•Narrates how fight against bandits snowballed into bloody farmers/herders conflict
•‘Third force’ brutal intervention
•Says Sani Yerima’s seizure of the Fulani land fuelled crisis
•Blames Gov Yari Abubakar for abandoning state to cruel fate
By Ben Agande, Kaduna
As the nation celebrates the 20th anniversary of democracy on Wednesday, May 29, Dr Abubakar Siddique Mohammed, the Director, Centre for Democratic Development Research and Training, Zango Shanu, Zaria, whose centre carried out research on banditry, kidnapping and killings in Zamfara and Katsina states, speaks on the findings.
Four years ago, you warned that unless urgent steps were taken to stop the crisis in Zamfara, the whole country could be consumed. With what is happening now, it seems you were prophetic. We are 20 years into democracy and Nigerians are wondering why insecurity has become such a big issue.
Four years ago when we first did our studies, it was farmer/herders conflict. What I am going to talk to you about is what is happening today in the North-West, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara, which is the epicentre of insecurity in the North. This conflict has been on for more than four years. It started as farmers/herders conflict but it degenerated into something else.
Some years ago, there were armed robberies in the North-West. In the Zamfara area, some Fulani boys were alleged to be the major culprits. In the areas we studied, there were so many ungoverned spaces: No electricity, telecommunication and local governments existed only in name. You could hardly see anybody when you go there. Over a long period of time, traditional leaders and Islamic teachers were the ones dealing with the crisis.
There was no presence of the state. The roads were extremely bad and the people left to their fate. So when the armed robberies persisted, people took it upon themselves to bring about law and order, they formed vigilante groups. The vigilante groups were quite often not trained. So they went beyond their limits whenever they went on operations. In the Dansadau area of Zamfara, they identified some boys, who also happened to be of Fulani stock. They attacked some of them and killed them. They were very brutal. They wanted to stamp out armed robbery in the area. They were the police, the prosecutor and judge. They did not stop in the towns and semi-urban centres. They pursued the Fulani deep into the forest and, in the process, killed so many innocent people. This was the immediate cause of the conflict.
Four years ago, it had already started taking ethnic coloration because those who organised the killings happened to be Hausa and those who were killed were the Fulani. At this point, the Fulani pastoralists started asking, on what basis were they being attacked?
They had nothing to do with armed robbery; they had nothing to do with the theft in the area. They were not in town. The story of killings of the Fulani repeated itself in all the areas we visited. When the attacks on the Fulani became generalised, some of them withdrew, went and reorganised and came back to those localities where they were attacked, identified those who organised the attacks and sought revenge. At that time, it was not generalised. They targeted those who organised the killing of their kinsmen.
Then it became a tit-for-tat. Those in the bush will organise attacks and there will be counter-attacks. It took ethnic dimension. The conflict started escalating. Those pastoralists who withdrew as a result of constant attacks on them organised and came back and they forced the neutral pastoralists, those who were not party to any of the conflicts, those who were not attacked or even if they were attacked remained neutral, to join them in what they called the emancipation of the Fulani by participating directly or contributing to the financing of the struggle.
Those whose kids were of fighting age were forced to donate their kids or provide money. At the height of the conflict, virtually all the rural rich suffered one form of attack or the other. We were not able to establish whether the attacks were carried out only by the Fulani. In all the areas we visited, there were no banks. People kept money at home.
These bandits will break into a man’s house and insist that he gives them all his money. In some cases, they will rape his wife and daughters in his presence. It was a terrible situation.
What was government’s reaction to the worsening security situation?
The government in Zamfara was not serious about the challenge ab initio.
From fighting rural banditry by the vigilantes to the retaliation by the Fulani, the challenge morphed into generalised rural banditry. At this stage, the farmers and pastoralists became victims of a superior force. The pastoralists lost their herds because some other forces had come in and subjugated both the pastoralists and farmers. A third force then emerged which dispossessed the pastoralists of their cows, dispossessed the farmers of their savings which they kept at home and drove them away from their lands. In the areas we studied, virtually all the cattle had been rustled by bandits. From rustling the cattle, they moved to kidnapping. When the crisis degenerated between the bandits and the vigilante groups, it escalated. In one town in Zamfara, the vigilante group there was meeting to discuss how they could deal with the rural banditry. The bandits heard about the meeting, they attacked the town on a market day and killed about 200 people. When we got to the town shortly after, it was like a ghost town. There were no human beings in sight. When these youths lost their cattle, they had nothing to do anymore. But, surprisingly, they started seeing some of their rustled cows with some of the rich people around the area and that is what triggered the kidnappings. They could not get to some of the rich people because they had their own security guards armed with AK 47 rifles or police protection. So what the criminals did was to also acquire AK 47 rifles as a balance of terror. I have not spoken about land. The crisis in Zamfara is multi-dimensional. Some years back, the Zamfara government, under Sani Yerima, decided to drive the Fulani out of their ancestral land to pave the way for big farmers. These were people who had lived there for over five hundred years. Overnight, they were pushed out and their land and the land given out to the rich and many of the Fulani had to relocate to other parts of Nigeria or other parts of Zamfara which, in turn, heightened conflict with farmers. The Fulani were dispossessed, first of land and later of their cattle. Violence was used in both instances. Many of the boys operating around the Abuja-Kaduna highway are from Zamfara.
