla Turji Birnin Fakai”. Twice, however, he dithered to properly include his criminal notoriety in the introduction, only acknowledging his fame.
Before Danbokolo mentioned his name, Turji, who was by his left, mockingly introduced him: “This is the person who was killed two days ago.” It was in the heat of the rumour that Turji was wounded, captured or killed–depending on which of the viral social media posts one encountered–and that his associates, Danbokolo and Hassan Dankwaro, had been killed. We were to see Dankwaro later.
By the time we were ready to leave Gusau at 7:30am on Wednesday, December 22, I had settled my mind on the implication of the trip. It was a suicide mission for which the chances of it being a journey of no return and getting back in a piece were equal.
There was every reason to arrive at the conclusion.
The situation around Shinkafi had changed rapidly for the worse since I visited the bandits’ den in Sububu to meet Shehu Rekeb and his younger host, Kachalla Halilu. Rekeb is a shadowy influence who is rarely heard and never seen. I was later to discover from many sources that he is a major supply source for arms, having spent over 20 years straddling West Africa and the larger Sahel as one of the early Fulani youths who popularised the use of modern arms. He is, therefore, a father-figure who is respected by almost every major player in banditry, having seen and (mostly) aided the major actors’ rise to infamy. Rekeb is particularly close to both Halilu and Turji, as he would later admit to “training Halilu who trained Turji”.
That visit was in February, last year, and though it was not a safe mission to carry out either, the situation was much less lethal than now as there was no full scale military operation like what was being reported in late 2021.
The bandits, especially those in Sububu, led by Halilu, were by then living “in peace” with residents of the surrounding communities under an arrangement of mutual protection from external aggression. This peace deal was arrived at after years of hostilities that nearly emptied the pretty large town of Shinkafi and placed the town conspicuously on the conflict map.
Uprisings around Shinkafi escalated after the state government’s announcement of “containment measures” in early September, which placed ban on weekly markets, sale of petrol in jerry cans, cutting off of telecommunication networks, among other sanctions, targeted at suppressing the activities of the bandits. It was cheery news as the locals and some observers believed the ban would curtail the activities of the dreaded gunmen, especially with a promised revamped military operation in tow. This buoyed residents to begin their own actions, including reviving the Yan Sakai volunteer force, to help in smoking out the bandits and made it impossible for the bandits and other Fulani persons to access the markets and other common services. The bloodthirsty gunmen saw it as a dare and they replied, as usual, with more than reciprocal rage.
The reports out of that area as of the time of this trip painted the place as a war zone. I had imagined a well cordoned area with movement of troops, deployment of artillery and frequent aerial bombardment. One had every reason to think of going into this imagined danger zone as a suicide mission.
I was still lazing in bed around 8am on December 13 when I got the call that would culminate in this trip. A contact, who had played intermediary roles with the bandits in the Northern end of Zamfara, was on the line. He had very important information, he told me. The kingpins operating in that area had met and decided to extend an olive branch to government. They reached the decision after series of meetings among themselves and wanted to make their resolutions public. The short of it: it was an invite to meet with them and convey their message to the wider world.
For starters, bandits are not known to use media or release propaganda videos or pamphlets, and while their heinous acts reverberate through the press, their voices and faces are hardly ever known, and they seem to prefer it that way.
The information from the caller did not come with much surprise. When I visited Gusau at the end of the first week of December, I gathered information about how bandits were making peace offers to communities in what one source said was a move to “behave well to deceive security forces and villagers” in order to turn away government guns for them to have opportunity to freely graze their cattle. The two reported peace deals took place in Dansadau and Dangulbi areas in November. I also learnt that in the northern part, Halilu was in conversation with a government intermediary and was already reaching out to Turji, who had, in early November, turned back a Shinkafi community’s delegation who wanted to bargain for peace.
By Saturday, five days after receiving the call, a three-page letter making a formal offer for ceasefire was in circulation. The letter was in the name of “Muh’d Bello Turji Kachalla Fakai”. I did not find it strange in the light of the information I had. I dialed two contacts and they authenticated it.
I thought the circulation of the letter would make the offer for me to have the face to face encounter no longer necessary. I told the intercessor so.
But when I tried to dodge the journey, my contact reached out to my good friend and fellow researcher on the conflict, Dr Murtala Ahmad Rufa’i, of the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. Dr Rufa’i called to offer a morale booster: “They are likely to kill this man any moment from now, Oga Abdul,” he said from the other end. “It’s important his story is heard and documented. No one interviewed Buharin Daji before his death. If we have opportunity, I think we should get to hear him.” The frontline historian on the conflict had no moment to speak of the inherent dangers. He did not hesitate in indicating interest to go with me should I decide to undertake the journey.
