Morning, afternoon or night, looming fear hangs around the neck of residents of Kano city, especially those that use commercial tricycles to move around the city or even take a short walk from one place to the other. The harbingers of this fear are mostly teenagers, with a few of them in their early twenties, wielding local but dangerous weapons, mostly knives. Daily Trust takes a look at the issues and reports.
From Bachirawa to Naibawa; Kabuga to Kofar Mata; Zoo Road to Hadejia Road; Sabon Gari to Gwale; Kofar Kudu (where the Emir’s palace is located) to State Road (where the Government House is situated), almost all parts of the metropolis encounter the same problem as the phone snatchers continue to resurface in all nooks and crannies of the city.
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The situation, in the past months, has grown to the level that the snatchers operate in the daytime and invade houses in various communities, a departure from their usual modus operandi of snatching phones on the main roads and in the night.
They have devised a new way of attacking people, which is to block main roads, flyovers and underpass in large numbers to launch their attacks without fear of the victims or any security personnel.
Most of the criminals, who reportedly operate under the influence of drugs, leave their victims with injuries, a situation that has led to a couple of deaths. In the past 12 months, at least five people have died following wounds inflicted on them by these young daredevils.
The situation is the same across many states in the North even though those behind the crime are called different names.
In Kano, the crop of teenagers and young male adults that have constituted themselves into thugs are feared by the residents just like those of neighbouring states like Katsina fear the bandits that terrorise them.
According to data from the state police command, at least 1,220 of these thugs (locally known as Yan Daba) have been arrested in the last eleven months (from February 19 to November 25, 2021).
While not all the arrested thugs are suspected phone snatchers, the majority of them were nabbed for phone snatching and related violent crimes.
Most of them, according to police sources, have been arrested severally and at almost every time, their bails are quickly processed by politicians and community leaders.
Daily Trust Saturday had an exclusive encounter with two of the suspected phone snatchers.
Muhammadu Ahmad, 28, is a resident of Dala area of Kano metropolis, who is currently cooling off in a police net for alleged phone snatching.
His daily activities are smoking marijuana and any other substance that can make him ‘high’, and while under the influence of these substances, robs innocent passers-by in his neighbourhood of their phones and other valuables.
The lanky Ahmad has been in the “business” of phone snatching and sundry crimes for the past 10 years and was once convicted of the crime which led him to spend one year in a correctional facility. But instead of coming out corrected, Ahmad learnt new tricks and became fiercer. Since then, he has snatched so many phones he cannot recollect the exact figure.
Though he claimed he has never killed anyone while trying to dispossess the person of his phone, he admitted that he has inflicted bodily wounds on many of his victims with his dagger.
“Whenever I snatch any phone, I sell it to phone sellers in the market. While some of them (phone sellers) know they are buying stolen phones, the majority of them don’t know. The money is always meagre compared to the real value of the phone, but I don’t care as I just want money to buy marijuana or codeine and also to give my girlfriends,” he said.
“My family doesn’t know about this (phone snatching) but they know that I take drugs and they pray for me to quit. They know I am currently in police net but they don’t come to visit me because they are disappointed in me,” he added.
This disappointment is not unconnected with Ahmad’s decision not to turn a new leaf despite several entreaties and interventions by his parents and other members of his family.
In one instance, he would have returned to prison but for the intervention of his family members. His sister had called the police to arrest him after her phone got missing and she was not wrong as it was uncovered that Ahmad was the one that stole the phone and attempted to sell same to fund his addiction to hard drugs.
“I gave her the phone at the police station. That’s how we settled and I promised them I will never do it again,” he said, regretting that he reneged on the promise like he has done several other times.
He said he is mostly on the mountain top in Dala, an area notorious for drug abuse and criminalities, and it was there he links up with others to rob people either in their homes or on the streets.
“I started smoking when I went to Abuja to stay with my uncle. I have both western and Islamic education. Initially, my father was tired of my behaviour, then he sent me there (Abuja) to live with my uncle. It was my uncle that got me admitted into the school and I used to assist him in his business. That was where I started taking intoxicants.
“But when I returned to Kano, I linked up with my friends on the mountain top (Dala),” he said.
