By OBINNA EZUGWU
After months of relative silence, the Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of Jamaatu Nasril Islam, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar lll, let out a desperate call for help last week. The foremost religious and traditional leader of Nigeria’s North, had seen enough in a region practically sinking on account of insecurity, and a country fast approaching its day of reckoning.
“Security situation in Northern Nigeria has assumed a worrisome dimension. It is regrettable that no strong media platform could report this story to the world,” the Sultan lamented on Thursday.
“A few weeks ago, over 76 persons were killed in a community in Sokoto in a day. I was there alongside the governor to commiserate with the affected community. Unfortunately, you didn’t hear these stories in the media because it’s in the north. We have accepted the fact that the north doesn’t have strong media to report the atrocities of these bandits.”
The North, he continued, “is the worst place to be in this country. Because bandits go around in the villages, households, and markets with their AK-47. They stop at the market, buy things, pay and collect change, with their weapons openly displayed. These are facts I know because I am at the centre of it.”
From several accounts, life, for many in Nigeria’s North, has become what 17th Century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes described as the state of nature, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” From the North Central through the swaths of North West and North East, life for millions, is lived in fear because death is always lurking. And for thousands dead, grave is in the belly of vultures.
At the weekend, the Boko Haram, which has waged over a decade long war against the Nigerian state visited farmers at Zabarmari rice fields in Jere Local Government of Borno State, with the cruelty that has characterised its campaign for an Islamic state since 2009. At least 43 of them were killed in the most gruesome way, their throats skit in an act of violence Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari has described as insane.
On Sunday, the UN resident coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon, said the death toll from the attack could be as high as 110.
“I am outraged and horrified by the gruesome attack against civilians carried out by non-state armed groups in villages near Borno State capital Maiduguri. At least 110 civilians were ruthlessly killed and many others were wounded in this attack,” Mr Kallon said.
“In early afternoon of 28 November, armed men on motorcycles led a brutal attack on civilian men and women who were harvesting their fields in Koshobe and other rural communities in Jere Local Government Area.”
But the incident, sadly, is only one of many. Rabiu Auwal graduated from Bayero University, Kano. A vibrant young man who certainly looked forward to a good life after education. The mounting insecurity in the region, particularly in his home state of Kaduna, had turned him into an emergency activist. Like several of his comrades, he used the #SecureNorth hash tag to call government attention to what has become a growing monster. Last week, he became one among thousands whose lives were snuffed out by the raging bandits. His young life was cut down near Rigasa, in what was one of many daily stories of murderous attacks by armed men christened bandits; an army of criminals who have rendered highways death traps and communities grave yards.
Many in the region say Rabiu is an every Northerner. But if any Southerner has any illusion about the raging monster being a Northen problem, the recent killing of a traditional ruler in Ondo, Oba Israel Adelusi, Olufon of Ifon, and the killing of a Chinese national in Ekiti, as well as sporadic cases of attacks across the region, is a reality check. It’s a country now sitting on a keg of gun powder. But for those is the North, a region now housing two of the most deadly terrorist groups according to Global Terrorism Index (GTI), with bandits threatening to take the trophy from Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen as the most deadly, the full explosion has begun.
Last week, the GTI ranked Nigeria third most terrorised country in the world. It’s a feat is has maintained for a number of years, courtesy of the activities of these terror groups.
Yet, the increasing attacks on farming communities in a region that accounts for the bulk of its food produce represent another big threat in a country that has just entered a second recession in five years, and which now houses the most poor people in the world – nearly half of the estimated 200 million population live below the poverty line – according to World Poverty Clock: food insecurity.
In October, composite food index rose by 17.38 percent compared to 16.66 in September, according to figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Prices of staple food items are rising exponentially and supply has reduced considerably. The times can’t get more desperate.
“State of Emergency should be declared on insecurity in the north immediately. Things are really getting out of hand,” said youth activist and a documentary filmmaker, Bello Shagari “People are being abducted and dying everyday. We can’t go on like this. It is not even tolerable!”
