Between banditry and terrorism

Banditry may be a subject that appears difficult to define in plain terms, however, the  dictionary.com gives a clear, concise definition of the term as a robber, especially a member of a gang or marauding band.

The Nigerian federal government’s decision to refer to persons and militia groups terrorizing the people of the North West and North Central regions as mere “bandits” is an attempt to downplay the security challenge, making it seem to the public that the militia groups are mere ragtag armed robbers that can be defeated without much thought, and thus, should not be a source of worry to the government and the public.

Adding the incessant clashes between herders and farmers across the country, especially in the two geopolitical zones mentioned earlier, it complicates the problem even further. 

For context, the pastoral conflict that has come to define the instability of the North West, which comprises Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, Jigawa, Kano, and Kebbi, as well as most states in the Middle Belt viz Benue, Plateau, Kwara, Niger, Kogi, and Nasarawa did nor begin today.

The Fulani is a historically nomadic group devoted to cattle rearing and is spread across many West African states stretching as far as Fouta Djallon in Guinea, some parts of Mauritania, and down to Central Africa.

The Fulani population in Nigeria largely inhabits the North West and is always lumped together with the Hausas which dominate the North East as a politically contiguous monolithic entity. In between this seemingly behemothic Hausa-Fulani hegemony, are smaller ethnicities across the Middle Belt that profess Christianity and other animist beliefs.

The Middle Belt region which is a lush, green field of fertile land sits across historical grazing routes that zigzag from the Lake Chad that nomadic herders and pastoralists have always used to feed their cattle.

In recent times, however, due to overgrazing and climate change which has led to the drying up of the Lake Chad, the herders have been forced to look southwards for green pasture, and this has brought them in direct conflict with the overwhelming farming population across the Middle Belt that involves states in the North West and East such as Southern Kaduna, Southern Bauchi, Southern Kebbi, Southern Gombe, Southern Yobe State, and Southern Borno.

Over time, there have been clashes between farmers and herders, with the consternation against the herders leading their cattle into farms where crops are being eaten without compensation. In turn, the herders have accused the farmers of cattle rustling, a crime which they sometimes avenge by setting the offending community ablaze and large settlements on fire.

One such incident occurred on 5 September 2019 when one person was reported killed and many others injured in a violent clash between farmers and herders in Birnin Kudu Local Government Area of Jigawa State.

Seven months earlier, The Jigawa State Police Command had confirmed the death of one person and several others injured in a farmers/herders clash in the Iggi Village area of Birnin Kudu Local Government Area of the state. The Police said the dispute erupted over ownership of the Yabaza forest between Fulani herdsmen and indigenous farmers around Iggi village, which the former claimed to have owned for over 100 years.

When one factors the pastoral conflict into the menace of bandits, it tends to complicate the situation and makes definition really hard.

Between Banditry and Terrorism

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Among the states worse affected by the menace of armed banditry, Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara, Benue, Niger, and Nasarawa stand out. These states share the bulk of violence perpetrated in the region. According to a report titled, ‘Working Document — Fulani Militias’ Terror: Compilation of News (2017-2020) which was released in June 2020, between 2017 and May 2, 2020, Fulani herdsmen conducted 654 attacks, killed 2,539 and kidnapped 253 people in Nigeria. This report does not take into account the number of people killed in attacks attributed to other armed groups that are not herders.

Over the years, the complete breakdown of security in the regions has led to the exploitation of these areas by not just petty criminals and cattle rustlers, but also by well-established jihadists and terrorist groups allied to Boko Haram seeking to escape the war in the North East and gain virgin territories. According to a report by Humangle in July, the Abubakar Shekau led the faction of Boko Haram The Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram, Jama’atu Ahlussunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad,  released a new video and confirmed its link with the armed groups in Niger State that also operate in the Northwest. A month later, another investigation by the media outlet revealed that there were 400 fighters in Niger and Zamfara states by July 2020. In August, the United States alerted the federal government that the Al-Qaeda insurgent group was already penetrating the North-western part of Nigeria. 

The introduction of a much less known armed group, Darul al-Salam to the Nigerian public finally put a face to the violence in Nasarawa state. The Nigerian military-led operations in August that uncovered a rocket making factory in Toto LGA of the state. There are more groups that operate below the radar and are not known, unlike Ansaru which is another splinter faction of Boko Haram.

Away from the Islamic terror groups, other individuals, non-Islamic groups have also exploited the situation and carved out spheres of operation for themselves. Terwase Akwaza, popularly known as Gana was known for terrorizing Guma, Gboko local government areas in Benue, and other adjoining areas until he was killed by the Nigeria Army in September this year. Before Gana, there was Buharin Daji, a notorious bandit who terrorized Zamfara. He was killed by the State Security Service in March 2018. 

To return to the original concept of banditry, the kidnappings that have come to be pervasive in the regions affected have become an everyday occurrence in Katsina and Kaduna states. The problem has also spilled over to the Federal Capital Territory Abuja where residents in the FCT’s outlying towns in area councils such as Bwari, Kuje, and Kubwa have come under increasing attacks by various kidnap groups. Earlier this month, The Nigeria Customs Service asked its officers to stay alert in Abuja as there are Boko Haram terrorist camps in and around the FCT, and are planning to attack some selected targets. The notice stated that their camps were reportedly also set up in Robochi/Gwagwalada forest, Kwaku forest in the Kuje area of Abuja, and Unaisha forest in the Toto Local Government of Nasarawa State.

The importance of this piece is to get the federal and state governments to understand the twin problems plaguing its internal security, and to help academics and the public to properly identify the dynamics of the mounting security crises.