Amnesty International (AI) has claimed that at least 371 people have been killed by bandits in Zamfara State since January 2018, while dozens of villages have been sacked.
The human rights watchdog said insecurity was escalating in the North-west state, with daily killings and kidnappings by the bandits, leaving villagers to live in constant fear of unchallenged attacks.
The Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, said in a statement yesterday that thousands of people have been displaced by a conflict which began in 2012 as a result of clashes between farmers and herders.
“This is Nigeria’s forgotten conflict. The authorities’ failure to act has left villagers in Zamfara at the mercy of bandits, who have killed hundreds of people over the course of two bloody years. When we visited the region, villagers told us that they had pleaded with the government to help them after receiving warning letters from the bandits ahead of attacks but had received no protection. The Nigerian authorities have repeatedly claimed to be tackling the situation, but the mounting death toll tells a different story,” Ojigho noted.
He said on July 27, 18 villages in the Mashema, Kwashabawa and Birane districts of Zurmi Local Government Area (LGA) of Zamfara State were attacked, leaving at least 42 people dead, adding that at least 18,000 residents of the affected villages who were displaced over the weekend were now taking refuge at various locations in the local government headquarters.
“The following day, a further 15 people were kidnapped in Maradun LGA,” the statement added
“On July 28, President Muhammadu Buhari, announced the deployment of 1,000 troops to Zamfara State. This is the third time since November 2017 that the authorities have deployed the military in response to attacks, but villagers told Amnesty International that this has not translated into protection for remote, vulnerable communities,” the statement said. Amnesty International said the previous military interventions had failed to end the killings, especially in rural areas of Zamfara.
“At least 371 people have been killed in Zamfara in 2018 alone, and at least 238 of these killings took place after the deployment of the Nigerian air force. The government is still neglecting the most vulnerable communities in this region,” said Ojigho.
According to him, between Sunday 7 and July 12, AI visited communities in five local government areas of Zamfara state – Zurmi, Maradun, Maru, Anka and Tsafe, adding that although security forces were present in the state capital Gusau, researchers saw soldiers and air force personnel in only two of the villages they visited – Birane and Bagega.
According to him, the villagers have described themselves as feeling helpless and on edge, while constantly bracing themselves for attacks.
“Men said they are sleeping outside their homes and in trees as a way of keeping vigilant, while women and children are sleeping together in groups for protection.
“Villagers described a pattern where they receive warnings ahead of attacks, including by phone, ordering them to pay huge sums of money or be killed or abducted,” he added.
He noted that a villager from Gidan Goga said: “Before Ramadan, the bandits called with the same number they called me with two weeks ago and said if we didn’t pay them N500,000 ($1400), they would come and kidnap me or the village head. Right now, we are living in fear.”
Ojigho explained that in several communities, villagers have narrated that they were afraid to venture more than few kilometres into the bush, which is preventing them from farming, adding that the villagers would not take AI researchers to see attack sites for fear of meeting the bandits, highlighting the unrelenting threat of attack.
He said a village elder from Gidan Goga told AI that: “We cannot go to farm far from our village. Two weeks ago, I got a call from one of the bandits, saying they are the ‘owners’ of the forest. He asked me to tell the village head to tell all villagers close to the forest to vacate the villages and come here, Gidan Goga. He said the only way they’d allow the villagers to continue staying was if they paid them N5 million.”
Ojigho said: “In a village in Maru, villagers said the only time they see security forces is when they are escorting workers to the state governor’s farm. For the villagers to go farm, they need security.
He added that villagers would wait until the governors’ workers were being escorted so they can travel alongside, to take advantage of the security presence.
“The crisis in Zamfara is making life hell for villagers, yet it is clearly low down on the list of government priorities. These killings must stop immediately, and those suspected of criminal responsibility must be brought to justice in fair trials. The Nigerian authorities have a responsibility to protect the lives of everybody in the country, including people in poor and rural communities,” said Ojigho.