Bello is one of the many voices in the region, crying out for help amid the increasing danger. But theirs are cries that hardly penetrate the hard walls of Aso Rock, where, secured from the reality of death destruction faced by millions, life for the Buhari administration appears to be going on as normal. But there is nothing normal about a country where violent deaths have become daily occurrence, and where hapless villagers are kidnapped for ransom and made to sell off their possessions and borrow to pay or face certain death.
“It’s indisputable that Northern Nigeria is today one of the most dangerous places on earth. While Boko Haram continues its rampage, launching deadly attacks in the northeast literally every day, criminal gangs in the northwest are operating with impunity,” wrote Kano based lawyer and rights activist, Bulama Bukarti in a piece last week.
“Attacks have become so frequent that the massacre of dozens no longer makes the headlines, much less capture the attention of those in authority. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, another incident proves you wrong. The slide into anarchy now seems inevitable. And very few of those who claim to speak for the North seem to care.
“The past fortnight has recorded many different incidents that is, even in this era that seems not to view human life with any sanctity, unique. It started with a report by BBC Hausa that bandits have imposed ‘harvest fees’ of between N300,000 to N900,000 on farmers in some communities of Zamfara State. Those who are unable to pay are prevented from harvesting their crops, which spoil in the bush while they struggle to feed their families. It then emerged that these charges are also imposed by criminal gangs in Katsina, Kaduna and Niger states.
“Farmers in these states were forced to pay at the onset of the season to access and cultivate their farms. Now, their crops are ripe and they’re starving, but they can’t harvest until they incur more debts to settle the same gangs. If this isn’t a sign of a failing country, I don’t know what is.”
Over the past few days and months, hundreds have been killed and even more kidnapped. Last week, Nasarawa State chairman of the All Progressive Congress, Phillip Shekwa, was murdered by bandits in an operation that lasted for about 49 minutes. The killers gained entrance into his bedroom, took him away with his car key before killing him a meter away from his house. The same week, Alhaji Lawal Dako, Peoples Democratic Party chairman in Sabuwa Local Government of Kastina, met his end in the hands of bandits.
On October 20, at least 20 villagers were Tungar Kwana, Talaka Marafa local government in Zamfara State. Before then, on the 12th of the same month, 14 people were killed in Katsina and Niger States. Earlier on the 11th, 12 were killed in Giwa Local Government of Kaduna. Attacks have become a daily occurrence, even as the Sultan insists the killings are under reported.
In May, International Crisis Group in a report titled, ‘Working Document — Fulani Militias’ Terror: Compilation of News (2017-2020),’ said between 2017 and May 2, 2020, Fulani herdsmen alone conducted 654 attacks, killed 2,539 and kidnapped 253 people in the country, mostly in the North Central and Kaduna.
“Nigerians are suffering widespread and systematic terrorist attacks by, mainly, Boko Haram, the ISIL-aligned Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), Fulani militias and Ansaru,” the report had said.
“The Global Terrorist Index 2019 published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, indicates that the primary driver of the increase in terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa was a rise in terrorist activity in Nigeria attributed to Fulani extremists: in 2018, Fulani extremists were responsible for the majority of terror-related deaths in Nigeria (1,158 fatalities), with an increase by 261 and 308 percent respectively from the prior year.”
The group warned that the armed gangs in the North West and Central could be developing links with groups such as Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the North East.
The group said bandits have killed about 8,000 people since 2011 till May, and forced more than 200,000 to flee their homes. The number would have risen exponentially, with attacks and kidnappings now more regular.
Soldiers have regularly raided forests where the armed groups hide. However, the number of soldiers is insufficient given how vast the areas are, and villagers organise themselves into civilian militia. But the effort often lead to revenge attacks. In July, at least 23 soldiers were killed when they were ambushed in Jibia district in Katsina.
A few days ago, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), a Northern sociopolitical group which had over the years been protective of Buhari, issued a communique lamenting the spate of insecurity in the region, while asking the president to rise to the challenge of the present reality.
The forum in a communique signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Emmanuel Yawe after its National Executive Council meeting held in Kaduna, said the call is simply to convey the anger and frustrations of many Northerners who voted President Buhari into power and for him to tackle the worsening insecurity in the north, which they note is getting too late.