Ahmad narrated that they move from house to house and steal whatever can fetch them money to get more intoxicants but mostly way-lay passers-by and with the aid of weapons like knife and dagger, dispossess them of their phones and in the process inflict wounds on them.
“This is the third time that I have been arrested,” he said, adding that he did not turn a new leaf earlier because “At that time, we were too young with no sense of direction but by God’s grace this would be the last time because now, I know I am a failure to my family and I have tarnished their image.”
Unlike Ahmad, 16-year-old Usman Saidu of Jakara area of Kano metropolis admitted to having been involved in the death of at least three people, albeit in thug-related battles.
The Junior Secondary School dropout said he has attacked and snatched mobile phones from nothing less than 25 people since he started the crime three years ago.
He and his gang operate along Mandawari Road and Jakara axis where they stop passers-by and dispossess them of their phones both during the day and night time.
“We don’t steal money. We are only after the phones because it is not everyone that walks around with money but almost everyone has a mobile phone. Young boys like us are our major targets because you see them with big smartphones.
“Sometimes, we operate in group because if a person sees us in group, he gets more scared and give the phone without any struggle,” he narrated.
Saidu, who said he was once arrested and bailed by his father, said his latest arrest happened just few weeks after his father died.
But before his death, Saidu’s father did not know the full length of the criminalities his son is involved in as the time he had to bail him out was over a fight his son was involved in. He had no idea his 16-year-old son, who had since moved out of the house, could be involved in the killing of three rival gang members.
Like Saidu, like many other teenagers
The young Saidu, like several other teenagers in Kano, got dragged into drug abuse and other criminalities through peer pressure.
“I quit western education in JSS3 when I started smoking. How did I start? I used to follow my friend during or after school hours. We will cross the fence to a place behind our school (GSS Gwale) to smoke, especially during Sallah (prayer) break period in the school. That was how I started.
“I used to see these guys with knives where we smoke; so, I asked them how I could get one and they told me where I could buy. The first time I bought a knife was at Sharada area, in Kano,” he said.
Asked how he transformed from thuggery to phone snatching, Saidu said it was also the same group of friends he smoked with that introduced him to phone snatching.
In Saidu’s gory narration, a weird discovery was the fact that sometimes he stabs his victim without robbing them. He said he sometimes join in stabbing his victim for the fun of it or because he sees his group members doing the same.
Phone snatchers, internet hackers’ unholy alliance
As if losing one’s mobile phone and the trauma of surviving the attack are not bad enough, the phone snatchers have also begun an unholy alliance with Internet hackers to wreak more havoc on their victims.
Findings revealed that phone snatchers now sell the SIM cards from stolen phones to Internet hackers, who in turn gain access into the victims’ bank accounts linked to the SIM cards and steal from their savings.
It was gathered that the hackers gain access into their victims’ account by requesting for the Bank Verification Number (BVN) from the bank through the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) which then allow them to carry out several transactions or use the SIM cards to buy huge airtime from the bank that is linked to the SIM.
Further findings revealed that some of the phone snatchers, who are ‘kind’, sometimes offer to sell the SIM cards to their victims before bolting with the phones.
In local parlance, this transaction is called ‘Swapping’.
How phone snatching became a societal menace
Poverty, unemployment, greed or lack of contentment and lack of severe punishment to these criminals are the major contributing factors to the rise of this menace, experts, religious and community leaders opined.
“Lack of moral upbringing from the practitioners of this act is also one problem. Anybody who is observant of moral values will not engage in this kind of act,” Mujtaba Ibrahim Abubakar Ramadan, the Chief Imam of Kano State Government House, said.
For Sheikh Tijjani Bala Kalarawi, the failure of the government overtime in its responsibility of taking care of the young ones is a causal factor.
Similarly, with recoveries of various drugs and other intoxicants running into hundreds of millions of Naira from arrested thugs and drug dealers, the impact of drug abuse and addiction can also not be overemphasised.
Shehu Muhammad Rabiu, Kano State Commandant, Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN) observed that in most cases, peer pressure is the cause especially when they (youths) are into drinking or smoking.
Victims narrate ordeal
It’s been over 19 months since Hauwa Salisu Ahmad, 30, and her sister Hidaya Salisu Ahmad, 25, encountered the daredevil phone snatchers, but their lives have been altered in a way they never dreamed of.