As we drove past the smaller towns on the road from Gusau to Shinkafi, and approached the new town of Kaura Namoda, I was surprised that there was nothing unusual.
It was only when we came to the entry into Kaura Namoda that we met two security personnel, men of the Counter-Terrorism Unit of the police, manning a checkpoint. The Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) team that we passed on our way to Shinkafi in February was at the same spot, by the bend outside Sabon Gari, linking up with the old Kaura Namoda. About 300 metres from them, four personnel of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) stationed a saloon car by a fuel station, another constant feature of the road. We drove through a major police checkpoint near what appeared to be a temporary security base on the way out of the sprawling town. The last of the posts was the one manned by about three immigration officials near the gates of the famous Federal Polytechnic, Kaura Namoda. A few metres from there we veered off left at the V-junction where the road split into the Shinkafi-Sabon Birni-Sokoto and Zurmi-Jibia-Katsina roads. The latter snakes through thickets of forested areas – Jaja and parts of Dumburum forests – and is so infested with gunmen that motorists who follow it do so with their hearts in their mouths. The Katsina State Government had to close it from the Jibia end as part of measures of containing the gunmen and reducing the human losses.
Passing through Dolen Kaura, Kaiwal Lamba and Jangeru we soon arrived at Moriki, the last location with telephone network. It is from Moriki that the most dangerous portion of the road begins. From here, the “Maniya Boys” led by Kabiru (KB) and Dullu operate. The two popularised highway kidnapping in these parts and, along with gunmen from other gangs, had made the stretch from Moriki to Shinkafi a travellers’ nightmare for a long time.
Markedly, in all the endless stretches of fallow farmlands and forests we passed, I did not see a single cow grazing. I made a similar observation during a trip to Jibia, Katsina State, in September. The old man I shared the front seat of the jalopy taxi on the 40-kilometre drive from Katsina city to Magamar Jibia, after a long gaze at the uncultivated stretch of land that was also empty of any livestock, spoke painfully about the “damage done” by banditry on the locals. “No any cattle in sight!” He exclaimed. This issue was to pop up, in another dimension, as I listened to the bandits converse among themselves later during this trip.
About 10 minutes after our arrival in Shinkafi, two motorcyclists arrived at an appointed place to convey us to the rendezvous. These were commercial motorcyclists who are among the regular Hausa residents of the villages that are more or less under the control of the bandits.
There are many of those villages and hamlets from Shinkafi down to Sabon Birni. Most of them had suffered the terror of these gunmen after attempts at resisting them sent the people in anguish and penury. It is the same scenario in all the states affected. Turji would later cite an example of one such villages; Kware, while trying to objectify his violent campaign: “We killed over 100 of them after they razed our settlement. But today people say there is nowhere around that is as prosperous as Kware. They farm and live peacefully.”
The elderly motorcyclist who conveyed me back to Shinkafi that day told me of their own experience. Their village was ransacked repeatedly, and in the absence of protection from security forces, they had to succumb and subject themselves to the bandits. Now the gunmen enter the village unhindered. Sadly, however, villages like this often get the most scars in the event of an operation against the bandits, especially air raids. Often, officials accuse them of harbouring the bandits. Such off-target bombings have happened in places like Sububu in Shinkafi and Gebe in Isa Local Government Area and elsewhere in Niger State.
The two motorcyclists raced eastward through allays of Shinkafi into the outskirts and soon we were by the long stretch of a huge sand deposit. It is what is left of the Bunsuru River which crisscrossed old Sokoto State and fell into Dutsinma in Katsina State via Zurmi. It had for years provided livelihood to farmers and herders in the historically prosperous Fadama riverside communities. It is now no more than a seasonal stream that goes with the rains. Motorcyclists battle through the desert-like sand, mostly pushing their bikes rather than riding them.
Here, we met villagers – mostly old women – trekking towards Shinkafi with small consignments of grains on their heads. They were heading to the market in Shinkafi.
Beyond the dried up river, we snaked through the windy dry bush paths and soon a village was within sight. The other motorcyclist signalled us to stop. I thought we had reached the appointed meeting spot though there was no one within sight. It was our guide who wanted to ease himself. He ran under an African ebony tree to ease off and dashed back to continue the ride.
