BY ORJI SUNDAY
LAGOS (TRT WORLD) -- In Zamfara state alone at least 3,000 lives have been lost to banditry in the last five years, a number that's double that of terror-related murders in the country.
On the morning of April 6, the sunlight was low and the cloudy skies glowed intensely above Nigeria's northwestern city of Kaduna. Hussein Suleiman, dressed in a striped shirt, fitted dark trousers and black sneakers with a touch of white, scurried through the crowd gathered at Green Park, near the commercial neighbourhood Ahmadu Bello Way.
Suleiman, a co-convener of the March for Zamfara, in Kaduna state, Nigeria, was leading a protest in which thousands of Nigerians – wearing red and black with inscribed cardboards and banners – were hoping to draw government attention to the escalating banditry going on in the country's northwestern districts.
"We are fed up with the security situation,” Suleiman told TRT World. “We want the government to rethink its present approach. We also want to know why the government is docile."
Although the April 6 protest was short – starting at 10am and ending at 2pm – it was the first of its kind and took place simultaneously in Sokoto, Kaduna, and Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja. They demanded that the government end the killings, kidnapping and abduction which first began as small community-based clashes over land between nomadic herdsmen and farming rural communities in the region in 2012, before eventually morphing into a massive security crisis.
The key issues
Since the Zamfara banditry started in 2012, it has grown. A government official of Zamfara state, the worst-hit state in the affected region, told a local news agency that over 3,000 lives have been lost to the banditry and thousands of travellers and smallholder farmers sacked, abducted or kidnapped in about 500 villages.
Among people kidnapped by the bandits are poor local farmers, who can barely afford the thousands of dollars demanded in ransom by the group, and are summarily killed if their relatives can’t help, their deaths undocumented in the figures related to conflict victims.
Experts warn that the Zamfara banditry might be the next major conflict in Nigeria. Figures compiled from daily and weekly updates from security experts show that in the past few months banditry, which has left 200 dead in just a few weeks, is the deadliest conflict in Nigeria today.
That figure is almost half the 411 civilian deaths connected to Boko Haram attacks in the whole of 2018.
The bandits kill men, burn houses, food items and stored harvest, forcing people out of their villages.
The government of bandits
Two things are clear in the crisis: the bandits live in known hideouts, says Abdulrasheed Bala, a co-convener of the protest in Nigeria's commercial city of Kano, and the government equally lacks the political will to take them on. But what's not clear yet is the impact that the government's special operations are having.
The government - in 2017 - launched Operation Harbbin Kunama I, which marked the first deployment of special forces to curb the crisis. Not much has changed despite the second phase of the operation that followed in 2018. On April 1, 2019, the government launched the third phase of the operations, but hopes are still slim that the security situation will improve.
Bulama Burkati, a human rights lawyer and security analyst, says the bandits rely on ransoms and with time they have grown powerful as they can afford to buy sophisticated weapons and recruit more people.
“It’s all too dangerous because the bandits get millions in ransom from thousands of families of abducted people,” he said.
“That's how criminal gangs grow stronger than even their government. And the bandits are exploiting the situation as though they are the new government in Zamfara.”
Ibrahim Mu'azu, resident of Bakenawa, Gusau, in Zamfara Central, northwest Nigeria, says he has not slept in his house since February 4, when the bandits last attacked his village, killing 13 neighbours.
"The day we buried the 13 people that died in the first attack, the police came but left immediately after the burial. The other day we buried the nine persons that died on the day of the second attack, the police came again and left after the burial. That's all we have seen," says Mu'azu, who farms guinea corn, millet, groundnut, and beans.
Protesters make Demands
“We don’t want much,” says Abdulrasheed Bala, who graduated from Yasar University, Turkey, in 2017. “All we want is for the government to prevent the nation from being consumed in crisis.”
In a country driven by a culture of silence as well as reactive approach to resolving issues, the protest is a significant wake-up call for Nigeria’s new government, decorated with hopes and expectation. But even more, it represents the sort of political setback the government has to avoid amidst a litany of unbowed security challenges.
The protesters say the key to resolving the conflict is with the government, but there is a lack of will.
"The appropriate thing to do is to declare a state of emergency in Zamfara state. This will help the government regain control of the situation, restrict movement, evacuate civilians from affected villages and inject more weapons, funding and personal," says Suleiman.
“The government has all it takes to deal with this small problem,” says Bala. In a space of one month, if the result is not positive, the protest will come up again.
Barely three weeks later, the crisis is getting more attention, resulting in more commitment, plans for a victim fund and extending the new special forces operation to the region. But results are sketchy and it is too early to determine real progress.
Boko Haram Rumours
Nigeria seemed overstretched already with conflicts as a result of the combined threat from a deadly Boko Haram insurgency and the farmer-herder clashes that have killed 35,000 and over 3,600 respectively.
The two conflicts, combined with pockets of communal clashes, have created a vast humanitarian crisis that has displaced some 2.5 million people across the Lake Chad region, 1.8 million of whom are inside Nigeria.
The similarities between the two crises, and even the confirmation that the banditry could have been hijacked by a faction of Boko Haram, are being discussed. For instance, the country’s top defence official Mansur Dan Ali told local media that Boko Haram is “facing serious defeat and are in desperate need to relocate to where they can operate without hindrance.”
The context of the rise of Boko Haram equally aligns with the emergence of the banditry, says Bulama Burkati. When the Boko Haram insurgency started with small community-based violence, it was underestimated. No one, says Burkati, would have known that the whole country would suffer as it is today.
This crisis has borrowed history, context and origin from Boko Haram.
Bala, who is also the co-convener of the protest in Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, says it was similar negligence by the authorities, who thought Boko Haram was “Borno people’s problem alone” that turned a community problem into a countrywide crisis.