Fulani bandits
Bandits release picture of abducted passengers in Niger

Adebayo Obajemu     |     

Like a scene from a  John Wayne or Clint Eastwood’s violent  Western film where the bullies and violent run the show, killing and kidnapping for ransom, today’s Nigeria is fast becoming a  miasma of dangerous  Western, where violence, kidnappings for money and terror have become the order of the day.

According to intelligence report, about 11 million dollars have been paid in ransom to kidnappers in the country between 2016 and 2020.

A recent survey added that between December 2020 and last week, about 70 millions have been paid in ransom money to kidnappers.

A month ago, a woman was kidnapped on Okene- Kabba road in Kogi State. Before her release her husband who works at Central Bank of Nigeria reportedly coughed out N2million .

Nigeria has been battling with insurgency since 2009

The rising cases of kidnappings and the frequency with which they occur in the North-West at the beginning and now all parts of Nigeria have raised concerns over rising insecurity in the country, fuelling discussions in salons and among the country’s talking heads and intelligentsia that we are heading towards anarchy; an indices of a failed state.

The hotspot of the shady business of kidnappings for ransom has shifted to Niger State where on daily basis commuters and residents of fringe villages who are soft targets are kidnapped.

The kidnap of 27 students of Kagara secondary school in Niger State about three weeks ago is an indication that schools are becoming targets of attacks and kidnapping.

Only last week,  an Army officer and his girlfriend were caught as they were giving guns to bandits. The arrest underlined the widely held belief that the bandits have network in government as severally alleged by the state governor.

Last week,  at the swearing-in of new service chiefs, president Buhari ordered them to end banditry and sundry crimes in five weeks.

Responding on behalf of the new service chiefs, the Chief of Defence Staff says within three months they would end banditry.

On his own, Professor Itse Sagay advised the government to block all cattle routes to the country.

Sheikh Ahmadu Gumi has featured prominently in the bandits saga. The Islamic scholar has claimed to be mediating with the bandits to end the killings and kidnappings for ransom.  But his utterances have brought him under scrutiny. Gumi, who claimed that the bandits are not criminals but aggrieved citizens says the federal government knows where the bandits are. He has also said Christians are the main problem of the bandits.

But the governor of Katsina State has lambasted Gumi for seeking amnesty and compensation for the bandits, instead of focusing on the killings.

On Saturday, bandits stormed Sokoto and killed more than 24 People; meanwhile,  three had earlier been kidnapped for ransom in Mubi, Adamawa State. Abubakar  Danladi, a businessman said he paid the kidnappers N10 million before his wife was released.

Bandits

Since last December 2020, mass kidnappings of girls and boys at boarding schools in northwest Nigeria have been happening more and more frequently — at least once every three weeks.

Penultimate Friday, more than 300 girls were taken from their school in Zamfara state. They were released last week, the governor of the state announced last Tuesday. Though the governor said repentant bandits facilitated the release without ransom, but security sources told this newspaper that huge sums of money running into millions changed hands.

The week before, more than 40 children and adults were abducted from a boarding school in Niger state. They were freed two Saturdays ago.

Oluyemi Ayodele, a post-doctoral security researcher in his chat with Business Hallmark says the crisis in Nigeria’s economy is fueling kidnapping for ransom, adding that  “The victims are now not just the rich, powerful or famous, but also the poor — and increasingly, school children who are rounded up en masse.

The perpetrators are often gangs of bandits, who are taking advantage of a dearth of effective policing and the easy availability of guns.

 

Each kidnapping seems to inspire another.

Governors in the north have come under heavy criticism for being unable to protect their citizens. But when hostages are liberated, the government sometimes capitalizes on the publicity. And corrupt government officials have also been accused of skimming portions of the ransom money, according to some analysts spoken to by this Newspaper.

On the economics of abductions, conducted by SBM Intelligence, a Nigerian intelligence platform. “When you have such large-scale abduction of children, especially defenseless, harmless children, the ransom value will be high because of the international pressure to rescue them,” said Confidence McHarry, a security analyst who worked on the SBM Intelligence report.

“As the abductor, everything is in your favor.”

At least $18 million was paid to kidnappers from June 2011 to March 2020, the report said.

