Tackling banditry beyond governors – Shehu Rekep, bandits’ leader | Dailytrust

Tackling banditry beyond governors – Shehu Rekep, bandits’ leader

Shehu Rekep
Shehu Rekep

Shehu Rekep is among the first set of Fulani youths who took up arms in Zamfara State. For over 20 years, the militant straddles forests linking a number of African countries: Niger, Cameroun, Chad, Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso. He agreed to an interview with our reporter in his current hideout, located at Sububu Forest in Zamfara State, near the border with Niger Republic. In his first media interview, Rekep spoke on a number of issues around the incessant rural banditry and the grievances of his Fulani stock.

When did you take up arms?

It has been long. It was not long after Zamfara was created.

Why did you decide to go into armed banditry? 

The reason is that we have been neglected. This country is rich with natural resources, but we (the Fulani) have not been educated, we are not protected, we get killed, but we are always reported as the aggressors. We are never considered in anything, we only get killed.

A few years ago, there was a move to strike a peace deal with you. Why did it collapse?

There was a peace accord and we stated our grievances and what should be done, but we were abandoned. You asked for 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? Of all the promises made to us, none was fulfilled. What we demanded was to be treated the same way as their children, who are enrolled in schools and given jobs. Hausa, Yoruba and the Fulani should be treated equally.

The president should personally come and preside over the talks. 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. There is no day that someone is not killed in Zamfara, Niger, Kaduna, Sokoto and Katsina. No two days pass without someone getting killed in these places. And there is no tribe that is not affected. Bandits kill, soldiers kill, vigilantes kill too. Anyone you see with a gun kills. People get killed everyday. You may not know, but if I told you the situation of things in this country you will cry.  Even the president will cry.

We are even giving consideration for dialogue under this administration because we thought the president would be the one to put Nigeria back in shape. But we discovered that he could not fix the country from the time he praised Obasanjo, the late Yar’adua and Jonathan. These people are not praiseworthy. It would have been better if he praised Abacha because under him, pastoralists were educated and there was allocation in the budget for nomadic communities. There has not been anything like that since Obasanjo became president.

Rekep (middle) with other members of the gang

 

You mean this neglect began with the return to democracy?

They stopped looking after the Fulani. Their forests and grazing areas were taken over. You will see one person having as much as 1,000 hectares, just because he is rich.

Now that there are clamours to have dialogue and achieve a lasting peace, what are your conditions for laying down your arms?

Our pastoralists should be employed, just like their children. Our children should also be enrolled in schools so that we become knowledgeable as well. In this country there is oil, gold and so many other natural resources, but we don’t know how they are managed. We know nothing other than spending time under trees. There is no difference between us and the animals we herd.

We are also 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.

Some of the people you see here have spent up to 10 years away from their homes. They have been in the forests with guns. You said you had made peace with them but left them in the bush with guns. What do you expect from them?

Are there some of your people who have gone to school and possess the qualifications needed for the government jobs you are talking about?

This whole agitation is caused by lack of education. None of us here is educated. Only in isolated cases do you have someone who would go and settle in another place and go to school. They are very few. Anyone you see that has gone to school, it is possible it was because a minister or someone  important is married to his sister and brought him close. The rest of us in the bushes are not educated. But there is also adult education and other trainings for trade. The law says they should empower the citizens and secure them and their property. None of that happens.

We are not being secured. We don’t have anything to depend on; it is only us and the trees that are here, and the gun we are wielding.

What about your cattle?

What more cattle do we have now? Soldiers and the Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) personnel have carted away all the cattle.

How do you survive in these forests in such situation?

Some of us with two or three cows sell one and bring the money here, which we share and buy some food items. Sometimes, some governors or lawmakers, if our people are disturbing their domains, would send N100,000 or N200,000. That is how it has been.

What would you say to governors in the affected states?

This issue is beyond any governor. There is no way even the president himself would have left this responsibility for governors or any individual if he knew the true situation in the forests and the condition people find themselves as a result that. This problem cannot be solved by a governor; even the president would have to seek help from other countries to tackle the problem.

Just look around; these are people bearing arms and they don’t have anything to do. Many of them have lost their loved ones, including parents.

Should there be a peace deal, would you be able to convince all your people to lay down arms at once? 

How many times were there peace deals? I am among the first set of persons to take up arms in Zamfara.

When was that? 

That was since the regime of Sani Yerima when he proclaimed Shari’a. There are many things he also knows. The proclamation of Shari’a was the beginning of all this. From the time he went and procured a religion and brought it here, we knew it would bring issues. If he hadn’t done that, there would not be Boko Haram today. The way he brought a religion different from what we knew and people practised in the land is the same way another cleric in Maiduguri went and brought something different, for which he was killed.

