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The political weaponisation of banditry

Banditry in the North West is as endemic as any contagion in the world. From its first stirrings a few years ago, this menace has…

Banditry in the North West is as endemic as any contagion in the world. From its first stirrings a few years ago, this menace has spread. The bandits, like a virus, have proliferated in numbers, mutating every now and again, adopting new forms of cruelty while the government struggles to find ways to contain them. 

It is sad enough that thousands of people have been killed during these crises. It is worse that many more are going to be killed unless a miracle happens overnight and the government finds a solution. It is sadder that instead of investing time in developing a formula to contain the crisis, care for the victims and ensure there is no repeat of this terrible phase of our national history, politicians are busy weaponising banditry against other politicians.

This dubious strategy has mutated since the government of Obasanjo started using the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to hound political opponents and diminish their shine. It mutated in 2014 when the Jonathan administration announced that it was going to reveal the names of Boko Haram financiers. Weeks dragged to months and no names were revealed. Instead, speculations were whispered, sometimes encouraged by politicians, hinting at certain names. Soon, anyone who seemed like a political threat to the president was being threatened with being linked with Boko Haram. At one point, even General Muhammadu Buhari, as he then was known, would be mentioned as a possible financier of Boko Haram. 

So many allegations not a shred of evidence. The only politician charged for allegedly sponsoring terror was Senator Ali Ndume, who eventually was cleared in a court of law.

Even this Buhari administration toyed with this strategy. The presidency threatened to release a list of Boko Haram sponsors. Years later, that threat hangs like the sword of Damocles over any politician the government decides to hound.

With the pervasive spread of banditry, the political weaponisation of the phenomenon is becoming rampant in the North West. Various politicians in Sokoto, Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states have been accused of sponsoring banditry. None of them has been successfully prosecuted. It is clear that the accusations are now being made as a means to discredit certain politicians.

In December 2020, the ruling APC made comments suggesting that a certain governor in the North West was sponsoring banditry. The accusations were nebulous, without significant substance but seemed to point in the general direction of Gov Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, who at the time happened to be in the opposition PDP. Matawalle denied the accusations, swore he was innocent, promised he knew the real sponsors of Boko Haram and offered up the names of some small traditional rulers and a soldier and his girlfriend. Six months later, Matawalle defected to the APC and the accusations have since shimmered away like magic.

Incidentally, that strategy has been adapted and is constantly deployed in the same Zamfara State where a long list of politicians has been branded sponsors of banditry. The list includes  the state’s deputy governor, former Governor Yari, under whose watch banditry escalated to a phenomenal disaster and a former banker, Dauda Lawal, to add to his long-running battles with the EFCC. 

Recently, Senator Kabiru Marafa, formerly representing Zamfara Central District, who in 2019 raised the alarm over the increasing prevalence of banditry in the North West and called for national intervention, has had to deny being a sponsor of bandits after accusations were carelessly thrown his way.

In a statement by his media office, Marafa blamed “disgruntled All Progressives Congress members” working for some “highly placed political elements whose goal was to diminish his popularity.”

Somewhere, in the murky space between the accusation and the denial, a truth exists. Uncovering it would require some investigation. But what seems obvious in the exchange between accusers and deniers is that apparently, Marafa is nursing some political aspiration for the future. That alone makes him an ideal target for such an accusation. It may be a calculated attempt to sabotage this ambition. It may not. An investigation will reveal the truth.

There are obvious political motivations behind these accusations or the refusal to act on them. If that is the case it is most unfair. 

The fact that Nigerians are being killed by bandits is enough torture. The fact now that politicians have turned something as grievous as banditry into a plaything of the politicians rubbishes the sanctity of the lives that have been lost and the thousands who have been displaced. Not everything is meant to be played with.

While the likes of Marafa, who have been so accused, need to clear their names, it is imperative that if they are innocent, they press charges against those who have become fond of bandying such accusations about. It is not only a personal issue but a matter of national service. Nigerians cannot be distracted by such inanities driven by selfish motivations when there are serious issues of life and death and an existential threat to the country to be addressed.

In the US, making a false emergency call to 911 could result in one to three years in jail. Making such accusations that serve only to advance political interests, distract security agencies from the real target, and toying with the emotions of Nigerians ought to be considered a serious offence. 

What a year 2021 has been!

So 2021 comes to an end. This will be my last column for the year. I know newspapers will do what newspapers do at this time of the year—chronicle the events that made the headlines in 2021. No rocket science guessing what will dominate the list: COVID. More COVID. Bandits. Terrorists. Bandits. Mass kidnappings. COVID again. More unknown gunmen and more terrorists. Politics. Buhari. Tinubu. Circle back to that new variant that sounds like the name of a Marvel movie villain—Omicron.

This is the second year of this column since it debuted on August 14, 2020. This is the chance to appreciate the wonderful readers that have followed this column; have consistently sent feedbacks through emails, text messages and on social media. This has been an interesting period. Some of the feedbacks have been as varied as the topics this column has covered.

One message from Ismail from Kaduna, last week, summed it up for me. “To spend a lot of time writing important articles the way you do is not an easy task. It is something that requires hardcore management and perseverance. I don’t think even a vote of thanks is enough to appreciate this sedulous activity you carry out. Line of Sight has imparted a lot of knowledge to me. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

Messages like this validate the effort one makes in churning out this column every week. And it assuages the insults occasionally hurled at you by people who have strong, irrational responses to what you write. For instance, after one of my constructive criticisms of this government’s handling of the country—and there have been quite a few of that, God knows—some ardent supporter of the president sent an angry tirade which said I must be a deeply frustrated, dangerously impoverished man unhappily married to a cantankerous woman. My God! Some people take it personally like that. No point saying his summation of me is all wrong. And no, this is not personal for me. I place Nigeria and Nigerians ahead of petty, myopic sentiments. I do not apologise for that. But this business of column writing is something, isn’t it?

To all those whose messages of support have seen us through the years, who have followed the column all through, thank you. Thanks also to the Daily Trust Opinion Editor, Malam Yusuf Zango, whose patience is unlimited and whose promise to me of peppered chicken remains unfulfilled.

May the days ahead be better for you all, your loved ones and your country. Let’s do it again next year, God willing.

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