His name suddenly shot into public reckoning when he was unmasked as the kingpin who orchestrated the kidnap of 340 schoolboys from a boarding school in Kankara, Katsina State.
In this exclusive interview with Daily Trust, Auwal Daudawa, originally from Zurmi in Zamfara State, recounted how he picked up arms and why he decided to lay down his arms under an amnesty programme by the Zamfara State Government.
The husband of three insisted that he was not more than 26 years. In about 30 minutes of interview and more time of off the record conversation, Daudawa came across as loquacious, yet tactically evasive.
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For someone born and brought up in a remote hamlet in the suburbs of Zurmi, he came across as smart and even suave for his background.
In his first elaborate interview, the repentant bandit spoke on revealing issues.
DT: Why did you decide to pick up arms and engage in banditry?
It was because of injustice.
DT: What do you mean by injustice?
Daudawa: It was injustice in the sense that you had your own property and was taking care of your family, then officials would be sent to cart away everything.
What would I do? Am I expected to survive on sand?
I had a herd of cattle I inherited from my parents, but security operatives were sent to take them from me and brought here (to Gusau). So I was challenged to sit up too.
DT: Who ordered the confiscation?
Daudawa: It was security agents who did it. I wouldn’t know who sent them, but it was during the last administration in Zamfara State.
Security personnel and ‘yan-sa-kai (vigilantes) were the ones who took away the cattle.
I told them that they should scrutinise the herd, and if they found any cow belonging to another person they should not spare me.
They did not find any stolen cow, but they kept the entire herd.
They were stolen. Tell me, what would I do with my life then?
DT: Which year was this?
Daudawa: It was five years ago.
DT: How many cattle were in the herd?
Daudawa: They should be around 40, with their calves.
Some even belonged to some other persons who gave me to rear for them. I was dependent on Allah and those cattle, but they took away everything.
This was why I sold off my remaining assets and bought a gun to start banditry.
DT: Where did you get your first arm?
Daudawa: I got it around.
DT: How? Where exactly?
Daudawa: I got it around me.
DT: Is it easy to get a gun?
Daudawa: Yes! It is just like you going to buy bread.
DT: Where do these arms come from?
Daudawa: They come from all over. It is just like cars that come from all over the world.
Arms come from all angles: Niger, here in Nigeria; they are everywhere.
DT: After you got the gun, what did you begin with? Did you go into kidnapping or cattle rustling?
Daudawa: I did not engage in either of those at first. We just engaged members of the vigilante in battle.
Whatever village we overran, we carted away whatever there was, which we considered as booty. It was from there that we also began kidnapping.
For us, we did that to avenge the atrocities committed against our people.
People are being killed in the South but we did not hear of retaliation. But here in the North, one tribe is singled out for attack; for what reason?
Why are we not being fairly treated? The way we were being killed and our property stolen, we just decided to take up arms.
We would intercept people on the road and kill anyone we saw with a weapon as a vigilante.
DT: How many villages did you sack?
Daudawa: Only God knows.
DT: Can you estimate how many persons you killed?
Daudawa: I cannot say. When there is an encounter, you cannot determine how many people are killed since ammunition has no control.
DT: How many of those you kidnapped or stole from did you kill?
Daudawa: In all the years I engaged in armed activities I never killed anybody after abduction.
And I never killed anyone just to take over his belongings. Our targets were mainly vigilantes.
DT: How much were you able to collect as ransoms?
Daudawa: I cannot say because this is something that happened over the years.
DT: Where is the money you accumulated?
Daudawa: I have no money. I spent all the money we got in buying arms, which I now surrendered to the government.
DT: In which areas did you operate?
Daudawa: There was nowhere we did not take our battle to till the time God touched my heart and I decided to lay down my arms.
The way Allah touched my heart, I am ready to embrace peace, even if I would lose my life.
Some of the people were crying, thinking I would lose my life, but I told them to submit to the will of Allah.
In fact, I prefer that God take my life at this time. I thank God, even if I die today.
If I were to be asked to run or be gunned down now, I swear by God that I won’t go. I cannot run away.
God has shown me the way and I have repented. And I did not do it because of anything. I don’t want a dime from anybody.
What I only desire is forgiveness.
DT: Are you in contact with your ilk still in the forests?
Daudawa: I am in touch with many of them. Some of them are looking forward to coming out the way I did if they see how I end up.
Some who didn’t hear from me began to foment trouble, but I told them not to do any of that.
They should not bother, whatever happens to me. My intention is to also show them the way to lay down their arms for all of us to have this amnesty.
This is the advice I have been giving my brothers in the forests, and a lot of them are giving me positive feedback.
DT: What earned you public attention was the abduction of schoolboys in Kankara, Katsina State. Why did you abduct those boys?
Daudawa: I did that to demonstrate that I had the capacity to do it and I was not afraid of anybody other than Allah.
It was for the government and the whole world to know that we could do it but were not interested in something like that.
We were also conscious of God despite all we were doing. It was even the fear of God that restrained us from doing other things.
DT: How many of you participated in that operation?
Daudawa: It was done by the people in my gang. I cannot precisely give you the number because we were many.
It was basically my team and a few of my good friends that came together to do it.
We took a vow to carry out the operation; it was like a suicide mission. We were ready to lose our lives, but were determined to get to the place.
After the abduction, you could see that I was not difficult to come around during talks because I did not do it because of money.
If it were for money I would not have released them, even for N2 trillion.
DT: You mean you did not get ransom?
Daudawa: What was given to me? The whole world knows that if I was given money it would be known; if I was not given, it would also be known. It cannot be hidden.
DT: But some people say you got a ransom but were asked not to talk about it.
Daudawa: They are liars. There is nothing you can give me as ransom for over 300 persons.
