In February of 2018, officials of Zamfara State government took stock of losses from the festering banditry in the state. The records, by conservative official standards, suggested that a fullscale war situation was in play. Alhaji Sanusi Rikiji, Speaker of the state House of Assembly who chaired the State Relief and Damage Assessment committee, said between 2011 and early 2018, 1,321 people were killed, 1,881 persons injured and 185 cars and motorcycles lost to wide scale banditry. Within the period, over 10,000 cattle were lost to rustling and 2,688 hectares of farm lands and 10,000 houses were destroyed.
This would seemingly be the first demonstration of high level official design tied to the unrestrained killings in the state. As it seems evident, it would appear that the motive is anything but about the people. With the benefit of time it became necessary to find out what the people in Zamfara and indeed Nigerians thought of the security strategy of government in the state. The only time they took up the stage last December to vent their frustrations Police personnel swiftly deployed force in a manner not witnessed against armed bandits against the Tsafe community, calling them “miscreants.”
Men, women, youths and children took over the highway connecting Gusau, the state capital and Sokoto, in Sokoto State. They blocked the highway in protest for the degenerating insecurity. On 2nd January, 2019, the Governor Abduláziz Yari, in a move designed to give the ruling party an undeserved life line having been removed from the governorship ballot in the February general elections in the state approached President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja requesting him to declare a state of emergency in Zamfara State.
With straight forward five-item questionnaire we polled opinions of 468 Nigerians from social media platforms for about 36 hours. Reaching out to individuals on ground in Zamfara State during a reporting trip and interviews were set up with real people from different parts of Zamfara who have been directly affected by the protracted crisis. The interviews took four consecutive days. Fifteen persons in all were directly interviewed in the state. The data collated from the field work were grim and sobering. A dominant number of respondents representing 86.61% agreed that they have received information or news on many occasions concerning killings in Zamfara State.
Respondents who admit that the sequence of killings in Zamfara State does not give them any basis to be confident at all with the security of lives and property in Nigeria were 97.09% while those who expressed confidence in the security of lives and property in Nigeria are 2.91%. Strikingly, a significant number of respondents representing 61.34% express conviction that were the Armed Forces to be more professionally managed they were capable of addressing threats to national security. The respondents who believe that the Armed Forces could probably address threats to national security if managed more professionally represent 30.45%.
Two categories of the respondents seem to have lost confidence in the capacity of the Armed Forces to self-correct. While 5.83% of the respondents believe that with better professional exposure the Armed Forces would probably not effectively deal with its primary objective, the other 2.38% completely rule out the possibility of the Armed Forces turning new leaf by delivering on its mandate even with better professional handling.
The survey item in the questionnaire that seems to have mirrored the hopelessness in the situation simply asked: “have you identified any strategy from the Commander-in-Chief or the Military High Command aimed at addressing the killings in Zamfara?” Two categories of respondents were clear with 64.79% declaring that they see no strategy while 35.21% say that the strategy is not clear. Drawing from the foregoing, respondents were asked to “rate the Buhari government in the area of security of lives and property?” A dominant number of the respondents, representing 73.76% rated his government as disastrous, 22.58% of the respondents state that his government was making efforts without impact while 3.66% of the respondents state that his government was doing well in the area of security of lives and property.
The field interviews presented similar questions with the opportunity of follow-ups. The views of Mr. Ubaidullah Yahaya Kaura, a university lecturer based in Gusau bring interesting insight. He, just as did other interviewees, point out that with increase in the deployment of security personnel in the state have come a radical surge in the cases of armed banditry in the state. He paints the picture of a state without authority and without security. He highlights how the armed bandits have taken over the daily affairs of the people in most parts of the state.
“You will see them (the armed bandits) in broad day light brandishing their AK 47 riffles. In some communities they move freely, demanding of the villagers to mind their business, while they (bandits) mind theirs. Some members of the community even approach the bandits to settle their disputes. The bandits lord it over these territories with 100% control. The only difference between them and Boko Haram is that they do not govern or administer Sharia. Some of these communities are mostly in Zamfara north. “In Birnin Magaji, there is a village like Gidan Kasso and Dumburu, close to Niger Republic that are completely subject to the bandits. But as at today, there is no part of Zamfara State that is not affected by either armed banditry or kidnap for ransom.”