What was government reaction to your study which was made public four years ago?
We made it known four years ago that this thing will get out of control. We recommended that concerted efforts had to be made to stop the crisis. You cannot solve the problems in Kaduna, Katsina and Sokoto without dealing with the situation in Zamfara.
How can the situation in Zamfara be tackled?
The Zamfara situation has gotten out of control. The security architecture we have in the country cannot deal with the crisis. It is going to be with us for some time to come. Take for instance the police. Let us say we have 370,000 policemen. How can they effectively cover the 774 local government areas and tackle the different security challenges in the country? We are certainly under-policed. The police cannot deal with the situation. They can only do their best but they cannot deal with the situation. Everywhere you go in the country, there is one form of crisis or the another; so the police are overstretched. Same thing goes for the army. They have also been overstretched. We need to expand the armed forces and the police. The number and the capacity are simply not there now. There are other factors that we have to deal with. The North-West is the poorest part of the country. We have so many educated boys who are unemployed and many more uneducated who have lost everything including hope. We must tackle this issue of poverty and, unless we tackle it, the problem will keep escalating. In Zamfara for instance, I read in the media that for 16 months, civil servants have not been paid, despite the Paris Club refund by the Federal Government. The only industry in Zamfara is politics and yet all that the people need in Zamfara is security for them to farm. They are not lazy. They produce large quantities of maize and other things. Many of them have been pushed out to other states. If go to Abuja, Kaduna, Lagos and other cities, they are the ones hawking on the street or riding motorcycle (Okada). The governor of the state was never there. He was always in Abuja. In Kaduna, the governor is doing very well providing leadership; in Katsina, the governor is doing very well. But no matter what Kaduna and Katsina do, we will not be able to solve this problem unless we deal with Zamfara which is the epicentre of the crisis. The governor is not serious about it.
So what started in Zamfara as a local problem has escalated to other parts of the country.
Of course other bandits moved in because of the security vacuum in Zamfara. They started operating in Zamfara before spreading to Katsina and Kaduna. Initially, it was restricted to the Birnin Gwari area of the state but it has now expanded. Let us move very fast and contain the situation or it will spread further and when it spreads further, given the weakness in the security architecture of this country, we will not be able to deal with it for a very long time.
But the armed forces have been bombing areas they said are the stronghold of the bandits.
When you bomb and leave, the bandits come back. You have to hold territory and the security forces don’t have enough capacity to hold territory. The bandits even boast that they see fighter jets coming and dodge, the jets bomb and leave and the bandits continue with their lives. I think the Federal Government is just reacting because there is public outcry against what is happening in Zamfara.
We have been working in those areas for more than four years and we have made our findings public but no government agency has ever asked us what we have found.
As a political scientist, how do you describe the security situation in Nigeria 20 years after democracy?
We have a structure which was doing very well in the past. But the complexity of global politics has complicated the situation in this country, so there is a need for a review of the structure that we have. Whatever is happening in Nigeria has effects on neighbouring countries, so we are not dealing with what is happening in Nigeria only.
The country has expanded in terms of population. Remember we even reduced the size of the army at a point. The security services have been overwhelmed by the myriads of problems that we have in this country.
As far as we are concerned, we need to introduce a new force. I don’t mean we should dismantle the security services. The police should be left to deal with the normal problems they have been dealing with. We need a superior force, a rapid force that is superior to the police, armed and rapid to deal with the kind of banditry that we are contending with. It’s a force which is superior to the police but inferior to the Nigerian Army. The army will now be left to do what it is supposed to do: protect the territorial integrity of the country. Before the army is brought into any crisis situation, this second layer force would have dealt with the situation. They will just come in to finish whatever is left.