Rather than targeting people who can pay large ransoms, kidnappers in the northwest are carrying out many more attacks and demanding less ransom per victim than before — amounts like $1,000 . But it’s not just criminals who stand to benefit from the surge in kidnappings. Corrupt government officials also profit, according to some experts.

“Kidnapping of schoolchildren for ransom is fast becoming lucrative for criminals and for officials involved in the rescue process as well,” said Ayodele.

The rich and famous in Nigeria have long had to worry about being kidnapped, or having it happen to a loved one.

It happened to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new director-general of the World Trade Organization. Her mother was kidnapped in 2012 even as Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was trying to stamp out corruption as Nigeria’s finance minister. The kidnappers demanded that she resign on television, but when she refused, they settled for a $60,000 ransom.

It happened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the internationally acclaimed author. Her father was kidnapped in 2015, targeted because of his famous daughter. Ms. Adichie paid the ransom money and her father was released.

It happened to Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, whose uncle was snatched in 2016 and later released.

But it was the kidnapping of the 300 schoolgirls from Chibok in 2014 that “provided inspiration for subsequent heists,” according to a recent report, also by SBM Intelligence on the security situation in Niger state, where several of the kidnappings have taken place.

A Nigerian minister admitted that the government paid millions of euros to secure release of Chibok girls.

The Nigerian authorities often deny that they pay ransoms. But schoolchildren and bandits have contradicted their accounts.

Many Nigerians say they wish that the government would protect them from abductions in the first place, rather than paying ransoms it can ill afford or authorizing dangerous and expensive rescues.

The military is spread so thin that the defence minister said that villagers should defend themselves from bandits. He suggested that those who did not were cowards.

“Is it the responsibility of the military alone?” Maj. Gen. Bashir Magashi, the defence minister, asked reporters a few hours after an attack on a school in Kagara on Feb. 17. “It’s the responsibility of everybody to keep alert, and find safety, when necessary.

“But we shouldn’t be cowards,” General Magashi said. “At times, the banditry will come with about three shots of ammunition.

When they fire shots, everybody runs. In our younger days, we’d stand to fight any aggression coming to us. I don’t know why people are running away from minor things like that.”

Beyond the hoopla of crime, there have been growing conspiracy theories that rising action of kidnappings may have been fuelled by behind- the- scene hands tucked in governmental circles, among politicians and the country’s security architecture who supply sophisticated guns to the bandits and rake in millions from the crime, which Mike Ejiofor, a former director of State Security  Service,  SSS, called “organised crime”. The arrest of an Army officer in Zamfara State supplying guns to bandits buttresses this viewpoint.

Governor Matawalle of Zamfara State– the most affected by violence and kidnappings of all the states in the country– last week said he had intelligence report that some highly influential people are behind the banditry, saying these sets of people provide the sophisticated arms being used by the bandits.

He threatened to expose them. He was not the first to raise alarm about possible complexity of the crime.

Dr. Obadiah Malafia, former director of the Central of Nigeria last year alleged that he had intelligence information that some highly placed people are behind killings in Southern Kaduna and the wave of kidnappings across the North-Central.

There have been responses in form of protests from the people most affected by the kidnapping for ransom and incessant killings. These protests have taken place in parts of the North-West, including  Katsina,  the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Fulani herder

The horror and horrendous scale of Boko Haram’s insurgency in northeastern Nigeria have long been clear.

“This has posed serious security challenge to the country. But the government has not done enough.

But it took the abduction last month of more than 340 schoolboys for many people – even within Nigeria – to appreciate just how bad the insecurity has become in the country’s neglected northwest”, Professor  Muhammad  Hussein, a sociologist at the Ahmadu Bello University told Business Hallmark.

The abductors were said to have pulled up on motorbikes at the all-boys secondary school in Kankara, in Katsina State, spent an hour rounding up the students who didn’t manage to bolt, and then marched them into Rugu forest in neighbouring Zamfara State. In a well publicised video message, the kidnappers said they were Boko Haram, a claim endorsed by the jihadist group.

But that connection was quickly debunked. The group was identified as known “bandits” – one of the scores of armed gangs that have killed, raped, and plundered for money across the northwest, forcing more than 200,000 people from their homes.

