Nigeria’s Northwest is gradually becoming another major regional theatre of violence, much like the Northeast where Boko Haram terrorists have wreaked havoc in the past ten years. A problem, which initially appeared as localized disputes between herders and farmers over access to land, has morphed into an intractable crisis posing a major threat to national and regional security. The level of rural banditry escalated between 2014 and 2019 attracting a lot of attention, while assuming increased political undertones in the run-up to the 2019 Nigerian elections.

In Zamfara and parts of neighboring Katsina state in the Northwest, rampaging gangs of armed bandits have engaged in violent acts, attacking, abducting, killing, and robbing villagers and travelers, and engaging in cattle rustling. Although sometimes exaggerated or underestimated by some political actors, casualty figures are quite alarming. The former Governor of Zamfara state, Abdulaziz Yari, is reported to have said that nearly five hundred villages and thirteen thousand hectares of land have been devastated, and two thousand eight hundred and thirty five people killed between 2011 and 2018. It is also estimated that there are at least ten thousand armed bandits and cattle rustlers operating out of eight major camps in Zamfara state. Also, some reports put the number of children orphaned as a result of such attacks at forty four thousand since 2010. In Anka Local Government Area of the state, over sixteen thousand people have been internally displaced. 1“Armed bandits killed 2,385 persons in Zamfara in seven years”, Premium Times, April 2019.

Ungoverned Spaces and Rural Banditry

Zamfara State is mostly surrounded by forests (with little or no government presence) from where bandits launch their attacks on outlying towns, highways, and villages. The Rugu, Kamara, Kunduma, and Sububu forests have become major hideouts for criminals. Worse still, with a fragile state system and waning public confidence in police and state security institutions, the allegiance of defenseless rural communities is gradually shifting toward informal, armed groups and local vigilantes. There are widespread allegations of corruption against state security operatives, police, judges, village heads, and even some vigilante groups.  The public institutions responsible for offering protection and delivering justice are unable to bring bandits to justice due to inadequate resources and widespread extortion. The bandits are so brazen that they notify villages ahead of attacks, and impose illegal tolls on farmers seeking to gain access to their farms. The irony is that despite enormous amounts being invested in military and security operations, the security situation seems to be deteriorating.

Between January and April 2019 a number of operations by the Nigerian Army, such as Operation Harbin Kunama, Operation Diran Mikiya, and Operation Puff Adder, were carried out in the bid to tackle banditry in the Northwest. The Government of Zamfara alone has spent over N17 billion funding military and security operations in the state.2Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, “The Judiciary and Democratization in Nigeria: Prospects and Challenges”, Lecture delivered at the 36th Annual Aminu Kano Memorial Symposium, Aminu Kano Center for Democratic Studies, Mambayya House, April 17, 2019. However, the armed bandits seem to be expanding the scope of their operations beyond Zamfara and into the neighboring states. On April 11, 2019, the Governor of Katsina state, Aminu Bello Masari, spoke of how bandits were taking over parts of the state, killing people and destroying property with impunity.

Competing Narratives

There are competing narratives regarding the causes and nature of the problem of armed banditry in Zamfara and neighboring states. Some view the conflict as one of the effects of climate change, particularly decreasing amounts of rainfall, on the “scarcity” of arable land and pastures. The drop in rainfall over the years translates into the scarcity of water, which in the context of a rapid population growth rate places pressure on land, and fuels intense conflicts between pastoralists and farmers whose livelihoods and survival are based on access to land.

Another school of thought associates the growing insecurity with state failure due to corruption, the collapse of institutions of governance, de-industrialization, growing poverty, and a culture of impunity that pervades state and local governance in Zamfara state. Still on the issue of insecurity, some observers explain the instability in Nigeria’s Northwest in terms of porous borders and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. 3Mohammed J. Kuna and Jibrin Ibrahim Eds., Rural Banditry and Conflicts in Northern Nigeria (Abuja: Center for Democracy and Development, 2015), 11. They argue that arms have found their way into the region from the Maghreb following uprisings in North Africa and countries of the Sahel, including post-Ghaddafi Libya.

Protagonists of a natural resource curse trace the conflict to competition over “gold deposits,” pitching those engaged in illicit gold mining against local communities, as well as certain big-time mine owners believed to have strong links with government. 4Uche Igwe” The tragic goldmine affair in Zamfara”, Pambazuka News, September 10, 2010. Yet, there are those who believe the conflict is spiritual, and the problem facing the region is the result of a “test from God.” 5“Aso Rock chief iman: Banditry, kidnappings are a test from God”, The Cable, May 08, 2019.

Typical of the thriving culture of conspiracy theories in Nigeria, the narrative that is gaining wider currency in both policy and public circles is the view that the escalation of rural banditry is the handiwork of the political opponents of the ruling party, who lost out during the 2015 and 2019 elections. The Nigerian Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Buratai, claims that the government is in possession of strong evidence pointing to certain politicians as those sponsoring rural banditry. Buratai was quoted as saying, “I want to believe and rightly so that with the fallout of the just concluded elections, there are politicians who saw their defeat as a means of revenge, sponsoring these criminal activities and even banditry, clashes between herders and farmers.” 6“We have strong evidence of politicians sponsoring banditry, kidnapping”, Daily Trust, 15 May 2019. While some of the narratives may or may not be true, the responsibility of securing the lives and properties of the citizens remains that of the government.

Non-state Security Actors

The breakdown of authority at the local and state levels has created the enabling environment for the emergence of a complex informal security sector in Zamfara. Competing and rival armed and criminal gangs operate freely in the state in the name of vigilantism. Lacking in security training, the groups are accused of criminal acts ranging from violent robbery, unlawful confiscation of properties of both bandits and their victims, and human rights abuses.

Unless something is urgently done to strengthen the legitimacy and capacity of state institutions and non-state actors, including traditional authorities to address issues of corruption and widespread poverty, the security situation may likely continue to deteriorate. It is also important for the state to address the deep-rooted grievances that drive conflict in the region, as well as other neighboring states. There are reports indicating that armed banditry has crippled the local economies of the Northwest with food production, pastoralism, and animal husbandry dropping by about fifty per cent.

Rural banditry by all accounts is undermining security, peace, and development in Nigeria’s northwest. While the unfolding crisis could be linked to a set of factors, the threat to security in a region already reeling from the effects of a decade-long Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast cannot be over-stated. More in-depth studies are needed to identify and address the roots of the crisis of state legitimacy and governance affecting the region, including the security of its borders—and most importantly, the rights, dignity, and safety of its peoples.





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