Are you advocating the return of National Guard?
It can be called whatever name but we need it. The security architecture needs some tinkering, so we need something like that. Look at what is happening in the country. The military is being destroyed. They are there at the roadblocks and exposed to the corruption associated with roadblocks. They are there doing what they are not supposed to do and yet their attention is needed in places like Borno and Yobe. I think the time has come that we expand the police, create another layer within the security architecture and retrain the police with new values to face the new challenges. Unless we do that, we will be overwhelmed by the new challenges. The governors, with the exception of the governor of Zamfara, are doing their best. Most of the time, the governor of Zamfara is not there and you need somebody to be there to give leadership. There is complete leadership failure in Zamfara and that is why this crisis has continued in the state and has now consumed even states that are doing their best. When we started our study, it was Sabuwa in Katsina that was affected; now Batsari, Safana and Kankara have all been affected. All the villages there have become bandit territories. The bandits have moved to the Kaduna-Abuja highway and Kaduna-Zaria highway is just a matter of time before the bandits move in. Faskari in Katsina State which is not far from Shika in Zaria, all the villages there are now bandit territories. All the villagers have moved into towns around there. Many towns now exist in names because they have disappeared. People have moved. They have become ghost towns because of banditry. And because of the vacuum we have in Zamfara, many criminals have moved from other parts of Nigeria to that area. Something that started as a local dispute, improperly handled, has gotten out of control. Politicians in Zamfara are all culpable. I was surprised when the Minister of Defence pointed accusing fingers at traditional rulers. During the course of our studies, the only people that were always there to console the victims of these bandits were the traditional rulers and mallams. They have become managers of misfortunes. Until this situation got out of control, Governor Yari was treating the bandits with kid gloves. He was even threatening government officials. They had overwhelmed the police and so government had to initiate dialogue. The deputy governor was asked to negotiate with the leader of the bandits. But the bandits’ leader kept the deputy governor waiting for hours and then sent a message that he was not ready to meet him. Initially, the government of Zamfara was not ready to deal with the bandits the way they should be dealt with because they intended using them for political purposes. During election, parties that won in areas where the bandits were in control were parties that were in contact with the leaders of the bandits. The bandits would direct the villagers on what to do and they will obey because they are armed. The come to villages in about fifty to one hundred motorcycles. On each motorcycle, there will be three of them each armed with AK-47 rifle. They even attacked a town on a Sallah day.
What is the implication of this on national food security?
We did a study on the impact of this on the economy. People who used to produce two hundred bags of maize cannot produce anymore. They have been driven off the land. In one of the towns we visited, the bandits had written to the district head ordering him to tell his people not to go to farm. In one of the towns, fifteen people who defied the order were killed. For fear of their lives, many of these villagers fled to neighbouring towns. Same thing applied to the pastoralists. In that town I am talking about, the king of the Fulani lost one hundred and fifty cows. He was left with fifty sheep. One day he called me and told me that moments after I interviewed him, the bandits had taken the fifty sheep. He barely escaped with his life. There is a cattle market that used to sell five hundred cows a week. When we went, there was no single cow in that market.
The people feel abandoned. It was because of that same feeling of abandonment that they set up the vigilantes to defend themselves; went beyond their limits and the thing snowballed into what we have now.
I know governors don’t control the police but it is a lie if the man (Zamfara Governor Abdul-aziz Yari Abubakar) says he has no influence over the police. But the man is not even there to have a proper appreciation of the crisis. When he leaves Zamfara, everything stops until he comes back.
Given your vast knowledge about what is happening, what is your advice to the Federal Government?
We asked the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency in Zamfara. There is no government in Zamfara. And the people are helpless. This study convinced me that Nigerians are patriots and patient. That is why our leaders are taking us for granted. In virtually all the places we went, there was absence of government in Zamfara.
Bandits outnumber security agents in some areas. One of my informants in Safana told me that all the neighbouring villages had been taken over by bandits. He said in the whole of the local government, there were less than a hundred policemen. The bandits no longer hide. They come to the market. Sometimes they take your things and pay. Sometimes they don’t pay. Nobody can challenge them. We tend to observe things in isolation. We tend to see what is happening in Zamfara as a Zamfara issue. That is wrong. You may not care if you are living in Agenebode but your brother may be working in that town as a police officer or in another capacity. We were treating this conflict as a Zamfara conflict. Now it has engulfed Kaduna, it has engulfed Sokoto and Katsina. When they took over Kaduna road, it’s not only Kaduna people that are affected. Everybody on the road is a victim.