Following the election of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, there has been a renewed wave of banditry in North West and North Central Nigeria with greater ferocity and intensity.
Shortly after inauguration, a former governor of Zamfara state and senator, Ahmed Yerima, revived memory of his past notoriety as Sharia champion when he began a public campaign and lobby for negotiation with the bandits, who had terrorised the North west and North central regions under the past government of former Buhari, which provoked outrage amongst Nigerians.
But events of last week seem to show that he may have been speaking the minds of the Northern elite with Niger state governor, Mohammed Umaru Bago, whose state witnessed the massacre of 36 soldiers around Shirroro area, including six officers by bandits, when they ran into an ambush, and subsequently allegedly shot down Air Force helicopter on a rescue mission of the seven wounded soldiers, joining the chorus.
After a visit to the President, he told State House correspondents that they have decided to explore negotiations option, without excluding military measures if that fails.
It was a double tragedy for the nation and the armed forces, and could have given to the clamour for negotiations with the bandits.
The signals in the last four weeks have shown that the bandits have in reality declared war on Nigeria. There have been killings and orgy of violence against innocent Nigerians in Zamfara, Katsina, Plateau, Nasarawa, Kaduna and Niger states, probably daring the new government and its security agencies.
Last week, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) provided detail on the soldiers killed by bandits in an ambush and the crash of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) MI17 helicopter in Niger State.
The Director, Defence Media Operations, Maj. Gen Edward Buba, while briefing journalists last week Thursday, said that a total of 36 officers and soldiers were involved in the two incidents.
Buba said that three officers and 22 soldiers paid the supreme price in the ambush in Zungeru general area while seven were wounded in action.
He explained that the NAF helicopter was on a mission to evacuate the deceased killed by bandits and the wounded troops when it crashed in the Chukuba area of Shiroro Local Government Area of the state.
He said the crashed helicopter was conveying 14 bodies of the previously killed soldiers and the seven wounded ones as well as the two pilots and two crew members on board.
“It crashed with 14 of the previously killed in action personnel at the ambush, seven of the previously wounded in action personnel at the ambush, two pilots of the helicopter and two crew members.
Prof. Adeagbo Moritiwon, a political scientist said, “the level of insecurity in the country is still dangerously perilous. We are all aware that the rate of wanton killing and kidnapping for ransom by non-state actors has ballooned into an industrial scale. And unfortunately, this development has defied all military solutions so far and made every administration subject of ridicule on account of incapacity to rein in the bandits.”
Within his first two weeks in office, a total of 120 people were mindlessly killed, according to Amnesty International. The recent killings in Mangu, Plateau State, which left about 24 people dead was yet the highpoint of bandits’ war against Nigeria.
Undoubtedly, the never-ending menace in Zamfara State, informed its former governor, Sani Yerima’s visit to the president recently, during which he urged him to open negotiations or dialogue with the bandits for peace to reign.
Armed with AK47 rifles and other sophisticated weapons, bandits routinely attack villages, rape women and girls, steal their livestock and food, and burn down their houses. The bandits send the people letters with demands to pay protection taxes or they will not be allowed to their farm.
These criminals also ambush travellers, to abduct or kill them. Ransom in millions of naira are demanded and paid by families of the victims, just as countless number of communities have been razed for being incapable of paying up levies imposed on them.
Just before the 2023 elections, there was a little respite from the activities of the bandits, a development Prof. Usman Yusuf, former NHIS, attributed to a sustained military action, “but these attacks have now resumed all across the NW and NC, especially in the rural areas. There is an ongoing civil war in Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Kaduna, Niger, Benue, Plateau with many lives lost daily.
He said that “The last government underestimated banditry’s existential threat to the nation. Cries for help from the citizens and their local leaders went largely ignored. Bandits have amassed so much wealth from ransom money that they use in acquiring weapons. They are the law in a lot of the rural areas in the region.
“As former President Buhari fades into the sunset to await the verdict of history and God Almighty, we need to learn from the past and chart a way forward for peace.