“What the media report on a daily basis is just a small fraction of kidnapping incidences where huge sums of money exchanged hands before the kidnapped victims are released. The government will never disclose it paid ransom. Even when security operatives are abducted the government pays to get them released”, a highly placed security top-notch who did not want his name in print told BH.

The abducted schoolboys went through six-day ordeal before they were released allegedly after discreet negotiations and ransom payment.

Though the government insisted no ransom was paid. But the raid underlined the “utter vulnerability of people to the bandits, who can do whatever they want”, Katsina- based analyst Ibrahim Ringim told Business Hallmark

At the heart of the rot of banditry in Nigeria’s northwest is lawlessness in Zamfara State, where the governor, Bello Matawalle, has staked his political future on bringing it to an end. The jury is out on whether he will succeed, now that he is pointing fingers at powerful elements among the northern elites as backers of banditry for profit.

Professor Hamisu  Abubakar of  ABU, Zaria, informed this newspaper that  “The Kankara raid was out of the ordinary only because of its scale and audaciousness. But it was no aberration. Across the under-policed northwest, there has been an alarming erosion of government authority that organised crime has exploited.

The crisis in resource-rich but developmentally- starved Zamfara has been at least a decade in the making.”

He said what is happening around the country is a reading of the government’s weakness to contain it when it first began in the north-west.

He said the Fulani herdsmen are behind the kidnappings “but since government treats them with kid gloves it has become a profitable enterprise where in some powerful individuals have franchised it, providing arms for the bandits to carry out their nefarious act of kidnappings.

Many analysts warn the window is rapidly closing to finding a solution.

They say now that the whole country is engulfed by banditry, government must show more commitment to efforts to end it.

If government is not ready to put sentiment apart and tackle this banditry and other causes of insecurity, the country may break up, since non-state actors such as Sunday Igboho have entered into the fray to protect their own people. It may lead to anarchy. That means more criminality, more sexual violence, further recruitment of children, the accelerated spread of insecurity south, and potentially formal links established with the jihadists in the northeast, says Danladi Sani, a researcher on growing insecurity in the north.

Adeola Sanyaolu, a Kaduna -based legal practitioner says: “I’m travelling to Katsina tomorrow. It’s just a two-hour journey, but still you have to fear. Kidnapping can happen at any point at any time.” Continuing he said, “What’s worse, he added, it can be your greedy friends or relatives that sell you out.

Kidnapping is now an established criminal industry not only in Zamfara but all over the country; overtaking cattle rustling – an earlier but riskier money-spinner.

Business Hallmark learnt that criminal gangs inhabit the vast forests that fringe the states of the federation from Zamfara to Osun, – where there is little or no government presence and clandestine paths criss-cross these vast forest reserves.

In case of Zamfara, the forest reserves is dense according to reports.

Bola  Sonoiki, a security analyst told this medium that he was in Zamfara  last week.

He said “If they (bandits) wanted to overrun Gusau town in an hour they could.”

Sources say the military have launched repeated operations, but all too limited in scale to secure the state’s 40,000 square kilometres.

Helicopter gunships and ground- attack jets have strafed and bombed suspected bandit hideouts, but it’s boots on the ground and a political response that is needed, a security analyst told this newspaper.

This newspaper’s findings showed that military [might] alone is not the answer. What will bring success is for the government to resolve the [underlying] issues.”

Start of the trouble In Zamfara, as in the rest of the northwest, the term “bandit” is shorthand for nomadic Fulani pastoralists.

The government must muster political will to solve what has now become the Fulani herdsmen question.

Professor Said Abubakar, an historian told this medium that the Fulani pastoralists’ relations with farmers, especially in northern Nigeria is complex.  “They have complicated shared history with the politically dominant majority Hausa population.

Competition with Hausa farmers has sharpened over the past decade with both the intensification of agriculture and a drying climate. The expansion of farms across stock routes has meant access to both grazing and water have become issues of lethal contention.

Fulani herders are typically accused of ignoring boundaries, and their young men of being quick to violence. But the Fulani have also been victims of land-grabbing by the well-connected, and of extortion by local authorities when it comes to the levying of fines.

Organised Fulani raids began on Hausa villages from around 2014 in an escalation of what had been more localised conflicts. In self-defence, vigilante groups formed with the backing of the state government, but their revenge was often indiscriminate – turning towns into no-go areas and driving some Fulani communities into the forests.

