Olu and his wife left their friend’s house in Akure early, having received a warning that bandits had attacked somewhere along the two-hour stretch of their rural highway home and wanting to return home before nightfall. About an hour into the drive through southwestern Nigeria, the couple crossed a police checkpoint where officers and vigilantes milled around the site of the earlier attack.
Driving a few minutes further down the road, some cars ahead of them began to slow down. Looking to see the cause of the change in speed, the couple suddenly saw about 15 young men materializing out of the bush, shooting sporadically into the air and screaming at the motorists.
Olu pulled his car on to the shoulder of the road but kept his engine idling and his windows up. As the shooters approached the cars, Olu whispered to his wife. “darling are you ready?” motioning for her to duck. Then slouching too, he slammed his foot on the accelerator, rammed into the armed lad in front of them and sped into the distance with a rain of pellets from the assault rifles escorting them all the way. It was a daredevil stunt to pull off considering the risks involved in escaping a rain of live bullets, or worst still, the fate that would have befallen them had they been captured after such a daring escape which resulted in the shooters sustaining a casualty.
“I was not just scared, I was terrified”, says Olu. I thought of my little kidsback home and feared for what would become of them, as I couldn’t see how I would raise the millions of naira which these urchins demand as ransom and may still end up killing their captives afterwards. it was a black day for us,” says Olu, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal attack.
Such attacks were alien to the Southwest and several other geopolitical zones in recent past. But over time the perpetrators have been emboldened by their success rates, seeing that security forces are always one step behind the assailants in the rescue missions and the government is favorably disposed to paying the outrageous ransoms demanded by these menace to society.
And so the villains have now come to see it as a lucrative business with mouthwatering returns on investment. Hence the hoodlums have made a booming industry out of the ill-fated trade. This is the origin of the hydra-headed monster known today as banditry, which is sweeping across the longitude and latitude of Nigeria, threatening the corporate existence of our beloved nation with fears and tears, as Nigerians can no longer make the shortest of trips to any part of the country, without disproportionate and undue apprehension for their safety and security.
Olu and his wife narrowly escaped the fate of thousands of Nigerians, who are kidnapped each year along our highways and homes across Africa’s most populous country, by gangs of armed men popularly – almost fondly – known as bandits. The other motorists were not so lucky as Olu later heard that most of them were abducted and taken hostage, with very outrageous ransoms placed on their heads. This is the reality of life in contemporary Nigeria! The million-dollar-question facing us now is, how did we get here?
A combination of explosive population growth, unchecked unemployment, underfunded and unskilled security forces, proliferation of firearms, government’s eager disposition to pay ransoms and so-called well-meaning Nigerians turning into spokespersons of these bandits, have all conspired to make banditry a booming industry and Nigeria’s most serious security threat.
Imagine a situation where a clergyman says “…not all bandits are criminals, they’re only fighting for their share of the national cake…” What national cake? Who is sharing it? Should every aggrieved Nigerian follow the same lead to ask for their share? And to think that we are the giant of Africa! Oh, how are the mighty fallen!
“Sadly the kidnapping industry is thriving across Nigeria,” says Aisha Yesufu, a social Rights activist. “We are in a situation in Nigeria where people who ordinarily would enter normal society and work, do not have any hope for anything. So they go and kidnap people to make money.”
The prevailing economic situation in Nigeria is gloomy! Population density had even overtaken gross domestic product (GDP) long before the pandemic sent Africa’s biggest crude oil producer into recession. Food security is seriously under threat as farmers are being hacked down, butchered and dismembered in their farms across the country, inflation has gone through the roof with the naira on a crash-landing freefall, while unemployment is endemic with over 70% of Nigerians either under-employed or unemployed; two-thirds of the over 200 million population of Nigeria are able-bodied, but jobless and restive young people. Looking at such gloomy statistics which predict a bleak prospect for Nigeria, are we still looking far for the causes of banditry and by extension insecurity in the land?
Let’s face it; ransom payment which range from a few hundred $US dollars for ordinary Nigerians, to huge six digits of hard currencies for high-profile captives, is an attractive incentive to organized crime syndicates and of course young Nigerians who lack any meaningful source of living due to poor handling of the nation’s economy, are impressionable enough to be lured into the enticing webs of these crime syndicates in response to the need for survival, or as an outright onslaught on the corrupt system which has turned its back on the leaders of tomorrow.
“Once word goes out that you can kidnap people and get ransom, why wouldn’t you go and do it?” asks AmakaAnku, African director for Eurasia Group. “Massive ransom payments made to Islamist militants Boko Haram for the return of some of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 helped set the stage,” she adds. “Beyond the lack of economic opportunity,” she says, “the proximate cause of this is this mixture of perverse incentives – it pays well – and a complete incapacity to police”.
The incessant violence across Nigeria and how it has affected the average Nigerian’s everyday life, has severely damaged President Muhammadu Buhari’s national security agenda, by revealing a woefully underfunded and mismanaged Nigerian military and police force.