“As a member of Sheikh Ahmad Gumi’s peace initiative, I had a front row seat on issues related to banditry. We went deep into the forests of eight northern states (Kaduna, Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Niger, Kogi and Kwara) meeting with bandits and their leaders, Fulani and local community leaders.
“We also met with Traditional rulers, clerics, governors, victims on both sides, academics, heads of security services and some former heads of state. The purpose of our outreach was to listen to all sides and be a vehicle for peace. This initiative has been credited with rescuing many kidnapped victims and still remains a valuable resource for many victims across the nation.
“The former Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) Gen. LEO Irabor (rtd) graciously assembled all the former military service chiefs to hear our (myself, a researcher and a Fulani leader) presentations on our experiences in the forests, and a case to explore non kinetic approach as an option after the March 28, 2022 Abuja to Kaduna train attack by Boko Haram (BH) terrorists that resulted in the cold blooded murder of nine and abduction of 63 passengers..
“Subsequently, a Presidential Committee named the Chief of Defense Staff Action Committee (CDSAC) was set up, which successfully negotiated the release of all the abducted passengers after six months of painstaking negotiations.
“It became clear to me as I got more involved that banditry is a social problem brought about by corruption and bad governance and that all the causes are local and the solutions must be found locally. Unfortunately, things were allowed to fester and degenerate into outright criminality and the civil war seen in many parts of the North.
“Although there is a definite role for the military, there is not going to be a military solution to banditry because conflicts like this have never been won on the battlefield. The increasing militarization of this conflict is only perpetuating more bloodshed. The role of the military is to provide an enabling environment for sincere dialogue that will lead to a lasting peace.
“As Gandhi once said; “Anything you do for me without me is against me”, big plans from Abuja without consulting local stakeholders will never work. Traditional rulers, community leaders, clerics, local youth groups and other important local stakeholders need to be engaged.
“Northern Governors need to address the drivers of insecurity; corruption, bad governance, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, drug abuse and proliferation of weapons.
“The law banning open grazing enacted by 17 southern states and Benue has been counterproductive and needs to be repealed.
“Dialogue is a legitimate tool of warfare that needs to be used wisely in conjunction with military approach for an enduring peace. But not everyone agrees with this view nor have faith in the ability of negotiations to end the issue of banditry.
Only recently, Taoreed Lagbaja, Chief of Army staff (COAS), described the amnesty programme for bandits and terrorists in Zamfara and other states, as a failed programme.
Lagbaja spoke when he hosted Dauda Lawal, governor of Zamfara in Abuja.
The army chief said the programme failed to achieve its purposes in the past, noting that it only allowed criminals to regroup, reorganise and attack citizens.
“We also have the issue of the amnesty programme that has been instituted, and which has failed not only in Zamfara, but so many other states of the north-west,” Lagbaja said. He believed negotiations and amnesty may not work given the antecedent of the bandits.
In Yerima’s negotiations plans , which sources say Tinubu’s administration is under pressure to accept, the country can end the killings and outright outlawry if it comes up with a rehabilitation programme, preceded by a successful negotiation with the bandits. According to him, poverty and ignorance are the twin drivers of banditry.
But Prof. Yakubu Abubakar, a historian, told Business Hallmark that “the ex-governor papered over the most causative factors – the abysmal failure of governance and abuse of power across the states and the centre. Recall that Yerima himself was in office in the state from 1999 to 2007 and his performance was not only mediocre but failed to address the issue of poverty.”
Abubakar lamented the fact that thousands of lives have been needlessly wasted by bandits in all the six geo-political zones. He blamed the Buhari administration for letting the sore to fester, when it could have nipped it in the bud for primordial reasons.
But the Birnin-Gwari Emirate Progressives Union (BEPU) has urged President Bola Tinubu to disregard Ahmad Yerima’s advice of negotiating with bandits. The former governor noted that poverty and ignorance were the drivers of armed banditry
In a statement last Tuesday, Ishaq Kasai, BEPU chairman, said those advocating for dialogue lack the understanding of the structural formation and divergent goals of the armed bandits.
