For half a decade, northwestern Nigeria has been facing serious insecurity, ranging from armed group violence to kidnappings and banditry, which has affected most of the population living in Zamafara, Katsina and Sokoto states. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Maradi, Niger office, as of June last year, the crisis had forced more than 80,000 civilians to flee their communities and find refuge in the Niger Republic (HumAngle.ng, July 17, 2020). Unfortunately, the Nigerian government’s response to the crises in the region has done little to alleviate the security concerns.
Nigeria’s North West region comprises seven states, including Zamafara, Katsina, and Sokoto, as well as Kano, Jigawa, Kaduna, and Kebbi. Endowed with a sizeable landmass of 216,065 square kilometers and a population estimated at approximately 35.8 million people, the region constitutes 25.75 percent of the total population of Nigeria (National Population Commission, 2006 census). The majority of the population are farmers, with others engaged in trade and commerce and animal husbandry.
The recent spate of banditry-related violence began in 2014 with cattle rustling activity, but the matter became worse in early 2016 when the bandits started killing local miners in Zamfara communities. However, the attacks now affect the entire North West region, especially the border area with Niger. In what has become a reoccurring tragedy, not only have thousands been killed, but women have been raped, children have become orphans, villages have been sacked and destroyed, farm produce has been destroyed, property has been stolen, and civilians have been kidnapped for ransom (wanep.org, August 19, 2020).
This trend gradually spread to neighboring states, such as Katsina, Kaduna, Sokoto, and Kebbi in 2019. As a result, these states established a committee headed by Muhammad Abubakar, a former inspector-general of police (nationonlineng.net, July 10, 2019). He estimated that between 2011 and 2019, 4,983 women were widowed, 25,050 children were orphaned, and more than 190,340 people were displaced in Zamfara due to armed banditry. The former Governor of Zamfara state, Abdulaziz Yari, similarly reported that nearly 500 villages and 13,000 hectares of land were destroyed and 2,835 people were killed in his state between 2011 and 2018 (HumAngle.ng, August 2, 2020). The Rugu, Kamara, Kunduma, and Sububu forests in the North West region all have since become strategic areas for banditry groups to carry out their attacks.
Nigerian Government Responses From Military Operations to Dialogue
The Nigerian government has launched multiple military operations in the North West region to curtail the banditry menace from 2019 to the present, including Operation Harbin Kunama and Exercise Sahel Sanity. The military operation Exercise Sahel Sanity, headquartered at the Special Army Super Camp IV in Faskari, Katsina state, led to the killing of 220 bandits and the rescue of 642 kidnapped victims from captivity. The troops also destroyed 197 bandits’ enclaves, killed the notorious armed leader called “Dangote” of the eponymous “Dangote Triangle” in Katsina, and arrested 335 suspected bandits and 326 illegal miners in Kebbi, Kaduna, Niger, Zamfara and Katsina states (This Day, January 12).
In July 2020, Mustapha Inuwa, the Secretary to the Katsina State Government, announced that his state had spent about $73,000 (or 30 million Nigerian nairas) on an amnesty program for repentant bandits and cattle rustlers before it collapsed. Inuwa further stated that the reason for the collapse of the peace deal was the bandits kept reneging on agreements and betraying their promises to the government (Premiumtimes.ng, June 3, 2020; thecable.ng, July 7, 2020).
The Katsina and Zamfara state governments also employed the services of non-state actors, like vigilante groups and Yan Sakai (Security Volunteers), to curtail the conflict. Although they possess knowledgeable insights and understanding of the local conflict, they are not without their negative sides. For example, some of the vigilante members have seized on the opportunity stemming from the conflict to attack personal enemies.
