By Wole Mosadomi
The hope of bumper harvest for farmers in Niger State has been dashed as bandits now set farms ablaze.
Sunday Vanguard learned that the failure of farmers to pay levies imposed by the attackers or meet any of their demands attracts the burning of farmlands.
Most farmers in some Local Government Areas,LGAs, have fled their ancestral homes for fear of being attacked and killed by the terrorists.
Apart from sacking farmers from their farms, houses and food banks have also been set ablaze, thereby threatening food supply across the country.
Sunday Vanguard learned that in some of the affected LGAs, bandits visit farmers to negotiate levies to be paid before they can access their farms and failure to comply would result in setting such farms ablaze not minding if their crops are matured for harvest. Of the 25 LGAs in the state, six are worst hit by the trend that could worsen food crisis not only in the state but also the entire country.
The affected places include Munyan, Shiroro, Rafi, Mariga, part of Mashegu and Lapai.
The LGAs are more prone to bandits because they have borders with Kaduna, Zamfara, Kebbi, Kogi states and Federal Capital Territory, FCT, where bandits are literally having a field day.
Reacting to the development, Secretary to Niger State Government, Alhaji Ibrahim Matane, described it as sad and pathetic.
Fielding questions from newsmen in Minna, he said ongoing military operations against bandits in neigbouring states are heightening the situation in Niger.
He said: “Banditry is becoming more pronounced in Niger State because of the ongoing operations in our neighbouring states, especially Kaduna and Zamfara. We are also doing our best to curtail their activities and in no distant future, we will get rid of them.”
Matane said in parts of Shiroro LGA, there is an alignment between the Islamic State of West Africa Province, ISWAP, insurgents and bandits.
He said the areas include Kwaki, Kusaso, Kawure, Chukuba, Kurebe, parts of Madaka, Farin Dutse, Falali and Ibbu. According to him,”these are areas we believe their operations seem like those of Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa Province,(ISWAP). These bandits come, align with members of the communities of their choice by telling them that they should cooperate with them and be free.
“Every Friday, they come to preach to them in their communities not to send their children to school. This is a resemblance to what is happening in the North-East through Boko Haram and ISWAP.
“We have seen the bandits taxing members of these communities to pay a certain amount of money to access their farms. They know that this is the harvest season when farmers will be anxious to harvest their farm produce. So, for them to have access to their farms, you must pay a fine or some penalties.
“If the amount demanded is not paid within the stipulated time, the bandits invade such farms that are ready for harvest and set them ablaze. This is the highest level of wickedness meted out to these innocent farmers who have invested heavily in their farms.
“The bandits want to cause more trouble. We are tracking them. We have intelligent reports of where they are and what they are doing. We are trying to reduce collateral damages. That is why we need to be mindful of how we can target them and dislodge them completely.”
He, however, reiterated commitment to deal decisively with the criminals, saying they would be prevented from having permanent camps in the state.
Meanwhile, ahead of this year’s planting season, farmers in the state have expressed fears that they may not be able to access their farms due to frequent attacks by the bandits.
They pleaded with both federal and state governments to step up security in the areas to avoid food shortages across the country next year.
Niger, a predominantly agrarian state, is the worst hit by rural banditry in Nigeria’s North-Central geopolitical zone.
The Federal Government, had, last Friday, designated bandits terrorizing Niger and other northern states as terrorists after relentless calls for such an action.
Mohammed Abubakar, the Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, of the Federation, had filed an ex-parte application seeking to proscribe the activities of bandits. Consequently, a Federal High Court in Abuja declared their activities as acts of terrorism.
In the application in court, Abubakar said President Muhammadu Buhari had approved the proscription of bandits as terrorists.
In his ruling, the judge, Taiwo Taiwo, held that the actions of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda bandit groups constitute acts of terror.
According to court documents, the federal government based its decision on security reports, which confirmed that the bandits were responsible for the “killings, abductions, rapes, kidnappings,” in northern Nigeria.
Government further blamed the group for “banditry, incessant kidnappings for ransom, kidnapping for marriage, mass abductions of school children and other citizens, cattle rustling, enslavement, imprisonment, severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, other forms of sexual violence, attacks and killings in communities and on commuters and wanton destruction of lives and properties in Nigeria, particularly in the North-west and North-central states in Nigeria being carried out by Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda groups and other groups associated with or engaged in the same or similar activities as Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda groups in Nigeria.
“The activities of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda groups and other similar groups constitute acts of terrorism that can lead to a breakdown of public order and safety and is a threat to national security and the corporate existence of Nigeria.”