Fulani militia responded with even greater ferocity – and better weaponry – calling on nomadic kin from across the region for assistance. Sweeping into Hausa villages on motorbikes, they typically killed all the men they could find, on the assumption they were all vigilantes.

 

One man’s bandit …

What has resulted from the mayhem are two groups of forest-based armed men who both kill. There are Fulani militia that claim to defend their own, but equally intimidate their communities; and then there are hardcore armed criminals that are predominantly Fulani, but include Hausa – and anyone else attracted to making money.

Just last week,  speaking through his Senior Special Assistant on Media,  Garba Shehu, President Buhari ordered security operatives to shoot anyone bearing AK-47 in the forests.

Frequent acts of violent crime have grown to form a major threat to Nigeria’s national security. These include instances of militancy, insurgency and banditry. Banditry includes cattle rustling, armed robbery and kidnapping for ransom.

Kidnapping has remained the most virulent form of banditry in Nigeria. It has become the most pervasive and intractable violent crime in the country.

Kidnapping can be targeted at individuals or at groups. School children have been kidnapped in groups in various parts of Nigeria. Usually, the prime targets of kidnapping for ransom are those considered to be wealthy enough to pay a fee in exchange for being freed.

Kidnapping is the unlawful detention of a person through the use of force, threats, fraud or enticement. The purpose is an illicit gain, economic or material, in exchange for liberation.

Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of kidnap-for-ransom cases. Other countries high up on the list included Venezuela, Mexico, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Thousands of Nigerians have been kidnapped for ransom and other purposes over the years. Kidnapping has prevailed in spite of measures put in place by the government. The Nigerian police’s anti-kidnapping squad, introduced in the 2000s, has endeavored to stem the menace. But this been to no avail, mainly due to a lack of manpower and poor logistics.

Many analysts who spoke to this newspaper say these efforts have failed because of weak sanctioning and deterrence mechanisms.

“Kidnapping thrives in an environment that condones crime; where criminal opportunism and impunity prevail over and above deterrence. This obviously calls for an urgent review of Nigeria’s current anti-kidnapping approach to make it more effective”, says Dr Ayomide Ojo, a security analyst.

The underlying logic of the kidnapping enterprise is that the victim is worth a ransom value and they or their proxy have the capacity to pay.

Each victim has a so-called “kidnap ransom value” which makes them an attractive target. This value is determined by a number of factors. These include the victim’s socio-economic or political status, family or corporate premium on the victim, the type of kidnappers involved, as well as the dynamics of ransom negotiation.

The kidnapping business in Nigeria has been mostly perpetrated by criminal gangs and violent groups pursuing political agendas.

Bandits have often taken to kidnapping for ransom to make money. The escapades of the famous kidnap kingpin, Evans, speak volumes of this pattern of kidnapping. Evans was a multimillionaire kidnapper who was arrested in Lagos a few years ago. He is currently in detention awaiting trial.

Organized violent groups such as militants and insurgents have also been involved in kidnap for ransom in Nigeria. Current trends have been linked back to the example set by Niger Delta militants who resorted to solo and group abductions as a means of generating funds both for private use and for the cause of a particular group.

Similarly, Boko Haram insurgents have used the proceeds of kidnapping to keep their insurgency afloat. The insurgents engage in single or group kidnapping as a means of generating money to fund their activities.

Huge sums are often paid as ransom by the victims’ families and associates to secure their release.

In addition to militants and insurgents, organized local and transnational criminal syndicates have been involved. This is happening to apocalyptic proportions in North West Nigeria where rural bandits engage regularly in kidnapping in the states of Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi and Sokoto.

 

The cost

Kidnapping has led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives and huge sums of money in Nigeria.

Many of the victims of the crime have been killed in the course of their abduction, custody or release. Many more have been injured. This is in addition to huge amounts of money lost to ransom takers.

For the victims and their families and friends, the consequences are even more frightful.

 

Nigeria should never have got here.

Kidnappers persist because the benefits of their crimes exceed the costs. So the obvious solution is to raise the costs by imposing harsher, surer penalties.

The present penalty for kidnapping ranges from one to 20 years in prison, with the possibility of life imprisonment for extreme cases involving, for instance, murder.