Having grown up in one of the hamlets adjoining the village, he is well-known here as we stopped on both legs of the journey to greet some old men at different spots, including a man he introduced as his childhood Qur’anic teacher.
When we reached the other end of the small village, we tilted left at its northern fringes towards a hamlet dotted by about four small compounds. The bikes pulled the breaks by one of the bukka – cottage house associated with the Fulani. Three men were sunbathing under the morning sun with two of them weaving raffia ropes. They welcomed us as they greeted warmly with our guide. After the pleasantries, one of them went in and came back with two raffia mats along with two sagged pillows. He spread them against the stalk fence which had formed a shade against the rising sun, and invited us to sit.
Not long after our arrival two men rode in our direction. They parked their motorcycles away from where we sat and walked back. They appeared to be from a nearby place. Soon an old man strolled to the place and exchanged greetings and banters with the men.
The settlement is occupied by Tuaregs, and as a marker of its occupants’ history, it is called Zango, a Hausa name for settlement established by itinerant merchants.
One of the men who arrived on motorcycles earlier poked banters with one of the residents here, a tall dark skinned man in his 50s, fittingly called Black. He touted Black among those who did not want peace, and he said his (Black’s) opposition to Zamfara governor, Bello Matawalle, was because “he asked you to stop stealing”. Black retorted that the other man was a bigger thief. They kept the brickbat for a while. While welcoming us, Black lamented about “lack of peace of mind” in the area and how they and their kids ran at the notice of any jet. Black, I would later understand, is not a “full time” bandit. In fact, my intercessor said he had “not even a Dane gun”. But like generations of Tuaregs in parts of Northern Nigeria, he is a local robber – original bandit – who engages in low scale rustling and theft.
The first reality check of where we indeed were was when we sighted a young man from a distance walking casually with a rifle slung from his shoulder. A few minutes later, two other young men strolled by leisurely, and not long after came back with one of them bearing a gun. I exchanged glances with Dr Rufai in acknowledgment of this reality.
While the chitchat among these men that were with us continued, a herd of cattle – with some bulls carrying jerry cans, mats and other condiments – emerged from the southern part and headed towards the north. One of the men asked whose “dukiya” it was. Dukiya is the Hausa word for wealth. They use the word around here to refer to their cattle.
“It’s Mallam Ila’s,” someone answered.
“Are they relocating?”
“It is obvious. They are on a search for pasture.”
“I can’t see cattle all around here…”
“Yes, this year is bad. There is no pasture. You know people didn’t till the farms here.”
“Are you not the ones who denied them the chance? Now you are paying for it.”
The conversation thread was quite revealing. It showed the interconnection between farmers and herdsmen and how the upstaging of farming settlements affects herder, in this case the bandits themselves. In early December, I had reported how some bandits were striking peace deals with communities which some keen observers said might be connected with the need by the bandits to have villagers allow them graze their cattle since the pasture in the forests had begun to wither.
Soon a convoy of some six motorcycles approached from the southern part and went straight under a big tamarind tree. “It’s Malam Ila,” one of them said, referring to Malam Ila Manawa, a respected bandits’ leader in the area, on account of his age and Islamic learning. A man likely in his mid-40s, Malam Ila had spent years as an itinerant Qur’anic student (almajiri), studying in Zaria and other major cities. Malam Ila would later tell me how his father, a Fulani leader (ardo), was decorated in his turban before he was slaughtered by members of the Yan Sakai. Malam Ila spoke forcefully on avenging the killing of “any Fulani”, justifying the callous shoot-on-sight method of the bandits while on revenge missions.
In a quick succession, other kingpins started arriving, accompanied by their armed guards. Soon there was loud noise from screeching engines and billowing dust in tow, approaching from the eastern side. As the riders galloped through the undiluted terrain, someone said, “That’s Danbokolo!” He arrived surrounded by many young fighters, most of them in military camouflage and other uniforms either taken from killed security men, like one still with a name tag reading “Nicholas”, or illegally acquired through chains of suppliers and collaborators.
Danbokolo is a lanky young Fulani man about the age of Turji or slightly younger. He wobbled as he walked, indicative of his fabled pentazocine addiction. He wore a thick green turban which revealed only his sunken eyes and mostly sat still scanning the surrounding while toying with a lighter against the faded machine gun he held. We were, however, to see him bare when we chanced upon him performing ablution at the end of the meeting.