The banditry crisis is also exposing raw ethnic tensions which are never far from the surface in Nigeria, as the bandits are alleged to be largely of Fulani ethnicity, who are mostly nomadic herdsmen. Violent Communal clashes between farmers and the invading herdsmen, have been rife over the past years, owing to a combination of factors like climate change and bad governance.
This violence gave birth to banditry, which has now snowballed into a thriving hostage-taking kidnapping racket, with the racketeers making audacious demands of our government and the latter not bringing any of these merchants of doom to book, but rather dispensing hard-earned taxpayers’ money in the name of ransom, which ends up as funds for arms purchase by the syndicates.
Such antics of the government has made many to accuse the president, a Fulani man himself, of handling bandits with kid gloves, while going tough on civil protesters. If only the government will just take on banditry head-on, the same way it clamped down on the famous #endsars protesters or better still, proscribe it with the same strength of character with which it is tackling IPOB, Nigerians would soon go to sleep with both eyes closed. But what obtains currently is a case of applying pesticide on some, while using perfumes on others; different strokes for different folks! And so Nigerians continue to groan under the terror of banditry and kidnapping in homes and everywhere, thanks to this double standard by the authorities saddled with the responsibility of protecting the people.
Meanwhile, unlike previous abductions, the wave of kidnappings currently sweeping across Nigeria is not isolated to the Niger Delta as it was some years ago when oil workers were routinely snatched, nor to the north-east where Boko Haram made international headlines in Chibok seven years ago.
Despite the claims of our security forces, two large school abductions have occurred in the past few months, where more than 300 boys from a facility in the President’s home state, Katsina, where whisked out in December 2020, with roughly the same number of girls abducted from a secondary school in neighboring Zamfara in February 2021.
Both groups of children were later returned anyway, with the government insisting that it did not pay any ransom. In any case, the bodies of three of the 23 students abducted from Greenfield University in Kaduna were later found shot dead, according to a statement by local authorities – may their souls rest in peace! Obviously, we now have to take our cases to God in prayers, even as we continue to pay huge taxes for security, only to be intimidated by the same security apparatus which cannot arrest a single bandit in several years, but can identify and fish out civil protesters with pinpoint accuracy – what a paradox!
It is interesting to note that the number of people abducted last year is estimated at nearly 1,100, which is more than double the number kidnapped during the height of Boko Haram’s onslaught in 2014, according to data compiled by security analyst Jose Luengo-Cabrera. “The figures, culled from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, are the closest to official data available and as such should be taken as indicative, but are likely to suffer serious under-reporting, compared with the true total number of abductions,” he says.
Nearly as many people, about 2,690 were killed in the north-west of the country – the heart of the banditry crisis – in 2020 alone, as opposed to Boko Haram’s stronghold Borno state where 3,044 civilians were killed. The violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the north-west.
There are speculations that some bandits in the north-west are working in cahoots with Boko Haram. Whether this is true or not, the bandits are achieving one of the Islamist group’s signature goals, which is the eradication of western education in the northern parts of the country.
Since these criminals started targeting schools, northern governors have shut down hundreds of institutions, which not only provided education to a neglected population, but also acted as important buffers against child marriage. That’s changing now, says Yusuf Anka, a security analyst in Zamfara, a northern state which is equally at the heart of the crisis. Three of his nieces were among 279 schoolgirls kidnapped from Jangebe village in February 2021. They have since been released. “Somebody said that only over his dead body would his child now go to school,” says Anka. “300 children were taken into the forest. Parents say they are not stupid enough to send them back there.”
The banditry crisis is widely thought to have originated from the clashes between farmers and herders over land in northern Nigeria. Nomadic herdsmen were pushed off historic grazing territory – sometimes violently – as it became farmland. The cattlemen in turn encroached on the farmlands – sometimes aggressively – triggering a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat reprisals, that eventually escalated into village massacres and mass kidnappings, as erstwhile cattle rustlers realized there was more money to be made in stealing people instead of cattle.
Banditry has flourished even more in the current economy which has been crippled by two recessions in six years. Kidnapping has mushroomed across the entire Nigerian landscape despite efforts to curb it so far, partly because it has become a viable career option for young Nigerians thrown each year into an economy that cannot create enough jobs to accommodate them, says Zainab Usman, Africa director for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “There is indeed urgency on policymakers and also Nigeria’s development partners to really think about supporting initiatives that increase productivity, that help business grow so they can create new jobs,” she says.
“For now kidnapping remains a career path because there are virtually no consequences for doing it,” says Chris Kwaja, senior lecturer at the Centre for Peace and Security Studies in Yola, a city in the country’s north-east. “You will see instances of groups arrested by security agencies but in all these arrests we haven’t seen prosecutions. So we see how they are emboldened,” says Kwaja, adding that under-resourced security forces rife with corruption, are incapable of addressing the problem.