The attack, which led to the death of their brother, left Hauwa dealing with injuries close to her spinal cord, which has rendered her unable to make certain movements, including standing for prayers.
She recalled that the incident happened along State Road on the 27th day of Ramadan in 2020 when she, Hidaya, their brother and two other female friends were going to the mosque.
“On our way not far from home, two Keke Napeps (commercial tricycle) came passing by. We thought they are also going to the mosque. They stopped and asked us if we were going for prayers. We did not respond and before you know it, they surrounded us and started intimidating us for not responding to their enquiries.
“They asked for our phones but when we refused, they brought out weapons. Honestly, in my life I have never seen weapons like that. They are locally made; I was terrified and fainted. Then, they turned to the male who was escorting us and stabbed him with a long knife.
“When we started shouting and people were about to come to our aid, they went back into their tricycles and left,” she narrated.
Unfortunately for Hauwa and others, those that came in the guise of helping them but were in cahoots with their robbers also bolted with the first crew when they realised people were coming towards their side.
“The boy that was stabbed is now late and it is because of the attack. Since then, I have not prayed standing on my feet,” she said with an emotion-laden voice.
Corroborating her sister’s narration, Hidaya added that their attackers still went ahead to stab Hauwa, who had fainted. “They thought it was a tactic she is playing to cover her phone, they stabbed her also on her hand and collected our belongings,” she said.
It was the following morning that Hauwa and co realised that they were not the only victims that night as the police confirmed to them that they were the 9th set of people attacked same night, most likely by the same gang.
She would later spend the next few months in the hospital as a result of the attack.
“Till date, when I see a stranger coming towards me, I feel destabilised and start shivering. Whenever I see someone bring out his phone on the street or hear of a phone snatching case, that very scene comes back to me.
“My brother that died was my favourite sibling. The issue is beyond comment. He’s a very simple and easy-going person. It really hurts.
“I am just managing. I cannot stand for long or pick up something that’s heavy. I can’t bend at all because the disk has slipped and it’s attached to the spinal cord. Sometimes when the pain starts, there’s one belt I use, they call it Lumba cosset. I use it for support.”
She admitted the attack has affected her work because prior to the incident, she was a teacher but because standing has become a herculean task for her, she has been transferred to become an administrative staff.
She constantly prays that things get better and that God will change the hearts of her attackers and other criminals to do the right thing.
“To the leaders, may God give them the opportunity to eradicate this menace,” she prayed, noting that unemployment, poverty and ignorance are major factors responsible for the menace.
Family members and friends of Abdullahi Bala, a 30-year-old tailor that was stabbed to death by phone snatchers in October, are still ruing how his life was truncated by the daredevil robbers. The same feeling is shared by family members of late Umar Muhammad, a staff of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, who also died as a result of knife wounds he sustained during an attack by phone snatchers last July.
For victims or survivors like Abba Ibrahim Wada, Abdullahi Aliyu Hamza, Saddiqa Rabiu, Abdussamad Ishaq, Zainab Nasir Ahmed, Aisha Abubakar and Zubairu Abubakar, the scars of their experience with the young but dangerous phone snatchers will also take a longer time to heal.
Abba’s triple experience with different phone snatchers in the space of two years is one of the narratives defying the age-long saying of once beaten, twice shy. The third experience was the one that still baffles him the most, he said, narrating how a man he believes to be in his 60s was one of those that attacked him.
“It happened inside Keke Napep when I was coming back from office along Murtala Muhammad way heading to Gwammaja. I hopped into a Napep with one passenger inside so after we have started moving, another passenger, a man that does not look less than 60 years hopped in.
“Immediately we were passing through that long flyover which most of the times you find out the street lights are either off or not working; the old man held my collar tightly, demanding for my phone. I realized that even the other passenger and the Keke driver were all together in the act when the other passenger brought out a long knife while the old man held my collar making it difficult for me to breathe but luckily I was able to push the old man out of the tricycle and then I also jumped out and ran away,” he narrated.
He said whenever he hears story of phone snatching, especially when it leads to death, all his experiences with phone snatchers come rushing to his head and make him very emotional, knowing he could have also been killed or badly injured during his triple experiences.