When they wanted to make a selection for persons to face the camera during the interview, someone cheerfully said of Danbokolo, “You’re Turji’s deputy!” It was not farfetched. Some actually say Danbokolo was more dreadful and has more arms and men than Turji. Seeing the bond between the two, we asked Turji if it was true that the burning of the 25 travellers between Sabon Birni and Isa was actually a response to the military bombardment in Gebe which claimed the lives of Danbokolo’s parents and other members of his family. He denied link between the two incidents and swore that he was not responsible for the attack.
Turji, however, admitted glibly that it was a response to what was done to his folks around the area around the time.
With the increase in number of attendees it was advised that we all moved under a big neem tree east of the compound. More mats were spread out and soon it was an atmosphere of conviviality as the gunmen exchanged greetings and banters.
I was by this time growing increasingly nervous with my eyes almost permanently up in the sky in case of any strange movement. However, not even a bird could be sighted in the bright blue sky. It was, however, no assurance that all was well.
“Are you sure we’ve not spread out (too much)?” The bandit who was earlier bantering with Black said as he arrived at the neem tree. He used the word “shanya”, the Hausa word for spreading out things like farm produce or wet clothes in the sun.
“You’re right! Before this bastard came…,” someone retorted with reference to a military jet.
“That’s correct!” There was a chorus. I felt relieved as we prepared to get back to the nearby village and have the proceeding under a large tamarind tree adjoining the village’s decently built mosque.
I was not the only one who was relieved, evidently. The bandits have a special dread for airstrikes, because though the strikes have not been consistent, any successful mission means massive loss. Though he had not lost many fighters to the jets (he told me he lost only one person to the airstrikes–this person is probably the same referred to by a hostage released by Turji recently who told newsmen that one gunman was fatally wounded by an aerial bomb), Turji escaped a bomb dropped moments after he had left his house. He was shaken by that episode and it, perhaps, helped drove the cry from some of the more elderly bandits and local leaders for Turji to reconsider his naughty way and seek peace to save them from endless dread and burials.
Only a few days before our trip, villagers where killed through airstrikes as they went to the bush to fetch firewood, according to a man called Sarkin Zango, a bandit leader who was discussing the episode with his friends on that day. In two airstrikes around this area, I gathered, some 70 people were killed. Elsewhere, however, there had been successful strikes like the ones on the Tagwaye (twin brothers) and members of their gang, and on some fighters loyal to Halilu Sububu, all in December. It was a few weeks after this trip that the bandit, Alhaji Auta, was killed by a similar strike at Birnin Magaji.
On arriving the new venue, I met a teenage boy sitting on a disused cart, wearing full military camouflage and clutching an AK-47. He looked so innocent and oblivious of the import of his situation. He was only one of the many teenagers that I would later discover who made up the majority of the guards who accompanied the leaders to that meeting. Turji would later show me three of them who were probably between 12 and 14 years. This brought to the fore the fear about the demography of the conflict and why its potentialities are scarier than its present. Of course there had been stories of how the bandits get “donation” of children to join their ranks from persons who see them as freedom fighters or those who want to get protection through such gesture. The youthfulness of the gangs makes the crimes more brutal and senseless, and also the movement more mutative. This mutation is illustrative from the story of Yalon Emir, one of the “leaders” paraded by Turji. Yalo inherited his gang from his deceased boss, Emir, who in turn formed his group after the death of his master, Buharin Daji. Yalo is today one of the most vicious bandits in the area.
We had about 40 minutes of recorded interview with Turji, and as he responded to the questions, he switched in words and tone from a dreadful kingpin still on top of his game to a leader under intense pressure to get his people out of the mess he has put them. At one point he went emotional and almost teary as he recalled his own family’s losses to the carnage.
We concluded the interview around the time a muezzin called to prayer and, surprisingly for a notorious gangster, Turji asked for water to perform ablution. I asked him if his alleged order for everyone to pray was not a Boko Haram influence, as alleged, and also sought his response to allegations that he is not a true Muslim. He responded to both questions stoutly.
After the interview they poured out for a photoshoot with Turji collecting a rocket launcher which he slung on his shoulder. “All the youngsters (Yan sha bakwai) who came from far can go now,” he directed after the photos.
At two security agents’ checkpoints just coming out of Tsafe, on our way out of Zamfara the following day, our driver was made to part with some money, as is the unwritten rule.
He turned to me and went on a tirade.
“They don’t care about what you are carrying or who are in the vehicle. They are only after what they get, and if you come here by 4pm you won’t see any of them, and that is when they should actually be here.”
I murmured a few words of consolation as we zoomed towards Funtua.