The president has essentially conceded that the security forces cannot protect the country on their own. President Buhari and his Defense minister have both sought to put some responsibility for security on to the citizens themselves. “Our military may be efficient and well-armed but it needs good efforts for the nation’s defense and the local population must rise to this challenge of the moment,”the president wrote on Twitter in March 2021.
“That’s the reality,” says Anku, “but for the president to be coming out and saying that is nuts, because all you’re doing is saying to people you can’t trust us to protect you, better go get armed, and that’s what’s creating clashes. “Once these guys get armed and then realize they can make some money with these arms, then you’re creating bandits,” she says. “It’s madness.”
After repeated attacks in Osun State, which, along with the five other southwestern states, announced in April that it would ban open grazing, the governors took turns to say they were not evicting nomadic Fulani herdsmen from the region. “This is your home. You’ve lived here, married and done business with us. Nobody is going anywhere,” said Ekiti state governor Kayode Fayemi, according to local media.
But Anku says the announcement of the ban and the showy rounding up of cattlemen who had violated it, was just political theatre. “Just that simple act created a whole series of violent events, which will create even more violent events,” she says. She points to a fight in February between a Yoruba cobbler and a Hausa trader at a market in the southwestern city of Ibadan, that erupted into full-scale ethnic clashes that killed roughly a dozen people, according to Reuters.
The violence came after weeks of escalating tensions, as local Yoruba leaders accused Fulani herdsmen of being violent criminals, calling for their expulsion from the state. Abubakar Umar Girei, national coordinator of the international Fulani organization, Tabital Pulaaku, says many bandits are recruited by criminals because of “their ignorance and their illiteracy”, and that their actions are being used to stigmatize all Fulani, who are “no longer secure to walk out and pursue their legitimate business”.
Girei says that despite insinuations that President Buharifavors Fulanis, things have never been worse for the ethnic group, which he says is perpetually characterized as “killer herdsmen” in the media. “Most of the challenges they are facing are because the president is a Fulani man. That is why communities in the south are attacking Fulanis and it’s unfortunate that the president himself doesn’t see it,” he says. “This government has never taken the issue of the Fulani people seriously.” ‘Treat criminals as criminals’
President Buhari, a former military head of state who won the presidency in 2015 promising to secure the country from Boko Haram, has taken a hard line in recent months – at least rhetorically. The 78-year-old said his government will not negotiate with bandits and by so doing frowned at some of his political allies in northern states who have tried to offer bandit groups amnesty and redress — including vehicles, money and pledges to build clinics and schools for their communities — if only they lay down their arms.
Zamfara is one such state. Anka, the security analyst, says the impulse to negotiate is a good one, because many of the perpetrators have been abandoned by the state. “Dialogue is very important, but in Zamfara we see a dialogue that puts perpetrators above victims,” he says, which creates more incentives for bandits and sows’ resentment.
However, the president, like some of his political allies, has vowed to “treat criminals as criminals”. His office has released a series of statements in which he warns the bandits to cease or to prepare for the wrath of the security forces. He issued one such warning in mid-March 2021, after dozens of students were abducted from a forestry college next to a military academy in Kaduna. “The country will not allow the destruction of the school system,” said Buhari.
But only a few days later, another group of bandits stormed a primary school, again in Kaduna, and made away with three teachers. Again, in March, the president ordered security agents to “shoot any person or persons seen carrying AK-47(s) in any forest in the country” and subsequently banned all mining activities in Zamfara, where the illegal hunt for gold is fueling the crisis.
Zamfara governor, Bello Matawalle, announced that 6,000 troops would be deployed to root out bandit camps in the sprawling, largely ungoverned Rugu Forest. He also banned more than one person riding on a motorcycle, the bandits’ transportation of choice. But many observers pointed out that it is also the main means of transportation for many Nigerians and previous bans have failed.
Aliyu, a 31-year-old unemployed worker from the agrarian Niger state, which has been severely hit by the wave of banditry, says he has been told since his childhood, about the urgent need to tackle youth unemployment. “They’d say, if you don’t arrest unemployment and idleness among the youth, you are sitting on a time-bomb – as far as I’m concerned, that time-bomb is upon us now,” he says. “Old men don’t carry guns and stand on the roadside and kill or kidnap people – it’s young people who do these things. What’s at stake here is the security of the country,” says Aliyu.
As I bring this narrative to a fitting close I want to leave us with a poser – where do we go from here? Which way Nigeria? Shall we continue to bury our heads in lies and deceptions like the proverbial ostrich, which buries its head in sand at the approach of danger hoping the danger will somehow not see it, but getting consumed by such danger? Or shall we tell ourselves the truth that no meaningful national progress can ever be made by encouraging or turning a blind eye when some people to take up arms against defenseless citizens?
While we maul over these, one thing’s for sure; what goes around comes around! A day of reckoning looms not far ahead, because the chickens always come home to roost. Dear Nigeria, do not go to sleep while your roof is on fire! Do not chase rats while your roof is on fire!! It’s only a matter of time before you pay the ultimate price. Remember, the windmills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine!!!