Since several communities have been sacked and attempts to go to farms have become life threatening risks, many have become internally displaced but the government is reluctant to categorize these hordes of people as IDPs most likely to forestall the negative optics such characterization will foist on its claim of securing life and property. “There are lots of IDPs in Zamfara and a lot of them rely on the host communities through begging, because there are no official camps. In most cases they occupy school buildings and these have affected the education calendar in the affected schools,” revealed Mr. Kaura.
Yusuf Anka of Zam Charity, a humanitarian platform corroborates Kaura. “Even if people want to help, there are no camps in the state, government seems to be preventing the establishment of formal IDP camps across the state. Therefore, most of the displaced, look for their relatives, kinsmen or abandoned buildings, especially schools to seek refuge. There is hardly any major town that there are no less than 5,000 to 6,000 displaced persons scattered around. This figure is for July 2018, the figure is much higher today.”
One interviewee, Abdulmalik Saidu, a politician, in affirming government’s lack of strategy to dislodge the armed bandits, highlights the lack of empathy and concern by state and federal government officials towards victims and the distressed. “The governor (Abdulaziz Yari) hardly visits areas of mass murder and devastation. He lacks empathy and as we speak he is missing from the state. The governor gives security agencies in the state a lot of money.” Throwing money at a problem only complicates the problem and nowhere is this more evident than in the Zamfara killing field.
Zamfara State, with over 4 million people, has 2,000 policemen, 315 soldiers, 400 mobile policemen and less than 100 Air Force personnel, governor Yari said in February 2018. “The number of officials have increased today, so have the incidence of violent crimes and abductions across the state,” said Adul Balarabe, an advocate for youth inclusion in politics in the Northwest, who provides timely information on the crisis in Zamfara, using his Twitter handle.
Most of our interviewees trace the Zamfara armed banditry to the conflict between herdsmen and farmers. There were indiscriminate cases of cattle rustling. With such frequently occurring vice to contend with, cases of armed bandits with eyes set on controlling the economic route and trade in illicit mining of precious minerals such as gold deposits burst into the scene killing villagers in rampant orgy. Very discerning watchers to this bloodletting trace the unrestrained surge of the violence to government’s democratization of the weapons of war by its marching order to local communities to set up vigilante units.
With this, the units of the Army deployed to the state appeared determined to pick and choose friendly and enemy communities on the basis of which communities had established operational vigilante units and which had not. Sadly, this was the same error that turned Boko Haram against defenceless communities in parts of the North East zone of the country. Each community with vigilante units was automatically seen as an affiliate of the military, who, when the armed bandits invaded the villagers were hardly ever available to intervene. The villagers we spoke with believe that a de-escalation of vigilante units might lessen the viciousness deployed against villagers but both the Army and the state government would take none of such. But he who wears the shoes, as it is said, knows where it pinches.
On the 21st of October, 2018 two sisters who are twins, Hassana and Hussaina, visited their pregnant Aunt in Dauran village in Zurmi local government area in the state. All three ladies were speedily abducted alongside dozen others by gunmen. After nearly a month in captivity, a recorded frantic voice-plea by the twins was released to the family members with an ultimatum to pay ransom or have the ladies killed. The kidnappers demanded for ransom in millions of Naira. Helplessly, the family members shared their predicament on social media.
One Maryam Ado with the Centre for Information Technology and Development, CITAD, based in Kano, and Ubaidullah Yahaya among others spearheaded a campaign of crowd funding to raise the ransom money, the group made a compelling campaign to raise cash to secure the release of the two teenage twins. In a few days Nigerians, including a Federal legislator who represents that part of the state donated money. On 17th November, 2018, the two ladies regained their freedom, having had the ransom paid, and carrying the scourge of being repeatedly raped by the bandits.
The only silver lining in Zamfara so far was the recent arrest of twelve notorious bandits and the abductors of Hassana and Hussaina, by the operatives of the Inspector General of Police Intelligence Response Team (IRT), where the criminal gang admitted receiving ransom payment of 16 million Naira from the family of the twins before they released them. Does the arrest of these bandits represent a sustained effort by the security authorities to stop the carnage in Zamfara and the rest of Northwest Nigeria, or was the arrest a lucky guess of an uncertain future for the people in the region? Abdul balarabe said, “it was the best new year gift.”
However, as a metaphor, nothing, perhaps better illustrates the situation of Zamfara state in the hands of this government better than the experiences of Hassana and Hussaina, kidnapped, violated, abandoned by the authorities that should defend them, rescued only by the intervention of the power of the united voice and steps taken by members of the public.