At that time I questioned him. I raised issues. I was 16 at the time, but I told him. I went to the district head and told him to convey the message to him. He told him but I was shut up. They said I was a heretic who knew nothing; that I was a drinker and a young herder.

Which district was that? 

The district head of Wonaka, Alhaji Kogo Sambo.

One issue people complain about is your people’s random and mass killings in the name of retaliation. Why do you do that? 

Imagine that you had a brother who went to buy something, and without being caught with anything belonging to anybody, he got lynched and killed, would you be happy?

Anyone who got killed had loved ones. And there is no authority in place; this country doesn’t have a government.

No government? 

Yes, there is no government. Anyone who told you there is government authority is just making empty claims. If you have a gun with which you protect yourself, that is just your government.

If the president wants to bring things under control he should assemble all the ethnic nationalities and resolve all issues.

It is said that you invite foreign elements to support your struggle. How true is that? 

That is not true. The police arrest (bandits), so do soldiers. They kill and arrest our people. They should be asked if they had arrested foreigners. There are no foreigners, all of us are indigenous. What you have are cases where someone from Birnin Magaji is relocating to Shinkafi, or someone from Shinkafi moving to Maradun, or an indigene of Maradun operating in Safana, Katsina State.  It is nothing more than that.

We do not invite anyone outside this country. But from this place I can show you routes to Mali or Senegal. I can give you directions to Burkina Faso, Cameroun or Central Africa.

In all these places there are armed pastoralists fighting. Pastoralists everywhere are now wiser. They have seen how their fellow citizens in the cities are running the show while they are there in the forests. There are pastoralists in places like Mali and Burkina Faso engaged in things like this. But we have not escalated our uprising to international collaborations; not that we cannot do it.

We are now in Zamfara, but once you go over there you will enter Touwa in Niger Republic, which will link you up to Mali. There is only one state between us and Mali. As herders, we are widely travelled because of grazing. But we are yet to allow other persons from another country to come in here. All of us here are indigenes; just like the Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Tiv. In the past we all used to inter-marry, it was only recently that we started having problems. They enrolled their children in schools and abandoned us.

At the moment, a leader (ardo) of the Fulani is considered inferior to a village head. The authority for a village head ends in the village, but Sarkin Fulani or ardo takes care of their entire forest. But because he is a Fulani man in the bush, the village head is placed ahead of him.

When Ruga was proposed for herdsmen, some people rose in opposition to the initiative and the president had to backtrack.

There are some people in government who say those of you carrying arms deserve to be killed rather than given amnesty. What is your reaction? 

If they say they want to kill us they should come over. You have seen us with guns and you know that before you take gun from anyone you would have to kill that person, or he kills you. Even if they were to kill some of us, we would also kill some of them.

Are you not scared that the Nigerian military can subdue you?

They cannot! Nigerian soldiers are pampered kids. They don’t know anything. They can’t do anything. Even if the US were to come here to use force, we would just end up scattering off the whole country.

But the military can deploy air power.

Ask the Air Force men; they have engaged us many times but let us be. Many times they would come to support the ground troops, but they would have to leave. It is not effective. For many years they have been sending fighter jets. Ask them what year the Fulani began to sack villages. That was since the Obasanjo era, but they have not achieved anything. Goodluck Jonathan vowed to deal with the Fulani, but he has finished his term and gone. Buhari came, yet they have failed to achieve that.

Yar’adua was a Muslim Hausa man from Katsina, but he went to the South and offered amnesty to Niger Delta militants. Our own insurrection was older than theirs, but he went and struck a deal with them and disregarded us. Because we are in the North where there is no oil, he directed that we should be killed.

The government gives preference to crises in rich places. Maybe because there is no oil in the North we are considered as second rate citizens. Herders are not being considered. We get attacked in the forests.

Any person who is kidnapped and detained in the bush eventually gets released, but Fulani men are detained perpetually in prisons. About 96 per cent of prisoners in Nigeria are herders.

Negotiators reach out to us here, but nobody visits those of us in prisons because they don’t have guns. The same way we think of ourselves here in the forests is the same feeling we have towards our brothers in the prisons. Beyond Zamfara, Katsina or Niger, anywhere we have brothers in detention we think of them and we long to see them some day. If they don’t fix this country, by God’s grace, we will one day take it over.

What gives you the confidence that you can overrun major towns? 

Is it not the military that guard the cities? They don’t come to the forests and they cannot tame us here. They are the ones securing the cities too. They cannot stop us. In fact, if not because we are thoughtful and see them as young people like us and fellow citizens, we would have engaged them anywhere we see them. They cannot tackle us. We would have been killing them.

What message do you have for the president?

He should go round as he did when he was campaigning and sit with all the ethnic groups and bring reconciliation and peace. The country is in difficulty. People are being killed daily under his watch. He is expected to fix this country; and if he cannot do it, there is no one who can fix it. If he cannot fix it, the country will disintegrate as was predicted.

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