Kasai said negotiating with bandits will not yield positive outcomes, adding that the armed groups view negotiations as a sign of weakness on the side of the government.
“To successfully bring an end to armed banditry business in Nigeria, all bandits’ camps in our various forests must be dislodged as anything short of this will not address or bring a lasting solution to the problem,” the statement reads.
“Engaging in negotiations with armed bandits will never yield significant positive outcomes because past experiences have demonstrated that criminal elements, such as armed bandits, often exploit negotiations as a means to buy time, regroup, and strengthen their positions.
“They view negotiations as a sign of weakness of government, which emboldens them to continue their violent activities.”
Kasai added that dialogues with bandits in the past in some states in the north-west did not yield any positive results.
“In fact, all the communities and governments that entered into such negotiations with the bandits later regretted it,” he said.
“Therefore, we want to draw the attention of Mr President to the fact that going for such negotiation will bring setback and distraction in his administration’s determination to bring lasting solutions to the security situation bedevilling Nigeria.
“Negotiating with the bandits will also send a dangerous message to Nigerians, particularly rural dwellers, signalling the government’s incapacity, weakness, and official acknowledgement of parallel governments within the Nigerian state.”
Also lending his voice to the negotiations discourse, the former Secretary to the Government of Katsina State, SGS, Dr. Mustapha Inuwa, said negotiation with the bandits would be futile as they (bandits) won’t accept the negotiation.
Dr. Inuwa, who doubles as the Chairman, Amnesty Programme to end banditry in the state, said it is impossible for the bandits to leave banditry and embrace negotiation because of how kidnapping has become lucrative.
He maintained that no legitimate work can fetch them the kind of money they make from the banditry activities.
He suggested use of force as the way out while calling for concerted efforts on the part of both security agencies and the respective governors of problem states to bring the bandits down on their kneels.
According to him, “I believe it is very wrong advice for a former governor and senator, especially from a state worst hit by the activities of bandits, to even contemplate negotiating with the bandits despite the atrocities committed by them in these states and Nigeria as a whole.
“We tried from 2017 to 2019 but it didn’t work because they are not sincere. We were compelled to go into that because we realized the security agencies were not doing what they ought to do.
“So we were under serious pressure from the people as they looked up to us to bring the menace to an end. And that was why we settled for the non kinetic approach. It lasted for brief period before it failed.
“It failed because, one, they were not sincere and second, because they are not organized and don’t have common leaders whom, if you negotiate with, can serve as their representatives.
According to data from Nigerian National Tracker about 89,920 people were killed in the first seven years of his administration – from 29 May, 2015 to May 2022.
He called on President Tinubu to arrest this drift to total chaos with the injection of new ideas into Nigeria’s security strategy or template.
Many commentators are of the view that the kidnapping and killings are largely carried out in far-flung rural communities. With large swathes of ungoverned territory, the bandits are always ahead of the military and police.
In view of this reality, many people, such as Prof. Adesina Farounbi, a political scientist, who spoke to Business Hallmark, want the Tinubu administration to look in the direction of Yerima’s recipe in the interest of peace.
But under the current service chiefs there have been sustained successful military actions against the bandits, a development that has put the bandits under pressure.
Only last week, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) said the troops of the Armed Forces of Nigeria had in the last two weeks neutralised 28 terrorists, apprehended 113 and rescued 82 victims in various operations across the country.
The Director, Defence Media Operations, Edward Buba, a major general, said this while briefing journalists on the operations of the military across the country last Thursday in Abuja.
He said the troops also recovered 108 weapons and 564 ammunition comprising 22 AK47 rifles, one PKT gun, six pump action guns, four Dane guns, one fabricated rifle, one Galil ace rifle, one RGP bomb, one RPG tube and 44 hand grenades.
“Also recovered are 322 rounds of 7.62mm special, 63 rounds of 12.7mm ammo, 12 rounds of 5.6mm ammo, 33 AK47 magazines, one empty case of 7.62mm special and 3 empty magazines.