Abductions have become more indiscriminate across northern Nigeria as local criminal gangs view victims as a source of income, and the villagers — who have been ignored by the government — as disposable.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in response to the recent mass kidnapping of 279 schoolgirls in the country’s Zamfara state, ordered security agents “to shoot any person or persons seen carrying AK-47s in any forest in the country.”
Buhari also directed a ban on “all mining activities in Zamfara State, as well as the imposition of a no-fly zone over the state,” his office said.
Criminal gangs, referred to locally as “bandits,” have increasingly been involved in kidnappings, rapes and other crimes across central and northern Nigeria.
The gangs are often driven by financial motives to kidnap children and others, and hold them for ransom.
A mass abduction in April 2014 by jihadist group Boko Haram saw 276 girls snatched from a secondary school in Chibok in Borno state.
Since the kidnapping, Nigeria’s north has seen a sharp rise in abductions that often target school children.
The mass abductions often draw condemnation of the international community, putting the government under pressure to act.
Buhari on Friday ordered his new security chiefs to restore security in the north before the start of this year’s rainy season in mid-May.
If Buhari’s new directive comes to fruition and eventually succeeds in restoring security in the restive regions, farmers in the north will resume their activities by May.
About a week ago, this author was informed that armed bandits had killed 15 people in Amarawa — a village at the border of Nigeria and Niger — during the early hours of March 1.
Wearing armored vests and helmets for protection, my TV crew and I drove from Zamfara’s capital, Gusau, to Amarawa in Sokoto State.
The journey took us five hours by road. When we arrived, the community members had just finished a burial ceremony.
Our protagonist, Alhaji Dan Juma, was already expecting us to tell his story as he began to relate the attack — during which his son, his brother and other 13 people had been murdered.
“They came around 2:30 a.m. They killed my son and my brother and took [another] brother,” Juma told me in the Hausa language through a translator.
“I pray for the government officials to protect the interest of the people, for God’s sake,” Juma pleaded.
Gunmen killed Juma a day after I spoke with him. They had contacted him demanding ransom money to secure the release of his abducted brother.
They had collected 5 million naira (€11,000, $13,123) from him and then killed him and the brother he was trying to rescue.
Juma’s death is similar to what many Nigerians in the north go through. But such stories barely make it in the news.
The perpetrators are often gangs of bandits taking advantage of inadequate policing and the easy availability of firearms.
The banditry violence, unconnected to the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, began as a farmer-herder conflict in 2011 and intensified between 2017-2018 to include cattle rustling, kidnapping for ransom, sexual violence and killings.
One resident told DW that bandits were taxing farmers in exchange for safety — a sign that the government has lost control.
About 21 million people living in Nigeria’s Zamfara, Kaduna, Niger, Sokoto, Kebbi, and Katsina states are hugely affected.
Heart of the issue
Criminal groups often target people who can pay a large ransom, but they also carry out many more attacks and demand a lower ransom per victim — amounts of around $1000, according to a report by SBM Intel, Nigeria’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform.
Bandits complain that the central and state governments abandoned them in the last 20 years, saying there were limitations on grazing rights.
Herders face excessive taxes when trying to sell their livestock at the market and sometimes encounter extortion or brutality by military and police personnel, according to Shani Shuaibu, a journalist who was recently granted rare access to bandit hideouts in Zamfara state.
“They say their children are not employed and they’re not going to school,” Shuaibu told DW.
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“I asked them: are you guys educated because the government offers employment to graduates. That’s the problem. We are not educated. If we are educated — can we venture into banditry?”
Breaking the cycle
Security expert Rabiu Adamu called for dialogue that will lead to the disarmament of the bandits. In the event that peace talks fail, the former military officer suggested a radical approach. “Use maximum force to fight them. I’m talking of maximum force with modern equipment. That’s the best way to put it,” Adamu told DW.
However, Zamfara’s information commissioner, Sulaiman Tinau Anka, admited the stability of the north will take some time.
“It is not something we can finish within a year. It’s a gradual process. So gradually, all those bandits will be repented and come back to their normal activities.”
The military has launched repeated operations, but all too limited in scale to secure the state’s 40,000 square kilometers.
Ground-attack jets have bombed bandit hideouts, but boots on the ground and a political response were needed, analyst Adam argued.