How much would that be? Let them tell me how much they gave me.
Those who claimed they gave me money should come out and tell the world how much it was.
Liars should continue spreading the lies; we will all go before God who knows everything.
DT: Why did you release the boys?
Daudawa: It was because I wanted peace. I did that to draw attention to the mass killing of our people, which I wanted to stop.
When I was contacted by Ardo Kiriwai on the issue, I did not hesitate because he is a brother we respect a lot.
Whatever he begs of me, even if I don’t like it, inasmuch as I can make it happen or influence it, I will make sure it is done.
Another reason for releasing them was also the justice and fairness of Governor Bello Matawalle.
If not because he is a fair-minded person, by Allah, I wouldn’t have released them. I have never done that kind of mass abduction in Zamfara.
I did that in Katsina because the governor came out to say he would not dialogue again with our people.
So since they said they were not interested in any peace deal and were sending military jets to torment our people and destroy what we had, we decided to take the battle to them. Trouble was a pastime for us.
DT: At the time of the abduction, a video recording emerged, showing that the boys were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Was it a collaborative operation?
Daudawa: It is a lie! I had no relationship whatsoever with Boko Haram, and I have never sent out any video of my operation to the media.
I am from Zamfara. All my parents are here. I have never been to any place, but suddenly, lies were manufactured and circulated, linking me with Boko Haram.
DT: You mean you didn’t know how they came about the video?
Daudawa: I don’t know how it got to them. It was made up; even you (journalists) do it.
DT: Could it be that some of your boys did it without your knowledge?
Daudawa: How could my boys have links with Boko Haram members without me knowing about it? It is impossible.
DT: But didn’t you investigate when you saw the video to find out how it leaked out?
Daudawa: What would I investigate since I knew it was impossible and a lie?
What I know is that I was the one who took the boys and they were with me, so whatever anybody did was stupid and inconsequential.
DT: Were the boys you saw in the Boko Haram video the students you kidnapped from the school?
Daudawa: I cannot say, because none of them was my child.
All I know is that after we herded them off, I attached them with some of my people to look after them.
I am also sure that nobody could have entered that place and began to take pictures without seeking my consent.
DT: How did the video go out then?
Daudawa: Only God knows. If I knew, I would have told you the truth.
DT: How is life in the forest?
Daudawa: Perhaps the only difference between life here and the forest is that here you bath in a roofed bathroom and don’t feel the breeze.
Other than that, I also enjoy anything a person living in the town enjoys.
DT: Like what?
Daudawa: Everything. Anything money can buy.
There is nothing you can buy in the city that I cannot get in the forest if I desire it.
DT: You spoke about peace deal, but there are allegations that your people routinely jettison peace pacts by launching attacks. Why is it so?
Daudawa: That is about individuals. In everything there are individual differences.
Not everyone is fair-minded. Anyone you see going back to launch attacks after peace pacts was not whole-hearted from the outset.
There are many other persons who have accepted peace and are living their normal lives.
Whoever went back did not repent sincerely for the sake of Allah.
DT: Some people argue that there should be no amnesty for people like you after you have spent years terrorising and killing other people.
Daudawa: That is between us and Allah, who accepts the repentance of anybody.
It is when we get to the Hereafter that we would know if He has forgiven us, but we have repented from this work.
Whoever repents sincerely, Allah sees it, and whoever is not sincere too.
But you know there is also our burden on other people, the sins of killing our own relatives.
Our destiny is in the hands of God. Since He has decided to change the course of our lives, we are ready to leave this world.
DT: Would you be willing to submit yourself to justice if there is a decision to punish you for what you did?
Daudawa: Whatever it is, I am ready. If I am told now that I would be killed and burnt, by God, I will not move an inch since I have decided to change for the sake of Allah.
Even if I were to be skinned, I will not resist in any way.
Remember that I turned myself in; I was not arrested or forcefully brought here.
I brought myself and I was fully aware that I could face death.
Whoever would face a detachment of troops surely knows that death is a strong possibility.
I have repented and submitted myself. I don’t want to look back at all.
If some of us at some point came out to renounce violence and go back and continue their old ways, that is their own choice.
If someone repents but has arms in the bush, you know it cannot be a sincere one.
In my case I carried myself and the arms I had and turned myself in, what should I go back and do? If I do anything Allah sees it.
DT: It is said that bandits get high on substances before committing some of these atrocities. How do some of you in the forests get access to drugs and other intoxicants?
Daudawa: It is Hausa people from major towns around that supply drugs to those of us in the forests.
People shy away from the truth, if not, the cattle rustling attributed to us, we don’t do it alone.
We act in cahoots with Hausa people. Have you ever seen a Fulani man butchering a cow?
Anywhere you see stolen cows, it is the Hausa who brought them out to the towns.
DT: In what ways do drugs aid crimes?
Daudawa: I cannot say because I don’t take drugs
DT: I don’t mean now, in the past…
Daudawa: Even in the past, I was not doing drugs.
I have never taken any drug. I only take hemp. In fact, in our area, all those dealing in hard drugs were killed at a point because we didn’t want them.
About six dealers were killed around Zurmi.
DT: How true is the allegation that there are some foreign Fulani who take part in banditry?
Daudawa: It is not true. We did not work with any foreigner. Whatever happened was by the indigenous Fulani.
There is nowhere we don’t have our people.
Was there any collaboration between some of you and the Fulani who engaged in kidnapping in Zamfara, Kaduna and other neighbouring states?
Anywhere we see our brothers, we have understanding and unity.
We are all into the same thing. It is like governors for various states; in the event one goes astray there could always be someone that can appeal to him.
What did you do with all the ransoms paid to secure the release of your abductees?
Daudawa: We must use the money we had to buy arms to protect our lives and continue fighting.
You can watch part of the interview here.