The Rise of Kidnapping for Ransom
Kidnapping for ransom has become a particularly lucrative and attractive business to many in the North West region, especially among the many unemployed youths. Many residents lament how easily the armed banditry groups storm their communities in broad daylight to either rustle cattle or kidnap people. The kidnappers no longer are interested in kidnapping ordinary villagers, however. Rather, they realize that attacking schools and inter-state transportation routes brings in more money. The region, for example, recorded at least six mass kidnappings of school children and university students in the past six months, including:
- In December 2020, there was an attack on Government Science Secondary School students in Kankara, Katsina State, where over 300 students were abducted by a group of armed men on motorcycles. The state government insisted that nothing was paid for the release of the students, but some residents confirmed that $73,000 (30 million Nigerian naira) was released to the bandits (ng, December 12, 2020). The late Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed his fighters in the North West region abducted the students, although the abductors had already contacted the state government on the issue of ransom payment before Shekau’s faction released an exclusive video from the bandits’ camp featuring the boys (Terrorism Monitor, January 15, 2021).
- In January, there was a kidnapping of more than 317 schoolgirls in Jangebe, Zamfara State. This came just a week after a similar kidnapping incident (Daily Trust, January 6).
- On December 19, 2020, two days after the release of the Kankara schoolboys, bandits abducted over 80 Islamic school (Islamiyya) students in Dandume, Katsina State. The children were rescued after a vigilante group and volunteers intercepted them while they were trying to cross the forest (ng, December 20, 2020).
- Armed bandits stormed the Federal College of Forestry Mechanization in Mando, Kaduna State in March 2021 and abducted 39 students. The bandits demanded a $1.2 million (500 million Nigerian nairas) ransom from the Kaduna State government, but after the governor, Nasir El-Rufai, failed to comply, they reached out to parents of the abducted students. The governor declared that no more payments of ransom would be made after the abduction and promised not to negotiate with any armed group (ng, March 15). Three weeks after the abduction the kidnapped students were released in a negotiation facilitated by Shaykh Ahmad Gumi’s dialogue committee with support from former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
- In March 2021, an undisclosed number of primary school students in a village in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna State were abducted. A resident and father of one of the victims revealed that the children were rescued by vigilante groups a few days after the abduction (TVC News, March 15).
- On April 23, students of Greenfield University in Kaduna State were abducted by bandits who demanded a ransom of $1.9 million (800 million Nigerian naira). Five students were killed in captivity while 14 were released after a payment of $438,000 (180 million Nigerian naira) (ng, May 30).
- On June 10, an armed group invaded Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic in Zaria, Kaduna State. One student was killed and eight people, including lecturers and students, were abducted, which caused the school’s administrators to shut down academic activities immediately (Punch, June 11).
- One week after the Nuhu Bamalli abduction, on June 17, another 102 students of Federal Government College in Birnin Yawuri, Kebbi State were abducted. The governor chose not to negotiate with the abductors and one male and one female student were killed, while five others were rescued after the Nigerian forces operating under Hadarin Daji intercepted the abductors. More than 80 armed bandits were reported killed by the troops with support from Nigerian air force and more than 800 rustled cattle were recovered. However, approximately 95 students remained in the custody of the armed bandits in the forest while vigilantes and volunteers mobilized for another rescue mission (The Nation, June 19).
Paradoxes of Paying Bandits
Nigerians are paying ransom to the kidnappers and banditry groups because they have seemingly lost interest in security intermediators whom they sometimes see as collaborators and informants to the armed groups. However, the paying of ransoms is motivating more bandits to join the kidnapping business because it involves millions of dollars and the government has failed to stop the insecurity (Daily Trust, May 24). Some have even accused the government of sponsoring insecurity indirectly by paying ransoms. According to this perspective, a government serious about tackling the issue would not pay any money to criminal armed groups in the form of ransom for kidnappings because it is an offence against citizens that require proactive and prompt security operatives to curb.
Regional banditry in North West Nigeria will be difficult to resolve if the government continues with its current strategy without considering the various factors involved in the conflict. First, explosive population growth and climate change in Nigeria are exacerbating economic anxiety and fomenting lawlessness, especially in communities bordering Niger. Moreover, there is unchecked border crossings between herder tribes, as there is virtually no restriction on movements in these border areas. Anyone in Niger can come to Nigeria, commit any crime, and go back to Niger. Furthermore, corruption plays a significant role as some security agencies collect bribes from Nigeriens and grant them access to Nigeria without a proper investigation.