Like Abba, Abdussamad said he has also had encounter with phone snatchers more than once with the latest happening just two months ago. In his first encounter, he said his phone was snatched the same day he bought it while the Keke Napep driver that carried him was stabbed and his tricycle stolen by the gang of robbers. Both of them said they did not report the case to the police because they saw it as a rampant ordeal in the city.
Abdullahi also said he had had encounter with phone snatchers thrice, however with only one of the times leading to the loss of his phone.
“The first time I was forced to relinquish the phone as they used weapons while the other incidents, I managed to find my safe haven,” he added.
Aisha, a 300 level student of Bayero University Kano, acknowledged that losing her phone to phone snatchers that came inside a Keke Napep few weeks to her exam had negative impact on her performance that semester.
Few days after the phone was stolen, it was tracked and discovered to have been taken to Benue State but she remained grateful that she was not harmed during the ordeal.
What we are doing to curtail criminalities – Police, Govt
The Kano State police commissioner, Samaila S. Dikko, insisted that since he arrived in Kano in February, cases of phone snatching have drastically reduced and he is committed to ensuring its complete eradication.
He said identification and constant raids of criminal hideouts and black spots, robust community policing engagements, sustained Operation Puff Adder, intelligence-led and visibility as well as rapid response to distress calls and public enlightenment and sensitization programmes on radio, television and the social media, are some of the strategies they have employed and that have been yielding results.
He admitted that hard drugs and general drugs abuse majorly fuel criminalities and that it was based on this that the police have continually cracked down on drugs dealers, leading to the arrest of over 120 drug dealers in the last 11 months.
“The most important thing is we try to go to the source of these drugs to make sure we stop it from there. We are doing this by trying to go after the dealers, especially major dealers and we are able to arrest a lot of them and it’s getting minimized quite alright. We’re working with the NDLEA to make sure this thing is brought to the barest minimum,” he added.
In relation to the unholy alliance between phone snatchers and Internet hackers, the police boss said the command has arrested 25 hackers in the past few months and will continue to go hard on all criminal elements.
Abba Anwar, the Chief Press Secretary to the state governor had noted that the state government has been contributing to the fight against crimes in the state, a position established in an earlier interview.
According to him, the government recently installed CCTV cameras at various locations with a control room at the police headquarters to monitor the state.
Anwar had said: “Such crimes are common features of urban cities across the globe. Yet the Kano State Government would not relent. First of all, the government organizes security summits to encourage community policing.
“In order to fight unemployment and substance abuse, which are some of the root causes, in the first tenure, the Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje administration empowered about one million youth, and preparations are on top gear to embark on other empowerment programmes.
“Youth in hundreds have been employed in the state civil service and the government has established a multi-billion skills acquisition centre, where youth will be trained in 24 different types of skills.”
He added that to tackle substance abuse, the government has established a task force on drug abuse and open market drug will soon be banned as the traders will be relocated to the multi-billion-naira Kano Economic City where their activities will be efficiently supervised.
How menace can be better curtailed
While policing a mega-city like Kano is not without its security challenges, experts, religious leaders and residents of the city have suggested a multi-faceted approach to address phone snatching as well as other menaces bedevilling the city.
Mukhtar Nura Bichi, a criminologist at the Bayero University Kano, advised that any society that has many jobless youths roaming the streets, should watch them closely; hence the need for everyone to fully embrace community policing.
For Sheikh Tijjani Bala Kalarawi, “If really we want to eliminate these dubious characters from these children, then the law should be taking its course on them regardless of social position or status.”
He added that “These children should be brought up and guided the right way. They should be educated; they should have a wall they can lean on, not to find them scavenging around.”
Similarly, societal reorientation is paramount to bring an end to this menace, another cleric, Mujtaba Ibrahim Abubakar Ramadan added.
“Phone snatching is a threat to the lives of people every day. Authorities concerned should look into it and do the needful because it is their responsibility which they will account for in the hereafter.
“It is their duty to protect lives and properties of the people under them. This is a serious issue that has created trauma in the minds of many innocent citizens,” he added.
For Kano residents, going forward, the police have one request, “be conscious of your security and report anything abnormal or any suspicious movement, especially of people you don’t know!”
This investigation is supported by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).