The ACF noted “with displeasure that the rising cases of kidnapping, banditry and many other security breaches in the region have become a source of worry to those who voted for a government that they thought will secure their lives and property as spelt out in the 1999 Constitution.”
The forum also faulted the Minister of Police Affairs for saying that the activities of bandits have been degraded in the north, stating that there have been serial killings of more people in the North by bandits contrary to the minister’s statement.
“There have been serial killings of more people in the north by the bandits whom the Minister of Police claimed falsely have been defeated. Even as the Minister was claiming falsely, whether in ignorance or deliberate, victory over bandits, 12 Police Superintendents on official duty from Zamfara to Kano were overpowered by superior tactics and force while driving in a convoy and abducted with a heavy ransom demand on each policeman’s family,” Yawe had said.
“Apart from that the bandits mounted four roadblocks on Kaduna Abuja road whom the police have claimed severally that they have liberated from bandits. News reports by the media speak of many dead and several others taken away by bandits for ransom. Nine students of French at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria on Tuesday educational tour were taken away and a whooping ransom of N270 million placed on their head.
“Three escaped with gunshot wounds. The police are now claiming they have been rescued. Given the level of distrust in our security on security forces, we cannot vouch for what happened. ”
In many villages, the bandits audaciously move around with AK-47 rifles and tax civilians. And while the North West is the new hot-spot of violent attacks, in the North East, over a decade old Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency which has led to the death of about 40,000 and displaced over 3 million, is showing no sign of letting up. The killing of at least 43 farmers at the weekend is a sad reminder. Earlier in the month, the terrorist group killed 12 in a raid near Chibok, the community where the group kidnapped over 250 school girls in 2014.
On October 13, the group killed 15 farmers in Ngwom village, 14 kilometers from Maiduguri, and cut their throats, reports had said. Days earlier, they reportedly killed 10 soldiers in an ambush in Marte, Borno State.
In September, an attack on the convoy of Borno governor, Prof Babagana Zulum, left at least 30 people, including soldiers, dead. Similar attack on a military convoy few days ago led to same outcome. And despite claims to the contrary by the authorities, many say the terror group still holds territories in the region.
“Jakana to Maiduguri is about 40km. ISWAP has effectively been controlling that portion of the highway for many months,” Bukarti tweeted on Friday via, @bulamabukarti. “They stop travelers routinely to rob, kill and abduct as they wish. What’s stopping our security from securing that area?”
Many Years In the Making
Observers say the escalation of insecurity is only a consequence of years of poor leadership; a leadership that has produced millions of uneducated, unskilled and therefore unemployable young men. And an economy that has remained extractive rather than productive.
“Obviously, what is happening is that the chicken has come home to roost,” said Abuja based legal practitioner and analyst, Chidi Eze, “It’s the inevitable consequence of an economy that has relied on oil, and refused to open up itself for production and competition.
“Northern Nigeria for example, is a region with so much potential. You have arable lands that could have been deployed to massive agriculture, which could have absorbed the burgeoning population there. Now, you have a situation where millions of these young people have come of age and simply can’t fit into any organised society.
“They have discovered a goldmine in criminality. I tell you that we are still in the early stages. The ship has since left the harbour. The only way you could have effectively fought the menace is by creating opportunities. But now you can’t create such opportunities and you still have millions of children roaming the streets. Of course, what will they become when they grow up?
“The crude oil that used to be feed us is no longer as useful, and the population is burgeoning. It won’t be just the North. Basically, the entire country will be in trouble sooner or later.”
Indeed, every indices point to troubled times ahead. A 2018 survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicated that the population of out of school children in Nigeria has risen from 10.5 million to 13.2 million, the highest in the world. Most of these children are in Nigeria’s northern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, where Boko Haram insecurities have disrupted academic activities.
Bandits are now increasingly disrupting academic activities in the North West. This can only mean more children out of school, more families falling into poverty in an economy battling the headwinds.
In August, NBS figures showed that the country’s unemployment and underemployment rates as at second quarter of 2020 stood at combined 55.7 percent.
“It’s a no-way-out kind of situation,” Eze said. “It is already bad enough, but can get much worse.”